The Necessary Art

Architecture, like all art forms, forms, is largely subjective. Modernism, in particular, often stirs up accusations of uncomfortably cold and clinical forms, while its pundits praise the strength of its clean lines and functionality. For Thomas J. Mojo and Mark D. Stumer, the ambition for modern architecture is both to work with these exacting motifs but also evolve them into something more. Over the past 36 years, their firm Mojo Stumer Associates has developed what they call “warm modernism”—a signature style that softens hard edges with texture, fabrics and curves. It all stems from their theory that architecture’s core function is comfort and livability. “Architecture is, as I always call it, the one necessary art,” Stumer said. “You can’t live without a house. You can’t live without a city. Architecture is a part of everybody’s life.”

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In 1980, the duo founded Mojo Stumer as a way to strike out on their own after working together at a larger firm. Naturally, they were eager to take full authorship of their work, but they underestimated the struggles of starting a business. “Our entire office budget was something like $1,400. That would barely cover the phone system!” Stumer recalled with a laugh. Yet despite the setbacks, it wasn’t long until their fledgling company started making a name for itself.

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Stumer remembers exactly where he was when Mojo told him they won their first award. “I was in an apartment with a client and my partner called me and said we won three American Institute of Architects awards. We were in business a year. There’s nothing better than recognition from your peers.” It is moments like these, more so than individual battles won, that standout in his mind as turning points for the company.

Thirty-six years later, the firm has earned 79 AIA accolades. Part of that praise stems from their unique ability to balance modernism’s sharp forms with something more accessible. “We’ll do a lot of steel and hard-edged materials and then soften it with leather shelves, soften it with a fabric, curve a corner,” Stumer explained. He cites their application of texture upon typically flat surfaces as a crucial way to tie in the natural landscape. “You can do a very contemporary home and have rough textured stone outside and it changes the whole flavor of the hard-edged home.”

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Luxottica Group’s U.S. headquarters in Port Washington. The 30,000-square-foot space includes 40 offices, conference rooms, two open bull pin areas and a cafeteria space with living plant wall. The red accents are carried throughout the building, from furniture to perforated metal panels, even to the exterior.

Among their most recent award winners is the complete renovation, inside and out, of Luxottica Group’s U.S. headquarters in Port Washington. Formerly an industrial warehouse, the building was transformed into a bright, open workspace with skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows. On the outside, the building received a complete facelift. The new façade employs stark lines of metal and glass tempered by the unexpected honeycomb of perforated aluminum. The interiors reflect the luxury eyewear brand’s sleek aesthetic with soaring, two-story spaces of glass and stainless steel, humanized by a floor-to-ceiling plant wall.

image: magda biernat

image: magda biernat

Their approach to interiors is what sets Mojo Stumer apart; the group is among few who tackle interior design as well. Every aspect—from the placement of furniture to the window treatments to even the design of custom décor, lighting or furniture—is considered. “We look at architecture as artwork. And it’s very hard for an artist to paint a picture, and then have someone come in and finish the other side of it,” Stumer explained. “When you plan architecture, you have to plan for the interiors…how do you separate the two?”

Mojo and Stumer see décor as an enhancement of their architecture, not a literal rehashing of it. “We look at furniture as a mix that will improve our architecture. A room might need color, or a room might need warmth. I’ll look to mix materials and textures to make art out of these cabinets and art out of these walls. I add the touches that make it luxurious,” Stumer said.

image: magda biernat

image: magda biernat

And they apply this approach to both their commercial and residential properties. Whereas most architects stay on one side of the fence or the other, Mojo Stumer works in both, believing all design is fundamentally an exercise in problem solving. “It’s a feeling out process, and a good architect becomes a psychiatrist in a sense too. They understand the needs and the wants, the strengths, the weaknesses, the fears of the client,” Stumer said.

What about clients who just can’t buy in to modernism? “We’re experts of blending styles…it’s how the interior works, it’s what you create on the inside. That’s what makes it really creative and fun,” Stumer said. Like a classic shingled house the team worked on in the Hamptons. While the exterior and much of the bones followed the traditional style, the architects updated the look with modern features like linear steel and wood railings, a streamlined metal fireplace and caged, egg-shaped light fixtures.

image: mark stumer

image: mark stumer

Currently, Mojo Stumer Associates is taking to task their first apartment building, the Rose Apartments in Great Neck, where they hope to bring light and warmth through a mix of wood panels and glass to the 40-unit property. In Old Westbury, where some of the region’s oldest and most traditional homes are situated, the firm is building an “ultra-modern” residence that will alter the landscape of the neighborhood with its unconventional forms. And the chaotic intersection of Northern Boulevard and Glen Cove Road will soon look lifeless in the shadow of their luxury retail center—its striking metal cantilevers defiantly jutting out from glass-paneled walls and slabs of limestone.

The future might find the imperativeness of their designs rendered in a museum or a place of worship like a synagogue or church—something that could be “a piece of sculpture in itself.” But for now the partners see every project, large or small, as an opportunity to incorporate their art into every aspect of daily life. “Everybody has this concept of an everlasting legacy, which is nice, but some of the most successful projects are the little difficult ones that nobody sees,” Stumer said. “The little entry to a room you did that 20 people walk by and don’t know why they like it so much. That’s something special.”