In 1990, when Robert M. Gurney, FAIA, established his firm, staking one’s livelihood on selling modern architecture in the starchy Washington, D.C., market might have seemed a dicey proposition. But Gurney persisted, working modern details into more traditional projects when he could and offering clients an appealing vision of life outside the colonial box. The effort paid off. “Now it’s a different world,” Gurney says. “There are so many people who want to do modern houses.” He credits the media, in part, for making his kind of work more familiar and less intimidating. But we think Gurney and his firm deserve a fair share of credit, too. Their houses convey an excitement about the process of daily life capable of converting even committed traditionalists. Gurney also is an effective ambassador for a forward-looking architecture. Disarmingly approachable—and a fluent speaker of plain English—he is the opposite of the remote, bespectacled, academic modernist of stereotype. “We really try to listen to our clients,” he says. “We really let the project come from what they are trying to accomplish.” Combining creativity and rigor with accessibility, Gurney and his team have produced an impressive string of hits. Their work is characterized by expressive geometries, an assured handling of color and material, and commonsense practicality. Design awards notwithstanding—and the firm has amassed an impressive collection—Gurney’s houses never seem too precious to live in.
What is the most gratifying aspect of residential practice?
We are a small firm, but because of the scale of residential work, we can work on lots of projects at once. At any one time, we have multiple projects in construction, design, and design development, so the day-to-day work is never stale. I also like the diversity the Washington, D.C., area affords: urban projects, suburban projects, and rural projects within a few hours drive.
What is the most frustrating aspect?
We are involved in designing and detailing all aspects of our projects and selecting all finish materials, fixtures, etc. Having to discuss towel bar selection and cabinet pulls with every client gets tedious.
What is your mission statement or firm goal?
Every project is an opportunity for good design; make the most out of every opportunity.
What is the most indispensable tool in your office?
Pencil with eraser.
What software does your firm use?
Who is your ideal client?
Someone who is open-minded with no preconceived design solution.
What is your favorite building?
The Farnsworth House.
If you didn’t have the time to design your own house, who would you hire?
I would NEVER hire anyone to design my own house. I do not have the time, so, sadly, I continue to live in the fixer-upper I bought 10 years ago. Pretty pathetic!