Before he turned 6 years old, architect Jeff Dreyfus had his career mapped out.
“I played all day with a suitcase full of Legos and drew house plans,” says the co-founder of Bushman Dreyfus Architects. “That was it. I never thought of doing anything else.” But, as he tells it, the town in southern Louisiana where he grew up was not necessarily “an architect’s paradise.” It was traveling the world that helped expand his view and hone his design sense.
But what drives him now? “Trying to make spaces that people love inhabiting,” he says. Sometimes, it really is as simple as that.
We asked Dreyfus to tell us about his college experience, why he came to Virginia and what’s in his studio now.—Caite White
First, I wanted to be a dog catcher. That waned at about age 5. After that, I wanted to be an architect. I was fortunate to find my passion early on. But “why architecture?” I’m fascinated with the process of taking a construct of the mind and making it a three-dimensional reality. It’s not easy, and it requires an artistic vision, precision, clear communication and an awful lot of people skills. I believe it’s that combination that intrigues me.
Why did you choose to practice in Virginia?
I came to Charlottesville for graduate school and was offered a job at a local firm upon graduating. I worked there for three years and then decided that I was ready to live in a large city, so I moved to Boston. I had a great time there, but I realized how much I missed the kind of life I had here, so I moved back after just one year. Charlottesville reminds me of the small city that I grew up in—Lafayette, Louisiana—where you recognize people on the street, even if you don’t know them. Where you can make a contribution to civic organizations even if you don’t have lots of money to donate. And where you can live a nice life at a reasonable pace. So I guess I chose Charlottesville more so than Virginia.
What was your childhood like, and how did it lead you to design?
South Louisiana wasn’t what I would consider an architect’s paradise. I was fortunate enough to travel and see some of the world, and I was always fascinated with building design—good, clear, beautiful building designs intrigued me and resonated with me, wherever we went. I was a studious kid, and my parents were fully supportive of anything my three siblings and I wanted to do; they never once suggested I consider pursuing anything other than architecture. My career path was clear early on—by my own doing—and my family was supportive every step of the way.
Tell us about your college experience. Was there a standout teacher who had a lasting impact on you?
I earned an undergraduate degree at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Professor Leslie Laskey taught the second year intensive design studio. We met three consecutive days a week, four hours every day. The focus was not on architectural design, but on design in general. His assignments were insane: Come back tomorrow with 15 different posters, each of them non-directional, some color, some black and white and each of them advertising one specific meeting at the student union. It forced me to explore a variety of ideas quickly, worrying less about the final product and thinking more about the process and the content. That lesson—and others that he taught us—have helped me every day as an architect.
On process: How does it begin?
It starts with listening to our clients, followed by analysis of the site, whether that’s an existing structure, an open piece of land or an historic structure that must be rehabilitated. Then it’s a series of iterations that explore ways to meld what the client wants with what the site (or structure) suggests. When those two agendas come together clearly and without forcing a fit, you know you’re probably on the right track.
What inspires you?
The people I work with, from our clients to our employees, because they’ve offered me their trust. And every tool we have to work with! Space, light, texture, color, form and views are very real opportunities that we work hard to manipulate into something with beauty and meaning. Trying to make spaces that people love inhabiting is what drives me. When the design feels exactly right—as though it was always supposed to be that—I feel as though we’ve made something with meaning and value for our clients and—hopefully—for the community in which it’s built.
What are you working on now?
We have a house under construction in Florida, on the ocean. We’ve been working with a wonderful couple there for two years, and it should be finished in another year or so. The contractor is one of the very best I’ve ever worked with and he’s made the construction process a very fun, collaborative venture.
We’re designing a new, mixed-use building for the three parcels on West Main Street just west of the ABC store. The project includes the Blue Moon Diner and another contributing structure, so it comes with a variety of opportunities and challenges. We’re excited to have the chance to help shape the near future of West Main Street! Fresh out of graduate school, I lived two doors down in the yellow building next to the church—so I’ve been thinking about the possibilities for West Main Street—and these parcels—for a very, very long time.
There’s a new house in Free Union that we’re designing for a young family that has moved back to their home state of Virginia after having lived in New York City for many, many years. The site is over 30 acres with great views. They’re as excited about the landscape opportunities as they are about figuring out how they want to live in a home that’s larger than a New York apartment. She’s an architectural historian, so I have to say I was a bit intimidated when we started the design process, but I’ve gotten over that. They’re just wonderful to work with.
And we’re helping the owners of an historic farm just west of town figure out how to turn their beautiful but quirky farmhouse into a home that meets the needs of a 21st-century family. It’s a beautiful structure, and the challenge is to honor the original structure without overwhelming its scale or its simple beauty.
Among Jeff Dreyfus’ projects are (clockwise from left) the restoration of Cobb Island Station on the Eastern Shore, an update to a 1935 international-style house, the Roslyn Conference and Retreat Center in Richmond and Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyard. On the previous page, a modern home in East Aurora, New York, features a floor-to-ceiling glass façade overlooking a lake.