As a partner with Johnson Berman Architecture and Interior Design, architect Robert “Bob” Berman has designed countless homes. When he moved from his longtime condominium in Highfield House where he’s lived since 1968 to a larger apartment in the same building, he had the opportunity to become his own client for the first time. It was a unique chance to create a masterpiece from concept to completion.
“I’ve decorated apartments before, but this was completely from scratch,” he explains. “It was a very personal experience. It’s harder to design something for yourself, but it was a labor of love.”
Highfield House is a rare modern architectural gem in Baltimore City designed by renowned architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. When Berman moved to the 1,200-square-foot apartment, it was a time capsule— the last updates were made in 1964. Despite the timeless quality of van der Rohe’s design, the home’s interior had not aged well. Berman undertook a massive renovation that took a year to complete. In the end, the floor plan went from two bedrooms to one and the space opened into a light, contemporary design.
Berman’s inspiration for the redesign came from van der Rohe himself. “This is a Mies van der Rohe building so I thought this was an opportunity to do something that was more reflective of what we think of when we see his architecture.” Specifically he looked to van der Rohe’s iconic glass home, the Farnsworth House in Plano, Ill. Completed in 1951, the Farnsworth House is considered a pivotal project in van der Rohe’s career, one that broke down the boundaries between structure and nature by creating a suspended volume of glass and steel in a natural landscape.
Unlike van der Rohe, Berman did not have the luxury of four glass walls. However, he redesigned the floor plan so that the circulation was directed toward the apartment’s most striking feature— its windows. Where previously each individual room had a window, the new design opens onto a full wall of glass that encompasses an expansive view of northern Baltimore. Other similarities can be seen between the two designs. Berman channeled van der Rohe by working with a limited color palette and minimal materials. And instead of relying on solid walls, these were removed and replaced with wooden, double-sided storage units that separate the open space yet seem to float as plains in the design.
Immediately there were challenges. The building is concrete construction, so relocating plumbing was next to impossible. To create recessed lighting, the ceiling was dropped in the kitchen and bathroom. To access the small powder room, Berman designed a right-angle bend door of stainless steel, which also acts as a focal point in the petite entry foyer.
“I really wanted a more minimal look without being stark,” he explains. Abolishing clutter and fussy design elements were key to the project. To maintain utter simplicity, he selected cork floors throughout the home (a “green” material that is also sealed to be practical for bathrooms and kitchens) and scattered wool rugs throughout. Walls are almost all white except for one Venetian plaster accent wall. Of the galley kitchen, Berman says, “I’m not a cook so it’s really more for show— I picked the cabinetry for aesthetics and the goal was to conceal as much as possible.”
Many of the furnishings are van der Rohe designs (such as the Barcelona Collection coffee table and the dining chairs), or designed by his contemporaries, such as the classic “egg chair” designed by Arne Jacobsen. These are offset by contemporary Italian pieces that include a long, low, black sofa and storage units.
“Mies van der Rohe made the statement that ‘less is more’ and I really wanted as much hidden as possible,” says Berman. “I’ve got a lot of books and things stored in these cabinets that in my previous apartment were on display. I wanted to limit the amount of items on display and change them when I felt the need.”
By displaying his art collection on stainless steel ledges, Berman gave himself the freedom to rotate and reorganize his works depending on his mood, and any extraneous pieces can be stashed in the walls of storage to minimize clutter.
Berman enjoys local artists and his collection includes work by Amanda Johnson (business partner Henry Johnson’s daughter), found-object sculptor Leonard Streckfus and Jacob Hirschey.
Berman’s design celebrates Highfield House’s distinction as one of only two Mies van der Rohe buildings in Baltimore, and exemplifies that architect’s legacy of livable, modern design.
- Architectural and Interior Design: Johnson/ Berman, Robert S. Berman, 410-752-2030
- Lighting Design: Tigue Lighting, Luke Tigue, 215-790-0230
- Contractor: Main Street Contractors, David Zimlin, 410-239-9852
- Cabinetry: M.S. Moeller, Cabinetry and Millwork, Mark Moeller, 410-875-6455
- Stainless Steel Kitchen Cabinets: Bulthaup Studio, Rachael Hoffman, 215-574-4990
- Custom Stainless Steel Door: Metal Specialties, Inc., Steve Prudhomme, 540-967-4836
- Cork Flooring: Greenspring Carpet Source, Nathan Schapiro, 410-561-9203
- Corian Counters: Counter Collective, Vincent Martinelli, 410-277-3500
- Painting: Final Touch Painting and Wallcovering, Jeff Flynn, 410-671-7611
- Venetian Plaster: Hayles and Howe, Inc., Mark Mordhorst, 410-462-0986