Balancing Act: Irina Verona and Jennifer Carpenter on Cultivating a Practice with Impact

Interview by: Illana Curtis

verona, in a black collared shirt, and carpenter, in a red sweater, sit at a table  and are captured mid discussion, with verona sketching something on trace paper
Irina Verona (left) and Jennifer Carpenter (right) in their Manhattan office. Courtesy Travis Huggett / LES Art Supply.

Located conveniently near a florist in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the Verona Carpenter Architects (VCA) ground-level office greets visitors with beautiful fauna and a long line of desks. Founders Irina Verona and Jennifer Carpenter met while studying architecture at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, but it wasn’t until 2017, after the two had worked in separate firms and on separate projects for over a decade that Verona and Carpenter decided to combine forces. Together, VCA is on a mission to create timeless spaces designed for humanity and resilience, all while maximizing resources and impact. VCA’s projects mix the old with the new and use materials and fixtures in unexpected ways, whether they’re converting an old bottle making factory into a bathhouse in Williamsburg, or preserving interior details of a historic building for the new Adidas Showroom

Building a practice is a design process in itself. Verona and Carpenter’s complementary backgrounds and skill sets affords them the flexibility to take on a wide range of clients and projects and contribute to architectural discourse with publications like Praxis, which Verona co-founded. As VCA grows, so does their portfolio of pro-bono projects, including the Food & Finance Highschool and Quad Preparatory School, both in New York. Now that they have also won a competition to design the Learning Lab School at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, VCA is set to continue their upward trajectory. Here, Carpenter and Verona share their paths in the profession, their goals of their practice, and their approaches to making a difference beyond their design work. 

You both worked separately before founding VCA in 2017. What brought you together?

Jennifer Carpenter After grad school, I was fed up with architectural theory. I wanted to make stuff, so my husband and I decided to start a leather handbag company. I would leave my day job right at 5:30, and then would work at night making leather bags. It was crazy. Our products were beautiful, but it wasn’t a practical business. I just really wanted to be using my hands. 

Irina Verona I was really into the theory; I embraced it. After grad school I started working in an architecture office, but on the side, with some peers from Columbia, I co-founded Praxis, a journal that examines the relationship of theory and practice. As a project, Praxis amplified what I did during the day and allowed me to pursue larger perspectives and conversations. However, at this time, practice was also really important to me; practice is where all of the architecture and design theory ultimately hits the ground. 

In 2010, Jennifer and I left our firms around the same time and launched our own practices, but in a shared space. We worked side-by-side and very much collaboratively, so eventually we realized that  it made sense for us to join forces, to formalize our collaboration, and to build a practice together. 

VCA designed the new Adidas Showroom and offices in a historic 1936 factory in New York. Here, VCA uses stadium light fixtures to illuminate the showroom corridor that connect to the Adidas brand and vision of authenticity. Courtesy Barkow Photo.

a white room with a high black ceiling with circular lights - in front of a large projector screen are rows of black chairs

How did joining forces change your perspectives as designers? How do you assess the clients and projects you take on?

JC As a small firm, it’s important to have expertise, and we are lucky that the two of us came together with different specialties so that we could attract a wide range of projects. I was doing more retail, commercial, and corporate projects like stores and headquarters, which we still do today. Irina was working mainly on art and cultural spaces. 

At VCA, we’re not interested in only one type of project; we like working with clients, regardless of what their business might be, who are interested in the design process. From the outset, we really listen to and make no assumptions about our clients.  We ask a lot of questions. In these initial conversations, we help our clients brainstorm and we often lead them to conclusions and ideas that are different from where they started. 

IV We’ve found, in recent years in particular, that there is a lot of dialogue and cross over between typologies. Office spaces have amenities not unlike residential ones; residential buildings are adding workshare spaces and concierges. Details and materials tested in one project can be further refined in another. The fact that we have the expertise across different types allows us to bring more depth to each project.

Your website mentions VCA’s desire to “maximize opportunities, resources, and impact.” Tell me more about VCA’s growing portfolio of pro-bono projects. Was this type of work part of the firm’s initial vision?

JC I became an architect not because it’s a great business to get into, but because I have a passion for making people’s lives better through design. We approach every part of the design process with that mentality. We didn’t start out with a vision to pursue pro-bono work, but now it’s an important part of our mission.

Our work with Quad Preparatory School, a school for children with special needs, is super important to me. My son attends the school, but special needs education is important to me for reasons well beyond him, because I see the way the school impacts the lives of its students. 

Our goal with VCA is to make a real impact on the day-to-day experience of an individual, family, team, or community through thoughtful design. Having even a small impact is rewarding for us; all the more so when we can do it for people who can’t afford the process we go through for most clients. If we can share that expertise for a cause that we really believe in, that’s the reason we became architects in the first place. 

