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Talking Shop

July 28, 2021
Talking Shop

By Meghan Dwyer

The past year has changed a lot—how we work, communicate, have fun, move about the world, and plan for the future. It’s been deeply difficult at points, but in some ways, it has opened the doors to new perspectives, opportunities, and ways of doing things. We checked in with some industry experts to hear how they have navigated the bumpy road and what they have learned.

Barbara Best-Santos
Co-managing Principal, ForrestPerkins

Something you never thought you’d hear yourself say before last year? “You’re on mute.” I hear it many times a week. What it really means is that we are spending more time on camera and on mic with our clients and teams than ever before. In some ways, we’re more connected than when we commuted to the office and were constantly on planes.  

In what ways did the last year shift your perspective on work, life, career? Working from home improved some areas of work-life balance as I have been able to spend less time in transit and more time with family. Although, this improved efficiency has actually led to longer workdays and a seemingly nonstop demand for calls and meetings that fill the day. There will likely be some pendulum swing back to a place of equilibrium so we maintain some of the benefits, but return to a more manageable schedule.

Has it changed your approach to design and working with clients? Absolutely. We have learned so much about how to use virtual tools and work seamlessly with remote and in-person groups that we expect to continue honing these skills and improving the experiences for everyone. The hidden beauty of this cataclysmic event is that we all had to shift as a collective, and it forced an immediate change to our work-life model that would otherwise have been so slow to evolve.

Where have you found opportunity? Opportunity is everywhere! Necessity breeds innovation and there has never been a time in recent history more ripe with new ideas, open-minded discussions, brainstorming, and a collective sense of problem solving. Yes, business has temporarily taken a hit, but there is enough momentum to carry us through and we are encouraged to look for opportunities to collaborate on new project types.

Michael Suomi
President, Suomi Design Works

Best piece of advice you’ve gotten? David Rockwell used to say, “If you do great work and no one sees it, what’s the point?” He didn’t mean to suggest that the only point of what we do is for the work to be publicly lauded, but that you don’t create something for it to sit in a vacuum. It should be made known and celebrated by the public, because the value of great design is that it can change people’s lives and give them lasting memories. It was the first time I understood the true value of marketing and PR around a project.

Something you never would have imagined before last year? The Tuesday before lockdown started, I was having dinner at the Nomad Hotel in New York with an old friend. The dining room was typically packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, which is always a sign of a successful restaurant or bar. Today it’s hard to imagine the crowded conditions that were not only inherent to our daily lives, but desired in my world of designing restaurants and hotels! Being in airports, or inside a super crowded lobby or restaurant is something I will have to readjust to as we begin to move around again.

How did the last year shift your perspective on work, life, career? It has altered everything. One of the biggest differences is the redefined view of what an office really means. I launched Suomi Design Works in late 2019 with a physical office on one of the most desirable streets in Manhattan. I was probably only using the office 12-13 days per month because I was always traveling. Being away is the norm for me, but now my staff are all working remotely, they’re doing well and actually growing. Redefining what an “office” can be is changing my life—I’m now engaged, living in Florida relatively full-time, and running my office remotely.

Has it changed your approach to design or working with clients? Design, no. It is very grounded in creating a strong narrative which would never change. The clients, yes. They are used to using very tactile materials and the design teams are very hands-on, so that aspect has been a challenge. We were so acclimated to being in person frequently for presentations to show the finishes and their intricacies, which in part conveys that narrative. As a solution, I now send the clients packages in advance of our presentations.

What is your outlook for the future? I’m extremely optimistic. I doubled the size of my little company during the worst part of the pandemic. To me, that’s a great sign. Doing great hotel design is always going to have value regardless of the current economic status.

Tara Bernerd
Founder, Tara Bernerd & Partners

Best piece of advice you’ve gotten? I have a favorite quote from George Bernard Shaw that has guided me through much of my career and that I feel explains my outlook on both life and work: “There are two types of people in life: People who see the world as it is and wonder why? And people who imagine the world as it should be and wonder why not?”

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started out? Nothing. Had I actually realized at the time all the different aspects of running my own design studio, I wouldn’t have done it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that “ignorance is bliss,” but more that the bravery you need comes from the very urge to do it, to make a go by striking out on your own. When I started, I just went about finding my own office and setting up on my own. The very first thing that I did was not write a business plan but get a job and win a project. I haven’t looked back.

In what ways did the last year change your approach to design and working with clients? The biggest challenge has undoubtedly been the move to remote working. I cannot thank my team enough for their resilience and resourcefulness, which has been such an inspiration. The hardest part has been working with fabric samples from afar, as well as reviewing model rooms and finishing projects without being able to be there in person. We do our best to foster great working relationships with our clients and with all the project consultants and team, and it was with this level of trust that we have built that has enabled us to successfully complete and launch five projects under lockdown.

Where have you found opportunity? A lot of people, myself included, have been saved by work at this time. When you thought you were going stir crazy in your room, you are suddenly in Hong Kong, or New York, or Vienna, learning a city, traveling by Google Earth, seeing shops, going to neighborhoods, putting together a pitch. It has been, in some ways, amazing on a creative kind of bonding note for all of us.

David Tracz
Co-Founder and Principal, //3877

In what ways did the last year shift your perspective on work, life, career? I have definitely been able to recenter. Before the pandemic, we were working really hard and pushing really hard all the time. Now I see that we can be better if we push smarter—we keep our focus on the right things, and we take the time to balance our lives.

I still have the same ambition to lead the best design firm out there, but we also want to make sure we have a good time getting there. We’ve always been focused on team development and team building. This last year has forced us to be better in the development part. [It has also] spurred a change in our attitude about the physical office space. While I know people will need to be in the office, I also know there will be a need to work from home. We’re going to give people a bit more flexibility. We’re not sure of the policy yet, but it will have a hybrid, work-from-home component.

Has it changed your approach to design and working with clients? We’ve had to work harder to connect with clients. The screen just doesn’t give you that same connection. It has forced the team to ask more questions and get the real feedback. There have been some setbacks, but we’ve been working hard to learn from those situations. This also relates back to the technological upgrades we’ve made. We really pushed on presentations, finding new ways to show projects so that clients can clearly understand the design intent. What have you learned about yourself or your business? That we can get through anything. Our business has become much more varied, so we’re more prepared for other downturns or changes in the economy. I also want to give a shoutout to a small group of other design firm owners. We had gathered for the first time at BDNY in 2019 to talk about the opportunities and challenges of owning and running a business. Little did we know how useful this whole group would be in less than six months’ time. I can’t tell you how much I have appreciated it. It is amazing to have a sounding board, support group, and sharing community.

This article originally appeared in Boutique Design’s Spring 2021 print issue.

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