"The type of house I want to be known for is a 21st century house..."

Connoisseur magazine has called him "a man of his time."Preston T. Phillips - J. Jill Fulfillment Center
House & Garden lauded the "resonant definition to an open space" he gave to a Manhattan loft. The Hamptons described him as a "visionary young architect." His work has been featured in Southern Accents, Interior Design, Elle Decor, Dwell and Architectural Digest among others.

For fashion designer Regina Kravitz, he designed a summer house in Southampton and corporate offices on Broadway in New York City. For painter Lowell Nesbitt, Preston designed a country home in upstate New York and later added a painting studio on the artist's property. Other clients have included golfer Bruce Crampton, members of the Ford family, and the composer Samuel Barber. The Box Tree Restaurant in New York City for restauranteur Augustin Paege was one of Preston’s last commissions before moving his office to Bridgehampton, New York in 1984.

Eager for new architectural fields to conquer, Preston branched into the business world with the corporate headquarters for Fanny Farmer Candies in Boston. The Fanny Farmer challenge was to create a corporate environment that blended the company’s strong sense of heritage and tradition coupled with its need for state of the art office space. Preston met both needs by designing a sleek, contemporary interior inside a turn-of the century mill he found in Boston. Additional corporate commissions include a Center for Cultural Arts and Children’s Museum and the corporate home for Hardin & Company, a Piggly Wiggly Franchise in his hometown of Gadsden, Alabama. The J. Jill Group, based in Boston, Massachusetts, retained Preston to oversee the design of their new 400,000 square foot distribution facility and 72,000 square foot administration center in Tilton New Hampshire. Subsequently, Preston was commissioned to design The J. Jill Group’s 120,000 square foot corporate headquarters in Boston. By contrast, construction was completed in June of 2001 on the now celebrated “Butterfly House” in East Hampton, New York. The 1,000 square foot residence is the most photographed house of the 21st century and has been the subject of numerous television documentaries and countless magazine articles. In October of 2001, after a 2 ½ year build, a 130 foot motor yacht with over 6,000 square feet of interior space was launched in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin for a private client.

Current works in progress include residential projects in The Hamptons, Palm Beach and Naples, Florida, the National retail rollout for The J. Jill Group of one hundred and eighty (180) stores, the first LEED certified townhouse in New York City, and a 12,000 square foot home based on the writings of Kandinsky. 

"Today," he notes, "an architect must design interiors as well as exteriors. Indeed, the manipulation of interior space dictates the exterior form. The use of lighting, materials, and furnishings have become necessary tools for all architects."

 

Interview with
Preston Phillips
March 15, 2001

 

Interviewer:

How did a Southerner like you get from Auburn University to the Hamptons?

Preston Phillips:

It was a circuitous route. I moved to New York in 1974 to work for Paul Rudolph who I met while I was a student at Auburn University in 1972. I was one of four seniors invited to a dinner hosted by the Dean honoring him, (Rudolph had graduated from Auburn in the 1940's) and during dinner he politely asked what I was planning after graduation. I said that I was coming to New York to work for him. Forks dropped all around the table, and the event is still discussed in the Architectural School as a benchmark. After my apprenticeship in his office I opened my firm in 1977 and over the next seven to eight years I designed a number of houses in the Hamptons. By the early 80's, I was very familiar with the area and, in 1984, decided to close my New York office and move here, basically to take a couple of years off to decide what I wanted to do. Once here, I realized that I loved it so much that I wanted to stay. But, of course, at that time, there were only about 6 architects in the area, now there are over 60.

Interviewer:

I've noticed in your work great attention given to lighting and to art. Are both a given to you for any project, large or small, residential or commercial?

Preston Phillips:

The answer is yes. My mother often drove the family around at night to look at houses.
Preston T. Phillips - Motor Yacht UnityNow, I don't have any idea why we did that, I just know that she'd occasionally say, "let's go out and take a drive and look at houses". At night, it wasn't so much looking into the house, as it was how they were lit from the street at night that interested me. The shapes of the windows, the way the grounds were lit, in general what I remember, is the glow. When I'm thinking about how a house or a building is going to look I usually first think of it at night and how the illuminated spaces will read from the exterior, and that probably goes back to those twilight drives with my family. And then, of course, there is the whole Paul Rudolph experience about lighting and how that was such an integral part of everything that he did, that Frank Lloyd Wright did, that other architects I admire have always done, so that no matter where I am, I am very observant of light. Whether it's on a beach at sunset or in a cave in Tortola with the light coming through those great boulders cascading into the water, or at Tuskegee Chapel where Rudolph brought that wonderful space to life through natural light from above, I think that, without question, that's where I got my interest in light. I even notice light in art, Hopper was a master. I recall one canvas that featured a couple on a front porch which was illuminated by a single bulb.

In terms of art, there's no doubt that every project, large or small, residential or commercial, needs art. Whether it's a small piece, or a collection, it's something that I always try to incorporate. If there's a collection, we create plans where there can be a series of things hung together. Often my clients already have art for their home and add to the collection during the design process. We show on the plans-and all of my conceptual plans show this-a little red line along the wall where I envision a piece hanging or in some cases, a sort of infinity symbol where I foresee a piece of sculpture.