IV I think a lot of it also comes down to balance. You’ll have a project that pays, but how can you apply some of that expertise and bring it to a wider audience on another project? Understanding where you can make your voice heard as an architect is an important part of our process.

The Ebony Magazine Test Kitchen is a psychedelic, 1970s wonder designed by Arthur Elrod and William Raiser. VCA was part of the team tasked with refurbishing the kitchen. Courtesy Lee Bey Architectural Photography.

a kitchen with swirly orange and brown wall paper, lime yellow cupboards, an orange fridge, and wooden countertops

JC We feel that’s important in all projects, not just these pro-bono projects, where budgets are really tight. Trying to do creative work within constraints can be challenging, but can also be rewarding and lead to great results. We try to take those constraints and use them as a tool to be creative. 

We’re also helping to restore the Ebony Test Kitchen for the Museum of Food and Drink, which will be shown at the Africa Center in Manhattan.  This isn’t a conventional project, but now that we’re doing it, we’re going to have an amazing part-restoration, part-exhibition-design under our belts, which could open similar future opportunities. So part of it is, yes, giving our time and services to organizations we believe in, but they’re bringing something to us as well. They’re giving us the chance to work on amazing projects that will enrich the way we think about our work, too.

Switching gears a bit—Irina, you founded Praxis, “a journal of writing + building,” in 1999, and recently marked the publication’s twentieth anniversary with a final issue you edited with Amanda Reeser Lawrence and Ashley Schafer. How does it feel to look back to the beginning?

IV When we started, the pace of publication was different. We founded Praxis to address a void that existed at the time between the very glossy trade publications and the theory-heavy journals. We wanted to bring together writing and building and focus on the design process. We would take our time with each issue, to make sure the content was right–even if it meant looking for additional content or going through archives to find a process sketch that we wanted to include. But now our access to information, images, and content is completely transformed, as is the relationship of theory and practice. We recognized that it was time to conclude our project and make space for other, new projects and voices. 

How did you land on the theme for this final issue, “Bad Architectures”? 

IV “Bad Architectures” was definitely a challenge. We started with the idea of “radical:” what does it mean to be radical? But we felt that that limited the scope, so then “bad” became more of a consideration of how we talk about projects today. “Bad” doesn’t only signal whether something is beautiful or ugly, it can also be used in terms of failure, performance, or accepting unconventional models. So for us it takes on different tones, from radical to provocative. The project has been great in parallel to VCA.

Bad Architectures, the 15th and final issue of Praxis. Courtesy VCA.

the cover of Bad architectures - a gradient image with blue, pink, and green, where it looks like the title (in black text) is dissolving into the background

What is the importance of having different outlets for talking about and engaging in architecture outside of practice?

JC It’s so easy to get caught up in what’s going on inside the office, I feel like I could easily spend an unlimited number of hours every day fighting the fires on projects and looking for new work, but it’s good to get new input from other sources to stimulate creativity. 

IV Architectural practice is not a unilateral endeavor, and teaching and curating in particular have allowed me to explore a more expanded version of practice. Ideas that emerge from theoretical research or discussions inform our actual projects, and vice versa. It can be a productive and exciting dialogue. 

I originally got in touch about covering VCA for a “Women in Design” series. As a small, women-owned firm, how has your experience connected to larger conversations around the representation of women and minorities in architecture?

JC: For me, this hurdle came up early. I remember being on projects with contractors who didn’t want to take direction from me. From the start I had to express, “I’m in charge here, you’re going to have to listen.” Figuring out how to develop a good rapport and get the job done in collaboration with people is something that you have to learn how to manage from the very beginning. The only way to get “used to” it is by being on site, getting in the field, and gaining practice. 

IV: We are really good at formulating probing questions and bringing design vision to a project. But we also bring a lot of management expertise and stamina. We recognize when it is important to say, ¨This is essential to the project and we are willing to fight for this.” You have to have the voice – and not only vision – to follow through on project priorities.

There aren’t many firms run by two women, but it’s just one facet of who we are as a business. We are proud to be one of them, and we just wish we had more company.

Interior of Bathhouse, a new wellness space designed by VCA in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which repurposed an old bottling factory. Courtesy Adrian Gaut.

rows of pools in a dark room with a low dark ceiling, brick walls, and red lighting fixtures

About the author:

Ilana Curtis (b.Boston, MA) holds a BA in Architectural Studies from the University of Pittsburgh and will be pursing her Masters of Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in fall 2021. She is driven by design projects that connect community, people, and place, an interested fostered during her tenure at PLP.

Find Ilana on Instagram and LinkedIn.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s