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Simple rules for crafting a modern home, from architect Deborah Berke

In praise of subtle adjustments

dining room in modern home flanked by sliding glass doors to outdoor terrace and yard
Rule No. 5: Rooms can be inside, outside, or both
All photos by Jason Schmidt unless otherwise noted, courtesy Rizzoli

Deborah Berke, the long-time New York City-based architect and new dean at Yale School of Architecture, traces her career choice to age 14, when she would stroll around her neighborhood in Queens, studying rows of small-lot houses and trying to decipher what each room might be used for. Now, more than three decades after starting Deborah Berke Partners, she channels the same sensitivity towards the patterns of life into the new book House Rules, at once a monograph of the firm’s extensive portfolio, and a practical guide for anyone who wishes to create a home to love.

For architects, a residential design is strongly shaped by the clients’ needs, with factors like budget, site, and who will be living in the house helping to determine a specific size, layout, material palette, and more. It’s been no different for Berke. But as the title House Rules suggests, no matter the client or project type, Berke has found herself returning to a few key principles. These insights, distilled into eight design "rules", tackle both big-picture considerations like circulation as well as nitty-gritty challenges like storage.

In a recent interview at her Manhattan office, Berke says the rules "argue for a level of simplicity and for appreciating aspects of life that are under-appreciated, like the moment in the hallway when the light comes in the window and takes you outside of ‘I’m just getting from here to there.’" In this way, the book contends that not everyone can afford to commission an architect-designed house, but everyone can aspire to live in a well-considered home.

Below, a look at a few specific takeaways from our favorite House Rules, as excerpted from the book.

Rule No. 2: Any material can seduce.

Photo by Gentl & Hyers

Make a virtue of economic necessity. Good design doesn’t cost more; expensive materials do. A single window combined with simple glazed tile arranged in a regular grid creates a crisp elegance and reflects daylight around the room.

Minor shifts can be potent. Extensive renovation of this midcentury house included adding mahogany boards to the concrete-and-stucco exterior. The resulting moments of deep contrast and texture warm and animate what had been a stark first expression.

Rule No. 4: Circulation does more than connect.

Establish opportunities for ritual. To enter this modest beach house, the user must park in the garage and traverse a gravel courtyard. This short walk from car door to front door—after a long drive from the city—affords an opportunity to transition from outside to in, from one state of mind to another.

Rule No. 6: Account for all things. Display a few.

Convenient storage need not announce its presence. A floor-to-ceiling rosewood partition separates living room from entry while providing ample space behind its flush doors.

Rule No. 8: Honor daily life.

Photo by Rebecca McAlpin

Consider morning routines and the orientation of spaces toward natural light.