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Publication Date: 2019-09-30

Design Insights

Celebrating an Architect Bringing the Past into the Future

In his new book, Renewing Tradition (Rizzoli), New York-based architect Eric J. Smith showcases his ability to renovate classic homes so that they function brilliantly for today, as well as design brand-new homes that resonate with the grace and refinement of the best of the past. The 11 homes across the country featured in his book range from grand estates to rustic cabins, but all share Smith's thoughtful handling of site, function, and style. Here, he shares some of the wisdom he's learned during his 30-year career crafting beautiful places to live.

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The rear facade of a fully renovated Dutch Colonial overlooking the Long Island Sound. Photo: Peter Margonelli

Classically inspired buildings create comfort through the logic of their design, the inherent solidness of their construction, and the presence of detail that is familiar and enriching. These structures were built to last. And, in the homes we design for our clients, they still are. 

The living room of a new river-front house in Jacksonville, Florida. Photo: George Cott

I saw that designing classical-style architecture was a way to “buy time.” In our homes, this happens through architectural detailing and the materials we use. Reclaiming old timbers or antique rooms, or buying a mature tree for the grounds of a house are ways to acquire history. 

The porch in the same Florida house. Photo: George Cott

By weaving old elements, antique or reclaimed, into a building, we evoke the ageless. With such elements, time seems to slow down. It is another way, we “buy time” for our clients.

The pool and rear facade of a new stone house in Northern California. Photo: Peter Margonelli

I think that architectural education too often overlooks the fact that clients commission buildings—clients are everything to a project. A client’s tastes and desires are like site and program—critical givens that I embrace as an architect. 

The garden room of an updated stone house on the North Shore of Chicago. Photo: Nathan Kirkman

I have never felt it was my place to force my ideas onto clients. I believe when I’m hired to design a home, the clients trust me to realize the house of their dreams, not mine.

The dining room of a renovated Greenwich Village pied-a-terre. Photo: Eric Laignel

Architects are the creative force of buildings; we see ourselves as the people who “make” the project happen. But the reality is that the by-product of any architect’s work is, well ... a set of drawings. They have a lot of information on them, but they are just drawings on paper — that is our “deliverable.” It falls to literally hundreds of other skilled people working with us to turn those drawings into a tangible structure.

— Eric J. Smith

The cover of the architect's new book, Renewing Tradition, published by Rizzoli.
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