Thomas Phifer: Light on the Subject

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photos by:
February 9, 2011
Originally published in We Love New York

Don’t be fooled by his mellow, self-effacing demeanor: Architect Thomas Phifer is a master of his craft, designing daylit, minimalist buildings that meld the ideals of classic modernism with 21st-century innovations.

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  Thomas Phifer stands in his west SoHo office and studio, with the firm’s exquisitely crafted architectural models behind him. The room’s all-white walls and ceiling are receptive to shadow and sunlight: “I love turning out the lights here; you see the color of the walls changing all day long,” says Phifer.
    Thomas Phifer stands in his west SoHo office and studio, with the firm’s exquisitely crafted architectural models behind him. The room’s all-white walls and ceiling are receptive to shadow and sunlight: “I love turning out the lights here; you see the color of the walls changing all day long,” says Phifer.
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  Phifer describes the Fishers Island House, designed for Tom and Bunty Armstrong, as “a house that sits in the garden.” It replaced a house that had burned down. “When I arrived, it was just this green plaque of grass that sat there. Tom’s only instruction was that he wanted to sit in his house, looking at his art and at the garden at the same time.”
    Phifer describes the Fishers Island House, designed for Tom and Bunty Armstrong, as “a house that sits in the garden.” It replaced a house that had burned down. “When I arrived, it was just this green plaque of grass that sat there. Tom’s only instruction was that he wanted to sit in his house, looking at his art and at the garden at the same time.”
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  The glass and white-painted steel Taghkanic House was Phifer’s first big commission.
    The glass and white-painted steel Taghkanic House was Phifer’s first big commission.
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  All Phifer’s 25 employees work around a hundred-foot table. Phifer maintains the monochromatic palette down to the mouse pads.
    All Phifer’s 25 employees work around a hundred-foot table. Phifer maintains the monochromatic palette down to the mouse pads.
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  Most of the galleries at the new North Carolina Museum of Art are naturally daylit.  Courtesy of bank details:  Bank: ABN AMRO Bank NV to: Iwan Baan, Amsterdam Acct.nr.: 512635692 IBAN: NL74 ABNA 0512 6356 92 BIC/Swift code: .
    Most of the galleries at the new North Carolina Museum of Art are naturally daylit. Courtesy of bank details: Bank: ABN AMRO Bank NV to: Iwan Baan, Amsterdam Acct.nr.: 512635692 IBAN: NL74 ABNA 0512 6356 92 BIC/Swift code: .
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  In 1995, Phifer was awarded the Rome Prize. The eight months Phifer spent in residence at the American Academy in Rome—”studying daylight,” as he puts it—were instrumental in shaping his career trajectory and design priorities. In 1996 he founded his firm. After returning from Europe, Phifer quit his job at Richard Meier’s office and struck out on his own. “I realized maybe I’m old enough to think for myself, maybe I have my own voice,” he says. “I was 42; I’d been doing other people’s work for a long time.”
    In 1995, Phifer was awarded the Rome Prize. The eight months Phifer spent in residence at the American Academy in Rome—”studying daylight,” as he puts it—were instrumental in shaping his career trajectory and design priorities. In 1996 he founded his firm. After returning from Europe, Phifer quit his job at Richard Meier’s office and struck out on his own. “I realized maybe I’m old enough to think for myself, maybe I have my own voice,” he says. “I was 42; I’d been doing other people’s work for a long time.”
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  The Taghkanic House (2001) was Phifer’s first major commission. The high-ceilinged living room is open to 360-degree views; pivoting screens of aluminum mesh filter in sunlight throughout the course of the day.
    The Taghkanic House (2001) was Phifer’s first major commission. The high-ceilinged living room is open to 360-degree views; pivoting screens of aluminum mesh filter in sunlight throughout the course of the day.
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  The Spencertown House (2002). “The beginning of a project is like the start of a romance. There are so many ways. Your mind just begins to work. You’re almost a little bit disappointed when you’ve got to start narrowing it down and actually make something.” — Thomas Phifer
    The Spencertown House (2002). “The beginning of a project is like the start of a romance. There are so many ways. Your mind just begins to work. You’re almost a little bit disappointed when you’ve got to start narrowing it down and actually make something.” — Thomas Phifer
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  The Sagaponac House (2003).
    The Sagaponac House (2003).
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  In 2004, Phifer’s firm won a competition to develop a new street light for New York City. Their design uses LED bulbs, which Phifer praises for their energy-efficiency and the ability to control both the color and, with a lens, the direction of the light.  Courtesy of illustration/phography by dbox.
    In 2004, Phifer’s firm won a competition to develop a new street light for New York City. Their design uses LED bulbs, which Phifer praises for their energy-efficiency and the ability to control both the color and, with a lens, the direction of the light. Courtesy of illustration/phography by dbox.
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  The Salt Point House (2007) is a two-bedroom cedar box cloaked in a perforated  and corrugated stainless-steel screen. It’s set on a wooded, nine-acre parcel in New York’s Hudson Valley.  Courtesy of ©2007 Scott Frances 212.227.2722 www.scottfrances.com .
    The Salt Point House (2007) is a two-bedroom cedar box cloaked in a perforated and corrugated stainless-steel screen. It’s set on a wooded, nine-acre parcel in New York’s Hudson Valley. Courtesy of ©2007 Scott Frances 212.227.2722 www.scottfrances.com .
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  The Salt Point House's interior.  Courtesy of ©2007 Scott Frances 212.227.2722 www.scottfrances.com .
    The Salt Point House's interior. Courtesy of ©2007 Scott Frances 212.227.2722 www.scottfrances.com .
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  The Millbrook House (2008).  Courtesy of ©2008 www.scottfrances.com.
    The Millbrook House (2008). Courtesy of ©2008 www.scottfrances.com.
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  The Fishers Island House (2009).
    The Fishers Island House (2009).
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  The Raymond and Susan Brochstein Pavilion at Rice University (2009).  Courtesy of ©2009_Scott Frances.
    The Raymond and Susan Brochstein Pavilion at Rice University (2009). Courtesy of ©2009_Scott Frances.
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  The Raymond and Susan Brochstein Pavilion at Rice University (2009).  Courtesy of ©2009_Scott Frances.
    The Raymond and Susan Brochstein Pavilion at Rice University (2009). Courtesy of ©2009_Scott Frances.
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  The Long Island House, designed in 2009, but unbuilt.
    The Long Island House, designed in 2009, but unbuilt.
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  The new 120,000-square-foot wing at the North Carolina Museum of Art (2010)is filled with daylit exhibition galleries and accessed by four different doors, enabling visitors to move easily between the galleries and surrounding gardens.Don't miss a word of Dwell! Download our  FREE app from iTunes, friend us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter!   Courtesy of bank details:  Bank: ABN AMRO Bank NV to: Iwan Baan, Amsterdam Acct.nr.: 512635692 IBAN: NL74 ABNA 0512 6356 92 BIC/Swift code: .
    The new 120,000-square-foot wing at the North Carolina Museum of Art (2010)is filled with daylit exhibition galleries and accessed by four different doors, enabling visitors to move easily between the galleries and surrounding gardens.Don't miss a word of Dwell! Download our FREE app from iTunes, friend us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter! Courtesy of bank details: Bank: ABN AMRO Bank NV to: Iwan Baan, Amsterdam Acct.nr.: 512635692 IBAN: NL74 ABNA 0512 6356 92 BIC/Swift code: .
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