Debora K. Reiser, Long Island modern architect, educator, and feminist, dies at 96


Debora K. Reiser, Long Island modern architect, educator, and feminist, dies at 96

Debora K. Reiser, 1927–2023 (Courtesy RUR Architecture)

Architect, educator, and pioneering feminist Debora K. Reiser died on September 19 at the age of 96. The news of Reiser’s passing was shared via social media by Pratt Institute. She is survived by her son Jesse Reiser and daughter-in-law Nanako Umemoto. Together, the three ran the award-winning studio RUR Architecture.

Debora Klausner Reiser was born in 1927 in Dobbs Ferry, New York. She completed her bachelors in architecture at Pratt in 1948 and was among the first female graduates from the Institute’s School of Architecture. “As for women in architecture: when they give you the back, keep talking, and they will turn around,” she was known for saying.

After completing her education, she worked in the office of Abraham Geller and George Nemeny where architects Charles Gwathmey, Richard Henderson, Victor Christ-Janer also worked before starting their own firms. In a 2006 interview with Architectural Record, Reiser recalled what it was like being one of the few women in practice after finishing school. “When I started, women hid in the back of the room. If the clients thought a woman worked on the project, they wouldn’t respect the design,” she said.

In 1960, Reiser converted a barn built in 1895 in her hometown of Dobbs Ferry into her work studio; a space she would practice in for decades. The refurbishment also became the home for her two sons and was later featured in a 1964 New York Times article, “New Light for an Old House”.

In 1972, Reiser opened her own practice. Her engineer father, Edward Klausner, worked on dozens of projects with her at the office. In a public statement, her son Jesse and Umemoto credit her for delivering “hundreds of built projects at various scales” and continuing “the legacy of Long Island Modernism well into the 21st century.” As a practitioner, Reiser was known for working across scales; oscillating between architecture, interiors, and furniture design.

Her office was renamed RUR Architecture in 1996 when her son Jesse and daughter-in-law Nanako joined the firm where the trio went on to design award-winning projects around the world. In Log 50 from fall 2020, Jesse recalls a fond childhood memory from 1963 when his mother was interviewed by New York Times Magazine reporter Elizabeth Sverbeyeff who first introduced him to the joys of model making.

Friends and colleagues referred to her as “Deby.” As a professor, Pratt Institute noted on social media, she mentored many architects including Laurie Hawkinson, Hani Rashid, Dana Cupkova, Jason Payne, Yama Karim, and others. Reiser was also an active mentor with the AIA Women in Architecture program.

“It was Debora’s long held belief that the education of an architect was never finished and was always the direct result of close interpersonal relationships between designers, essentially a master-disciple model,” Reiser and Umemoto recalled in a statement. “Always true to herself as an architect Debora never considered universal function divorced from personal aesthetics – which she defined and redefined to the very end.”