On Design with Space Exploration's Kevin Greenberg

I'd been praying at the church of Kevin Greenberg's Space Exploration Design studio, long long before I had any idea who Greenberg was, or anything his company Greenpoint-based design studio. 

Greenberg designed my favorite bar in Brooklyn, which also happens to be my local. It's a place I've spent hours with friends and family, and by myself - and I'm not the only one in this situation. Walter's has achieved something that so many restaurants owners would kill for: consistent loyal clientele. It would be easy to attribute that to the food (great) or the bartenders (fantastic), but you also have to consider the design as well. It's not flashy or extreme, it's welcoming, timeless, and absolutely conducive to talking and spending a few hours with friends, old or new, at the large arching bar. 

 Walter's in Fort Greene designed by Greenberg.

Walter's in Fort Greene designed by Greenberg.

The first time Greenberg and I met was at that very bar where we spent a long time talking design and watches. That convo moved on and now I'm happy to be able to work with him in a small way as well. I asked him if he would oblige me with a brief Q&A for the blog and that's what follows. Enjoy! 

You’ve written a lot about architecture. Tell us about your path into design. 

Before attending architecture school, my background was in fine art and literature. Architecture seemed like a synthesis of a lot of things that interested me: aesthetics, analysis, philosophy, discourse, and craft. So I pursued it, and after a few years of working for firms in the U.S. and Japan, I started Space Exploration. 

I love the strictures of grammar, and one of the things I've grown to love the most about architecture is how it possesses a grammar all its own, a common language of elements, typologies and forms which architects employ to express their ideas, just as a writer does. 

 Montauk Beach House by Space Exploration.

Montauk Beach House by Space Exploration.

How would you describe your design style? What makes Space Exploration unique?

Above all, we try to be sensitive to context, and to create a sense of place. I'm not interested in creating spaces that scream for your attention. We prize subtlety. I'd rather each project feels like a place that's always been there, and that's gotten more rich through use and the passage of time. Even though there are multiple viable design solutions in most cases, we try to create a feeling of quiet inevitability in our projects. Space Exploration has great reverence for history, but we also value innovative, contemporary aesthetics, and we especially enjoy creating a harmonic, tactile juxtaposition between the two. 

We try to be very sensitive when we work in historic buildings; I never want our work to seem like a hasty pastiche or an ill-informed caricature of the past. When we employ historic details, we do a lot of research to ensure those elements are correct for the period of the space in which we're working, and true to the grammar the original architect employed, or might have employed. My favorite moments in our projects often arise from the successful insertion of a thoroughly modern element into historic fabric. We also prize craft, and the beauty of materials expressed through construction. 

Where do you find inspiration? Do you have favorite designers past or present that you admire?

I often find that my best ideas come from outside architecture and design: the fine arts, especially film, painting and sculpture, are big sources of inspiration for me. Books, of course: there are a bunch that I seem to return to time after time. Bachelard’s “The Poetics of Space” is one of my favorites.  Loos’s “Ornament and Crime” is full of surprisingly hilarious essays. Similarly, even though they’re not explicitly architectural, I love both “The Book of Disquiet,” by Ferdinand Pessoa and the stories of Robert Walser. 

I'm inspired by natural forms and landscape, by changing light, and by history. I'm often in too much of a hurry to do so, but just walking around New York is endlessly inspiring if you pay attention. I like to sit in Paley Park at least once a season. If I’m really stumped I’ll go out for a long run. I love the solitude of running alone. Usually by the time I get home I’ve got at least a couple of new things I’d like to draw through in my sketchbook.

As for favorite designers, Carlo Mollino’s seductive interiors never fail to inspire me. I love the way Peter Zumthor and Alvaro Siza are able to elevate regional construction vernacular into something highly refined. I love the rhythm and strength of Paulo Mendes da Rocha’s buildings. Ricardo Bofill, Lina Bo Bardi,  Junya Ishigami, Valerio Olgiati, Carlo Scarpa, Peter & Alison Smithson, Adolf Loos, Stanford White--there are a lot of people whose work I really admire. 

You design restaurants and residences. How does your approach differ with the two?

I find that restaurants are especially fun to design, because there’s an element of fantasy and escape that’s allowed to come to the foreground in a way that doesn’t usually occur with most programs. Restaurants are about the senses, and about seduction. The gestures can be larger and more bold than in other programs. Everything from the lighting to the color and material palette can be amped up a little and made more dramatic.

In general, I believe homes should be primarily tranquil places, places of refuge and reflection and intimate gatherings, but great restaurants are full of energy and kinetic bustle, and that should come through in the space’s architectural character. I love the more muted language of residential design, but I also always relish the opportunity to be more expressive, to create a space that draws people in off the street and transports them out of their daily lives for an hour or two.
 
Are there certain projects you’re particularly proud of, and any you're especially excited about?

I especially love our "Schoolhouse Loft" project, and our store for Maryam Nassir Zadeh on Manhattan's Lower East Side, and our design for Walter's. We have a lot of exciting new projects in the works in Miami, Brooklyn, and upstate New York. 

Do you have any dream type projects you want to do? What’s coming up on the horizon?

I’ve been really lucky to have had a lot of interesting commissions and adventurous clients in my career so far. One day I’d love to take a crack at something in the mountains, regardless of program, like maybe a hot springs resort or spa. A religious building, like a small chapel or temple, would be really interesting, too. I really believe that even most mundane programs can turn out great if you have a good dialogue with your clients.