At the age of just 30 Karen Asprea heads the highly regarded New York design studio Whitehall interiors. A woman with a clear vision.
How does an architect begin a project? New York interior designer Karen Asprea has her own distinctive approach. “We first write up the story behind the building that we want to design,” she explains. “We write up a profile of the people who we believe will live or work there.” This has been Karen’s philosophy since she was given charge of the interior design section at Goldstein, Hill & West Architects in 2009. The department flourished on her watch and since 2014 has been independent under the name Whitehall Interiors NYC. “At a business level it made more sense to keep the two parts separate,” she says. “You give each department its own identity and as designer I also have the opportunity to embark on projects with other architects. In this way I can diversify my portfolio and continue to learn. This business is constantly evolving, and it’s important to watch how other people are working.”
This does not detract from the fact that Karen firmly believes that people must be at the centre of a design project, and by extension the neighbourhood where the building is being erected. A recent project clearly illustrates what she means - an apartment block on 104th Street & Park Avenue, a neighbourhood that is technically in East Harlem. The neighbourhood gained a certain notoriety in the past, but large-scale gentrification is now taking place. “The building that we have taken in is one of the first of its kind,” Karen relates. “So it will define the entire neighbourhood, and that imposes enormous responsibility on us. We regard it as extremely important that we adapt to the surroundings, because this is the only way to remain relevant over the long term. This method of working inspires us and helps us to offer added value to the area. Whatever you create has to be attractive to the neighbourhood, to the people who already live there and to the people who are going to live there.”
“We first write up the story behind the building that we want to design.”Karen Asprea
Harlem’s special ambience led Karen to the idea of working with rough materials. A combination of exposed concrete, rough walnut and COR-TEN steel reflects the ‘grit’ of the surroundings, although in a refined and elegant way. Wood is in any case close to Karen’s heart. “I cannot imagine designing anything without wood,” she acknowledges. “If you want to create a space where people feel at home, you have to make sure that it radiates warmth, and no single material achieves this feeling as well as wood. The varieties and possibilities are endless. I always say to contractors that they should put their money in the floor, in the shape of a beautiful wooden floor. That is something that people pass over every day. That is the connection between man and nature.”
Quality control is also essential. As the daughter of a building constructor, Karen well understands all aspects of the construction sector, and the drive for detailed understanding takes her to the way in which she selects materials. If she has to fly to Tuscany to inspect a marble quarry, she does so. “Designers are in general insufficiently aware of what goes on behind the scenes,” she says. “I have always found it enriching and enlightening to see how suppliers work. Then you grasp the qualities of the product much better and what the possibilities are.”