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What I've Learned

By Robert Nieminen

Robert Nieminen,

One of my favorite columns to read in Esquire magazine is a series titled, "What I've Learned," in which both prominent figures and ephemeral celebrities reflect on what they've distilled through their life experiences to date. Without fail, I always take away at least one poignant insight from the person interviewed that leaves me with a new appreciation for who they are or the meaning their words carry.

Famed architect Philip Johnson once told Esquire if he could build one building in his life, it would be one that "people feel in the stomach—you can call it comfort, beauty, excitement, guts, tears … There are many ways to describe the reaction to architecture, but tears are as good as any." I can't say I've personally experienced architecture this deeply, but I do know that visiting Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic Fallingwater house when I first started with I&S altered my perception of architecture and design. Although a novice at the time, the experience served as an education and is etched in my memory.

With our focus on education interiors in this issue (and with a few more years of experience under my belt), I thought it would be fitting to share a few thoughts on what I've learned about the industry in the past several years:

there's no place for a pre-recession mentality.
If you're still waiting for the economic clouds to clear, you're already behind. The unsolicited change accompanying the economic downturn has forced everyone to reassess what's valuable to them. If designers can't prove their value to clients, an improved economy won't save their businesses. Firms that have become specialized, that have learned to operate more efficiently and that collaborate with strategic partners are the ones leading the pack, and they will thrive in the New Economy.

legislation is the most critical issue facing the profession.
Until the question of what constitutes interior design and who can practice it (and how it differs from architecture and decoration) is answered definitively and legally, the profession cannot advance, and could even dissolve. It may well be that "interior architecture" would better represent the work that current licensed designers engage in, and should replace their title or occupation as a whole, as advocates for the profession, such as Lisa Whited, NCIDQ #7490, have speculated.

sustainability is a given.
When I joined the magazine in 2002, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) had just launched the inaugural Greenbuild Expo and the sustainable design movement was still at a grassroots level. A lot has changed since then, and with the state of Maryland announcing it has officially adopted the International Green Construction Code, sustainable design is quickly becoming the norm rather than the exception in commercial building projects.

technology does not guarantee good design.
While technological advances in modeling software may have changed the way people design spaces, it has not changed how well they do it. The principles of good design remain the same; technology exists to support and augment it, not replace it. Design students, take heed.

While learning can take place anywhere, if I had my choice of classrooms in which to soak in some knowledge, it would have to be in one of our featured projects in this issue. Our cover story on The Culinary Art School in Tijuana, Mexico, designed by Gracia Studio, is a perfect example of a well-designed space that blends seamlessly with its surroundings and is a veritable sanctuary where students want to show up for class. As someone who considers himself a foodie, I was practically salivating at the thought of earning a culinary degree in the halls of this urban setting.

If I could transport myself back in time and relive my high school years, I'd want to spend those days in a facility more like the dynamic, sustainable new addition to Omaha North High School, rather than the drab, uninspiring classrooms of my youth. With a design concept driven by former and current students, Omaha North is the first school in Nebraska to be certified under the LEED for Schools rating system, and the building will be used to illustrate the sustainable principles they are teaching.

Speaking of high school, my 10th grade English teacher used to say "show, don't tell" when critiquing our papers. Thanks, Mr. Hale (wherever you are)—that's one lesson I've never forgotten.