Hearing Celeste Robbins describe the childhood forts she would construct out of blankets and safety pins—or the time growing up she tried to convince her father to bring the garden hose inside to create an eye-catching water feature—one thing is abundantly clear.
She was born with the instincts and eye of an architect.
Fast-forward to 1995 and the founding of Robbins Architecture, the realization of a lifetime of ingenuity, dedication, and innate talent. From its inception, the modern architecture firm (where Robbins serves as principal and founder) has received numerous accolades. Its first new construction, a Jackson Hole retreat, was featured in Architectural Digest, and since then they have received multiple AIA Awards and have had multiple media features in print and on TV, and taken on projects throughout Chicago and across the country.
Robbins Architecture focuses on residential suburban, ground-up builds, but has also tackled large renovations—including projects in downtown Chicago and New York City. She counts the Barcelona Pavilion, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, as one of her biggest influences, which can be seen in the serenity and conscious use of materials she brings to her structural designs.
She first started the Chicago chapter of her architectural career at Perkins+Will, where she was part of the competition for the redesign of Navy Pier in the mid-’90s. When her oldest son was born 24 years ago, she knew she needed more flexibility, and decided to venture out on her own. Robbins had early success working independently. “I’m still doing work to this day for those clients—they’re old friends at this point,” she says.
Before the Ohio native returned to the Midwest and set the foundation for what would become Robbins Architecture, she graduated from Cornell University. It was there she developed what would become the guiding principle for her future career.
“I learned what defines architecture as an art form—a built space should have meaning and be a form of expression. Using light, proportion, and materiality, I discovered how basic design principles can sculpt spaces,” she shares. “I’ve held onto this sentiment ever since.”
While the homes Robbins designs are decidedly works of art, creating warm, livable spaces is her mission.
“Though they photograph well, this work is not just about the picture. Architecture is more than a moment in time. It’s orchestrating an experience between movement and space,” she explains. “We treat each home as a sanctuary and carefully craft each space, continuing to edit until the solution has beauty that is so clear it looks effortless.”
Another driving force for Robbins in her designs is the connection to nature. By making use of the prominent windows inherent in modern design, Robbins and her team create framed and purposeful views with a thoughtful connection to the outdoors.
“My feeling is that nature doesn’t get it wrong,” she says. “It has an intrinsic beauty that you can count on to bring warmth and serenity to a home.”
This attention to detail is a thread that runs throughout her entire process, starting with that initial meeting with new clients in what they call the Pre-design Phase. Here, Robbins assesses the clients’ wants and their aesthetic.
“This is the information gathering stage. It’s a lot of conversation. I don’t think there’s a formula—each family, each client, lives differently, so we listen to and learn before we start the design process,” Robbins says. “We always present multiple options to give clients something to compare. We want them to be part of the process—it’s a collaboration and options encourage conversation. Together we discover the solution that fits their unique dream.”
Though Robbins now has nine architects working alongside her—and is proud to say that half of those are female in what is a notoriously male-dominated field—she remains personally involved in every project they take on. This dedication and hardworking ethos can be traced back to her first foray into the uncertain waters of entrepreneurship.
“I carried Robbins Architecture for eight years on my own,” she says. “I would put the kids to bed and work late into the night. It was tough, but I loved every minute of it.”
This experience has translated to how she leads her company.
“I was able to do this profession and raise my kids, so I want to support people in the office who are trying to do the same. I try to provide flexibility, whether that’s working from home or being able to go to school visits or carline pickups. I want to allow for real life.”
Her designs reflect a similar family-oriented attitude: “I use my perspective as a parent to design in a way that keeps family connected, that allows them to overlap in their space.”
For Robbins, family is her two kids and her husband of 25 years, the owner of an accounting firm. “Our kids have grown up with two people who have their own businesses and are passionate about what they do,” she shares. “Our son and daughter have grown up seeing that our professions are an extension of ourselves, not just a job. We each think of our businesses as integral parts of what fulfills us in life.”
Though work and family are their greatest joys and biggest priorities, it is travel that captures Robbins’ imagination most: “I love to see and experience new places. After soaking up all the visuals, I come back completely inspired and ready to create.”
It is unsurprising, then, to learn that the firm specializes in destination homes.
“We do a lot of second homes: Jackson Hole, Aspen, Wisconsin, Idaho, and are now doing our third lake house in Michigan. We work closely with our clients to help them select a site and a contractor in an unfamiliar location—we have learned to roll into a new community and sniff out who to work with there,” she says. “If you have an architect out of state, that relationship and collaboration can be less intimate. We pride ourselves on staying connected and facilitating every step. Even after projects are completed, our clients still stop by our office.”
As Robbins says, “While our work is modern and edited, we create spaces that have the warmth and livability that make a home.”
To learn more, visit robbins-architecture.com or find her at @robbinsarchitecture on Instagram.