JOE D'URSO: Design As Business And Pleasure

December 14, 2000

Being a designer is a little like being an actor, said the interior designer Joe D'Urso. Clients "want you to play their role, to imagine what it would be like to be them and to have this place to live in."

"It's a tremendous trust that has to be established to do a good job. Financial trust and emotional trust," Mr. D'Urso explained.

Because he works so closely with his clients and invests so much time and energy in his projects, the lines between business and pleasure are often blurred. He becomes emotionally involved in all of his projects and with many of his clients. "They become friends almost always," he said.

Needed A Change

Shortly after he graduated from the Pratt Institute in 1965, Mr. D'Urso did an internship with the minimalist architect and designer Ward Bennett, who had a house in Springs and a number of projects in the area.

One of Mr. Bennett's larger East End projects, a house on Further Lane that eventually became Jann Wenner's, brought Mr. D'Urso to East Hampton in 1966. He's been coming here ever since and in 1988, shortly after closing his New York office, he moved to the South Fork full time.

He had been needing a change when he heard about the Prix de Rome mid-career fellowship, applied, and won. The fellowship allowed him invaluable time to reassess his career and his surroundings. "It was in the middle of the whole AIDS crisis," he said. "There were a lot of negative feelings in New York. I was feeling disoriented; the passion for doing the work had dulled."

He now lives and works in a modernized East Hampton Village cottage that he rents from friends (who've also been clients). Reached down a driveway bordered by tall bamboo, the cottage is a smooth conglomeration of older buildings moved some years back to a flag lot off Cooper Lane.

"Everything in here is recycled," Mr. D'Urso said as he gave a brief tour of the place, which is just the right size for one or two.

Although it is not his own, the cottage bears the marks of classic D'Urso work, most notably in the simplicity of the decor and the ingenuity with which the space is divided into separate rooms. A Josef Hoffmann chair is placed next to a chrome stool Mr. D'Urso designed and is using now as a plant stand. There's a low-to-the-floor couch that is almost like a Japanese sitting area.

Warmth Crept In

Mr. D'Urso has always liked things simple. After graduating from Pratt he was part of a generation of minimalist designers that was highly influential during the 1970s. "My earlier work had such a strong look. My recent work is more idiomatic," he said.

The progression has been a natural one. "At the beginning you want to start more simply. There is a certain orthodoxy to it. You want to take a stand." But with time and maturity, Mr. D'Urso's vision has seasoned to allow for more warmth.

He doesn't mind the minimalist label, but knows that to some people minimalism means "cold, empty, slick, not intimate, monumental as opposed to charming and human."

Playing With Space

As spare and simple as his rooms may be, he manages to also make them inviting and livable. Where some modern interiors can feel static, Mr. D'Urso's designs are filled with a kind of movement that comes from manipulating the space and the elements within it in just the right way.

With ceilings at different levels, partial walls that delineate spaces without sacrificing airiness, and windows and huge custom-made glass doors that bring the outside in, his designs achieve an asymmetrical harmony that feels almost sublime. And they do have a certain charm to them.

"It's the charm that comes with time and light and space and views," the designer said, "not by the layers of cliches that a lot of people think charm is."

No Ye Olde

Most important to him are the windows. When he has the opportunity to move windows around or design from the ground up, he tries to provide a special view from every window. He also likes to play with scale, with light and dark space, and with textures.

"I'm very much against reproducing the superficial appearance of things of the past," he said. "That to me is so wrong and such an unfortunate development in what's happening in building today."

He doesn't like grilles on windows that make them look like they're paned and says he'd rather see a tarpaper roof than "asbestos shingles trying to look like wood." When he has a chance to work on a new house, he is partial to stucco exteriors, heated concrete floors, raw steel, big mahogany doors - materials he gets more out of than many architects would.

Sense Of Ownership

Often he continues to work on a house for years, which has its downside financially. However, he said, "I'm happy with what I get paid for what I do. Ultimately I'd rather the reward be the quality of the work than the financial."

And the investment of time also gives him a sense of ownership over the project. He usually retains visitation rights and is often on hand to direct a photo shoot when a home magazine is featuring one of his houses.

While an architect or engineer must sign off on the structural aspects of his drawings, Mr. D'Urso has designed many houses "from scratch," he said, including one on Further Lane in East Hampton and another on Red Dirt Road in Springs that he counts among his favorite projects.

Views That Speak

The Further Lane house, owned by Richard Pollak and his wife, Terry Incagnoli, is a sand-tone stucco assembly of cubes and other geometric shapes with a domed observatory.

"Each room was designed to have a certain dialogue with what's happening outside, whether it's a view of the ocean or a fish pond. Large sheets of glass, floor to ceiling, minimize the separation between inside and outside. The design of what's happening outside is really part of the room."

