Pro-File Design: Robbins Architecture

Warm is seldom the first word that comes to mind when describing modern architecture, but Winnetka, Illinois–based Robbins Architecture has proven the pairing successful project after project. The firm’s designs slip modernist homes into nature in a way that blurs building and landscape, while its layouts create outdoor moments that seamlessly transition into inviting indoor spaces.

Architecture was always in the cards for principal Celeste Robbins, AIA. Growing up in Ohio, she was fascinated not by the clichéd Legos, but by space-making with endless blanket forts and outdoor refuges tucked among trees. An entrepreneurial spirit accompanied her talent in physics and art; she frequently canvassed her neighborhood selling “literally anything I could get my hands on,” she says.

Celeste entered The Ohio State University to study engineering, but while touring the office of an architect who worked with her father, a civil engineer-turned-facility planner at Goodyear, she caught sight of architectural models and drawings and changed course. 

She transferred to Cornell University, where her family hoped its robust architecture program would strengthen her job prospects; her mother worked three jobs to help pay tuition. The bet paid off. Upon graduation, Celeste moved to Boston and worked largely in higher education design for Michael Dennis, Jeffrey Clark & Associates, Shepley Bulfinch, and Perkins&Will.

After several years, the Midwest beckoned her back. She relocated to Perkins&Will’s Chicago office, where she worked until her first child was born. Around that time, she found a kindred spirit in Berta Shapiro, who was launching a new career in interior design. As Celeste helped Berta with drawings, Berta became her unofficial mentor in residential design. “We pulled the best from each other out,” Celeste says. “My takeaway was an understanding about how a home lives. When you walk into a room, where do you want to sit? What do you want to see? How do you have a good conversation? These things are about life and not something you learn at Cornell.”

With her formal training in architecture and her informal training in creating warm, livable spaces, Celeste opened her own practice at 30. Finding work was no problem—Berta’s  glowing recommendations led Celeste to many choice commissions, including a condo renovation for actor John Cusack and a gut renovation of a house in Winnetka, on Chicago’s North Shore. Clients would recommend Celeste to their friends and become repeat clients themselves.

For nearly a decade, Celeste handled everything on her own, from client meetings to construction administration to billing. Her typical work hours fell between 8 p.m. and 1 a.m., while her young children slept. But architecture was her essence—her “lung,” she calls it. “I loved every minute of all of it.”

Celeste’s efforts in the Winnetka renovation led to her first ground-up commission for the same client, this time in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Berta designed the home’s interiors. “They didn’t interview anyone else,” Celeste says.

Understanding that this site was one the family intentionally chose as their destination, their retreat, Celeste focused on designing a home for relaxation and enjoyment of life. The ranch-inspired structure blends modernism with the rugged forms of the region’s dude ranches and the adjacent mountains of Grand Teton National Park. Completed in 2006, Home on the Ranch was published in Architectural Digest, giving national exposure to Celeste and her design aesthetic. The project, which also led to her first staff hires, demonstrated that Robbins Architecture could design homes anywhere. Today, the firm has completed projects across the country, including in Idaho, Colorado, Michigan, and New York.

Prospective clients often approach Robbins Architecture after seeing its portfolio of modern homes interwoven in breathtaking composition with nature. But Celeste doesn’t believe they are seeking a particular architecture style or formal design statement. Instead, she says, they want a home they can enter, “have their shoulders drop, and feel like they’re where they can recharge.”

This is perhaps what distinguishes Celeste’s approach to modernism. Yes, her houses sit typically low to the ground and embrace daylighting, open floor plans, clean lines, and expansive glazing that merges indoor and outdoor spaces. But she also adapts each design to the site and ultimately to what the owner wants without concern about maintaining any formalism.

Unlike one of her own influences, Frank Lloyd Wright, who was notorious for commanding design control even post-occupancy, Celeste welcomes client input. The results balance her design principles with the client’s lifestyle. “That’s where the warmth and richness comes in—that real honesty to how people live,” she says. “The home is not forcing them into something.”

Confident of her core design values—continuous connection to the site, organic movement through a space, a layout that “unfolds” for its residents, and homage to artistry and craft—she is unfazed when her clients present a late-game challenge. “If the client says, ‘Oh, I actually want this over here,’” she explains, “it’s not going to unravel this whole setup that you’ve done.”

Such a change occurred at a house on Chicago’s North Shore for client Robyn Tavel and her family. While standing on-site with Celeste at the location of her future office, Robyn admired a nearby bridge and ravine and said, “‘Celeste, you told me how much you loved the bridge that you can see from your house and how it’s lit at night,’” she recalls. “‘Now we’re looking at the bridge by my house. Instead of the wall here, why wouldn’t we make this a window?’ And Celeste said, ‘Absolutely. Let’s do that.’”

Robyn now savors the time at her floating desk, gazing out through her floor-to-ceiling window wall. “When you walk into the office,” she says, “it seems like the exterior is inside.”

