Debra Lehman Smith: why architecture needs art

Architecture studio LSM and its co-founder Debra Lehman Smith cultivate creative connections for employees, in the US and beyond

debra lehman smith building with jeppe hein artwork
Modified Social Bench #48 is a site-specific installation, by Danish artist Jeppe Hein, on the front lawn of a new HQ for a leading aerospace and defence company
(Image credit: Mark Alan Andre)

‘Art connects,’ says Debra Lehman Smith. ‘Placing art in the workplace creates unique narratives which enable organisations to articulate their individual culture. Art fosters conversation and connection vital to creating engaging and productive office environments.’ The US-based designer and founding partner at Lehman Smith McLeish (LSM), a Washington DC-based practice with a particular specialty of effortlessly and coherently blending art and architecture in its projects, has worked on numerous workspace projects that make the most of the creative power of the arts since the studio’s foundation in 1991.  

jeppe hein art

Modified Social Bench #48 by Jeppe Hein

(Image credit: Mark Alan Andre)

Debra Lehman Smith on the relationship between art and architecture

LSM’s newest completions include the headquarters of a leading aerospace and defence company in the Washington DC metropolitan area. Covering some 22 acres, the scheme is reached via a scenic drive, culminating to the sense of arrival created by the Modified Social Bench #48, a site-specific installation piece by Jeppe Hein that is nestled in the lawn in front of the main entrance. More art, by Alicja Kwade (a specially commissioned item), Tacita Dean, and Sarah Morris (a relocated and reinterpreted work), greets visitors on the ground level and its six-storey tall atrium. The building’s strong grid-based geometry is offset by the mesmerising art as much as the green nature outside, composing a peaceful environment for employees and guests inside and out. 

inside debra lehman smith building

Orbit Washington by Alicja Kwade 

(Image credit: Courtesy of Peter Aaron, OTTO)

Lehman Smith’s gentle weaving of art and architecture materialises in almost all her works, found across the US and Europe. For this client, LSM developed the headquarters’ architecture, campus and site layout, interiors, and art. Other examples include two London schemes: Milbank London’s 100 Liverpool Street office, which features space-specific pieces by Jeppe Hein, Idris Khan, and Paul Morrison; and the 100 Bishopsgate headquarters of law firm Paul Hastings, where sleek, mirrored and metal surfaces are fully in sync with the atrium’s moving piece Gravity by Dan Chadwick, among other works. 

sarah morris artwork

The Ambassador by Sarah Morris 

(Image credit: Courtesy of Mark Alan Andre, LSM)

The designer believes that planning any related art in parallel to the spatial design in each of the studio’s projects is paramount for the success of the final result – art should always be an integral part of the design solution. ‘Our process approaches design with art in mind. In working with passionate clients, art consultants, and leading artists, we are able to shape unique spaces for our clients by placing exceptional works of art in dialogue with excellent architecture,’ she says. ‘We generally find the most success when true collaboration occurs. When all parties involved are working together and challenging one another, both architect and artist are encouraged to strive for and produce their best work.’  

art work

Quarantania by Tacita Dean

(Image credit: Courtesy of Rick Bilski, LSM)

Ellie Stathaki is the Architecture & Environment Director at Wallpaper*. She trained as an architect at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece and studied architectural history at the Bartlett in London. Now an established journalist, she has been a member of the Wallpaper* team since 2006, visiting buildings across the globe and interviewing leading architects such as Tadao Ando and Rem Koolhaas. Ellie has also taken part in judging panels, moderated events, curated shows and contributed in books, such as The Contemporary House (Thames & Hudson, 2018), Glenn Sestig Architecture Diary (2020) and House London (2022).