Industry Icon Perspectives: Looking Back 50 Years

Industry Icon Perspectives: Looking Back 50 Years
Apr 15, 2010 Contract asked 10 iconic design practitioners to reflect on how they have seen the industry change and evolve over the last five decades.

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Industry Icon Perspectives: Looking Back 50 Years_01 Robert D. Kleinschmidt

At the beginning of my career in 1964 the new buildings were demanding of the development of a new language of new furniture. There was not an abundance of standard furniture product in the market place. Therefore, we were forced to design specific pieces to fulfill functional requirements of the new office: i.e. square bar steel desks, task chairs, side chairs, and new lateral files.

I believe the three most important changes that occurred in the work place during that decade are: First, the advent of the standard 30-in. by 60-in. modular desk because the offices in the new buildings were smaller.

Second, the advent of the computer in the workplace. The new technology allowed for more flexibility and efficient planning that contributed to the reduction of square footage requirements and subsequent reduction of staff. Further development in the 1970s occurred with the introduction of work station systems.

Third, the offices of interior designers and architects, with the addition of the computer, radically changed the way people worked. Manual tasks including structures, drawing, planning, specifications, and contract documents were replaced by this new technology. Manual tasks became streamlined.

Today, we continue to refine and hone these tools. However, my partner Donald Powell and I are firm believers that the sketching process and detailing by hand prior to applying these skills to the computer is essential.


Robert Kleinschmidt is founding design principal of Robert D. Kleinschmidt in Chicago, where he is involved in each commission undertaken by the firm. Prior to forming his own firm, he was design principal for Powell/Kleinschmidt, also in Chicago. During his 45 years as an accomplished interior architect, he has gained an intimate knowledge of materials, finishes, furniture and furniture systems, carpeting, fabrics, and lighting. His unique ability to bridge functional systems with the art of design has been an extremely important and much renowned contribution to his work. He holds a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Illinois, a Master in Architecture from Columbia University, and is on the membership committee of the Economic Club of Chicago.

Industry Icon Perspectives: Looking Back 50 Years_02 Neville Lewis

I began my career in the early 1950s after serving in the U.S. army during the Korean War. The fields of interior and industrial design were focused on the wartime requirements of World War II. Commercial interior design was in its infancy and began to emerge in a developing peacetime economy with the growing needs of industry, corporations, and real estate developers. Design at that time was driven by need and in response to technology.

The demands of the times created a need for designers, who were talented and eager to fill the vacuum created by the war time years. During this period there was a recognition that employees required better environments in order to accommodate to the new office and communications technologies. Thus, emerged a new era of design. Keep in mind, also, that the computer as it relates to our industry was in its earliest stages at that time.

Looking back on those early days I remember that relationships were more collegial. There was an excitement that was constant and shared, and there was a climate of civility. (It is interesting that the late Bill Stumpf wrote about the lack of civility in our present generation in his book The Day the Ice Palace Melted.)

In the earlier days corporate executives concerned with international and national growth were involved with us, the designers, at the highest level and as a result we were dealing with the decision makers at the top and conceptually, the design requirements were given first priority. As corporations grew and requirements became more complex, many layers of management were added (such as facilities management, etc.) so that our contacts with the top level of management were watered down, which affected design.

The advent of the computer in our industry was a huge step forward. My firm was one of the first to invest into total computer technology in order to serve our technology driven clients. It not only added many advantages to the design process but also tied us into our clients’ data bases, thereby eliminating many redundancies.

We saw the beginnings of office landscape, the standards and communications technology that were emerging in brokerage and banking, and learned how these affected the user. This became the reason for change and adaptability and brought about new developments in planning and design. Today, the newer emphasis on green design, adaptive reuse, and environmental concerns are changing the way we plan and design environments and products.

