In Conversation | SPAN Architecture

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    We sit down with the couple behind NYC-based architecture practice SPAN, Peter Pelsinski and Karen Stonely, to understand their shared appreciation for design innovation and originality.

    Since its inception in 1995, SPAN has grown to comprise a diverse team of designers from NYC and abroad, with husband and wife duo Peter Pelsinski and Karen Stonely at the helm. Peter is a respected lecturer at the Princeton University School of Architecture, while Karen has been a juror for the Architectural League of New York’s annual awards so naturally, both have a wealth of knowledge and experience that we tap into in this interview. And with several notable projects in their final stages – the conversion of Andy Warhol’s old studio apartment in NYC, for instance – it appears we’ve caught them at an exciting time in their careers.

    Karen and Peter, could you both please briefly share your road to architecture and how SPAN came into being?

    Peter Pelsinski: When I began university, I was unsure what I wanted to major in; I was toying between fine arts, engineering and literature. One evening, I spontaneously found myself at the Princeton University School of Architecture, which was a ‘eureka’ moment. I met Karen in NYC after we had both been working for other designers. I loved her design and photography, and when a duplex apartment renovation opportunity came our way, we just went for it. 

    Karen Stonely: I was fortunate enough to travel as a teenager and have several profound experiences – like seeing light snake up the stairs at Chichen Itza at sunset – that confirmed my desire to be an architect. Peter and I discovered very quickly after meeting that we had an incredibly stimulating rapport, and our practice seemed to evolve very naturally.

    What’s the most rewarding aspect of running an architecture firm with your partner?

    Peter Pelsinski: I think it is the trust you can have for someone who sees things from a slightly different point of view. There is a wonderful ability to take risks with someone like that. Karen is an amazing designer and a great communicator.

    Karen Stonely: It’s amazing to do what inspires you the most with the person who inspires you the most.

    Peter, what’s one piece of advice that you give to your architecture students at Princeton University that you can share with us?

    Peter Pelsinski: Be interested in everything and maintain a voracious level of curiosity. Design that is interesting is about invention (with some convention, of course) and that muscle only develops from being inquisitive.

    Karen, what’s one piece of advice that you would give to a young architect wanting to start her own firm?

    Karen Stonely: Constantly consider where your efforts are placed, not just within your practice, but also in your life overall. Establishing your chosen work-life balance early will guide you at critical times.

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    August Moon by SPAN Architecture | Photography by Rob Karosis

    Design that is interesting is about invention (with some convention, of course) and that muscle only develops from being inquisitive.”

     

    – Peter Pelsinski

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    Westport Pool House by SPAN Architecture | Photography by Adrian Gaut

    You design residential spaces in one of the world’s fastest-growing cities. How have you adapted the way you design to rising populations and spatial restrictions?

    Peter Pelsinski: Space is expensive in NYC (like in many places). We are used to designing small spaces, so we try to be opportunistic and tease out the potential for every design component. We do more with less.

    Karen Stonely: We are as flexible in creating our designs as we are in bringing flexibility to our designs. Even in less challenging environments, we consider how spaces can serve many functions and be experienced from different perspectives.

    What drew you to New York City in the first place? 

    Peter Pelsinski: New York is irresistible for an architect. Inspiration-wise, there is a bit of everything here. The people are also more willing to take risks and try something less conventional, which, as an architect, is a lot of fun.

    With the health of the planet front of mind, how do you view your role as an architect?

    Karen Stonely: We always seek to minimise our carbon footprint through mindful material usage (i.e. up-cycling). Good design should inherently be good for the environment (the two are interchangeable in my eyes).

    Good design should inherently be good for the environment (the two are interchangeable in my eyes).

     

    – Karen Stonely

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    Westport Pool House by SPAN Architecture | Photography by Adrian Gaut

    What exciting projects are you working on at the moment?

    Karen Stonely: In NYC, we’ve just completed the renovation of Andy Warhol’s old studio apartment on the Upper East Side and finished the conversion of the historic Mayor Harper’s House in Gramercy Park. We are also embarking on quite a few exciting residential projects in cities across the US.

    Design Insider’s Guide:

    Favourite local designer?

    Karen Stonely: An impossible question with endless possibilities, especially living in NYC! I would have to say Kyle Clarkson who designed the period rugs for the show The Queen’s Gambit.

    Favourite design stores? 

    Peter Pelsinski: Ralph Pucci International and Carpenters Workshop Gallery

    Favourite galleries or spaces?

    Karen Stonely: Carlo Scarpa’s Castelvecchio Museum in Verona, Italy

    Where do you go to look at great design?

    Peter Pelsinski: We both travel extensively and read voraciously.

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    Karen Stonely and Peter Pelsinski

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