A look at the dynamic work-life relationship between the co-founders of Messana O'Rorke architecture and interior design firm.
Work, life, work—life, work.
This is how Brian Messana vocalized the pair’s ever-evolving synergy as the two calm, cool and collected men slipped perfectly into the hip Marlton Hotel sofa.
Brian Messana and Toby O’Rorke have been partners since college — from boyfriends, to collaborators, to co-founders of acclaimed architecture firm Messana O’Rorke (MO’R).
They each come from very different backgrounds but nonetheless align in their design aesthetic. Brian grew up climbing all over construction sites. Toby, however, didn’t realize his ardor for architecture until experimenting in art school with mediums ranging from ceramics to fashion. He gravitated toward building because of the possibilities and functionality. “It seemed like you could design anything,” Toby recalls.
And he proved himself right.
Individually, Brian and Toby tangled and tossed in affairs with styles such as “awful postmodernism” — but as a pair, they have always been drawn to simplicity.
The two gentlemen founded MO’R in New York City in 1996. Their practice lives at the “nexus of architecture, contemporary culture and current technology” constantly evolving and pushing to, “enhance the quality of life at all levels of exposure.”
“We’re not bull shitters,” Toby says. “We don’t embellish our lives and we don’t embellish our work.”
Brian compares their partnership to the game of poker, explaining that they are constantly challenging each other, upping the ante of their product.
This challenge all begins with trust from the clients. “It’s not just liking it; it’s people trusting us,” Brian claims. Elaborating on the timbre of their client relationships, he explains: “For us it’s more about transformation than renovation. People come to us because they want a transformation.” It’s like a life-cleanse: a shift to the minimal.
They shared how their clients are typically surprised at how they have to step up to the quality of living that their new home suggests.
“They get in there and say, ‘This is for me?’” Toby says. Specifically bankers and other professionals who are far from the design world, are astounded by the detail of it all. Brian describes this as the client’s ‘aha!’ moment, realizing that in order to fully appreciate the space, they need to edit their furniture and get organized. Toby mentioned that sometimes you have to let go of the art on the wall to enjoy the wall; sometimes your things just don’t have a place anymore and perhaps you say “goodbye” to the family portrait you never really loved. You now have the facility of a design space that allows you to live a much more uncluttered life.
Brian responds to his clients’ ‘aha moment’ with an internal “Congrats. You’ve graduated. You get it.”
When asked about the way in which fashion, the news, and technology influence MO’R’s work, Toby keenly explains their philosophy. “Indirectly it all comes into play,” he says. “Though I think architecture is much more permanent than that. And so it occupies a realm that’s much more intrinsically pure. We’re not looking for the next trend or the next light fixture — or the next, you know, kitchen finished piece of tile.”
“Our investigations are always a constant cycle of process.” For example, something they designed fifteen years ago, they might revisit in 2014, and re-interpret.
“We don’t think about these spaces as interiors, as in sequencing rooms. It’s much more about sequencing life, sequencing how you occupy a space.”
Intrinsically pure. This might be why they are asked to design breathtaking vacation homes like Phoenix House, Box House and Vieques (all pictured). The purity of the lines, material and light comprise a truly transformative quality for these secondary homes in Phoenix, AZ, Shelter Island, NY, and Vieques Island, Puerto Rico, respectively. These clients came to Brian and Toby looking for a place to disconnect, to “calm.”
“It’s all about the fresh air, a getaway … being outdoors,” Toby says.
At Vieques private home, they were inspired by the history and culture around them. Three-fourths of the island used to be an army base and all the bunkers were made of concrete, so they decided to use concrete as their main material for a contemporary home. A mote and high walls were designed for protection and privacy. “Like a castle,” Toby adds.
“All of our work is about public privacy,” Brian says.
They talked about Box House as a magnet or C-shape, with the wall facing the road, and toward the ocean: all glass. The home sits on a two-acre lot on Shelter Island next to neighbors and civilization, but is visually blocked by luscious greenery. “This couple is quite insular so it was perfect for them,” Toby notes.
The conversation kept circling back to a few concepts — what seems to ground them in their work: simplicity, longevity, and a sensitivity to human experience.
“If you look at large-scale projects, they have some sort of lasting element — longevity,” says Brian. “Or else they’re just paper architecture; notwithstanding.”
“I love architecture,” Brian concludes. “I love how the architecture as an object and architecture as space, just, makes people feel. And what it can do to people’s lives — how it impacts them. “
And what else can we ask for? This is what it’s all about — feeling.