At this year’s Design Leadership Summit in Los Angeles, Frank Gehry talked about the importance of standing by your creative vision; Andy Cohen shared Gensler’s unique strategy for growth and success; L.A. County Museum of Art director Michael Govan explained why L.A. is having its “moment” and is attracting New Yorkers; and architect Kulapat Yantrasast spoke about his personal quest for meaningful interaction. Other speakers reflected on business practices such as hiring, listening and trademarking, and leadership workshops brought designers and architects together to solve problems.
Design Leadership Summit attendees
Now in its 10th year, the summit invited 200-plus of the top design firm principals, editors and sponsor companies to attend a curated program of talks and workshops over the course of three days (October 27–29).
The summit opened with a panel of three “Masterclass” designers: Mark Rios, Suzanne Kasler and Tony Ingrao, who spoke about hiring practices, company culture and recipes for success. Rios is principal of Rios Clementi Hale Studios, a 100-person multidisciplinary firm (producing interior design, architecture, furniture, coffee cups and T-shirts).
The firm seeks employees who add to the office culture; Rios calls it “cultural curation.” Hanging his first shingle in 1985, Rios did not have a steady trajectory. “There were ups and downs and disasters and little miracles,” he explained.
Kasler’s most critical decision in forming her business was hiring a financial expert. She runs a staff of 10, the right size for her, as she enjoys collaborating. The key to success is being appreciative and having a great attitude, she explained, and she advises designers to “have a vision of what is right for you and let it unfold. Be patient, because there is a right time for everything.” She believes now is an ideal time for designers, because there is a better bridge between designers and architects, and collaboration is at its peak.
Rios believes generosity is of utmost importance in dealing with clients. “The act of being generous makes someone trust you and give you more freedom,” he said. “On the flip side, when you give them something the first time, you don’t get paid for it the next time.”
At another presentation, Andy Cohen discussed Gensler’s successful business strategies. Cohen, co-CEO of Gensler, was one of five employees when he was hired 35 years ago. The company now employs 5,000 people and has 3,000 active clients in 114 countries, and over a $1 billion in revenue. Founder Arthur Gensler’s growth strategy? “Every decade, we created a new division for our firm.… We set big, hairy, audacious goals.” He believes a staff of 20 to 40 people is the right size for innovation and client services, so each of the over 200 studios focuses on a different practice and a principle, allowing the company to be agile, small, and both local and global.
In the summit conference room, designers breathed a sign of relief when intellectual property lawyer Roger Bailey explained that they needn’t register a trademark or copyright due to “common law” protection (although registration is always beneficial, and more so with trademark if you do it early). He advised designers to check the availability of a trademark by going to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database or by commissioning a trademark search at Thomson CompuMark.
The first day of the summit concluded with a pilgrimage downtown to see Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, which is hailed as the most important piece of architecture in America. Kicking off the conversation, architecture critic Paul Goldberger asked Gehry to comment on the use of the space. The architect pointed out, good-naturedly, that the stair lights were too bright and the hanging speakers were eyesores. He explained the difficulties in working with the city of L.A., and suggested that architects should insist on using their own construction managers.
That evening, there was a dinner honoring Suzanne Tucker with the 2015 Design Leadership Award.
The second day of the summit focused on the evolution of the city of L.A. as well as the notion of California design.
L.A. is currently in the spotlight, according to Michael Govan of LACMA, which has played an important role in the city’s nurturing talents in art and business and bringing “California Design” to the global forefront. Govan dove into the dual-psyche of the city, calling it “The Land of Sunshine,” but also a dystopia. Degen Pener from Cultured magazine moderated a panel, positing that it’s always been L.A.’s moment.
Adam Blackman and David Cruz of Blackman Cruz, Gerard O’Brien of Reform Gallery, and Johnson Hartig of Libertine said that the city is no different than it has ever been. At Fashion Week in New York, Hartig’s friends raved about all the goings-on in L.A. He asked an associate, “Where is that going on? I just don’t see what they’re all talking about.” Her reply: “Well, maybe you are it.”
Architect Leo Marmol of Marmol Radziner shared a fascinating map of L.A.’s post–World War II urban development, demonstrating the biggest spike in construction that the nation had ever seen.
Closing the day, Thai architect Kulapat Yantrasast shared his frame of mind: “L.A. gives you space and freedom. New York gives you so much energy, but it also takes a lot out of you.” He analyzed his own creative origins as being a cross between Japan, which embodies purity, homogeny, and refinement, and Thailand, which is chaos and harmony at once: “I exist within these two ways of thinking.” He discussed his quest to find meaningful conversation not found at the cocktail parties he attended. He began hosting monthly salons at his home, and the mix of people and conversation created the forum for stimulation and exchange that he had been seeking.