Chermayeff was born in 1901 in Groznyy, Azerbaijan, and was educated in England. He began his career as an interior designer for the London firm of Waring & Gillow. In 1930 he formed his own architectural office and was joined by German emigre Erich Mendelsohn, with whom he designed several buildings. Together they won the design competition for the noted Bexhill Pavilion in Sussex. In 1940 Chermayeff immigrated to the United States, where he designed several residences, including the Clarence Mayhew house in Oakland and the Horn house in Marin County, California. He taught at various colleges and universities before Walter Gropius recommended him in 1946 to serve as president of the Institute of Design in Chicago. Chermayeff left Chicago in 1951 when the Institute of Design merged with the Illinois Institute of Technology. He taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1952, at Harvard from 1953 through 1962, and at Yale from 1962 until retiring in 1970. Chermayeff was the author of several books, co-founder of the American Society of Planners and Architects, and founding member of several other architectural societies.
Chermayeff speaks about his years as president of the Institute of Design in Chicago; his early background; work and colleagues in England; immigrating to the U.S.; traveling in the U.S.; colleagues and curriculum at the Institute of Design; the "Chicago Plans" exhibition in 1950; the merger of the Institute of Design with the Illinois Institute of Design; urban concerns; his own writings and opinions.
Chair prototypes designed by Serge Chermayeff. Photographed in Chermayeff's studio, Wellfleet, Massachusetts, 1985, by Betty Blum.
"In an open world...urbanity really is the new form of intensity, quality and frequency... This kind of an intensity leads to its own problems. When people make cars now they don't really think that that car sleeps motionless for something like two-thirds of its life, dead, parked. And, where is it parked? On the most precious land that you have, the urban land, because you could walk from A to B if you didn't have a parking lot [there] which is half a mile long." (p. 67)