For each new project, Stefanie Brechbuehler and Robert Highsmith, of Brooklyn-based design studio Workstead, take inspiration from the history of a building and expand on it. “Rather than trying to create a modern design space within the constraints of a historical shell,” Brechbuehler says, “we aim for an organic evolution of the original design.”
For example, for the Rivertown Lodge in idyllic Hudson, NY, Workstead took cues from colonial farms and gave it an “early American modern” look. The bedrooms feature wide-plank wood floors, shelves made by local craftsmen, vintage wicker side chairs, playfully upholstered reading chairs, and brass bedside sconces that Workstead designed exclusively for the hotel.
“Our studio’s approach to interiors is one that is rooted not only in the understanding of context,” Highsmith explains, “but also in the desire to touch every scale of a project.” Developing and manufacturing custom lighting, furniture and objects for each of its projects—from the industrial-chic Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn to a bright-and-airy brownstone in Boreum Hill—has become the cornerstone of the studio, and what makes their architectural and interior design exceptional. “This attention to reinvention elevates the quality of the user experience,” Workstead explains in the following interview with Inhabit, “creating truly stunning interactions at the scale of the every day.”
How and when did the two of you meet? How and why did you decide to found a design studio together?
We first met at the Rhode Island School of Design, where we received our Master Degrees in Architecture. We never dated at school, but we reconnected when our paths crossed in Utah, in 2006. We started dating soon after and ultimately moved to the East Village together where Robert was both working and freelancing on a project in Bridgehampton with another friend from RISD while I worked for a firm. Right before the recession, we began a freelance project called the Sliding Kitchen, which was consequently published in Dwell and gave us a sense of momentum. Though it didn’t quite make sense at the time, we decided that I would leave my day job to pursue our own work fulltime, while Robert continued freelancing to pay the bills. A few months later things began to pickup, and Workstead was officially founded.
Stefanie, you are from Switzerland and have also lived in the American southwest and Venezuela. How has each of these places influenced your design sensibility?
I think I have been very fortunate to have been exposed to so many cultures during my lifetime. As you can imagine, structures and a general approach to design varies greatly in each location. Context-driven design has been a core tenant of Workstead’s approach. We draw inspiration from the history and existing conditions of a building. Our methodology distills a project’s history and typology into key themes that are thread through the entirety of a project. It allows us to fully leverage the rich assets of a historical building that make it truly one-of-a-kind.
Robert, how did you transition from music into architecture? What music (a genre or a specific artist’s work) best describes your design outlook?
Halfway through undergrad, I began taking art classes (drawing and photography). Being a performing arts major, I was so focused on the performance, but looking for a way to expend my creative energy on something more permanent. The transition from music to art to architecture was very intuitive for me, as I’d come from four generations of architects, and I think it was ultimately in my DNA to come back to it. I would say that I am a purist. I listened to more Philip Glass in school than almost anyone else, and this fascination with minimal, yet dense, repetition is something that still captures my attention today.
How would you define Workstead’s design sensibility or philosophy?
We create spaces and products that reinforce a sense of place in an increasingly chaotic world, through a holistic approach to design. Our process focuses on utility, function, and material quality. We are intimately involved in the process of taking concepts to reality through key partnerships with fabricators, finding that the best projects are the result of the close collaboration between designer and maker. With a keen understanding of context, we work with clients who share our sensibility to approach every project with a bespoke solution.
What is the project you are most proud of and why?
We invest a lot of ourselves into each project and forge close bonds with our clients through that process. It would be difficult to pick a favorite. The best projects are the ones where each contributor is fully invested—from the designer and the client to the contractor, millworker, and artisans.
You design spaces with people and objects in mind. How does this philosophy relate to your furniture design?
Our studio’s approach to interiors is one that is rooted not only in the understanding of context, but also the desire to touch every scale of a project. Our design process puts us in the role of a conductor, zooming in on a single instrument’s contribution while also shaping the entire ensemble to create a unified and nuanced experience. From the scope of the spatial layouts to the design of a door handle, we create spaces that define an experience that is comprehensive, holistic and highly tailored. This holistic approach is a crucial part of our process; it is intimately tied to our comprehensive output when it comes to our approach to any project. We believe that there are numerous, disparate parts to any project, but we also believe that the relationship between design, branding, marketing and the way a project “lives” and is debuted to the public should be mutually dependent.
The other major component of Workstead is product design, development, and manufacturing. There are wonderful crossovers between the two sides of the company. Each project gives us an opportunity to create bespoke features that are unique to a space. Our approach to millwork and cabinetry is a defining feature of every studio project, as we strive to create a unique solution that is attuned to its context, scale, and use. We also specialize in custom lighting, furniture, and objects to complete an interior, on a per-project basis. This attention to reinvention elevates the quality of the user experience, creating truly stunning interactions at the scale of the everyday.
What is the most interesting thing happening in design right now?
Design in America today is at an exciting juncture. There is an emerging framework, not just in New York, but in cities throughout the country, that has reinvigorated manufacturing and craftsmanship. This framework enables American designers to engage with a design process that is not just about themselves, but about a community of people who are genuine in their efforts to improve upon a place, be it through buildings, interiors or objects. This landscape is incredibly exciting for us, as we get to have a dialogue with those who produce our work. Having recently traveled to both Paris and Tokyo, design in America feels like it’s at a turning point, where the pendulum is swinging towards a sensibility that is both grounded and progressive at the same time.
What is your best advice for someone who is designing or decorating a new home?
I think the key is to avoid creating the feel of an “instant home.” It’s important to fill your space with items both old and new, objects that are inherited and collected as well as purchased. Our biggest pet peeve is when you can immediately tell upon entering a home that they hired a designer and that this designer designed and selected everything single item. Even if you don’t have objects that are inherited or collected over time, avoid going to the obvious stores to buy your furniture. Be eclectic with where you shop. Mix it up. Go to IKEA if you want, but just buy one or two things. Then stop by some antique market and grab a few things. At all cost, avoid shopping for everything in one place.
What’s next for Workstead?
We are about to start the design process for a ground-up building in Charleston, SC. This is a dream come true for us, and an extremely exciting challenge.
All photos by Matthew Williams, courtesy of Workstead.