Cover Story


Speaking with JJ Falk, you can sense not only the love she has for her chosen profession, but also her appreciation of the journey that led her there.

"In a friendship you spend time getting to know that person," Falk says. "I believe that the same is true when I work with a client. I must get to know them and their business goals, philosophy and aspirations in order to appreciate what I must deliver to them. Only then am I prepared to design a space that supports their needs."

Falk's approach to design began almost 30 years ago, and has been evolving ever since. A native of Korea, Falk came to the United States in 1980 with a master's degree in architecture (termed architectural engineering in Korea). "I received excellent training in my native country based on both my education and work with one of the country's largest design firms," she says. "Unfortunately, my English wasn't very good and I quickly realized that fact was hampering my ability to secure a job in this country."

At this point, Falk was in Denver, and she decided to enroll at the University of Colorado-Denver to pursue another master's degree, this time in interior architectural design. "I made wonderful friends at the university, and received great support from the faculty," Falk remembers. "I was asked and worked as a teaching assistant for two years, and that experience allowed me to work on my English a lot since I was interacting with students so much. It also enhanced my presentation skills. I made good contacts with visiting professionals, such as individuals from Gensler and other national design firms, who came to lecture at the school, which paved the way for my future work."

Upon earning her degree, Falk went to work for WC Muchow & Partners in Denver. She says the time she spent working as an architectural designer for the firm was excellent, and that it furthered her appreciation of the value of design. During her time at Muchow, she had the opportunity to design offices for IBM and a headquarters for Blue Cross & Blue Shield.

The next stop on her journey involved a move to another firm, and relocating to the city she now calls home. "It was time for a change, and the relationships I had previously made with personnel from Gensler benefited me," Falk says. "Gensler was looking for a designer in their New York City office, and I was fortunate to be selected for the position."

At Gensler, she gained hands-on practical experience on high-profile projects. "I was given broad project responsibilities, ranging from space planning to coordination of presentations and production work," she says. "This role strengthened my production skills and enhanced my appreciation for how projects must come together and be detailed. As a designer I continue to believe that I must be involved in some measure throughout production. It best serves both our firm and our clients."

The desire for even greater challenges ultimately lead Falk to the doors of Phillips & Jensen—now The Phillips Group—where she took on the role of lead designer. She credits her work at Philips with furthering her career. "I was given wonderful challenges and had great project diversity during my tenure as the firm's top designer. I had lots of freedom and was encouraged and allowed to be very innovative."

Her time at the firm advanced Falk's commitment to the designer's responsibility to the client. "We must have a purpose for our clients," she asserts. "As designers we must respect their needs and reflect those in our work. Successful projects are designed well and serve the client." Another career commitment that Falk made while at the firm may be one of her most important—her focus on sustainable design. "I realized that sustainable design had to be part of my work," she says. "I wanted the spaces that I designed to be aesthetically pleasing, functional and humane. You can and should have all three on a project."

Certainly, having an increasing number of environmentally responsible products coming on the market helped. "Companies were starting to do more, like recycling tires into floor tiles, and different woods were becoming available," she notes. "I made my commitment when the industry was in many ways doing the same, so it was an easy transition for me."

Falk says that her attitude to design is the same whether she's designing a 20-square-foot kiosk or a one-million-square-foot office building. She contends that designers must add value to human life while helping to meet business goals. That, she says, requires showing clients the benefit that sustainable design brings to the organization and its employees. "I don't give my clients a hard sell regarding sustainable design," she explains. "We use sustainable design processes, products and systems as a natural part of what we do. We advocate this to our clients when presenting our designs. Sustainable design shouldn't be presented as something unique."

Falk likens designing a project to the human body, a perspective she formed while studying in Korea. "My first two architecture degrees, which I obtained in Korea, are somewhat different in terms of program versus what is done in many U.S. colleges and universities. They're more architecture engineering-oriented with more emphasis on the engineering part, and that gave me a good perspective regarding a building's infrastructure or its skeleton," Falk says. "I fully understand building systems and their impact on the overall environment. My work as an interior designer builds upon the skeleton, adding the muscles that make things work and the exterior beauty—the visible design elements—that finish the product. I believe I had a great sensitivity to all the pieces from the start."

Sustainable design is incorporated as fully as possible into every project undertaken by JJ Falk Design LLC, the firm that Falk established in 1998. "I really started my own firm without much planning," she says with a laugh. "I always wanted my own studio, and it turned out that my timing, even though I hadn't been very strategic, was good. It was pure luck."

The firm's portfolio is diverse, and includes projects for law firms, advertising and media agencies, and telecommunications, residential, financial and corporate clients. Projects have been completed throughout the United States and internationally. JJFD's offices include a library with extensive material devoted to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED™ ) information, which helps the firm to use materials and procedures that will be acceptable as part of the The U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) certification program. The firm is a member of the USGBC, and Dale Peterson, AIA, principal, is a LEED-certified professional.