All the developments in technology and the human condition have given today’s designer many more tools than we had in the beginning. The computer has given us speed, accuracy, options for design studies, and opportunities to be even more creative. Now, as an educator, I find that our drawing and conceptual skills need to be strengthened; we must not lose our passion for design and the understanding of user needs. The computer is a tool. It is our brains that still create (at least for now!).

Neville Lewis, FIIDA, IDSA, was born in Sheffield, England, and came to the United States in 1941. He earned a BFA from Syracuse University and a Certificate of Industrial Design from Pratt Institute. Lewis spent his early career at Raymond Loewy, JFN Associates, and Morganelli Heumann. In 1976, he founded Neville Lewis Associates, a highly respected office interior design and space planning firm with offices in New York, Dallas, Denver, and Los Angeles. In 1996 Lewis formed consulting and special projects design firm Iu & Lewis with Carolyn Iu. Lewis is a fellow of IIDA and member of the Industrial Design Society of America. He now teaches design at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Industry Icon Perspectives: Looking Back 50 Years_03 Andre Staffelbach

The industry has changed phenomenally in the nearly 45 years that I have been privileged to be a part of it.

I think that the most significant change is likely the computer and its impact on design and architecture. Many of today’s design achievements could never have happened without the computer. There have also been an amazing number of changes in how we conduct our business and do our work—from parallel bars and ink, pens and pencils, to pin bar and fax machine…then to computers and software and the continuous upgrades within them. The concepts of IT and data were not even close to being considered in the ways that we use them now.

With these technological changes over the years we have also created a greater need for more enhanced levels of communication from architects to clients. In years past we developed the design and then illustrated it. Now, with enhanced levels of 3-D visualization and animation, we explain our design concepts to our clients to secure their approval prior to the actual design being developed. This has transformed the design process. It does not minimize or reduce the need for technical accuracy and precision, it only changes the sequence in which it occurs. I just hope that we, as design professionals, never allow the size of the computer screen to dictate the potential or result of a project.

In the commercial section of the profession, where I have spent a lot of my time, I have watched as the expectations of knowledge and responsibility have increased while the allotted time-frame to complete a project—and the fees expected to execute said project—have been reduced. There is a bit of fear that our professional services are becoming commoditized. Where it was once revered more as an art form—where patrons were those who solicited the services of a designer—there seems to be a push to take away that understanding. I hope that spaces will always be encouraged to speak for those who inhabit them.

The industry itself has become much more serious. We are a professional field that is now controlled much more by codes and state and governmental regulations and that is a good thing. I remember that the concern for the overall well being of clients was not a thought. Even ADA wasn’t within the parameter of our responsibility. Now we are gauged and held accountable and that provides a real sense of security for both the professional as well as the recipient of the work. It validates us. It separates the serious from the hobbyist.

Something I find very rewarding is that the industry has become much more focused on the sustainability of our planet. We have an obligation to look at our work as another way for our clients to make better choices and how they affect the environment. Designers and architects have been a big influence on how products are made and what they are made with. We can, with our expertise, provide solid, well-thought-out answers to our clients, who are not sure of the right way to make their space more of an environmentally-friendly one.

Overall, I believe that architecture and design is still one of the great professions to be a part of. As long as you have the passion, commitment, and discipline to enjoy the journey, you will find the rewards of it in the long run.

Andre Staffelbach, FIIDA, ASID, was born in Chur, Switzerland, and immigrated to the United States in 1962 following the completion of his apprenticeship in interior design in Luzern and Zurich. He is the founder and creative principal of STAFFELBACH, a specialized group of interior architects and designers with corporate offices in Dallas. Staffelbach was inducted into the International Interior Design Hall of Fame in 1988. He is also the recipient of ASID’s highest national professional honor, the Designer of Distinction designation.


