Design Manifestos: Perla Delson and Jeff Sherman of Delson or Sherman Architects
DELSON or SHERMAN ARCHITECTS PC is a Brooklyn-based firm founded by Perla Delson and Jeff Sherman in 1997. The firm’s diverse portfolio combines clean, understated design with careful space planning and original detailing. Coupling elegant modernism with traditional materials, their work has a sense of inevitability; their designs feel as though they were always meant for their sites. Delson or Sherman values the sustainable restoration of old buildings, but gracefully bridges them to the present with innovative additions. And they see the design and construction processes as inherently collaborative — with clients, with consultants, and with contractors. Recently, Modelo had the opportunity to learn more about Perla’s and Jeff’s unique approach and design philosophy.
On becoming an architect
Perla: My father was an architect, so I grew up in a house where architecture was discussed all the time. He apprenticed to Frank Lloyd Wright, and his work was quite a bit different from ours. I always knew I wanted to be an architect, but I didn’t want it to be the only thing I knew about. So I did a Liberal Arts degree and studied languages. It was important to me to study things that would expand my capacities. It was only after this that I put together my portfolio and went to architecture school.
Jeff: I came to architecture very late. When I graduated from college, I worked at Vogue for three years, writing and editing. But I had a background in studio art and missed it, missed school. And I wanted an expertise that would lift me up from my generalist plane. I’d always built and made things. Still, it wasn’t until I visited a friend in architecture school, where he was gluing hundreds of little pieces of cardboard together, that I realized, ‘Hey, this is what I do in my free time!’ And within a year I had gotten into architecture school, quit my job, and was moving to New Haven.
On discovering their voices as designers
Perla: We were lucky to go to an architecture school that emphasized learning how to build things, which — it might surprise you — is usually missing from an architect’s education. But your first year at Yale, you build a house. For me, this was unexpectedly resonant with my dad’s apprenticeship. Part of the way you learned to be an architect with Frank Lloyd Wright was by living it, and my dad’s first job was working in the Taliesin kitchen. (Yes, imagine a young man in the 1950s crossing the country to follow his dream and winding up as kitchen help.) But, knowing how to cook helps you design a good kitchen, and living through those needs and figuring them out in real space is very valuable.
Jeff: The continuity of those three steps — from use to design to build — has always been important to both of us. Most of our work is small-scale residential, meaning we design the kinds of places we actually live in. So the daily issues that crop up in our own lives also come up in our projects, which makes our work very empathic. We worry about where your muddy boots go when you walk in the door, or how you can sear a duck breast without smoking up the house, or why you can’t carry a tray of drinks up a spiral stair.
Perla: But it’s more than just problem-solving. It’s discovering a solution that’s beautiful.
Jeff: It’s finding the art in the pragmatics of the problem.
On starting the firm
Perla: We both worked for other firms before going out on our own. While working as the assistant museum architect at the Brooklyn Museum, I landed a side project that was too big to handle alone. So joining forces was the obvious answer. We knew we worked well together because we’d sat back-to-back in architecture school.
Jeff: I’d had my own business for about a year before we teamed up. It’s surprisingly easy to start your own architecture firm. The overhead is zero. You only need a computer and clients. You don’t need management skills or experience or talent or even an office, which may be why so many architecture firms are badly run. Which in turn may be why we’re so fanatical about making ours a well-run office.
Perla: But you do have to want it, because it’s scary to leave the safe environment of somebody else’s office and jump into the void.
On creating the name: Delson or Sherman Architects
Jeff: The “or” isn’t because we work independently.
Perla: People often ask, “Which one of you is responsible for which project?” We’re both responsible for our projects.
Jeff: But when we started our business, we had no office; we each worked out of our apartments. So we seemed to never occupy the same physical space, or even the same time zone.
Perla: Jeff would work through the middle of the night and email me his drawings, and I’d wake up before dawn and finish them. Physically separated, mentally aligned.
Jeff: If you’re a PC, a professional corporation, your name has to include the word “architect”. Delson and Sherman Architects sounded like a law firm. But Delson or Sherman sidestepped that trap, with a hopefully wry nod to our early/late shift displacement.
On principles they strive to adhere to
Jeff: The bulk of our work consists of modern additions to historic buildings. It’s our specialty. But with so much of our work in old buildings, we don’t have the luxury of just phoning in our drawings and letting the contractor deal with the rest. Old buildings are full of surprises, so it’s critical to be on the jobsite when questions come up. This has become our standard of care during CCA: we’re much more involved during construction than most architects.
