This week, we lost two design giants — legends really — and their deaths have been felt world-wide. Art Gensler and Helmut Jahn leave us their legacies of renowned architecture and interior design, as well as professional design practice.
Michelle Wempe is a Professor of Practice at Kansas State University (KSU). She is also the Founder of zumaooh® and a Principal with Talentstar. After learning of Art’s passing, Michelle shared the following statement with the faculty and students of the Interior Architecture & Industrial Design (IAID) program at KSU. She graciously allowed us to post her statement so we can share it with you.
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Last night I learned of the passing of a great man — and the reason we are all either working or studying within the IAID department — Arthur Gensler. Arthur passed away Sunday in his sleep, thankfully as peaceful as could be.
Arthur’s genius is why the practice of Interior Architecture exists today.
Art was larger than life in both his personality and his presence — he was a giant of a man, somewhat uncomfortable in his big frame in a way that at the time gave him the beloved nickname of “the goose” — gangly and at times awkward, but always laser-focused on what was important to him, his firm, and most importantly, his clients.
He founded the firm now known as Gensler in 1965 at the age of just 29. His firm was focused on doing architecture from the inside out, rather than simply designing the outside and forgetting about the inside. He started the firm with his wife Drue and James Follett, who in my time, continued to be the Managing Principal of the San Francisco office for many years.
Many of my mentors in practice were among the first group of individuals to work at Gensler, with employee numbers in the single or double digits. (Today that number runs into the tens of thousands).
As a board member of the Northern California Chapter of IIDA, I spent several years putting together our large fundraising programs, including one called Pioneers of Design. Arthur and Jim were our first panelists, talking about the early days of the firm and the development of an entire industry focused on the power of working closely with clients, which allowed firms to develop their businesses as architectural enterprises. Their panel was followed the next year by another firm — SOM — whose SF office began another well-regarded interiors practice at about the same time.
When Jack Durgan1 began the KSU Interior Architecture (IA) program back in the 60’s, he was focused very much on developing an expertise within our College that followed the leadership of Gensler and SOM — and providing our graduates with the skills needed to work in those kinds of practices. I wasn’t here [at KSU] then, but I had my first tour of our program as a senior in high school in 1974, and I was hooked — enough to decide to return to school 5 years later and study with Jack.
Our legacy, and our continued high rankings, are Jack’s legacy, and in many ways part of Arthur’s as well.
Not long after I graduated, I worked in the Gensler|Denver office (along with short stints in DC and LA). It was at a time when the “big names” in the firm were still highly active. Art was just in his 50’s, Jim was in SF, Walter Hunt and Margo Grant headed the NYC office, Orlando Diaz-Azcuy was the firmwide design leader, etc. They were all people I knew and, at one time or another, worked with. The Denver office was managed by Larry King, who remains a friend and mentor of mine today — an alumnus from our own college (in Jack’s early years here), who sits on both our Dean’s Advisory Council and the KSU Foundation’s Board, along with his lifelong friend and classmate, Alan Lauck.2
At that time, Gensler was working to expand their practice into architecture, from a core business focused on interior architecture, which was such a different way to approach practice-building, since most large firms did the opposite. The interiors group led the way in the firm, with those in the architecture group following. Today all departments within the firm are very much on equal footing, something that even today can be unusual within architectural firms.3
The Gensler mantra was one of family, and they began something that was almost unheard of in the architectural world of the 1980’s — valuing their employees and showing it. They were one of the few firms that paid everyone for every hour they worked, began a 401K program while I was an employee, and became an employee-owned firm during that time as well. They paid their employees well and provided semi-annual bonuses, based on performance. They also made room at the top of the firm for people of all backgrounds to achieve principal-level status, something that even in today’s world may be awarded primarily to men or those with an architectural license.
Part of Art’s Legacy is this vast constellation of talent and leadership that includes a who’s-who in our industry, one that many, if not all of us, will at some point connect into.
I’ve included links for Art’s obituary from Architectural Record and the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as yesterday’s LinkedIn post from Gensler’s current Co-CEO, Diane J. Hoskins — a wonderful tribute to a great man. The comments are inspiring, and there are many, many other posts on LI that talk about Arthur’s legacy in our profession, all from very personal points of view.
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1 Learn more about Jack Durgan, the founder of the Interior Architecture program at KSU, and Allan Hastings, who developed the Industrial Design component.
2 In 1984, Alan Lauck founded lauckgroup in Dallas. In 1999, shareholders Anne Kniffen and Brigitte Preston purchased the firm and opened offices in Austin and Houston. In 2018, The Lauck Group, Inc., “One of Texas’s Premier Interior Architecture Firms” joined Perkins&Will.
3 In 2000, Gensler won the The American Institute of Architects’ Architecture Firm Award. In announcing the award, AIA President Michael J. Stanton, FAIA, stated, “Gensler is America’s foremost collaborative practice. The firm exemplifies how the creative mix of disciplines, all with ‘place’ as their focus, adds richness and value to buildings and their settings. Gensler has led our profession in bringing sustainability into mainstream corporate practices.”
Portrait of Art Gensler by Emily Hagopian. Courtesy of Gensler.