Although Architect Elizabeth Roberts works on a variety of projects including store and restaurant design, she has made something of a specialty out of townhouse projects, particularly brownstones in Brooklyn. She renovated her own Clinton Hill house and things grew from there. Her interiors are light-filled, high-ceilinged modern re-imaginings of heavy old rooms, skillfully achieved, unobtrusively contemporary and tranquil without necessarily being too safe. “I’ve realized, she says, “that some really strange ideas can lead to really great projects.”
I kind of feel like you’ve generated a whole lot of envy! A lot of your work is a “brownstone fantasy”. But when people come to you with these ideas of beautiful, renovated brownstones, you yourself probably have to work within constraints to make them happen, how do you go about explaining those to clients?
Well my favorite clients are creative clients and the thing that makes each project different is the family or the client that you’re working with. We have huge stacks of materials here but they increase with every project. We don’t go to a “given” box at all.
So people are flexible?
Oh, you’re addressing the pie-in-the-sky versus what people can really get? We’ll always start by just saying, let’s pull back from what you think you want and let’s talk about what you actually need.
I guess negotiating that with clients can be a bit tricky.
It’s tricky but it’s good to get it out of the way at the beginning.
And I guess it’s probably only getting more expensive to renovate these townhouses?
I think it’s getting to be more expensive because contractors are really busy … [costs] are creeping. I’d done a few [townhouses] and then I kind of got into brownstone projects when I was working on my own house. I’d bought a house in Clinton Hill and it was during the downturn. I was pregnant and I didn’t have a lot of other work and I did it as inexpensively as I possibly could. For years my business was in that house on the fourth floor and the clients came in to that house every time they were thinking about hiring someone. It was a really good lesson to be able to tell people, “I know how to do it inexpensively. There’s no way to do it for less money than I did.”
What have you discovered about Brooklyn, architecturally-speaking, now that you’re doing so much work there?
For instance, with these townhouses and in these different brownstone neighborhoods in which we’re working, we will come across [evidence] of the same woodworker, the same balusters, the same handrail. In my house and in a house I was working on in Park Slope, they were built in the same year and they really definitely had the same woodworker.
Some day a hundred years hence, people will walk into your houses and say, “This must have been done by Elizabeth Roberts.”
Oh, I don’t know … but I have clients who have walked into [other] properties and said, “I think Elizabeth Roberts did this.”
The existing chimney in the dining room was adjusted to create a standing height firebox that houses a Tuscan grill for cooking in the winter. Hanging above the grill is a somewhat kitsch Chinese reproduction clock purchased from an online auction. The tall drawer unit was created from multiple Paul McCobb drawers found at auction. It stores napkins and other dining room necessities.
What happened to Brooklyn brownstones? There was obviously a phase when they were fashionable and then seemed to fall out of fashion, and now, obviously, are very much back again. It’s the out-of-fashion phase that’s always interested me.
After World War II the city needed housing and there were these big houses that people were not using or filling up because in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, when the Navy Yard closed down, it went really poor, really fast. So it seemed pretty simple [for the city] to turn the houses into a lot of SROs [single room occupancy] and that actually preserved these houses. One thing that can save a neighborhood is when it goes very poor, very fast because people can’t afford to tear the buildings down and they can’t afford to alter them.
That’s so interesting and counterintuitive.
Yes, that’s what happens until the buildings become valuable enough and rare enough that people recognize they’re commodities.
So you said you had just come back from a DOB meeting—oh God … you don’t have an expediter for that?
I do but this was a particularly tough battle … it’s not very interesting. Some examiners are just nit-picking, power hungry …
What do you mean by “urban minimalism” – it was a phrase I picked up from your website?
Did I write “urban minimalism”? I don’t even know what it means! [laughs] … I don’t know …
Oh, here it is, “You like to inject warmth into urban minimalism.” You don’t think of yourself as a minimalist do you?
Hmmm … a little bit. I typically like the simple, the clean and the light.
What if you had been born a little bit earlier and you’d had to cope with the 1980s “Bonfire of the Vanities” aesthetic?
Well, I was alive [laughs] … you mean overly opulent? You know I often think about when I see really beautiful, really “done”, gorgeous opulent interiors … this is where my brain goes—I think about people who live in them. And I think about myself living there and walking around in my socks and my t-shirt and feeling like I just don’t fit in. [laughs].
I don’t think they always do either—we’ve been to a few grand places and we can see that they actually live in one small cozy corner and you can see the place where the dog has worn out a patch on the sofa. But then having less seems to indicate status these days …
Well, we have some people we’re working with, we’re buying them a bunch of furniture and really transforming their house from head to toe, and they don’t want it to look like they hired a designer.
Ah, and how do you disguise yourself?
You try to get into their head.
But your interiors don’t look like that anyway. How about color—do clients want that?
I have people in this studio who are really good at color … [laughs] … you know, I think [for me] it goes back to something were just talking about, that feeling of not fitting in, feeling like you’re disappearing into an [opulent] interior. I like to showcase certain things … like in this room, I like looking at the people. I don’t stare at the walls. I just came back from London and I loved the way they do Modernism. I loved the Tate Modern—for the very first time I realized how beautiful the people were in that space, where there’s no color and there’s all those straight lines. The people were like art, just walking around.
I know you collect objects made by female industrial designers—what’s your latest acquisition?
I’m afraid I haven’t been collecting much recently—but I’ve been working with a lot of female designers as clients. I hadn’t planned on that spin and I didn’t realize recently that there’s a theme.
You’re soft-spoken but I’m guessing you have pretty strong opinions.
I definitely have strong opinions. One of my designers calls me the “Yes … and” designer (it’s an improvisational technique) but I had never thought of myself as that. I’ve done this for a while and I’ve realized that some really strange ideas can lead to really great projects.
So you’re not afraid of strange ideas?
No. I get tired of myself, you know? I really like when someone says, “Let’s do this wainscoting up to six feet …” and I’m like, “Wow!” It takes a lot of confidence—but if we go with these strange ideas, I just know that we can fix this. We can always bring it back down to earth.
What would be if you weren’t an architect?
A musician. I play the cello but I can never find the time. For years when I was in graduate school I played in bands and I learned how to improvise … one of the younger architects in our office asked me if my twenties was like Sex and the City and I was like, “Yeah. I was on rusty bicycles, riding into the Lower East Side for sound checks with my cello.”
Did you ever think you would have your own firm like this?
No. It wasn’t my goal. I don’t know how it happened! It’s great. It’s really important to me that people like their jobs. I find that that was a bit of a surprise—first of all becoming a mother, it was like, “Oh you really are a certain age!” And then becoming a boss and becoming a mentor is a nice way to realize that I have a place.
And what does your husband do?
He’s a physician, an internist at NYU—and he does not want to talk about architecture much, which is great!