Mr. D'Urso lived at the house as he worked on it. "A lot of that house was designed after the drawings were done. It changed completely."

Play Of Lines

The house on Red Dirt Road, which is much smaller, was a renovation for Lori Goldstein, a fashion stylist. It began as a basic rectangular box to which Mr. D'Urso added a cool brown stucco addition, also boxy, but with big glass windows and huge custom-made doors that offer views of the landscaped garden and a natural kettlehole.

The addition is set lower than the original house, and that variation in height makes for an interesting play of lines inside.

"I've had five or six really engaging projects," Mr. D'Urso said, reflecting on his career. The commercial projects on his list of favorites are an Esprit store in Los Angeles, the Calvin Klein menswear showroom in New York, and the I Club, a health and social club in Hong Kong.

Couples May Bicker

Mr. D'Urso also designed a showroom for Calvin Klein women's wear and an apartment for Mr. Klein. He worked on Jay Chiat and Edwina von Gal's house in Sagaponack and is working on a house in Los Angeles now.

Commercial and residential work each have their advantages, Mr. D'Urso said, but with commercial projects "you get the feeling that it's not going to be there for very long. They're going to move out or want to redo it again after a certain period of time."

"I've heard some people say they don't take residential work because you have to deal with the people," Mr. D'Urso said. There are always differences of opinion between the two sides of a couple and some designers prefer to avoid that altogether.

But Mr. D'Urso likes the challenge, he said; he likes trying to win both people over to his ideas. "In the process of it, you can reconvince yourself. If I believe in what I do, the client's going to believe in it."

And many of his clients share his sensibilities. "We found each other," Mr. D'Urso said.

He counts designers and architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Josef Hoffmann, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh as inspirations, not because he feels a particular affinity for their aesthetic, but because they broke down barriers between architecture and design by designing the whole package, from the actual building to the light fixtures, the textiles, and the furniture.

Fear Of Math

Mr. D'Urso, too, designs furniture, including a collection for Knoll and other pieces for Donghia. "When you do furniture, you work for a period of time and then you sit back and get royalties," he explained.

Born in Newark, he was always the artistic one in class. "Perhaps because I was small and not athletically inclined, my interests became more about solo endeavors," he said. "I was designing things pretty early in life - cars, clothing. I designed whole cities, I designed whole countries."

But he thought that he needed to be good at math to be an architect. "I still have problems with numbers," he said. "I don't know how to use an adding machine, I don't have a computer, I can't program the voice mail on my cell phone."

Poetry Of Design

So he studied interior design and he's probably a better architectural designer because of it. "A lot of people go into architecture from the technical side," he said. "My approach was the opposite, that none of that mattered. What mattered was concepts, the thinking, the more poetic aspects."

The living or commercial space is the designer's canvas. "You're engaged with it, every square inch of it. There's a very intimate dialogue between the work and the executor."

He was also strongly influenced by Mr. Bennett's style of working. "He didn't try to do too much. He'd take on a project and get very personally involved with it; he'd push the thing through."

Mr. Bennett helped Mr. D'Urso see that designing was "kind of like driving. You have to be diligent at every moment." If a designer looks away from the project for even a week or two, everything can change.

But travel, he said, has had the biggest influence on his work. While working with Mr. Bennett he was able to see how people in different parts of the world solved their housing needs. "We have a very short architectural history in this country," he pointed out.

He visited India, lived, studied, and taught in England, traveled to Asia and South America, taking pictures all the while. Japan made a huge impression. "They've had urban architecture for centuries," he said. There he saw "how spaces can be created that are majestic and small and timeless."

Small, With Grandeur

Surprisingly, the designer who has helped so many people create their perfect houses is still waiting to build his own. "I'm working on the idea of having a 600-square-foot house. I've been designing a whole series of 600-square-foot houses," he said, bringing out a sketch of one.

"I don't think a house that small has to feel small. If you can create something that's really well thought out and has some grandeur - high ceilings, a garden - you can have a magnificent environment in that amount of space."

He believes there are others like him who would rather live in a small, well-designed house than in a huge place with no character. "The idea of having that, where someone can walk into an office and plunk down money for a house that is a really good deal, I think it would be terrific if one could do that."

All The Trappings

The big houses that seem all the rage right now say a lot about American culture, he said. "People are only interested in size and resale value, all the trappings of success. I wonder where all that's going. What's going to happen to all the big houses?"

If economics allowed for it, Mr. D'Urso might have a "fabulous place in New York with a terrace," but he's content keeping just one home. A modest lifestyle suits him just fine.

"If you are really connected to the artistic and human aspect of what you do, you don't really have a choice, you just do it. And if you're lucky, you can have some financial rewards too."