One project in particular, the 75,000-square-foot headquarters for Horizon Media, Inc.—one of the firm's long-term clients—showcases both Falk's design savvy and environmental commitment. "The company occupied two existing floors, which were renovated, and also assumed space on an additional floor," she says. "We were challenged to create a new image while being economical and using sustainable products, processes and systems." The design team evaluated the existing mechanical and electrical systems, and saved as much of them as possible. A wooden composite tile that looks similar to flagstone graces the high-end entry. A vinyl wood-like product was used in other areas. Falk notes that the composite tile had not been on the market long before she used it for Horizon Media.

"This project was designed with expansion in mind, and we subsequently repeated the same design concept on two floors when the firm needed to expand again," Falk says. "We always design with expansion as a possibility, as this saves the client time and money in the future if that becomes reality. It supports sustainability as it encourages us to really evaluate both the building systems and products that are initially used." Falk subsequently designed offices for the company in Los Angeles and the chairman's residence in New York.

One of the firm's newest projects is the recently completed DSW/Filene's Basement in New York City's Union Square. The 120,000-square-foot project spans four floors and opened in October 2003 to rave reviews. JJFD began providing design services for several DSW/Filene's Basement locations and was selected for the Union Square flagship store based on the firm's design expertise and understanding of the business goals of DSW/Filene's Basement and its parent company.

"The project was very intense and required a short design process," Falk says. "This is the company's flagship store in Manhattan, so what we proposed had to be on target from the start given that their goal was to be open in advance of the 2003 holiday shopping season."

The store's design is bright and open. The 3,000-square-foot eye-catching entry serves as an introduction to design elements used throughout the store. The full-length glass wall in the entryway allows natural light to flood the atrium and provides wonderful views to the adjacent city park, and a vestibule lessens the flow of cold air into the lobby during the winter. The design team used four main products on the project—aluminum panels, glass, stone, and metal ceiling panels. The panelized sheet aluminum in the atrium and other areas has the appearance of stainless steel but is lighter and costs less—a good decision from both a sustainability and economic perspective. Maintenance requirements for the panels are minimal.

The store's walls look like one piece of product rather than several five-foot modules joined together; this was done to allow DSW/Filene's to use the walls for another purpose. A projector located in the center of the atrium's ceiling projects advertising material onto the walls—a cost-effective advertising solution since the projector is easy to reprogram. Many other features reflect Falk's sustainability and business focus. The carpet tiles, manufactured by Shaw, bear The Green Label from The Carpet and Rug Institute. The carpet is designed for high traffic, is a sustainable product and is easy
to maintain. Plexiglas rather than glass was used where possible, such as for the dividers between the cashiers and the vertical transportation. Indirect light sources were used extensively, especially in the product areas. The team was able to use lower-wattage lights in the atrium because they used the volume of the ceiling as a reflector.

Falk's passion for sustainable design impacts not only her firm's work but her professional activities as well. She is leading a facility forum as part of the IIDA-New York chapter's education efforts regarding the LEED certification process. The three-pronged event, which manufacturers are sponsoring, will bring together firm principals to hear lectures and participate in product presentations related to LEED. She views her willingness to participate in such efforts as part of her responsibility as a design professional.

Falk's journey has a long way to go, and it is certain to be filled with more challenging design assignments for herself and her firm. Her advocacy of sustainable design has and will continue to influence her clients, design team and the profession that she credits with giving her such a wonderful journey. "I've been fortunate to have many special design assignments during my career and have been able to partner on these with wonderful clients. The journey to date has been very good."

  • JJ Falk Design LLC
    276 Fifth Avenue, Suite 402New York, NY 10001
    (212) 685-1913

    JJ Falk, AIA Associate, IIDA
    JJ Falk established her own firm, JJ Falk Design LLC, in 1998 after working for other prominent architectural firms for 20 years. She obtained bachelor's and master's degrees in architecture in Korea, then completed a master's degree in interior architectural design at the University of Colorado at Denver in 1984. Her planning and design expertise have been applied to numerous projects for clients around the country as well as internationally. Falk's experience includes facilities for law, financial and advertising firms, telecommunications, residential, and corporate clients. Each project is based on a thorough understanding of the client's current and future needs. Sustainable design is incorporated into each project with the goal of creating spaces that are both functional and humane. During Falk's career, her clients have included DDB Worldwide, Chicago; Goldman Sachs, New York; the National Football League, New York; Rolling Stone magazine, New York; and BPI Communications in New York and Los Angeles. Her firm's current clients include MTV Networks, Guardian Insurance, Boston Properties and the fashion designer Eli Tahari. Falk is a member of the IIDA, and an associate member of the AIA, the KOSID, the USGBC, NACORE, WBEN/WPEO and the New York Building Congress.