Interviewer:

You have major projects from Southampton to Sun Valley to Aspen to Palm Beach. How do you do it?

Preston Phillips:

I team up with local architects who help us with our projects nationwide. They help with the bidding process once the design is finished, provide job supervision on a weekly basis, advise us on local code compliance, local architectural review boards and other related issues. No matter where we go, if it's a home of a certain scope or size, we associate with a local firm who's very like-minded in terms of design sensitivities, and who has email and CAD capabilities. It's just like having an extension of my office in Palm Beach or in Sun Valley. It's as though they are just down the hall or in a separate building.

Interviewer:

Describe the ideal client for your firm.

Preston Phillips:

That's a very difficult question because each client is so different. I don't know that I have any criteria except clients who want something special. If they don't want what the next door neighbor has, or their relatives have, or what someone else has, and they want something for themselves, I think that's the main criteria. It's important that people want something unique; that they want something special, that's always a good starting point.

Interviewer:

You are obviously comfortable doing a range of styles of a house. I've seen a lot of your work, and you've successfully designed homes that range from the traditional Hampton's wood-shingled to modern to contemporary. How do you segue from one to the other and back?

Preston Phillips:

It's a great question to ask today because we were just involved in a project for the Parrish Art Museum for their Landscape Pleasures Program; a garden folly. Imagine a plunge pool that you access by ascending a free-standing stair spiraling along the outside of a cone leading up to a platform 18 feet above grade where you jump into a 12 foot diameter pool. The whole experience is extremely modern, extremely contemporary. The shapes, the materials, everything is very forward looking. On my desk at the same time is a house that we're renovating in Sag Harbor for the owner of the American Hotel that was built in the early 1800's. I think that it's all about exposure, and if you're exposed to different types of architecture or different types of art, there's no reason not to fully appreciate each area. I would love to have a Henry Rousseau in my collection or a Toulouse-Lautrec, to compliment my Warhol and Hockney. I love Beethoven, but I also enjoy contemporary music, so it is about what you're comfortable with. The tenets of architecture--proportion, scale, repetition- the great things that we study about in architecture, come from the ancients. To do a shingle style house, it can be well proportioned and well detailed. The windows have a certain size, and they sit in a certain way on the facade; in a contemporary house, you have an entirely different set of rules in terms of what the materials are and how it all fits together, but the same basic concepts apply: proportion, scale, rhythm and repetition in the masses, voids and planes. It's the same idea, just a different vernacular.

Interviewer:

I know that you travel a great deal. What's the most interesting place you've visited?

Preston Phillips:

Preston T. Phillips - Bilbao

Clearly the most interesting place was Egypt. I just came back from my 50th birthday trip and spent almost two weeks on the Nile. I can honestly say it would win hands down. I can't imagine anything that could ever top it, but that's not to say I won't try, and there are number of places I want to go. I would like to visit Cambodia; I certainly want to go to St. Petersburg; I must see Machu Pichu. Spain is also very high on the list as is the American desert Southwest. There are other places I'd like to visit and others I can always go back to like Florence and Kyoto, but the vast scale of what I saw in Egypt, the intricacy of their art, their architecture, and their culture transcended anything that I was prepared for. Clearly we're dealing with a seven thousand year old civilization that, in their heyday, would have been the most remarkable of places to have visited and known about, and we are only able to glimpse a small part of it. What remains today is still so astounding. I can fully understand why there are Egyptologists and why people devote their lives to the subject under conditions that are considered in Western thought to be less than hospitable.

Interviewer:

When you're not working, what do you enjoy doing?

Preston Phillips:

I could almost say "thinking about working" because it seems that I am always thinking about what's going on, even when I'm not working. But I love gardening! I grew up at my grandparents' farm, and love flowers, plants, birds, and nature. Gardening would be right at the top of the list. I've studied Japanese gardens for decades and never miss a chance to further that aesthetic in my work and in my own garden. I'm not really athletic, but I do enjoy being outdoors; the beach; biking; not much of hiker, as I learned in Egypt. Museums and galleries have always been one of my favorite pastimes as I enjoy keeping up with the art world; to see what's going on and who's doing what, and what's new, and what's borrowed, and what's blue. Travel is a big part of what I do. My mate for over 17 years has been instrumental in getting me to very far-flung locations, like Australia and Asia, and all over Europe, to Hawaii, and a number of places in the United States that I wouldn't have gone otherwise. I'm a sports fan, particularly a college football fan, an Auburn University season ticket holder, so I try to do a little bit of that in the fall.

Interviewer:

Your own house--the main house, the studio, the grounds--have attracted a lot of attention, in the press and among your peers and from prospective clients. How did it come about?

