At the Desk of: Robert A.M. Stern

The starchitect talks about writing emails in long hand, his affinity for Fred Astaire and picking out ties

Sep.September 01, 2014 07:00 AM
Robert A.M. Stern (credit: Jeremy Williams)

Robert A.M. Stern (credit: Jeremy Williams)

Famed architect Robert A.M. Stern was born in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in 1939 and earned degrees from Columbia University and the Yale School of Architecture, where he is now dean. The winner of a slew of prestigious architecture awards — none of which are displayed in his West Side office — Stern has designed projects globally, including academic and municipal buildings, homes and resorts. In New York, he’s perhaps best known for his residential work, including 30 Park Place, which Silverstein Properties is currently constructing in Lower Manhattan and, of course, Zeckendorf Development’s 15 Central Park West. The author of roughly two dozen architecture books, most recently “New York 2000,” and “Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City,” Stern also is the subject of 16 books. His 300-person eponymous firm occupies three and a half floors at 460 West 34th Street, where it’s been located since 1995. The office also includes a writer’s penthouse with a deck, where Stern eats lunch every day.

Watercolor drawing

The drawing of Spruce Lodge, a house built in Colorado in the late 1980s or early 1990s, hangs above Stern’s desk. At that time, Stern said, a watercolor drawing was made of every house the firm designed. “I like that house,” Stern said, “I like the owners, I like the drawing.”

Emails

Stern’s desk noticeably lacks a key 21st-century feature: a computer. For him, emailing is a ritual that still resembles “the olden days,” he said. All emails get printed for him. He then writes responses in long hand on the printouts. After a staff member types his replies, they are printed out and returned to Stern for final approval, “because I can’t stand spelling errors.”

The Abington

Stern’s office overlooks the Hudson Yards development, the Hudson River and large parts of Downtown and the West Side. The rapid rate of construction in the area is bound to change Stern’s vista in the coming years. “If we’re lucky, we’re going to be able to see one or two of our buildings in Hudson Yards.” With a little neck-stretching, it’s already possible to see the Abington House, the luxury rental he designed that hugs the High Line.

Books

On the weekends, Stern works on his books. He’s currently writing a history of the Yale School of Architecture. Every five years, his firm prints a collection of his work from that period. All the editions are stacked on the shelf behind Stern’s desk.

Fred Astaire

Another part of Stern’s outfit that doesn’t change: his socks. He typically wears light yellow socks. One day about 10 years ago, Stern was told that Astaire exclusively wore light yellow socks. “The reason he did, it seems to me,” Stern said, “[is that] as a dancer, he wanted to draw your eyes to his feet. I am no dancer, but I have always wanted to be Fred Astaire.”

Cuff links

“I’m a guy who’s wearing the same cuff links I’ve been wearing since 1966,” Stern said. His daily outfit is similarly consistent, when he puts on the same Gucci loafers and white shirt, with his initials embroidered. “I always wear a white shirt,” Stern said, adding that his big “design decision” is picking a tie. “I have shopping bags full of ties,” Stern said.

Canvas bag

Rather than a briefcase, Stern carries a canvas bag filled with papers, books and clippings. A lot of it, Stern said, is “material pertaining to New York architecture and urbanism. I’ve written all these books about New York and I have said I would not write another one, but who knows? I might.”

Blue vase

This blue vase was sent as a gift to Stern by a designer in Chicago, who said its shape and blue color appealed to him. “It’s kind of modern and sleek,” Stern said. If objects catch his eye, they get a place by his desk. “But then,” he added, “they never leave. I don’t reprogram my little gallery here.”

Models

Two model structures sit on the shelf behind Stern’s desk. One is of a bus shelter in Florida that was supposed to be built in the 1990s, but never was. The other model, a birthday present from the other partners at his firm, is of Stern’s Hamptons home.


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