Celeste feels a particular sense of pride whenever she hears a client proclaim, “This was my idea!” “It probably was their idea,” she affirms, “and I used it, and the project is even richer for it.” 

Perhaps the greatest validation of Robbins Architecture’s work is its success long after the housewarmings end. Nearly eight years after moving in, Tavel continues to relish the experience of coming home. “In one word,” she says, “I feel happiness.” 

Celeste knows this firsthand, having designed her own home in 2010 on Chicago’s North Shore. The project exemplifies Midcentury Modern—asymmetry, extensive use of glass and wood, clean lines, and rectilinear volumes—while mixing in a few idiosyncrasies, like a ledge on the staircase that Celeste admits “makes no sense,” but adds a soulful element that assures you not everything is perfectly formulated.

At the time, her neighborhood was full of more traditional-style architecture, so when she opened her home as part of a school-fundraising tour, curious onlookers who had watched its construction lined up. To Celeste’s delight, the air was soon filled with “I didn’t know I would like modern,” “It’s so warm,” and “I could live here.”

Her house became a calling card for attracting clients, including Tavel. And Celeste realized that her work as an architect stood out to people. “I never let go of that,” she says. “I made sure everything would have that warmth, and I would never rely on something just because I did it before.”

Furthermore, her home was the start of a longtime collaboration with builder Jake Goldberg, president of Chicago-based Goldberg General Contracting, Inc., which has worked on four homes with Robbins Architecture. “Working together is great because Celeste often asks us to get involved very early on in the projects,” Jake says. Whenever the owner, architect, and contractor “can rely on each other for opinions and advice, they have a vested interest [in the project] because they’re going to be working together.”

Along with regular check-ins with the contractor for insights on pricing, buildability, and potential leads, Celeste engages other collaborators early in the design process. From the first sketch of the project, her team is already envisioning how a project might relate best to its natural surrounds. By the time the landscape architect enters the picture, the team has already started a dialogue on how a project interior and exterior might interweave, providing ideas for the landscape architect to take to the next level. “Whatever they do always makes it better,” Celeste says. “Nature is timeless. You’re never going to regret a house you designed in the ’90s if nature remains the focal point.”

The firm also specifies materials that are contextual to their environment. Natural stone makes appearances in the form of paneling, surfaces, seating, flooring, and stair treads. The project in Jackson Hole uses stained cedar, while a cottage on Lake Michigan uses cedar shakes. At a spacious summer retreat north of Chicago, vertical recesses hand chiseled into the fossil-imprinted limestone cladding imbue a human scale. For a home in Aspen, Colorado, nestled in the Rocky Mountains, the firm used board-formed concrete to withstand the harsh climate. “We wanted the texture of wood, and the color is beautiful with the mountains,” Celeste says.

Not surprisingly for a firm in Greater Chicago, the influence of Prairie-style architecture can also be seen, through such elements as long lines and deep overhangs that help shield building materials and the interior from precipitation and harsh summer sun. “It’s practical, smart, and also beautiful,” Jake says.

Perhaps from her early days of selling wares to her neighbors, Celeste has always felt comfortable engaging with clients. But as her firm grew to 10 employees plus outside consultants working across multiple projects, she had to learn how to manage a business—something historically not taught in architecture schools. Celeste often spends her free time reading business and motivational books. “I take it as an honor that people choose to come to work in this office,” she says. “I want them to feel that they are challenged and that they enjoy what they do.”

An active member of the design community, Celeste participates in AIA Chicago’s Custom Residential Architects Network, which she co-chaired for three years; the Chicago-Midwest Institute of Classical Architecture & Art; and the Design Leadership Network (DLN), which hosts national events for firm leaders and executives in architecture, interior design, and landscape architecture, as well as more intimate gatherings among peer groups.

From these meetings, Celeste became inspired and motivated to publish a monograph of her firm’s work. “I’m proud of our projects and I wanted them to be more available to be seen,” she says. A DLN peer recommended a book agent, who agreed to work with Celeste.

Recently released by Monacelli, “The Meaningful Modern Home: Soulful Architecture and Interiors” collects nine Robbins Architecture homes across the country. It entailed more than two years of preparation by Celeste and a team of collaborators, including a writer, editor, and graphic designer. She also hired a photographer and stylist to capture the experience of living in a home by her firm beyond the documentation of its architecture.

Not only was she delighted to revisit her projects, one of which had been lived in for 17 years at this point, but she revamped her firm’s website with the new imagery to “communicate what I saw to the world.” Now decades into cultivating her aesthetic and brand, she knew she wanted to convey the warmth, softness, and livability her modernism delivers, along with her joy in creating architecture that fulfills her clients’ goals and desires.

“People walk away liking to work with us because they got the house they wanted,” Celeste says. “They know their home was a passion that we lived and breathed for them.”

On the Boards: For a home that will be completed in 2024, Robbins Architecture orchestrated stunning views of Lake Michigan from the front entry through clear and decorative glass panels. Rendering: Robbins Architecture