Preston Phillips:

When I left New York and moved to the Hamptons, I fell in love with the area that is very bucolic, between Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor which is about 220 feet above sea level, raised up a bit and in the fields. I found this piece of property that is extremely tucked in, very private with mature trees, water features, boulders, unusual flora and fauna. I'd also been toying with the idea of building a house based on the principles of the DeStijl; pure geometry, pure color, right out of Malevich. I had begun to play with shapes and forms and colors and concepts, and then when I found the property, I immediately recognized that it was perfect for such a building which would be not visible from any other house, number one; but also that no one would see it until the last moment. This is the great beauty, I think, of Fallingwater, in addition to its sitting over the waterfall. The approach to Fallingwater is so resplendent, as is the approach to Monticello. It is as much about the grounds and the approach, and the carving out of the deep woodland forests, that allows the house to emerge from this almost primal landscape. That's how it came about.

Interviewer:

Has your work been influenced by any one other architect or individual not related to your profession?

Preston Phillips:

My work has certainly benefited from my appreciation of nature. I owe my mother's parents, for that, and then probably Frank Lloyd Wright for allowing me an avenue to pursue the love of nature as a valid concept. The writings of Louis Sullivan played a tremendous role in my understanding of the philosophies of architecture as a student at Auburn. The work of Eero Saarinen taught me that every building could be modern, unique, and extraordinarily produced, in terms of materials, detail, and quality. And then I would have to credit Paul Rudolph for setting my heart on fire for architecture because I'll never forget walking into the Chapel at Tuskegee Institute while a student at Auburn, and suddenly everything I had been taught about architecture, was around me. I was standing in a piece of architecture, and immediately I knew this is someone I had to work for.

Interviewer:

I watched Charlie Rose interview Philip Johnson one time several years ago. And he asked Mr. Johnson "why are you an architect"? I'm going to ask you the same question.

Preston Phillips:

Preston T. Phillips - Egypt

It's a great question, and it's a question that I think has an unusual answer. My guidance counselor at Gadsden High told me that my tests showed that I should be an architect. I planned to attend the University of Alabama to study aerospace engineering during the great rocket days of the Apollo program. I was right in the middle of that as a 16 year-old, and there was no doubt that I was going to design spacecraft to land on Mars.

When my tests came back, evidently there was something about my spatial abilities that struck them as being unusual or unique. I was called into the Guidance Counselors office. She said they have reviewed my forms, that they understood that I wanted to go to the University of Alabama and study aerospace engineering, but really felt that architecture was the right profession for me. I said, "Architecture, I know nothing about it. Architecture? Where do you go study for that"? And she said Auburn University. And I said, " but they don't have a good football team". Of course, I went there, and we beat Alabama four out of the five years I was there. I have to believe that if that hadn't have happened, I would never have thought about architecture and would probably have gone to Alabama. Maybe I would have become an aerospace engineer, maybe not, astronomy was a great love of my life at the time, but I have to believe that the reason I'm an architect today is because of that event. Having said all that, I think that everything I'd done in my entire life, leading up to that event, was about architecture, but I didn't know that.

Interviewer:

Can you look back on your career this far and point to one project that was singularly instrumental in moving your practice from one level to the next, a giant step, as they refer to it in the press?

Preston Phillips:

There have been a number of them. The first house that someone gave me the opportunity to design was in Pensacola, Florida for Ted and Natalie Ciano. That was a huge step to give someone who had nothing to show them, except a book about Fallingwater. They built a half a million dollar home in 1977, which was a tremendous commission, and I was just 27 years old. The next one would probably be the Fanny Farmer corporate headquarters in Boston that I did in 1984 just after I left New York and closed my office and moved to the Hamptons. Elena Ford's house in Southampton in 1990-91 certainly put me on the map in the Hamptons as an architect to be reckoned with. Most recently, the J. Jill commissions have taken my work to a new level as we have been working with the J. Jill Group for four years. We have done just about everything in the industry for them, a corporate headquarters, a fulfillment center, and a national retail roll out. Those would be the benchmarks.

Interviewer:

Are interior decorators involved in most of your residential work, and if so, how does that work?

Preston Phillips:

Preston T. Phillips - Acropolis

In some cases, clients may have interior designers and decorators they have worked with for many years, and we design their homes with the decorator's input and involvement. In other cases, they don't have a decorator, but they hire one during the project or toward the end of the project. Sometimes we do the interiors, it depends on the situation. It has always worked very well, and we've worked with many designers and decorators. As one of my electives in college, I studied three quarters of history and theory of interior design. It was very valuable for me because there are some styles of furniture and types of furniture, terminology, leg styles, feet, and notable furniture makers historically that are significant to know about, just as there are contemporary furniture makers that are important to be familiar with.

We've had the opportunity to use very fine furniture in the residences we've done. Many of our clients collect wonderful suites of furniture. It's very healthy to have a back ground in interior design. We are very knowledgeable about carpeting and rugs, wall coverings, lighting, faux finish techniques, different types of materials, different types of wood, flooring, cabinetry, hardware, furniture, all of that, and it all goes together. The final project is about more than the volumes, lighting and spaces, it's also about the textures, furnishings and the materials that go into it.


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