It's oddly fitting that Brian Messana, AIA, and Toby O'Rorke, RIBA, share the ninth floor of their Manhattan office building with costume designers who outfit Broadway actors. Stepping off the elevator into a dim foyer furnished like a Bohemian stage set, one is unprepared for the bright, orderly space behind the door to the left. The Messana O'Rorke office contains the light-handed magic that modernist architects routinely use to manipulate space. Translucent Plexiglass panels, screwed to a poplar frame, provide a vestibule, and overhead a 4-foot-wide stainless steel box runs through the office, creating the illusion of length. In the workspace of two architects who worship Benjamin Moore Bright White, a red Jens Risom chair supplies the only spot of color.
The juxtaposition may as well be a metaphor for the eclectic backgrounds that Messana and O'Rorke bring to their architecture. Messana, a native of Malibu, Calif., was a self-described pack rat until high school, when he suddenly jettisoned his matchbook and postcard collections, stripped the carpet and wood paneling from his room, and painted the walls white. “It wasn't so much about minimalism as just a point in my life where I shifted from wanting to collect to wanting to be as lightweight as possible,” he says. Scottish-born O'Rorke has dabbled in furniture, costume, and product design, and took a break from architecture studies to work at a postmodernist firm in Sydney, Australia. “We were putting pyramids and domes on things,” he says. “But my interest at the moment was in the detailing of it, how they put it together, and how one could then articulate it to make it minimal.”
The pair has been practicing the art of minimalism since opening for business in 1996. They've developed a keen eye for the calming qualities of space and light, and a reputation for quiet, nuanced innovation. Their work is all about paring a program down to its essence—some might even call it austere. While it's true that their Zen-like aesthetic of light-flooded planes and a limited material palette photographs beautifully, closer study reveals a soothing, user-friendly logic behind the abstract effect. What these deceptively simple parts add up to, especially in the city, is a mind-clearing sanctuary where clients can decompress at the end of the day. But O'Rorke insists that their intent isn't to dictate a Spartan lifestyle. “We want the architecture to make any options possible for furnishings and the way the clients live,” he says.
retail to residential Messana and O'Rorke first crossed paths in the late 1980s at Virginia Tech's Alexandria campus, where both were enrolled in a six-month exchange program. Messana was in his final year of graduate studies at the California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. O'Rorke was finishing up postgraduate studies at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University) in England. After school, both men moved to New York City, where they did stints at other firms—Messana with Richard Meier & Partners Architects, and O'Rorke in the offices of Margaret Helfand; Henry Myerberg, AIA; and Thierry W. Despont. Just before co-founding the practice, O'Rorke also worked at the Ralph Lauren flagship store in a mansion on Madison Avenue and 72nd Street, designing traditionally paneled rooms to showcase the clothing launches. Looking back, he says that his time at Ralph Lauren taught him how cabinetry is manufactured, and how it could be reworked to achieve stripped-down perfection.
The partners often use built-in storage containers to define space and choreograph the passage through a house—an approach they refined in their early work on retail design. They landed their first commission through Messana's former colleague at Meier's office, who had taken a job as assistant to the creative director at Donna Karan New York (DKNY). The project—the interior renovation of a four-story building in Santiago, Chile—led to 18 more DKNY showrooms on three continents. Breaking into the residential market was tougher. “We had a lot of potential clients who liked our work, but no one who was willing to give us the opportunity to produce our first residences,” Messana says. The foot in the door came from a friend, who granted them creative freedom to design her New York apartment in exchange for waiving the fee. After the project appeared in several widely circulated magazines, the house calls kept coming.
Residential clients, of course, bring a different set of challenges, and what invariably stifles the partners' creativity is too much program. A list of functional specifics is a necessary starting point, but it in no way defines the design. “Some people start looking at what their friends have and are inflexible about having dual-purpose spaces,” O'Rorke says. “What we do is intuitive. I can't create something when so much is going on.” Messana puts it slightly differently: “Our process is to understand all the components and how to manage them. It doesn't feel like we have to cut the scope down, because we like to tighten things up.”
From there, the meticulous fine-tuning involves figuring out how to make mundane objects like air vents and smoke detectors disappear. One afternoon last spring, O'Rorke spent two hours placing thermostats in a house. “If you're doing minimalist architecture, the focus turns to this functional thing if it's been put in a spot where you have to look at it,” he says. “There are all these layers, which you can easily let go of and end up with a space that's much less pleasant to be in.”
light box Those who hire Messana O'Rorke Architects are drawn to that purity and rigor. One client, Michael Jones, had planned to buy a loft but settled instead on a prewar Greenwich Village apartment. It was tired-looking but had good bones, and he was looking for something “high-quality, clean, and considered” in the renovation. “I wasn't sure I'd be able to get to the spareness I really wanted, but they helped me get there,” Jones says. The new dwelling is both serene and visually surprising, with dark-stained wood floors, pure white walls stripped of trim, a white marble bathroom, and white lacquered cabinets. The architecture becomes a container for the texturally rich furnishings and a pristine backdrop tuned to the subtle and changing light. “Color creates atmospheres and moods you may not want 24/7, whereas bright white shows the form,” O'Rorke says. “And shadows change color constantly.”
Messana and O'Rorke have only recently begun to break free of the limbo between architecture and interior design that many urban architects experience. For a while, interior designers didn't think of them as interior designers, and architects didn't think of them as architects. Now that they've completed several ground-up projects, their goal is to see their ideas realized on increasingly larger scales. But they're not stressed out about how to get there. “At the moment our work feels good,” Messana says. “We're doing what we like to do.”