Beneath steel-spring skies that only Vermeer could love, Adam Charlap Hyman and Andre Herrero paint the picture of a striking partnership—out of place, but at ease. Herrero, having just flown in from California, is sat before a bowl of tomato soup; Charlap Hyman has a milky coffee. They share a slice of breakfast loaf as we discuss one of their recent collaborations: the design and decoration for PIN-UP Magazine editor-in-chief Felix Burrichter’s Blow Up, an exhibition of upward scaled miniature spaces at the Friedman Benda gallery in New York that explores how our childhood surroundings condition our ideas of the home today. That evening the Nederlandse Reisopera’s staging of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music will debut, with sets of their design. A steady flow of early morning tourists are drifting into the annex that we’ve settled in, in the heart of Amsterdam’s red-light district.
The divergent duo first met as students at the Rhode Island School of Design; Charlap Hyman was enrolled in the furniture design programme while Herrero was in architecture. Although they would not begin their formal collaboration until some years later, their splicing of disciplines and overlapping skill sets has formed a body of work that bestrides buildings and interiors, furniture projects, exhibition scenographies, and stage sets. Elusive in its aesthetic, their projects flirt with the interwoven notion of how space can be used and perceived. It’s a collaboration rooted in interaction, from the bicoastal flow of their partnership—their office is divided between Brooklyn and Hollywood—to a more than usual intimate collaboration with clients. It’s perhaps the space between them, the scale of a room or a textile’s weave, that has nurtured a quietly surreal approach to design. Unlike most of their contemporaries, their practice is not cloistered in its own idea of itself, but receptive to references past and present.
Embedded in all of Charlap Hyman & Herrero’s projects is a nuanced understanding of the role of narrative in shaping, or selling, space. The blurred line between fiction and reality—an aspiration, perhaps, to build worlds in the world—is one that they’re intrigued by and actively explore. Appropriately, perhaps, our conversation begins with a story.
James Taylor-Foster: How did you begin working together?
Adam Charlap Hyman: Andre and I first met in art school. At that time I didn’t know him as an architecture student, but as a photographer.
Andre Herrero: Most people knew me as a photographer. It was more fun at school to be social with that craft. I got to meet a lot of people through photographing their portfolios, to see their work, and collaborate. It also got me out of the architecture department!
ACH: We got to know each other well, though, when Andre photographed my apartment.
How did that come about?
ACH: For my senior thesis in the Furniture Department I invented a narrative for my apartment, inspired by another apartment that was never photographed, in fact, but rather described in a book I had about an editor who’d lost everything, moved to New York and lived in a tiny place at the back of a townhouse. I’d based the design of my apartment on this story. When I wanted to photograph it Andre had the idea to use different types of cameras and build a constructed narrative of the space in film—I later made a book of those images. From the very beginning our interactions have been weird and multi-disciplinary.
Photography is a tool that can bind different disciplines together, but one of the most common mis-readings of the medium is that it represents a truthful picture of the world. To my mind, it collapses reality into fiction.
AH: Totally. It’s an edit. Or a portrait, perhaps.
Using fiction, or narrative fictions, as an instrument of design seems to thread throughout your work. How important are scenographies for exhibitions, or sets for theatre or opera, to your practice?
ACH: We’d like to do them more, for sure. Our set for A Little Night Music at the Dutch Opera in Amsterdam is the third set that we’ve realized, and we have two more that we’re working on now.
How do you approach these projects? As spatial projects—architectural interiors, for instance—or as scaled furniture, perhaps?
AH: I feel that, in a similar way to photography, we’re simply building an image. That’s a fun way to think about space because although photography is basically flat, it always has spatial repercussions.
ACH: When I’m working on an interior for a residential project, I always begin with watercolor renderings. They seem very flat at first, but are in fact a spatial way into the project. I pack in a lot of odd space when I’m making them, but it’s always about scale and proportion and color and material.
Do you have a particular aesthetic code that you work with, or have you come to perceive of an aesthetic to your practice?
ACH: The aesthetic is always very particular to the project we’re working on. I wouldn’t say that we’ve ever set out to build an aesthetic. We try to make spaces that are really full to the brim—complicated, rich spaces that can be accessed from many different vantage points. We’ve never tried to make something that’s just one thing to everyone. It’s always a lot of things to a lot of people. I think that’s what we like the most—the things that we come back to again and again—are all extremely personal, complex projects and spaces that evolve over time; very related to the people that have lived in them, or built them, or whatever it is. It’s perhaps just about coming from a place of sincerity and openness.
You’ve both worked in or adjacent to the sphere of fashion, an industry that’s in the process of challenging its own culture and increasingly finding intersections with architecture and design.
ACH: I think that right now there is a particular fervor for performance and architectural space, and that relates to fashion. Artists are collaborating with fashion designers a lot. Many fashion shows in New York today are like gallery shows—installations with artists—and these collaborations are not resulting in paintings hung on walls. There seems to be an energy around finding intersections between fields.
AH: It’s also a really easy way to create something new — to place two seemingly unrelated things together, and to see what happens. I think that Adam and I do that all the time—taking this thing from that time period, with this story, and just throwing it onto that thing, from this other time period, with this other story.
AH: Building narratives.
ACH: And then finding the jokes and the connections, and the cool things that sit between them. It’s what makes it fun for us and hopefully also for those that experience our work.
Do you often become friends with your clients?
AH: I would say we do.
ACH: A lot more than other architects, maybe. We definitely get to know people. I think that’s certainly similar to other offices, but one of the first ways that we get to know someone is by having several meetings with a lot material that has been organized into a sort of rhythm. We walk our clients through these materials and listen to their responses to find out what they’re reacting to positively or otherwise, or what makes them pause, for instance. By the end of that process, which is two or three meetings in, we’ve built a shared language of things that have really excited all of us, or broken our hearts – and a lot of conversation stems from that.
AH: You can watch the gears turning in their heads, and it’s very fun. I think that out of that comes a very personal connection because you wind up with all sorts of things that you both love, and that you can talk about.
What sorts of spaces or places, or objects and people, do you continually return to?
ACH: Dante Ferretti’s sets for the 1975 movie Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. It’s really important to me as a reference in terms of interiors. It’s not so much about the building; the whole thing is quite amazing to me — the murals are always present when I’m working, for instance, and especially when we’re working on painting projects. I’m fascinated by the interiors of Balthus’s paintings, too.
AH: I’m always returning to the photographs of Lewis Baltz. There’s an incredible flatness to his work. But also the work of the Czech scenographer Josef Svoboda, and the Désert de Retz in Chambourcy.
How do you maintain this sort of intensity between yourselves, especially since your usually on separate coasts?
ACH: We’re back and forth quite often…
AH: …and we’re on the phone a lot of the time!
ACH: We’re constantly on the phone and always communicating in a million different ways for every project…
AH: …but mostly when it comes to concept and design.
ACH: In all of our conceptual work, I do think that photography—to go back to what we were discussing before—is a really important part of our practice. In a larger sense, the idea of artifice, or the suspension of disbelief, is a big part of every project that we do. We’re always so excited by tricks of the eye, and I think that it’s rolled into everything — from decisions about materials to larger ideas about what a whole room could look like, and how space can be understood.