Designer Friday: An Aspire Exclusive Interview With Stephen Chrisman

A partner at Ferguson and Shamamian for over 25 years, Stephen Chrisman’s work with the firm has received countless recognitions, including three Stanford White Awards, Palladio Prizes, and a Mizner Award. Now, his work is featured in the firm’s new book Collaborations: Architecture, Interiors, and Landscapes. But Chrisman’s passion for architecture – a passion that began in his earliest days, as the son of an architect – extends even beyond his position at the firm. Chrisman teaches and serves on the Education Committee at the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, handing down his knowledge and inspiration to generations. Ultimately, Chrisman’s approach to architecture weds tradition and nature, and his influence attests to the significance of classicism and intergenerational design. Introducing this week’s Designer Friday, Stephen Chrisman.

With wooden rafters and a paneled ceiling with skylights, Chrisman’s design with Ferguson and Shamamian lends a modern approach to a traditional rural dining area.

With wooden rafters and a paneled ceiling with skylights, Chrisman’s design with Ferguson and Shamamian lends a modern approach to a traditional rural dining area.

Andrew Joseph: Describe your design style as if you were explaining it someone who cannot see.
Stephen Chrisman: I believe in a traditional approach to design which is based on the accumulation of buildings, knowledge, and design over several millennium. This accumulation creates beautiful towns and countryside that are meaningful for generations. Good architecture begins with ideas of what is beautiful in that particular place and created over time. This vision needs to be intertwined with the ideas, vision, and desires of the client, as it is their house we are designing – not the architects’. Also layered into this is the collaboration between the Architect, Interior Designer, and Landscape Architect. The ultimate goal is that the overall design ideas are woven between all three into a seamless whole.

Andrew: What is something you hope to see trending in design the future?
Stephen: I hope to continue to see serious and principled traditional design at every scale. The desire for an objective beauty should always be trending. I would also hope to see comprehensive development and common-sense thinking towards sustainability in design, based on the selection of materials, and better and more thoughtful use of energy and resources.

Chrisman and his team err on the classical side in this column-lined patio featured in the firm’s new book.

Chrisman and his team err on the classical side in this column-lined patio featured in the firm’s new book.

Andrew: What was your first job?
Stephen: I cleaned up the butcher shop of a local grocery store when I was in junior high school. I actually liked this job (except during hunting season) as it had flexible hours that allowed me to play sports after school. I learned how to put all the knives in the exact same position in the bottom of the deep, soapy sink every single time, and I find I unconsciously continue to do this today when I wash the dishes. At the same time, I had a weekend lawn mowing job in the neighborhood, and the older women would bring out lemonade and talk about their gardens. It seemed corny at the time, but I liked hearing about how they described their years of work and big ideas behind their gardens.

Andrew: What would your dream project or dream client be right now?
Stephen: The typical response for this would be a famous client with an unlimited budget on some unbelievable plot of land like a private island or huge mountaintop expanse. But my dream client would be one who wanted to build a reasonable country house that was deeply focused more on long-term sustainability, rigorously utilizing traditional construction methods, including load-bearing masonry, extensive use of local materials, and connected to a modest size working authentic kitchen garden.

For bright mornings, Chrisman lets light flow into this room through large windows accentuated with dark wood.

For bright mornings, Chrisman lets light flow into this room through large windows accentuated with dark wood.

Andrew: What are three things you can’t live without?
Stephen: Like Thomas Jefferson, I would say I can’t live without books, especially architectural books, and particularly those with beautiful photographs and measured drawings of historic details. I hate to admit it, but I probably can’t live without my iPhone. As I have been working remotely for the past 16 months, I couldn’t live without my wife’s great cooking, as I have had the luxury of being home for dinner almost every night and eating a wonderful meal on our porch or garden terrace.

Andrew: What’s inspiring you in life (in the industry) right now?
Stephen: Right now, I have been inspired by students and young architects, particularly our group of summer interns, who have been impressive, passionate, highly-skilled, asking challenging questions, and working extremely hard during these difficult times. To see architectural students with such ambitions, trying to learn about professional practice, yet driven to such high standards of traditional design, is awe-inspiring.


About The Designer | The son of an architect, Stephen spent much of his Oregon childhood drawing and visiting construction sites and historic buildings. He received his Bachelor of Architecture from the Oregon School of Design, and after graduation, accepted a scholarship to study traditional and civic buildings as part of the Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture Summer School. ​H​e received his Master of Architecture from the University of Notre Dame and joined Ferguson & Shamamian in 1995. Since then, Stephen has led the teams for three of the firm’s Stanford White Awards, three Palladio Prizes, and a Mizner Award, among other recognitions. Stephen is a long-standing Fellow and Instructor of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, where he regularly teaches and lectures about classical architecture, the study of design precedent, and measured and analytical drawing. He also serves on the Institute’s national Education Committee. His work is featured in Ferguson & Shamamian Architects’ new book Collaborations: Architecture, Interiors, and Landscapes, published by Rizzoli in October 2021. Stephen and his wife live in Maplewood, New Jersey, where they raised their two sons, one studying philosophy and one following in the family footsteps as an architect.


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