Stephen Muse, FAIA, didn’t have to travel far to make his mark. Working out of his Washington, D.C., home, he found his first commissions virtually in his own backyard, in the fine, old residential neighborhoods of the city and its inner suburbs. In the years since, he has tended those neighborhoods like a garden. “We got known as the firm to hire if you like your house in its basic premise but it isn’t working for you,” Muse says. “I got a lot of calls from people saying, ‘I don’t want to screw up my house.’” Good call. Muse has demonstrated an uncanny deftness in grasping the visual vocabulary of existing houses and neighborhoods—and seamlessly extending that vocabulary—to make statements of contemporary relevance.
“We went from working on really great houses to working on really important historic homes, then to doing new houses in those same neighborhoods,” Muse recalls. “Then we started getting calls for institutional work,” typically from former clients who wanted their new church or school building to work as well in the neighborhood as did their houses. Context is the key element, Muse explains, and the response must be neither slavishly historicist nor “violently” anachronistic. “We try to walk that fine line.” And while his 15-person firm is a far cry from that home-based practice, the aesthetic remains unchanged. “It’s all about the same thing: the notion of context that we’ve been developing for 25 years.”
What is the most gratifying aspect of residential practice?
Making a home that is better than the owner ever thought it could be.
What is the most frustrating aspect?
Balancing my time. I have a terrific wife and two kids, all of whom have been extremely patient and supportive.
What is your mission statement or firm goal?
To build a body of work in which every project represents our personal take on the issue of contextualism. Every project is an individual response to site and client.
What is the most indispensable tool in your office?
Our people, our paper, and our pencils.
What software does your firm use?
We use both Macs and PCs, but I would not be the one to ask for any more detail. My software is my pencil.
Who is your ideal client?
One who shares our values and brings a lot to the table. We want our clients to be involved. We have designed houses for many amazing people.
What is your favorite building?
My favorite type of building is one that understands its role in the larger context, while still being terrific on its own. Two examples are the Hôtel de Beauvais in Paris and the New York Yacht Club in New York City.
If you didn’t have the time to design your own house, who would you hire?
I would never subject anyone to having me as a client. It would never happen.