New York–based Modellus Novus is transforming the practice of architecture from within

Change Makers

New York–based Modellus Novus is transforming the practice of architecture from within

Frenchette Bakery, as viewed from the Whitney lobby entrance. (Adrian Gaut, Courtesy Modellus Novus)

It’s a tale as old as time: After working for years at large architecture firms, three up-and-coming architects set out to launch their own practice. Whether for the thrill of entrepreneurship, the itch for creative freedom, or just being sick and tired of working for someone else, it’s not unusual for designers to take the leap into business ownership. For New York–based Modellus Novus, however, the impetus to launch its own studio came from somewhere else: a desire to change the way architecture itself is practiced.

For cofounders Preeti Sriratana, Jonathan Garnett, and Steven Harper, addressing this issue of limited access in the profession was integral to their launch of Modellus Novus, Latin for “new model,” in 2015. Since then, the trio, along with the firm’s practice director, Anya Gribanova, have worked to show the world the new model they envisioned. “Yes, we wanted to do progressive, pioneering, beautiful design,” said Sriratana, “but equally important to us was to build a form that would change how architecture is practiced.”

With a mission of designing spaces for the many, Modellus Novus itself is a model of such a space. The 26-person firm is global in its makeup, with women composing over half of the staff hailing from 11 countries and four continents. This diversity is no accident. “In order to design spaces where people from different backgrounds feel welcome, it’s not just about the design itself,” explained Sriratana. “The built environment is defined by the people behind it. It’s important to align yourself with people who share your values.”

Ultimately, the firm has found this mission actually helps it create better work. Across an interiors-focused portfolio for industries as far-ranging as residential, institutional, and commercial, and with a strong emphasis on hospitality—including the recently opened, much-lauded Tatiana by chef Kwame Onwuachi at New York’s Lincoln Center—Modellus Novus has gained a reputation for creating places that find authenticity through surprising details and material explorations. “If you have value alignment, it speeds up the process of decision-making because we’re in agreement about what we want to achieve,” said Garnett. “We’re all trying to unlock some potential in the project that can bring people together.”

Crye Precision (Aaron Thompson/Courtesy Modellus Novus)

Crye Precision 2016

Tucked into the Brooklyn Navy Yard behind an unassuming brick facade is a living forest of mature trees, massive boulders, and a bale of live turtles. In the design of this 87,000-squarefoot adaptive reuse project for Crye Precision, an industry leader in protective armor, Modellus Novus sought to create an unexpected, restorative moment for workers and visitors alike. “We pulled the perimeter into the interior of the building to create a place where people can gather, which is a through line in all of our work,” said Sriratana. Working with landscape design-build studio Verdant to execute the living forest promenade, Modellus Novus upended the typical manufacturing facility model, instead creating a place for people to thrive and collaborate.

Discolo (Adrian Gaut/Courtesy Modellus Novus)

Discolo 2022

Surprise and delight are common elements in Modellus Novus’s designs, and Discolo is no exception. Hidden in plain sight beneath New York Italian restaurant Al Coro (also designed by the firm), the moody, high-fashion cocktail bar is replete with plush built-in furnishings, reflective surfaces, and dramatic lighting. The space reveals itself sequentially, transitioning from bar to lounge to private room with custom hi-fi equipment. “Discolo leaves spaces to be discovered,” said Sriratana. “Whereas Al Coro above is the apex of fine dining, Discolo becomes its rebellious underground foil that loosens the buttons to be purely revelatory.” Ultimately, Discolo reflects one of Modellus Novus’s core principles: creating places that celebrate freedom of expression, writing new stories of culture defined by the people who use them.

Frenchette Bakery, as viewed from the Whitney main entrance approach. (Adrian Gaut, Courtesy Modellus Novus)

Frenchette Bakery at the Whitney Museum of American Art 2022–

For its redesign of the ground-floor cafe at the Whitney Museum of American Art, currently nearing completion, Modellus Novus looked to Renzo Piano’s original emphasis on transparency. “The building was always meant to have a very public ground floor,” said Garnett. “It’s a generous concept, and we wanted to build on that.” The updated cafe design brings warmth and beckons people inside via two major design elements: a massive black steel installation by artist Rashid Johnson, with shelves holding plants, books, and sculptures, and a new 70-foot-long lantern light fixture above the bar made of wood and rice paper, which Garnett affectionately refers to as a “gentle giant.” “The lantern becomes a beacon, and along with Rashid’s piece they become distinct elements that frame the space.”

COTE Singapore 2023–

In its third design for chef and restaurateur Simon Kim, Modellus Novus continued the thread of theatrical drama that defined its designs for Kim’s Miami and New York locations. Conceiving each room as a different scene unfurling in space and time, the team envisioned COTE Singapore as the brand’s third act. “We wanted to unfold this expanding story of the COTE brand and the things that inspire Simon,” said Garnett. Drawing on Singapore’s tropical environs and Kim’s love of plants, the bar is densely populated with greenery and artfully illuminated, imbuing the space with jungle drama. Hidden drawers and casework elements in the private dining space engage visitors in a tactile way. “In the end it’s about engagement and the human experience,” said Garnett.

Lauren Gallow is a Seattle-based writer and editor covering art, architecture, and design.