From an early age, architect Mark Stumer was practicing skills needed for his future craft. He engaged with the world of design through drawing, admiring buildings in Manhattan, and even studying lobbies and courtyards. It’s fair to say that Mark wanted to be an architect before he even knew what one was, or what the job entailed. Genetics likely played a role as his great-grandfather, grandfather, and father were all in construction.
For almost 35 years, Mark and his partner Thomas Mojo have served as principals of Mojo Stumer & Associates, an architectural firm known for their modern designs and incorporation of architecture and interior design. The firm has received numerous accolades, and recently added another AIA Award to their collection.
We recently spoke with Mark about his life-long architectural passion.
When you were growing up, do you remember any early architectural moments?
Mark: Yes, I remember very explicitly when I was about six or seven years old, and my grandparents had to go to Florida for a funeral. My father drove them to the airport and I went. We lived in Queens at the time, and when I got back home I took about seven or eight pieces of colored paper, laid them down on the floor, and drew the entire airport: the tower, the planes, and the terminals. I was fascinated by it. I would say I started drawing at three or four years old. To this day during moments of relaxation, I pick up a sketchpad and draw.
Even at a young age I loved going into Manhattan. Where other kids would want to go to an amusement park, it was my birthday and I wanted my dad to take me to a great building. A lobby, a courtyard, and the way a building worked always fascinated me.
When did you realize you wanted to study architecture?
Mark: I would say by the time I was 12 years old. I said this could be something I love. I would say I was very lucky that I picked a direction, and even though I had some obstacles along the way, I really never wavered from it. I always loved the concept of being an architect.
You attended Pratt Institute in the ’70s. Why did you choose to study there?
Mark: I did well in high school and I got into a number of very good colleges. And I remember, at the time, I went up to Cornell University, to Virginia Polytechnic Institute, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and then I had my interview at Pratt. I never really thought of going to Pratt.
When I went to Rensselaer, everybody in the architecture school had a white shirt on and a pocket holder for a pen. When I went to Pratt, all the kids were carrying toolboxes with their art supplies and wearing overalls. I decided that was for me. I loved it. I loved being in the city. I loved seeing the environment, the energy.
Do you remember the first project you served as a lead on?
Mark: I sure do. I was working for a pretty substantial architecture firm at the time. The firm was working on a house in Roslyn Estates and my boss said to me, “Would you like to design the house?” I not only designed it, but I did the working drawings and supervised the construction. It was my first project for two amazing people, may they both rest in peace, and I truly enjoyed every minute working on it. It set me on my path for architecture.
Over thirty years ago, you partnered with Thomas Mojo. Why did you decide to open a firm?
Mark: Architecture is an amazing profession with tremendous responsibilities. I realized that for me to be truly successful and complete what my goal and mission was, I had to do it on my own. It was scary because I always made a living, got a paycheck, and at 28 years old I partnered with Thomas Mojo and formed Mojo Stumer. It will be 35 years this March that we’ve had our own business, and I think we have built a very well respected and highly coveted architectural firm.
As a firm, your philosophy is that architecture and interior design go hand in hand and one cannot exist without the other. Why are they interconnected?
Mark: Well, think about it for a second. You hire an architect and he designs your house. He lays out all these rooms and you love them. But does he lay furniture out in it? Does he put the TV where it should go? There are many projects that I have gotten involved in just on the interior design end, and I say to the client this doesn’t work. You have a view of the water, but no place for your TV. You have your fireplace behind your couch. They have to blend.
About 30 years into our practice, I decided that we would do our own interiors, but not be an architecture firm that tries to dabble in interiors. We set up an interior design department with interior designers and a library, and today every project that you see published by us, we did the interiors. We pick furniture, fabrics, the lighting, and to me, how could you give up that realm? If you become knowledgeable about what is available in the world and you are talented, you put together beautiful fabrics, materials, and furniture that work so well with the concept of your architecture.
Mojo Stumer & Associates recently won an American Institute of Architects Award for the interiors of a penthouse apartment on First Avenue. What does receiving this award mean to the firm?
Mark: Well, in the world of architecture, recognition by your peers is so important. It’s an amazing thing when your peers—other architects—say, “This is an award-winning project.” We are very proud to say we have won–probably at this point–about 72. We get a thrill, have respect for, and are excited by every one. We are just as proud of this one as the first one we won.
Can you share any projects currently underway?
Mark: One of the interesting things about our firm is that we are diverse. On a residential end, we are currently working on two brownstones in Manhattan that will be up for sale on spec. We usually don’t do speculative work, but this client is building them as if he was building for himself. We are working on a very exciting shopping center that will be going up on Long Island—it’s very state of the art and cool. We are working on a set of condominiums in Spain and a new state of the art Porsche car dealership.
Looking from the beginning of your career until now, do you think clients have become more aware of design?
Mark: People have definitely become more aware of design and design has matured. We’re modernists, we believe in a modern lifestyle, in clean, contemporary lines based on a true modernist belief, but we believe in making our work livable. It doesn’t have to be minimalist. Sometimes we take on a project where a client says, “I want to mix classicism with modernism,” but if someone wants a true classic project that’s not for us. I love that there are a lot more modernists in the world. A lot of people love the concept of a really cool, contemporary home or office. I love the fact that people have become really educated about design. Architects have become celebrities today as you can see by the starchitects. It’s a fun world to be in.
When a client walks in with a specific vision and then opens up to a new concept during the design process, what is that moment like?
Mark: Many clients come with preconceived ideas and we try to explain to them, “Let us take you on an adventure, a tour of what you could do, a journey. Let me show you the possibilities.” We can always come back to a client’s ideas. When a client gets it and says, “Wow, I never thought of that,” we’ve got something.
If you could design or redesign anything, what would it be?
Mark: If I could I redesign a project I did, it would be my home. I took an approach on my home years ago and I have outgrown that concept. So I am in the process now of putting it together.
It’s very interesting in that I post a lot of projects on Instagram. On “Throwback Thursday,” I will post projects that are 10, 15, 20 years old and I get responses like, “Wow, it looks like it’s brand new.” Recently, a new client bought one of the first homes I did, a major estate in Old Westbury, and he had me come and redesign the home. I would say we left 85% of the shell intact. We did the kitchen, the bathrooms, redecorated the interiors, but the basic house stayed the same because it was still classic and timeless.
If I could design anything from scratch, I would love to do a religious institution. I have done many renovations to synagogues and churches, but I have had to work within the preexisting conditions. I think that moment of spiritualism that you can capture in a brand new building would be fascinating to me.
What does being an architect and designer mean to you?
Mark: Personally, architecture has always been a passion. I love it. It’s a way of life. I’ve believed in it my whole life, and I have gotten here by doing it. I am also very excited about the future and I love technology. I used to go on an interview and carry 30 bags of portfolios. Earlier, I was updating my portfolio, updating drawings, sending it back to my office, emailing clients pictures of ideas and thoughts, and sketching all on my iPad. I love what technology can do today. I have been in business 35 years, I think I’m just beginning. I really think it’s the start of a wonderful relationship.
[This interview has been edited]