Interview by Zac Pennington
Portrait by Matthew William
Shelter Island by Joe Fletcher, Primrose Hill by Chris Mottalini
Originally published in Issue No. 6
Since its founding in 2011, Brooklyn-based design studio General Assembly has honed a practice of warm inhabitability — magnifying the finer details of dwellings with an eye toward human scale. Having cut her teeth at international firms like Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, architect Sarah Zames founded General Assembly as an avenue for these intimate gestures —employing a palette of largely natural materials to create custom, considered extensions of their clients’ sacred spaces.
With design partner Colin Stief, Zames’ Brooklyn-based studio has been responsible for everything from minor touches in Manhattan apartments to ground-up constructions in the Hamptons and beyond, having recently completed their first international project — an apartment overlooking Primrose Hill in London. Last month, the pair pulled together works from over 40 of New York’s most esteemed designers for “At Home,” an online auction benefiting Direct Relief, a humanitarian aid organization supporting New York City’s battle against COVID-19.
In a moment when the interiors of our homes have necessarily become the borderlands of our experience, we spoke with Sarah and Colin about how they approach the subtleties of space, and the cumulative effect of intentional design.
Zac Pennington (ZP) — On an initial visit to a project site, what’s the first thing that usually captures your imagination? Is it material? The shape of light? The narrative history of the space? Something else?
Sarah Zames (SZ) — This is a great question. The short answer is that it depends on the site. Sometimes, it’s the light, sometimes the material, and sometimes the history. When we are lucky, it can be a beautiful combination of everything. Our job is to find what is interesting, which is sometimes easier than others, but we particularly love working in spaces that have a past that we can build from. We like to imagine the people who have experienced the space, and how our intervention is adding another layer to it’s life.
ZP — So much of the work that you do suggests a real intimate familiarity with the lives and needs of your clients. Can you describe how you approach this relationship?
SZ — We consider the people who are going to be occupying the space to be equally as important as the physical site. When we start a project, we really like to get to know the client — we want to understand how they envision using the space and what they are personally bringing into this project. What does this space mean to them and how is that unique? The client and their space are at the base of every project. These two constituents bring their own history, memories and needs that provide us with the framework to create a design.
Colin Stief (CS) — It is a lot about listening to the clients. One project that stands out to me is our Bergen Street project, which was really about curating and organizing the client’s great collection of furniture and lighting. There was a really beneficial give and take on what she wanted to keep and how we dealt with it spatially.
ZP — What are your favorite materials to work with?
SZ — We always prefer to use natural materials that may change over time. We use a lot of natural stones and woods. We also love using hand glazed tiles and metals where you can see a living finish and show a bit about the process of making them.
CS — Yes, a big part of what a “home” is to us is this idea of imperfection and organic growth. Overtime it should feel layered, and the choice of materials have a huge role in that. Materials that patina like brass or wear like solid wood or stone are always changing and we believe can enhance homeowner’s connection and memory of their space.
ZP — General Assembly’s portfolio spans everything from custom furnishings to comprehensive renovations. Is there a fundamental principle that’s common to all of your work?
SZ — The name General Assembly refers to all parts that go into a project. Every project, big or small, is an assembly of materials, people and place, coming together to create a whole. Our purpose is to create spaces for people to be at home in. We want to make spaces that are lasting, evolving and hopefully enhancing people’s daily lives.
ZP — What is your favorite public space in the city? Private space?
SZ — This is a very appropriate question considering the time we are living in right now! I’ve been living in New York for over twenty years, and my favorite public spaces have barely changed over time. To name a few… I love the Coney Island Boardwalk during the off season. The plaza in front of the Seagram Building on a Sunday. And maybe if I had to pick a single place, inside and outside it would be the Lincoln Center Plaza and the Metropolitan Opera lobby space. For a private space, maybe it’s just the Stockholm Syndrome talking, but I really think I still have to say my apartment — even after spending way too much time here lately.
CS — It might be a little obvious, but I would have to say Prospect Park in Brooklyn is my favorite public space in the city. On a nice summer day, within a 3 mile loop you will hear and see every type of person that lives in NY: guys from the Carribean in a drum circle, teenagers LARPing (live action role playing), a guy very intensely flying kites, everyone BBQ-ing, women selling ice cream, dogs running around, bankers and their kids on scooters, Hasidic families on bikes. It is chaos, but everyone makes this one space their own and somehow it works.
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