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Q&A with architect Lee Ledbetter, author of ‘The Art of Place’

Lee Ledbetter is well known for his work as an architect and interior designer. Now he’s an author, too. Last month, the Louisiana-born artist released his 240-page book, The Art of Place: Architecture and Interiors (Rizzoli, 2019).

Ledbetter has created homes for prominent clients ranging from photography collector Dr. Russell Albright to trash tycoon-cum-developer Sidney Torres. But even New Orleanians who don’t move in those rarified circles have experienced his designs, thanks to a slew of public spaces including the Norman Meyer branch library in Gentilly; the Joan Mitchell art center on Bayou Road, and the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden in City Park.

Curbed New Orleans sat down with Ledbetter recently to discuss his influences, his new book, and his abiding love for the subtropical South.

What were your earliest influences?

I grew up in Monroe, Louisiana in a house my parents built when I was 3—they had an architect and a landscape architect. It was a U-shaped, Neo-Georgian house with herringbone brick walls, an incredible courtyard, and a secret garden off the living room. All these connections between the inside and outside stuck with me.

How else did your early exposure to architecture shape your aesthetic?

Some (houses in my town) were mid-century modern; some were bland ranch houses; some were neo-Palladian—but all were nestled beneath live oaks and had big green front yards. They gave me an egalitarian approach or appreciation for different styles of architecture. They reinforced the love of nature and the fact that the building and the landscape are always connected—or should be, particularly in this subtropical climate.

You studied architecture at the University of Virginia and Princeton. Did you always plan to return to Louisiana?

I never wanted to live anywhere else but the South, and I really wanted to live in New Orleans. I wondered how this kind of education would translate to a semi-tropical place with incredible traditional architecture, history, and texture.

Lee Ledbetter
Photo by Henrik A Kudsen Jr. courtesy Rizzoli

You mention your affinity for visual connections between inside and outside, and you’re known for blending modernism with historicism.

I’m not like most architects who only do traditional or historicism, or will maybe look down their nose at modernism. I feel very egalitarian about all this. We’ve done extremely modern houses that don’t have a relationship at all to regional antecedents in architecture. But we’ve also done modern houses with a clear reference to a certain period. Straddling that line is one of the hardest things, and it’s one of my favorites: to do something that sits in the middle and still has integrity or is true to itself.

Is it ever hard to strike a balance between your design ethos and a client’s preferences?

As much as architects love to think of ourselves as artists, it’s also a service industry. We’re pleasing a client. I put their wants, needs, and desires into a building that keeps them safe and makes them happy. I want to impart a sense of art and beauty into the project as well.

If a client comes to me with antique furniture, I’ll tell them, “If you’re open-minded, let me do a modern interpretation of that.”

How did you select the 13 homes and three civic projects featured in the book?

Mayer Rus, who is a brilliant writer and critic, sat down with me as editor and co-writer. We spent days going through everything we have ever done. He did a no, maybe, and yes pile. He was ruthless. I just had to trust him, and when it was something I felt strongly about, I had to fight for it. ... We did end up re-shooting a few of the projects. (Rus) flew to the shoots and looked over our shoulder to make sure he got what he wanted.

The projects run the gamut, from private homes to the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. What’s the common thread?

Somebody said one thing that held the work together was a sense of openness, space, and light. I think the natural environment is one of the things that holds this project together—you keep seeing the greenery and the oak trees.

I instinctually like long, deep vistas and a visual connection from a room to a garden. It grounds me somehow.

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