30 Years and Counting

We invite some of the most notable designers we’ve profiled through the years to reflect on where their personal journeys have led them since we last spoke, and how they feel about design's future.

by Robert Nieminen

 lauren rottet, faia, fiida 
Founding Principal and President
Rottet Studio

Lauren Rottet hardly needs an introduction. She is among the most celebrated interior architects in recent decades, having recently become the only woman in history to be elevated to Fellow by both the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and International Interior Design Association (IIDA), and inducted into the Interior Design Hall of Fame. Rottet founded her eponymous studio in 2008, and has been heavily involved in commercial and product design ever since.

What projects or ideas have you been focusing on since we last spoke?
I have always been engaged in commercial work, but am now also working on large-scale hotels in major cities, including Houston, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Waikiki. I’m also juggling a new venture into the residential market and a custom furniture line.

When we last spoke to you, you said your job was to fight “visual static” and “create the illusion of change so that these interiors are not boring to look at or work in.” Are you still fighting that battle against visual static?
Fighting visual static continues to be a strong driver for design and my exploration of “chameleon-like” materials.

What other topics or ideas are interesting you these days?
Authenticity of time and place. I love nostalgia as much as the next person, but not new restaurants with an antiquated feel. People too often copy this era, but disregard the level of design detail which makes it so meaningful. Tod Williams and Billie Tsien understand this. They created the Barnes Foundation with a high level of craft and attention to detail, and it’s simply awe-inspiring. Contemporary design should provide a high level of detail and interest that holds one’s attention and provides the same level of satisfaction.

What excites or concerns you most about design today?
I am excited by the fact there is more appreciation for design. Raising the bar for design forces the designer to do more research, promoting a more knowledgeable design community. In terms of advancements in design, I find the 3-D printer to be an especially exciting innovation, as it allows you to look at furniture live without manufacturing it. However, I am concerned that people expect design to be delivered instantly, like a rendering. Although renderings have improved drastically over the years, they create the illusion that design can be delivered quickly, which consequently makes some people overlook the details of the design that would otherwise make it unique.

What advice do you have for designers on their way up?
Understand that small tasks must be completed well and thoroughly, so people trust you with larger roles. Be a sponge. Learn as much from as many as possible. Go with a firm that provides a well-rounded experience and can help you grow.

What do you see as the future of design?
I’d like to see children gain exposure to design at an earlier age and understand that it can influence everything, from highways to clothing and even the pencil they use to write, in order to open their minds at a younger age and foster creativity.

 ken wilson, faia, fiida, leed fellow 
Design Principal

In 2002, we profiled Ken Wilson on the cover of I&S and gave him the moniker, “The Dragon Slayer,” referring to his epic quest to green the world of interiors in a time when sustainability was still a wildly moving target. Twelve years later, he’s still fighting the good fight and is as optimistic as ever about making a positive impact on our environments and the people that inhabit them.

When you were last profiled in I&S, you were still with Envision Design and have since settled in at Perkins+Will. What have you been doing to since we last spoke with you? What projects or ideas are you most focused on?
It has been a dozen years since I was on the cover of I&S and my firm was three years old then.  Since that time my business partner, Diana Horvat, and I continued to lead Envision designing a range of projects all over the country.  We had some fantastic clients and were able to do some exceptional work.  We won over 90 design awards in a range of project types from workspace to residential to hospitality, and had our work published in seven different countries. In August of 2012 we were acquired and we relocated our entire firm five blocks down the street to Perkins+Will’s Washington, D.C. office.

In terms of what I like to focus on, I am always looking for projects that will give us a design challenge.  The type of project doesn’t matter that much to me.  What really matters is having a client that understands the value of good design, the ability to work with great people, and to feel challenged by a complex design problem.

What topics or ideas interest you most these days?
Advancing green design, pushing toward carbon neutrality, and improving human health and wellbeing.  I am also fascinated by the positive affect that design can have on business. By far the biggest cost to a business is their people and even tiny improvements in productivity can have tremendous effects.

How has design changed, in your opinion, since we last spoke? Do you see that as a good or a bad thing?
Design has gotten a lot leaner in the sense that the fees the market will bear are so low that it is stifling innovation. Great design takes time and new ideas have an incubation period. Sure, we can all do a project really fast and go with what we have done before but this doesn’t advance the profession.

Another issue that concerns me is the fact that we are continuing to lose services to the big real estate companies. First it was project management, and now it is programming and workplace strategies. This is not a good thing.

What excites you most about design today? What worries or concerns you?
I am excited about the advancements in green design and the optimism about what can be accomplished.  When we did one of the first LEED-CI pilot projects back in 2001, achieving Platinum level certification seemed impossible. Since then, we have designed projects that have exceeded LEED-CI V3 Platinum by as much as 15 points. In April of this year, my hometown of Washington, D.C. implemented their new green building code, which sets the highest bar in the country for green design. This was unimaginable 10 years ago.  We are now talking with several potential clients about designing net zero energy projects—this is the future of design.

What concerns me is all the LEED bashing we have been hearing. There is a campaign of misinformation by special interest groups. I was on the core committees that developed both the LEED-CI and LEED-CS rating systems for seven years. The process was long, consensus based, and very transparent. Everyone, including the USGBC knows that LEED isn’t perfect, but I can’t imagine where we would be without it.  Now LEED is being threatened and this is, in effect, starting to lower the bar when we should be raising it—the way Washington, D.C. is doing.

If you could go back and revisit one thing in your career over again, what would it be? Why is that?
I can’t say I have any regrets about anything I’ve done.  I was a late bloomer in this business and rarely got to do the things I really wanted to do until I started my own firm. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I could have done the things I did if I hadn’t started my own firm and been willing to take the financial risks that go along with following your passion. I suppose if anything, I wish I had prepared myself to start my own firm earlier and worked on being more well-rounded, especially on the business side of things.

Describe the most important lesson you’ve learned over the course of your career.
Be nice to everyone and treat everyone with respect. Assume first that people want to do the right thing. Always be honest, don’t beat around the bush, and mean what you say.

What advice do you have for designers on their way up?
Take responsibility for your own career. Half of your career is made up of experiences that were handed to you and the other half are what you make for yourself. Don’t put your career solely in the hands of others. Show your passion for design and make an effort to get to know people outside the profession.

What do you see as the future of design?
I would like to see design continue on a path toward zero carbon emissions and promoting human health and wellbeing. Good design is more accessible to more people than ever before, and I hope that also continues. With today’s smartphones, everyone has a beautiful piece of design and technology in their pocket. It may be the best-designed thing they own. They instinctively know this, and it starts to change their attitude about the value of design.

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