On June 12, Marlene Liriano, IIDA, LEED AP ID+C, became the 2016-2017 President of the IIDA International Board of Directors. As a leader and a trailblazer, Liriano has been choosing—and defining—her path as an interior designer since before she knew the name of the profession.
The daughter of Cuban immigrants, Liriano grew up believing she could be anything she wanted, and from a young age, she gravitated toward interior spaces, wondering how she could affect people’s experiences in those spaces. Her passion for design has fueled a career that began with a college job at an architectural firm, motivated her to open her own firm at the age of 24, and propelled her to leadership positions that included Design Principal at both Perkins+ Will and HOK and, most recently, Managing Director of the Miami office of IA Interior Architects.
We talked with Liriano about what it means to be a leader in the industry, how IIDA has been instrumental to her success, and why industry veterans must take the time to mentor young designers. Here’s what she had to say:
IIDA: How has your perspective as a designer evolved as you have moved into leadership and management roles?
Liriano: My love for design has not changed nor has my understanding of how important and influential we are as designers. As I moved through different design leadership positions, including design principal, I was involved with the financial aspect of the business to a certain degree as well as business development, but those roles are often ultimately about delivering a project.
As managing director of the Miami office of IA, I’m touching a little bit of design, but I’m also responsible for the inner workings of the office. My focus now is on building a team of highly creative individuals with the same mindset and the same goals who are able to gain the client’s complete confidence on a long-term basis. It’s hard to do, but you can do it if you’re rigorous about your work.
IIDA: The interior design profession is predominantly female, but according to the IIDA Design and Diversity Report, men are far more likely to be in leadership positions. Can you talk about your experience as a woman and a leader in field?
Liriano: I’ve practiced in South Florida my entire career, and many of the executives here are Latin men. In this culture, there can be a bit of an assumption that women are not capable of handling leadership positions. But, I have found that once I start working with someone, they realize that gender has nothing to do with ability, and by the time we finish the project, there’s a high level of respect. Sometimes, it’s challenging, but in the end, it’s always rewarding.
I’ve also seen tremendous change here through the course of my career. I’ve had the opportunity to be in leadership roles managing both men and women, and I find that if I can earn their respect by respecting them, then everything else works—now you have a highly successful team. My approach to the team is that I treat them as equals. It’s not about me being their superior because everything is a team effort. They know their role and my role, and they respect that. There isn’t a hierarchical feeling when working with me.
IIDA: Do you see yourself as a mentor? Why is mentorship in interior design important?
Liriano: Yes, absolutely. It’s our responsibly as leaders in this industry to give back to young designers because they need us to guide them and be a resource. I gravitate toward any young designer who is eager to learn—the ones who ask questions and are curious, the ones where you can see that there’s something in them that makes them love this profession. I participate in the interior design/interior architecture program at Florida International University as much as I can. Even though it’s not always easy to find the time, it’s important and it doesn’t have to be exhausting. I believe that a small effort can go a long way.
IIDA: Tell us about some of your favorite projects.
Liriano: I was born and raised in Miami, and being in Miami, we have the opportunity to be creative because of the cultural mix we have in this city. It’s a dynamic city, highly sought after because of its growth. I think our clients are more willing to take risks, which is not like many other locations.
Some of the projects I have enjoyed most are when I am designing spaces for Latin or Cuban-owned companies—those generations of family members who have been pushing their companies forward for decades. There’s an affinity I feel when I’m working with those teams. I feel like I know how they work, how they feel. There’s a certain connection with those clients and projects.
Last year, we finished a project for the headquarters of Quirch Foods [a distributor of food products in the U.S., Central and South America, and Puerto Rico]. Another favorite of mine was Zubi Advertising, a Hispanic-owned agency. That story is interesting because the founder, Tere Zubizarreta, was told she would never be successful because she was a woman and Cuban, so she built an empire. Her son and daughter run the company now, and they’ve continued to grow. When we designed their office, we were able to infuse the cultural and neighborhood roots throughout the space.
Right now, we’re working on an American Airlines Admirals Club in Brazil. We’re working with a local partner—Athié Wohnrath Associados, an architectural firm that has won design awards in the IIDA Best of Latin American and the Caribbean awards program—but we have to understand the differences between how they work there and how we work here, the culture there, the challenges of materiality and building codes—a lot of the things we take for granted here are different in another country. It makes for an interesting project.
IIDA: How has IIDA influenced your career?
Liriano: I’ve been a member of IIDA for more than 10 years. IIDA truly represents who we are as commercial interior designers, and for any designer who is willing to dedicate the time, the Association provides a platform and valuable resources to push the profession forward.
For me, it’s almost like a sanctuary. IIDA members know and respect the profession. I don’t have to prove the value of what we do. It feels like home because the team at IIDA knows who we are, they know our DNA, and I think we’ve done a really good job over the years to educate people about what interior designers do. I expect the next 20 years to be vibrant, and I’m excited to be a part of that and to continue to teach the public about the value of interior design.