How Architect John Murray Creates His Timeless Aesthetic
“There’s nothing more beautiful than great art and great architecture coming together,” says New York architect John B. Murray, sitting in his West 37th Street office. In the 21 years since Murray founded his namesake firm, he has become an expert in both, having won numerous awards for conceiving art-filled spaces grounded with a timeless sensibility. For his new monograph, Contemporary Classical Architecture (The Monacelli Press; $65), the architect is putting 15 of these projects on display—from a duplex with breathtaking views of Central Park to the president’s house at a major New England university.
“What we wanted with the new book was to show an evolving sensibility, which we call contemporary classical architecture,” he explains. It’s a design approach that’s more pared back than the homes featured in his first book, Classical Invention, which was released five years ago. The aesthetic here is fresher and more minimal, but it nonetheless recalls time-honored principles in a way that Murray says is “still buttoned up.”
In terms of historical precedents, Murray looks to the architects of the 1920s, including John Russell Pope, Charles Platt, and William Lawrence Bottomley. “I’m also inspired by Thomas Jefferson,” he says, recounting “numerous” trips to Monticello with his wife, Elizabeth, who works as the firm’s managing director. “What also inspires me—and I think everyone at the office—is coming up with the design and realizing something unexpected, where the client didn’t envision the solution that ultimately transforms their lives.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s hard for him to pick a favorite. (“They’re kind of like your children or something,” he jokes.) But one project is clearly close to his heart. “The barn is a personal labor of love,” he says, referencing the 1780s Greek Revival building that now graces his compound in Kinderhook, New York.
He purchased the wooden structure—originally built in Locktown, New Jersey—in 2009, but the project didn’t get off the ground until after he met his wife in 2011. “She inspired me to move ahead with that project when it was basically a pile of timber sitting in a trailer,” he recalls. “We held a barn dance in August 2015, and it was this self-imposed deadline that helped everyone feel excited that we were really moving toward something.”
Another highlight is the chic Manhattan pied-à-terre designed with Brian McCarthy that graces the book’s cover. “Brian and I worked together at Parish-Hadley,” says Murray, ”so this was serendipity for me personally because we were colleagues many years ago.”
For the project, Murray restored the Park Avenue residence’s originally domed rotunda, which had been made square in a prior renovation. “It was kind of a complicated construction process for us to build,” he says, “but it was a really delightful project.”
Another former Parish-Hadley colleague whose work is featured in the book is Bunny Williams, who also penned the forward. “Bunny is very connected to me,” says Murray. “I think the world of her, and she has been an influence in my life. We go back a long way, so it was an honor for me to have her agree to write this forward, which was sweet in so many ways.”
In addition to Williams and McCarthy, another former Parish-Hadley colleague featured in the book is David Kleinberg. The interior designer worked with Murray to create a refined Upper East Side apartment that showcases works by John Chamberlain, Richard Diebenkorn, David Hockney, Vik Muniz, and Cy Twombly.
The final chapter chronicles the major renovation of the president’s house at a storied New England university. “Their art collection is world-renowned,” says Murray. “It was my job to bring in an interior designer to support our work, and I selected Thomas Jayne, who did a terrific job. He worked with the curators of the galleries to put together the art. It’s a rotating collection, and it will change in time, as they have so much to pick from.”
As for whether there’s anything he’d like to tackle next, Murray jokes about “a skyscraper,” before adding he’s open to “almost anything—we love challenges.”