Perla: In the end, being there to answer the questions gets us a much better product. Otherwise the contractor has to do the problem solving alone, but design happens in the solving of problems. If you can be there with the contractor, the process becomes much more collaborative, and new ideas emerge from with the solutions.
On current projects that represent the firm’s approach
Jeff: The work that we’ve done for ourselves probably represents our ideal approach. With both of our houses, we prioritized spatial excitement over what others might consider pragmatic concerns. For us, architecture isn’t just a means to real estate — it’s an art. For example, neither of us maxed out the available square footage in our projects. Instead we sacrificed square footage to carve out giant soaring spaces in the middle of our houses. It’s impractical in the commonest sense, but to our minds it’s a practical — even essential — part of living to be able to walk into your house and feel joy.
Perla: Having something like that as a goal — the joy a client gets from a project — is much more interesting to us than repeating an office style over and over again. Architecture that’s just brand is not only boring to do, it’s also a sign you haven’t been listening well enough to your clients. Understanding how they live and how they want to live is a key ingredient of that joy. Even if it means challenging them to think about living differently than they have till now.
Jeff: We recently convinced the owners of a collapsing row house to renovate rather than sell. They loved the neighborhood, but the house really was a mess — framed like a Jenga game, with asbestos siding and a cellar that flooded every time it rained. We wound up using some of the same ideas we’d experimented with on our own houses. We hollowed out the middle of the house to create a towering kitchen and brought daylight down from the roof through a series of cuts in the floors. The kids’ playroom is a glorified catwalk overhanging the kitchen. But it’s in a landmarked district, so all that spatial gymnastics is tucked behind a façade we meticulously restored to its turn of the century roots.
On aspirations for the firm in the next 5–10 years
Perla: We’re in the fortunate position these days of seeing our portfolio start to diversify. We started as a residential firm, but we’re doing a broader range of project types now, more public spaces with a wider number of users. That diversification is very appealing to us.
Jeff: It opens up new directions for learning about the field: new materials and assemblies we wouldn’t have encountered with strictly residential design; higher expectations of environmental concerns and sustainable design; and whole new sets of challenges for how people occupy and move through our spaces.
Perla: We want to surprise people, not only with our understanding of the users’ goals, but by the beauty we can unearth in a site. Take the big wellness center we designed in downtown Brooklyn. Because it united two separate studios (one offering chiropractic and physical therapy, the other Pilates classes and massage), we had to coordinate multiple parties and very different functions under a single roof. Despite tight deadlines and tighter budgets, we came up with a carefully curated circulation path, a density of functions, and a flexible systems for partitioning individual treatment and group classes. The look had to balance a sunny open plan with the owners’ love of rustic materials and funky objects. So we made the most of the exposed structural members and expansive views of Columbus Park.
On advice they would give their younger selves
Jeff: I was surprised to learn how dependent the business of architecture is on interpersonal skills. You have to figure out how to sell your ideas to people who haven’t studied architecture and whose priorities aren’t aesthetic. You’re often placating a disgruntled neighbor or a sociopathic plan examiner. You wind up dealing with the emotional lives of your employees more than you’d imagined. And, of course, clients get very intimate with us very quickly. We’re the first people they tell they’re pregnant, for example. You tell your architect before your sister, because you’ll need that extra bedroom. None of this comes up in architecture school.
Perla: It’s hard to pick one piece of advice. The field is so ever-expanding that there’s already too much to fit into school. I feel lucky that I didn’t choose a program that focused too narrowly on, say, technical detailing. We got the chance to think big ideas and invest them into our designs. It sharpened us for the opportunities to put some of that back into the projects that we do now.
Jeff: I suspect our design philosophy hasn’t changed much from when we were in school. Remember in school how some people couldn’t wait until they were out in the real world, where stuff really mattered and they’d be treated like adults? I never felt that way. I knew the real world would be full of compromises and expediencies and bill paying — a pale imitation of the platonic ideals of school — whereas academia is all about learning and creating and exploring the most interesting ideas. We keep things fresh by going back time and again to the ways of thinking about architecture we learned when we started.
This post was previously published on www.blog.modelo on 12/28/15.