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Andrew Stone | January 30, 2013
For three decades, James G. Phillips has used his empowering management style, level head, and expansive design vision to make TPG Architecture, where he is founder, a formidable presence in the corporate architecture world. The firm—based out of New York, with offices in London and Long Island, NY—has designed spaces for corporations such as NBC Universal, Digitas, Citigroup, Moët Hennessy USA, as well as retail spaces for the likes of Michael Kors, DKNY and Louis Vuitton. Here, Phillips shares his secrets to a well-balanced business, the challenge of appealing to a multi-generational office culture, and the defining moment that made him become an architect.
Interior Design: What are the elements that have helped you grow TPG in size and influence over the past thirty years?
James Phillips: I think we’ve given balance to both sides of the service equation, both the design and management side. We’ve not only fulfilled our clients’ design aspirations, but our projects are on time and on budget… It’s been our goal to make it a personal and pleasant experience. Our practice is principally commercial; I truly believe that our job is to create value for businesses through design.
ID: You mention being on time and on budget… Would you say that’s a bit of a chronic problem in the industry?
JP: There are some firms that are very creative, but aren’t very good at dealing with the business side of a project. I’ll hear the nightmares in casual conversation all the time, “Oh, our last project went this much over budget, or took this much longer than expected…” I understand that every project takes on a life of its own, but we try never to forget that the nature of the practice is strengthening businesses.
ID: What are the new needs of corporate clients, perhaps influenced by the economic climate of the past few years?
JP: From our perspective, it’s a very exciting time to be involved in workplace design and planning. The world has changed so dramatically over the past decade. Clearly there’s been a migration to more open work environment, and technology is a huge driver, with the concept that employees should be able to work from anywhere and in any way they need. It’s exciting to figure out how to integrate mobility into the design of a work environment.
ID: What are the big projects that are keeping you busy and engaged right now?
JP: Well, I’ve been to Mexico a half dozen times this year for the luxury retailer Palacio de Hierro, which is a very exciting account for us. We’re currently starting a second store for them. They have this ultra sophisticated vision with world class merchandisers—Prada, Fendi, Gucci, Burberry, Chanel—and they are always looking to improve. Our first store with them has been a huge success. They definitely want to win design awards, and I’m looking forward to being challenged again. I’m also currently associated with a project for Havas, the French holding company that holds a number of advertising agencies. This project—although in two separate locations—features some really exciting design. It’s always fulfilling to create space for a creative business. The new space is going to be such a breath of fresh air. Speaking of the advertising world, we’ve done about a million square feet of space for IPG over the past three years… Locations in San Francisco, Salt Lake City, DC, and we have two underway. The great thing about these creative businesses is that they tend to want to be pushed out of their safe zones.
ID: Do you, yourself, have a default “safe zone?”
JP: As far as design and art go, I see myself am a classic modernist. It’s interesting. These days, there’s an interesting generational influence within our clients’ environments. There are four generations in the work environment. I’m never sure how to get dressed every day—jeans or a suit?
ID: What’s the collaboration process among your team?
JP: I’ve often said that this is a people business. We’re not fine artists; we’re paid a professional fee to represent someone. The key to our success has been to build a strong employee base. We need people who are well educated, well trained, good solid citizens and who understand they have to work together. Egos have to be checked at the door. I have a number of partners, and I believe that it must not be an autocratically run organization.
ID: Do you prefer a hands-on client or someone who hands over the reins?
JP: The most successful projects are when we have a proactive and interested client, who understands how important the design is to the success of the company. I want to work with someone who cares about the results. It’s usually best when we’re working with a CEO who wants to put his or her stamp on the future of their business, make an impact, form a culture and morale, and attract and retain talent.
ID: Do your clients come to the table with a lot of design know-how these days?
JP: I think the design bar has been raised in a lot of places. Look at the hospitality and culinary experience; the retail lifestyle experience. Design in our day-to-day lives has been amped up, which is definitely a good thing.
ID: How do you avoid falling into the trap of dating yourself or being too trend-reliant?
JP: You never want to look at a project and say, “That’s very 1999.” Good design thinking will always stand the test of time. For us, it’s about investing in the use of the space and the health of the enterprise that built the space. This is where branding is a key concept. From collateral material to retail and office spaces, a business’ message should be consistent.
ID: Who are the design innovators who have endured for you as a source of inspiration?
JP: I grew up in the late fifties and sixties, an era when Robert Moses had a huge impact on urban design in the metro area. My initial interest was in civil engineering: highways, roads, cloverleafs, overpasses. This eventually morphed into an interest in architecture. Mies van der Rohe has always been a hero of mine, and today I admire figures like Renzo Piano and Jean Nouvel. Going back even earlier, I went to public school in Brooklyn. I actually studied architecture in high school. One of my teachers opened my eyes, talking about the sensitivity of an architect, saying an architect should be a good lover. He encouraged everyone to go to the Museum of Modern Art sculpture garden, and that was very transforming. It was a defining moment in what I wanted to do.