Industry Icon Perspectives: Looking Back 50 Years_04 Milo Kleinberg

It is with great warmth that I congratulate Contract magazine on its 50th anniversary, and I am pleased that MKDA shares the same distinction in reaching this honorable milestone. Founded in 1959 as Milo Kleinberg Design Associates, our firm quickly became the leading designer of showrooms in Manhattan’s Fashion District, but as competition increased in the late 1960s, we broadened our scope to incorporate more of the commercial landscape.

When I first went into business, the industry was less complicated. Growing a successful firm required talent, hard work, and dedication. The corporate interiors industry today is much larger and more sophisticated than it was in our early years. This increase in competition has created an environment in which corporate interiors firms are required to work harder to accomplish more within tighter time frames and budgets. Additionally, it requires that each of us within the industry consistently strives for a higher level of design.

There were less than 10 commercial real estate brokers specializing in the Fashion District in the early ’60s. Assisting these brokers and building owners in leasing offices and showrooms soon became a hallmark of our firm. Over the years, we had to gain an understanding—as would other corporate interiors firms—of real estate and how to work closely with the brokerage and ownership communities in order to remain competitive.

During the economic downturn in the ’70s, our work servicing the real estate industry increased, as we assisted commercial building owners in leasing space by designing prebuilt programs. As the cost to lease space rose over the years, our focus increasingly was on optimizing space, cutting operational costs, and improving headcount capacity for clients. Fewer businesses were willing to lease additional space when real estate costs became their second largest expenditure. Because it factors into our clients’ operational budgets more than ever before, our work has become much more important to the lease decision-making process.

I remember fondly the days when drawing was done by hand and important contracts and layouts, were hand delivered. Our industry was built on a high level of attention to detail and personalization before communications technology transformed the way we now conduct our business. These and other technological advancements have increased the need for specialists in an industry that used to consist of generalists. Firms like ours now employ strategic workplace consultants that specialize in pre-design services as well as LEED certified designers. These specialists give today’s corporate space users a leading edge in the global market.

It is hard to believe, but in our early years smoking was permitted in office buildings, and ‘clean air’ was something to be found in the great outdoors. The low-VOC products and other sustainable materials available today allow designers to create beautiful interiors that contribute to a healthier employee and a cleaner earth, which means that our industry has farther reaching implications than ever before.

Despite the many changes over the past 50 years and our industry’s increasing relevance as we move further into the 21st century, there remain traces of our early work in many of today’s interior environments. The Lufthansa Airlines office we designed in the 1960s, for example, featured many of the same clean architectural lines and classic finishes as many of today’s interior environments.

I look forward to seeing what other changes are in store for our industry this decade, and I have no doubt that Contract magazine will continue to enlighten us as the industry evolves.

Founder of MKDA, headquartered in New York with a second office in Stamford, Conn., Milo Kleinberg immigrated to America from Austria in 1939 and became a draftsman for an architect. In 1959, he decided to strike out on his own, founding MKDA, where he made a name for himself designing showrooms in New York. Since then, MKDA has applied its intimate knowledge of the real estate market to design offices on behalf of many of New York’s premier commercial building owners, as well as corporate space users in a variety or sectors.


Industry Icon Perspectives: Looking Back 50 Years_05 Neil Frankel

This is a story of leadership and seminal development. It is as much about the sociology of our time as it is about the tradition and legacy of a profound body of work. We do know for sure, interior design has changed. It has moved from the work of Davids to that of Goliaths. It has shifted from a practice of reflection to that of speed. It has changed from an exploration of craft to being led by technology. And mostly, it has been fifty years of people, projects, practice, products, profession, and ph-ocus.

The journey has seen the shift in the client, from the articulate vision of the individual client leader to the voice of the committee of discrete specialists. The goal of the work shifted its focus from the pronounced message of image to the answerable impact of effectiveness. Today’s design firm is no longer centered on connoisseurship of taste but rather, the social science of team accomplishment. While we still struggle to measure design’s contribution, we are self conscious of its value.

