“We have moved through many different postures towards the husband-and-wife architect-duo archetype, but we’re embodying that vibe now, and we’re happy with it,” said Nicko Elliott, principal and cofounder, with his partner and wife, Ksenia Kagner, of CIVILIAN. “I mean, we’re new, right? In the timeline of the architecture or design career, we’re still infants.”
After establishing their practice five years ago, Elliott and Kagner only recently began to feel they were picking up as a proper studio, thanks in part to their biggest commercial commission yet: the interior design of Newlab Detroit, the latest outpost of the innovation hub founded seven years ago in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The project was realized in collaboration with Michigan Central, a Ford Motor Company initiative for mobility innovation, with Ghafari as the interior architect of record. After Elliott’s decade-long connection with Newlab’s cofounder David Belt through the latter’s development company, Macro Sea, CIVILIAN was presented with a renovated 270,000-square-foot art deco building from 1936: the Albert Kahn–designed former Book Depository building, which was revitalized in 2020 by Gensler Detroit.
The architectural renovation relied on glass and blackened steel throughout and included the addition of a pillow-top skylight, creating an atrium that connects all three floors. “We wanted to create an indoor park space and not go with a ‘palm-core’ vibe, but do something that was more deciduous,” Elliott said of the tree ferns the duo sourced from Florida. The move ensures that the interior’s dappled light is the main attraction. The first floor houses a 200-seat event space with silent, roll-up doors that open to workshops and studio spaces. On the two upper levels, the workspaces become more private and serene, but no less communal.
Kahn was the preeminent architect of the modern factory model. He designed a series of manufacturing plants for Cadillac, Packard, Ford, and other automobile start-ups as early as 1905. The structures are notable for their reinforced-concrete, load-bearing columns, and glass curtain walls. Inspired by Kahn’s buildings, like the 1924 River Rouge Glass Plant in Dearborn, Michigan, and honoring material explorations of interiors at the time, CIVILIAN uses metallic finishes and warm wood tones together with primary colors in rugs and upholstery. These moves reference early modern industrial designers and architects like Charlotte Perriand.
A cafe at the entrance was designed with an almost Jean Prouvé–inspired prefabricated joist-and-scaffolding system that screens the view toward the train station, and inside, CIVILIAN designed cabinets finished in ash and aluminum laminate to complement MillerKnoll desks. Custom solid ash tables, fabricated locally by Ganas in three sizes, are topped with Forbo linoleum in contrasting conifer and burgundy tones. “We found out, if you have enough quantity, making your own furniture is actually more cost effective than going corporate for purchasing, [and we’re] conscious of how we always spend the client’s money,” Kagner said. In addition, close to half a million pieces of vintage furniture were sourced from Morentz Gallery in the Netherlands and reupholstered in Kvadrat fabrics. “We were influenced by Susan Ressler’s Executive Order photography. [It has] this hot, corporate vibe,” said Elliott.
During a visit to CIVILIAN’s new studio space in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Elliott shared recent and upcoming projects and offered insights on how the duo designed the space. Inspired by Achille Castiglioni’s studio in Milan, Elliott and Kagner designed “super tall” shelving units and put up short curtains to conceal products from their homewares brand, Civilian Objects. Visible below is a selection of current models and material samples like aluminum finishes for an artist’s home and studio in Ridgewood, Queens, a move inspired by Kazuo Shinohara’s use of corrugated cladding.
The sunlit room is finished with solutions like custom Enzo Mari–style tables for the workstations; the company’s carpentry team put them together using primed and painted 2-by-4s and MDF tops. CIVILIAN purchased off-the-shelf cabinetry to pair with a sink of its own design, added vintage elements for lighting, and elevated the space with sheepskin-lined bentwood armchairs and rolling Maarten van Severen chairs. Artwork by their friend Tony Mullin hangs on one of the walls. Nearby, samples from an upcoming hardware line with Australian brand Bankston reveal art deco details in polished stone and metal.
How do Kagner and Elliott make it work? While Elliott is more nerdy and dreamy—qualities that work well for presentations—Kagner handles the business side. “I negotiate more contracts, I set up our fee structure, I make sure everyone’s paid,” she said. At first she shied away from that role because it is a fairly typical division of labor in which women complete administrative work and men handle more design-forward tasks. “But at some point,” Kagner shared, “I just had to come to terms with it because it doesn’t drain me; it makes me happy.”
Despite the growing resume of work for more established clients, CIVILIAN’s partners retain a healthy perspective on life. “Your allegiance is only to being yourself,” Elliott said. “We like to relate to people and avoid hierarchies. We’re all civilians at the end of the day when we kiss our kids and put them to bed. In the most important moments, it’s not your job or your title [that matter].”