Serge Ivan Chermayeff was born on October 8, 1900 near Grozny in the Chechen region of the Northern Caucasus. Chermayeff began his career as an interior designer for the London firm of Waring & Gillow, creating streamlined modern interiors for various residential and commercial clients. In 1931 he formed his own architectural office and was joined in 1933 by German Erich Mendelsohn, with whom he designed several notable projects in and around London and Southern England, including the De La Warr Pavilion (1934-1935), the R. J. Nimmo residence (1935), and the Dennis Cohen residence (1936), each a notable example of International Style design. Although his partnership with Mendelsohn ended in 1936, both men remained friends for many years. Among Chermayeff's most important designs during this period was that for his own residence, Bentley Wood (1937-1938), in East Sussex, England. A controversial laboratory for his ideas about public and private spaces and modern aesthetics, it received considerable attention from the architectural press. It led, however, to financial difficulties and Chermayeff was forced to sell in 1939, barely a year after completion.
In 1940, Chermayeff immigrated to the United States, settling briefly in San Francisco, California, to collaborate with local architects on several residential and commercial projects, including the Clarence Mayhew residence (1942) and the Walter Horn residence (1942). Chermayeff soon moved to New York City to become professor of art at Brooklyn College, a position he held until Walter Gropius recommended him in 1946 to serve as president of the Institute of Design in Chicago following László Moholy-Nagy's death. Chermayeff left Chicago in 1951 after the Institute of Design merged with the Illinois Institute of Technology. Teaching briefly at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chermayeff then joined the faculty at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard in 1953, where he was instrumental in developing a rigorous curriculum for urban design and planning and in organizing symposia and collaborative projects around issues of contemporary urbanism. During this period, Chermayeff also maintained a small private architecture practice with Hayward Cutting. In 1962, Chermayeff accepted an appointment in Yale's School of Architecture, where he continued his research and teaching in areas of human interactions with city planning and architecture.
With co-author Christopher Alexander, Chermayeff published "Community and Privacy: Toward a New Architecture of Humanism (Garden City, N. Y., Doubleday, 1963), and with co-author Alexander Tzonis he published "Shape of Community: Realization of Human Potential (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), both idiosyncratic but widely considered studies of how human biological and social needs intersect with the built environment. Chermayeff's selected lectures and writings were published in "Design and the Public Good," in 1982, which was edited by Richard Plunz, professor in the School of Architecture at Columbia University. A frequent speaker, guest critic, and prolific writer, Chermayeff was also active in numerous professional organizations, including CIAM, MARS, and the American Society of Architects and Planners, and was awarded honorary degrees from several colleges and universities. In addition, he was a life-long artist, industrial designer, and poet, exhibiting at galleries in Chicago and Boston and self-publishing several anthologies of his poetry. Throughout his years in the United States, Chermayeff also sustained close ties to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, maintaining a home and studio near Wellfleet, designing experimental architecture for several clients in the area, and advocating for the establishment of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Chermayeff died in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, in 1996.