When this magazine honored Hugh Newell Jacobsen, FAIA, with a residential architect Hall of Fame Leadership Award in 2002, it was only ratifying a standing verdict of the architecture world. Jacobsen was already thoroughly established as an elder statesman. And every good thing we said about him then remains true today. His early work is still bracingly fresh, his new work continues to challenge, and his firm’s knack for flawless execution is undiminished. Most significantly, the contextual modernism he has championed for some 50 years has proved a durable and vibrant response to the problem of residential architecture.
Jacobsen has his pet details, but each also has proved its worth over the decades. The famous egg crate bookcase is a wonder of lightness and order; floor-to-ceiling doors make small spaces feel bigger; and white interiors—as he has always insisted—really do make people look great. The deeper themes of Jacobsen’s work reflect a set of operating principles rather than a facile formula. His trademark pavilion massing creates dramatic and elegant indoor spaces and permits a deep interlock of site and structure. Borrowing essential elements from local vernaculars adds depth and texture to the modernist palette. Like any master craftsperson, Jacobsen has his set of tools.
And at 81, he keeps them sharp. Under his leadership—and that of his son and partner, Simon Jacobsen—the firm’s work is, as always, fully resolved, utterly urbane, and completely effortless.
What is the most gratifying aspect of residential practice?
The intense and intricate level of interaction with clients in assisting them to change their lives for the better.
What is the most frustrating aspect?
Being marginalized by an unknowing client who doesn’t fully understand the level of commitment and involvement of a firm like ours. We consider everything, from the building to the interiors, lighting, art, objects, etc. Taking on a commission from an owner doesn’t understand this is a little like finding out that perhaps a person you considered a friend just isn’t that into you.
What is your mission statement or firm goal?
To keep looking forward in modern design but to maintain the formal and proven successes of good living, commodity, and delight.
What is the most indispensable tool in your office?
The pencil, Nikon D90, and e-mail (our new work often comes in a simple single-sentence e-mail message pertaining to something loosely associated with a new $10 million house).
What software does your firm use?
Who is your ideal client?
The 50-something empty-nesters who comes to us because they are ready to make a change and they know our work. [They often say something like], “All of my furniture is bad, I have to hang my coat up in the kitchen, and the kitchen is in the garage. I am not going to live like this anymore.”
What is your favorite building?
The East Building of the National Gallery of Art.
If you didn’t have the time to design your own house, who would you hire?