It has been five decades of the engagement of legions of soldiers led by a galaxy of generals. While the ’60s witnessed the introduction of architectural firms and standalone independent design practices offering interior design services, the mid-1970s signaled the adoption of comprehensive services. For me personally, I joined a small group of generals gathered for the beginning of the National AIA Interiors Committee and challenged the practice of Interiors as a profession. Around the table were Art Gensler, Norman DeHann, Mike Tatum, Peter Brandt, Brock Arms, Ken Johnson, Ros Brandt, and Ken Walker, among others. Mike Tatum followed up by creating a document that de_ ned the basic scope of services for interior design. Seeing this document on paper was an amazing wake up call—there was a unanimous, “WOW, we should be getting paid more!”

But, most memorable about this piece of history was the openness, spirit of common interest, and the shared knowledge of these individuals/friends representing competing firms. It authenticated the collegiality of the community of designers and defined the potential of a proactive practice.

Has the practice grasped its potential over this half-century? Many observe that there are miles to go. Complacency that we do noble work has undermined the value equation of effort and reward. The half-century has not been kind to the value of interior design. The sociology of speed has looted the importance of rumination time, time required to aspire for significance. Th e devaluing of compensation in favor of competition denied the higher worth of the work.

Interior design suffered from the advent and dominance of space planning, a subject that has to do with accommodation not experience. We should object to the notion of the designer as “problem solver” in lieu of “problem identifier.” Interior design owes it to itself to be centered in a unique body of knowledge and build alliance to abstract theory. When did a foosball table become a design concept?

Ahead of us lies the opportunity for the establishment of a new body of knowledge, a matchless integration of social research and environmental delight. We look forward to a rigorous and challenging translation of human needs in a context of successful human experience. That is where we are going—to take back the best of this past decade, cut down the obsessive turn-of-the-century tactical distractions that commoditize the work of the profession. This past half-century of design will be celebrated by revaluing what was the prediction of the small band of generals.

Prior to accepting the Fitz-Hugh Scott Endowed Chair for Design Excellence at the University of Wisconsin Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, Neil Frankel, FAIA, FIIDA, was responsible for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Chicago architectural interior practice. In addition to his academic commitment, Frankel runs an independent studio, Frankel + Coleman. He is one of five Fellows of both AIA and IIDA and a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council. In 2005, Frankel was the sole recipient of the (AIAS) Education Honor Award.

Industry Icon Perspectives: Looking Back 50 Years_06 Lou Switzer

So much has changed since I started in the industry 42 years ago. First of all, the basic way we provide our services has changed drastically. Technology has changed the field completely. We went from an age of doing everything manually—with T-squares, pen and ink, and don’t forget the aprons—to technology-based methods. Today we design on computers using programs like CAD, we transmit drawings via e-mail and _ p sites, etc., and we have client meetings via video conferencing and Web meetings. You no longer have to have an office in a specific city or location to work there, so our range has expanded. Information also moves much more quickly, decisions are made rapidly, and clients want deliverables in shorter time frames.

Another big change—and an important one—is the way in which the design team is selected. When it comes to the client’s decision-making process, many other players have entered the picture. These include owner’s reps, brokers, and even contractors.

And while these groups may not be making the decision, they are certainly influencing it. This is the most significant change in the way our business is being done today. The client base is also very sophisticated nowadays. In the old days, you went in, you made a presentation, they liked you, and they hired you. Now it is a whole different story—it is a much more intense and competitive process.

Also, in the past few years, due to the economic crisis, fees have become competitive to the point where you can’t cover costs. At some point the industry needs to wake up and see all the talent that we are giving away.

I can truly say that, during my time in this industry, the quality of the construction work has improved tenfold. There are more innovative products in the marketplace, which allow us to create successful, functional, and attractive working environments.

That leads me to LEED. Sustainable design has had a tremendous impact on the way spaces are designed and built. The popularity of sustainable design has led to a bonanza of products in the marketplace. This is a fantastic development.

