Braid rug featured at the top of a stair well seating area designed by General Assembly

The Tailored Home with General Assembly

Founded in 2011, Brooklyn-based design studio General Assembly take an intimate and intuitive approach to the homes they work on – from tailoring each space to the life stories of the inhabitants, to working with craftspeople on precisely custom pieces. Below, founder Sarah Zames and her business partner Colin Stief reflect on a decade in the design world.

Loft area in background of serene kitchen by General Assembly
Serene Bedroom designed by General Assembly
Water Mill photographed by Joe Fletcher.

This year marks General Assembly’s 10-year anniversary – congratulations! Looking back, can you see a common thread between the projects you have worked on over that decade?

Thank you! It’s funny, when we are in the middle of the project, I’m always so focused on what makes the project unique and how it feels so particular to the space and person we are designing for, that I don’t really pay attention to how it fits into our aesthetic. But then, every time we finish a project, and I step back and look at it, I see the language of our style coming through. I think we learn something new from every project, and so you can see those decisions building off one another over time. Over the past ten years, I like to think that our projects have become more refined by this process.

Sunny bedroom with chairs and table on rug in room styled by General Assembly
Water Mill photographed by Joe Fletcher.

Give us a little insight into your design process, from the initial brainstorming to the final installation.

The client and their space are at the base of every project. These two criteria bring their own history, memories, and needs that provide us with the framework. We recognize the intimacy of designing a home for someone. We enjoy the craft of the project, paying attention to the details and respecting the materials that we use.

The design process in often a little circular – you are continuously projecting forward with added details and decisions, but you often loop back and revisit earlier decisions as the project defines itself. We try to stay open to that and love to work with clients who are in some sort of creative industry because they are understanding of that process.

Once we are in construction, our job is to make sure that things don’t steer away from our original design goals. We are heavily involved on site and I think it’s crucial to be there as much as possible.

Braid rug in Pumice featured in a library room with guitars on wall
Custom round Agra rug featured in room styled by General Assembly
Boerum Hill photographed by Matthew Williams.

Your homes feel so tailored to their inhabitants – for instance, with the Boerum Hill project, you configured the layout around a beautiful music room. Does that happen organically, or are you quite intentional in navigating a client’s must-haves?

We like to design spaces that are particular to the people who inhabit them. I think the design of the home takes shape organically through conversations with the clients about their specific needs and interests. In the Boerum Hill project, the music room came about because we saw how music was clearly a part of their lives and we thought that organizing it into one clean space would be a great way to create an additional family space.

Agra rug in well lit living room with tan couch styled by General Assembly
Boerum Hill photographed by Matthew Williams.

Having worked on projects from New York City to the Hamptons to London, how do the neighborhoods and natural surroundings influence you?

Both the actual building that we are designing within, and the surroundings of that building, have a large influence on how we design. It always starts with light and finding ways to make the best use of natural light and views through spaces. When we are designing in the city, we often use certain materials and lighting to try and bring light into deeper parts of the interior. When we are designing in a more open space, like the Hamptons, we like to find ways to physically connect the inside and outside as much as possible.

Exterior shot of dark wood shed with tall green trees in background
An indoor and outdoor space with slatted roofing letting in lots of natural light
Shelter Island photographed by Joe Fletcher.

Recent studies show that our interior spaces have a very real impact on our wellbeing. Is that something you’re cognizant of when you’re designing?

I do not think we are intentionally designing with this in mind, but I like to think that our design approach has a positive impact on who is living there. Our use of natural materials, which can carry with them a bit of history or hint at the process that went into making them, or the decision to expose a building’s structure to understand how it works, are all ways of connecting someone to their environment and hopefully have a positive impact on their lives.

Are there any natural
 materials that you find yourself continually drawn to?

We love to use materials that will naturally age over time. We love natural stones, handmade tiles, unlacquered brass and plaster, to name a few.

Yes, we like to think that our projects are continuing to evolve as they are used and try to embrace the imperfections of some materials.

Exterior image of home with pool and chairs by General Assembly
Shelter Island photographed by Joe Fletcher.

As advocates for the beauty of customization – whether it is a rug, lighting or a piece of furniture – can you explain the appeal as a designer and for the end user?

Our ultimate goal with any project is to create a cohesive and whole space that best suits the client and its setting. Customization allows you to fine tune that whole space and make sure that pieces are working together and are as functional as possible.

We’re honored to have some of our rugs featured in your projects. Do you have any tips for choosing a rug for a space?

We start thinking about furniture and rugs early on in the design process. We like to have an idea of what kind of rug we want in a space while we are developing the overall project palette. So, I think just planning early, and thinking of the rug as part of the whole space rather than additional decoration, is key.

I agree, a rug can be a great way to connect or separate spaces or draw attention to a certain area. I would say to just think about your goals and what you are trying to achieve with the addition of a rug or any piece of furniture.

Malawi Rug in Oatmeal in room with fireplace and sitting area
Callicoon Stone House photographed by Matthew Williams.

You’ve worked on some incredible historic homes, from the 1780s Callicoon Stone House to the brutalist apartment building at 59th Street. What considerations do you think should be front of mind to ensure that a home will endure and evolve over time?

Like Sarah said, we draw a lot of our inspiration from how the homeowners who will be using the space, and the space itself. When you approach a project with these two factors as the main inspiration, the space does not belong to a certain time and more to the people and the building. In our Callicoon project, for example, the bulk of material and color selections were made based on our decision to expose the stone walls. I think being sensitive to what is existing can make designing a space easier in some ways and leaves less to chance or a particular person’s taste.

Dining table with white tablecloth and tree in corner of well lit room styled by General Assembly
Callicoon Stone House photographed by Matthew Williams.

Where are you turning to for inspiration these days?

I’ve been revisiting some of my California experience, and digging back into Charles Moore and The Sea Ranch while we work through a new beach house design in Amagansett.

What excites you about the future of design?

I love that people have reconnected with their homes over the past year. I’m excited to continue that conversation.

For sure, I am also happy to see the preservation and re-use of existing architecture in the US is becoming more common

Finally, we can’t help but ask – what is your favorite Armadillo rug to have underfoot?

I just bought the Sahara and the Egyptian rugs for my house and I couldn’t love them more. I especially love how thick the Sahara rug is!

I really enjoy the Agra, the color selections are so good!

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