C.C. Sullivan -- Interior Design, 12/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
Asked how he's shaped his firm in his own image, he practically fires off, "It's not about Art Gensler. I get my thrills and joy by seeing other people succeed." The plainspoken, plainly dressed legend even maintains that he got into interiors by mistake. Or was it fate? Either way, Gensler, the firm, has topped the Interior Design Giants ranking for 29 straight years and is now being honored with a special award commemorating Interior Design's 25th annual Hall of Fame—into which Gensler, the man, was among the very first group of inductees.
In fact, since he entered the Hall of Fame pantheon in 1985, he's proved the power of the Taoist concept of "effortless doing." Like water, his success and influence started to spread, often into uncharted territory, through channels carved by clients and talented recruits. "What followed was a flood of people basically asking us to succeed," he says. He relied on his wife and colleague, board director Drucilla Gensler, and on complementary talents such as president and CEO Ed Friedrichs to lead the business side and principal Margo Grant Walsh, another Hall of Fame member, to drive design innovation.
To this day, the Tao of Art persists. "The firm still builds on the foundation that he created, the premise that business can be improved through design," executive director Diane Hoskins says. "But the world is a very different place from 25 or 45 years ago, with significant shifts in technology, globalization, and of course sustainability."
Art Gensler has identified the contemporary zeitgeist with a single word, shift. Ask around, and a surprisingly clear picture emerges of what this shift portends for tomorrow's firm, led by an executive committee of second-generation men and women. Principal John Bricker, who leads the branding studio, believes that more projects will be informed by human factors as well as client briefs; the focus will be on behavioral science that goes beyond physical ergonomics to adapt spaces to how people think. Design director and principal Ed Wood predicts that the firm's own mind-set will expand culturally as outposts continue to open in Asia and South America, versus the U.S. locations that seemed to open every month in the 1970's, '80's, and '90's.
To integrate this broader outlook, principal and comanaging director Nila Leiserowitz says, project teams will include social scientists and anthropologists in addition to designers: "The thinking goes beyond what we've done before, but we'll look across the whole firm to find the talent. That's what makes it exciting."
Crucial to this next iteration, the Leadership 2000 program has established practice principles that the 200-person Leadership Council applies to every geographic location. "You don't have to be a director or principal to participate, and that has given us huge growth opportunities," managing principal Robin Klehr Avia explains. Hoskins also points to the GSuite, a set of internally focused programs designed to promote multidisciplinary collaboration.
Overlaid on these initiatives is a broader mandate: Learn, stay fresh, and contribute the best possible work to the larger community of design. Whether it's strategic consulting, branded spaces, products, or pure interiors, Art Gensler has instilled the value of interdependence in his 2,200 employees.
As studio director Gervais Tompkin, an organizational specialist, puts it, "We work in an open-source way. If you're going to experiment and innovate as a firm, you have to cultivate enormous trust and social equity." Those qualities are already hardwired at Gensler, studio director Collin Burry says, going on to describe a "constructive discontent with the status quo that helps us stay relevant." Design director Carlos Martinez adds, "Collaboration is in our DNA. Art started this firm on that premise, and we've shown how to make it happen over the last 45 years."
Yet another reason that many young design minds want to join this tight-knit family.
Images from top: MGM CityCenter in Las Vegas, 2009; photography: John Schmidt/MGM Mirage. Smithsonian Institution in Landover, Maryland, 2009; photography: Paul Warchol. Added Value in Los Angeles, 2008; photography: Patricia Parinejad. Christian Dior boutique in New York, 2008; photography: Andrew Bordwin. Pixar in Emeryville, California, 2008; photography: Sharon Risedorph. HBO shop in New York, 2007; photography: Andrew Bordwin. Toys "R" Us in New York, 2002. Photography: Paul Warchol.