The workplace itself, the way people work, has changed, which inevitably drives the design. Younger generations are more collaborative and tech savvy. Working in groups or working remotely is much more common. In the old days people worked to achieve a “private office.” It was a sign of success. Offices still exist, but they are less of a status symbol. Today people work in open, collaborative environments, and cost conscious clients are using these trends to their advantage. Benching, for example, is becoming more popular, provided that the ancillary spaces (to collaborate and work in groups) are substantial. Offices have a more open and airy feel to them. Gone are the days of highpartition maze-like designs. Hoteling also has become a norm for many clients. Flexibility of design is key. Universal standards and workstation footprints give clients the ability to project into the future without fear of additional costs.

The design profession itself has become more specific; people specialize now. In the old days, you had one person who was designer/decorator/project manager/draftsperson. Today, you have different people for different jobs (e.g. project managers, programmers, facilities managers, technical managers, resource managers, designers, technicians, etc.).

And lastly, when I came into this profession it was basically all white males—happily, now you see a lot of diversity in the industry. There are many more females and minorities as compared to when I started, 42 years ago.

Lou Switzer is founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of The Switzer Group, one of the nation’s most progressive interior architectural design consulting firms, now celebrating its 35th anniversary. Today, The Switzer Group in New York is the nation’s largest minority-owned interior architectural design firm and is currently among the top 100 American design firms.


Industry Icon Perspectives: Looking Back 50 Years_07 Ralph Mancini

In the 50 years since I entered the profession, I’ve seen a great deal of change—some of it good, some of it not
so much.

One change is the role of the design professional. When I started out, we played a stronger leadership role on projects. But over the years, others have stepped in to provide some of the leadership that we had been providing. Our challenge now is to continue to collaborate with all team members and pull together for the benefit of the clients we share.

We’ve also seen some positive trends as we discover how to best support the evolving needs of our clients. As many have grown into global companies, we’ve had the opportunity to grow with them in ways that, I believe, have the potential for long-term stability for the practice. That has also enabled us to create partnerships and alliances with overseas design practices, which not only leads to more growth, but also insight and information about other cultures—an invaluable asset in our own increasingly diversified society. And technology, of course, has completely revolutionized the way we work.

As sustainability has moved from the tree-hugging fringe to become a key, often unifying, element in projects, the way we work has changed. All the issues and elements are related, and that takes a much more collaborative approach and a supportive, rather than adversarial, relationship among project team members. With increasingly tight budgets and the demand for speed, it’s obvious that we can’t just pass things over the transom from one discipline to another.

More informally, just as my clients have come to me for advice on getting the highest quality of design and construction, I rely on them as my business advisors. Those relationships have served us both very well over the years: a steady flow of work for us, trustworthy advice and problem-solving for them. That’s something I keep urging start , at all levels, to do, building and maintaining relationships with client representatives who are at a comparable stage in their careers.

Flexibility and agility are more important than ever in a rapidly changing marketplace. We have to keep an eye out for what’s happening and be proactive about adapting the firm’s strategic plan, because change, of any kind, takes time. But there are two critical qualities for a successful practice that have never changed and, I hope, never will:

* Excellent design solutions that help distinguish a firm’s reputation and help clients express their identity while creating environments that support the client’s mission.

* Strong client relationships that foster loyalty and trust and result in a continuing flow of work.

All the bells and whistles and trends and fads in the world will never replace these two essentials. Make them the heart of the practice, and we can meet any future changes with confidence.

Ralph Mancini has been involved in the corporate interior design industry for more than 50 years. As Chairman Emeritus of Mancini•Duffy, he focuses on his clients’ strategic business goals. During the course of his career, he has lectured at numerous events in the real estate and design fields. In June 2006, the firm celebrated its 25 – 50 – 85 anniversary (Ralph Mancini Associates, founded 1981; Duffy, Inc., founded 1956, and Halsey,McCormack & Helmer, founded 1920).