You might say her right brain and left brain are equally weighted. Trained as a designer, she’s now business-minded. Or mostly: building and managing multiple teams, fostering design collaboration, interfacing with clients, strategizing. It’s what she was born to do, and she loves it.
Robin Klehr Avia, one of Gensler’s regional managing principals, traces her entrepreneurial streak back to her childhood in Verona, New Jersey. “On weekends, I was the kid with the lemonade stand,” she begins. “But I took painting classes, too.” She was also the one with two older brothers, always playing catch-up. An early Gensler mentor, Peter Brandt, then a director
of the New York office, told her,
“You’re good at bossing people around.” She took it as a compliment.
To the inevitable question “Why Gensler?” she replies with the name of another mentor, Interior Design Hall of Fame member Margo Grant Walsh. “I had interviewed elsewhere, but there I was, sitting across the table from Margo. She was the only woman, an interior designer working at an architecture firm, and she’d earned the respect of her colleagues.”
That was 1980, a few years after earning a bachelor’s of science in interior design from the University of Tennessee, and Avia became a Gensler junior designer, the 24th employee in the New York office. She laughs as she describes the early years: “We worked with triangles and lead pencils, so we wore black clothes. And we smoked in the office.” She used to bum cigarettes from Hall of Fame member Don Brinkmann. Specs were typed in triplicate. There was no array of practice areas, only workplace.
For a major financial client, she attended project meetings with Art Gensler himself. “I was the kid in the room, taking notes,” she says. “What an opportunity.” Art Gensler, in turn, saw an up-and-comer who was “very smart, a hard worker, and committed to the profession,” he recalls today. Eventually she thought, I could do this.
Her trajectory has taken her straight to the top. As one of the executive committee’s “gang of five”—with CEOs Andy Cohen and Diane Hoskins, COO Daniel Winey, and managing principal and board member Joseph Brancato—Avia is a vital force propelling the firm’s exponential growth. Offices in the Northeast, Canada, and Latin America have all opened under her watch.
“Robin has a laser focus on talent and people, motivating them on game-changing, award-winning global projects,” Cohen comments. (Not to mention that she introduced him to his wife.) Hoskins adds, “With her extraordinary style and visceral understanding of design, Robin creates momentum, takes risks, and makes good on them.”
If leadership offers endless potential for learning, the corollary is the opportunity to teach the next generation. She advises designers never to get too comfortable with what they know how to do, to explore as many new fields possible. “At Gensler,
we have experts on everything,”
she points out. “Use these people.”
Her own thinking centers on problem-solving, bringing people together for a consensus of opinions, and embracing diversity. The consummate pragmatist. Simultaneously, she acknowledges the importance of instinct—and acts on it. Asked what really matters, she cites five concepts that uncoincidentally jibe with the Gensler ethos: work ethic, perseverance, promise, obligation, and legacy. Apropos of legacy, she was instrumental in establishing the Gensler Diversity Scholarship, which benefits African-American architecture students.
Given the scope of her role, we can’t help but wonder whether she misses day-to-day designing. She gets her “fix,” she says, with one or two projects yearly. A recent endeavor, for the financial firm Hudson River Trading, encompasses 69,000 square feet. Most spaces are considerably larger, from the Ford Foundation at 415,000 to Condé Nast at 1,200,000. “I’m known as the million-square-foot person,” she states.
“She’s wonderful at client relations. They love working with her,” Art Gensler says. He also credits that newcomer, 37 years ago, for evolving “to make the firm a better place.”