2017 Designer of the Year: Suzette Subance Ferrier

Suzette Subance Ferrier, the 2017 Designer of the Year. Photograph by Mackenzie Stroh

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What separates a truly great designer from all others is not just a great eye but a great ear. And the best can couple the ability to listen to a client’s needs with an inspired vision. Very few designers embody this approach as fully as Contract magazine’s 2017 Designer of the Year Suzette Subance Ferrier, IIDA, a studio design director at New York–based TPG Architecture.

“It’s not about me; it’s about them,” Subance Ferrier says, in reference to her clients. She has evolved this collaborative approach into an art form at TPG for nearly five years after previous experience at HLW and Gensler. Of course, she’s being modest. Her own vision is second to none, but her team-centered design instinct has led her to create workplace interiors that reflect the best attributes of her clients, infused with her artful, unique touch, refined from years of practice.

“What distinguishes Suzette is that she is the complete and consummate design professional,” says James G. Phillips, AIA, founder of TPG Architecture, who hired her in 2012. “She’s very good at capturing the essence, spirit, and soul of each and every one of our clients, which is consistent with the philosophy of design here at TPG.”

Here is the Contract magazine video about the 2017 Designer of the Year Suzette Subance Ferrier. The video was produced by Pentagram for Contract’s 2017 Interiors Awards Breakfast.

The journey starts young
Subance Ferrier was born in New York City to parents who had immigrated to the U.S. from Trinidad and Tobago. She grew up with them and two sisters in Hell’s Kitchen, and her design journey began right at home in the electric, colorful buzz of Manhattan. With a mother who was a seamstress, Subance Ferrier was often surrounded by dress forms, yarn, and intricate embellishments. She actively took part in creative endeavors—like crafting, dressmaking, and puzzles—at an early age.

After graduating from New York’s High School of Fashion Industries, she attended the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), just blocks away on Seventh Avenue, and began with two years in the school’s visual presentation and exhibition design program. Though she later transferred to study interior design, those initial years were not a waste, she insists, because she learned to quickly get to the essence of a design and to tell a story—skills that have served her well ever since. Immersed in a world of stage sets, shop designs, buildings, fashion, and a sense of the theatrical, she began to bring many outside influences into her aesthetic. She ultimately received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in interior design. “Suzette’s bright-eyed, early enthusiasm for interior design was immediately evident in the first-year design studio,” says Susan Forbes, an associate professor of interior design at FIT. Drawn to both architecture and interiors, after some set design experience, Subance Ferrier began her career with eight years at Gensler. There, she collaborated on workplace interiors for a number of companies, including Ernst & Young and Verizon, as well as law firms, such as Willkie Farr & Gallagher and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. While at Gensler, “I learned how the workplace can transform people, companies, and brands,” says Subance Ferrier.

She was a designer within the studio of Gensler’s Ed Wood, whom she considers a mentor. He taught her, more than anything, to “sweat the details,” she says, and that impact is still evident in her meticulous approach today. She also began to hone her strengths, which included a natural affinity for materials, finishes, and the way things are put together, according to Wood. He taught her about architectural approaches, and she, in turn, taught him about materials, colors, and a fashion-influenced sensibility. “The two of us developed a very strong bond creatively,” Wood says. “She brought a lot of interesting insight to our projects.”

After a year’s break designing for a firm in the Cayman Islands, Subance Ferrier returned to New York to work at HLW. Over the course of five years, she increased her responsibilities and expanded her portfolio beyond workplaces to incorporate education projects. Her HLW clients included Claremont, Dechert, Disney, JPMorgan Chase, Hofstra University, Fordham’s Gabelli School of Business, and Google.

HLW Senior Partner John Mack praises Subance Ferrier’s detailed design skills, as well as her ability to “find that unique combination of something that really works but [may] also be a little unexpected and fun.” He further appreciates her sparkle and infectious personality, which became a phenomenal asset at the firm. “She gets really excited. She’ll look at something and say, ‘Oh, my God, I love this.’ That kind of enthusiasm was great to have,” Mack says. “She helped me step back and get excited about things. And certainly to laugh.”

Taking her experience to TPG
With her experience at HLW and Gensler, Subance Ferrier was becoming known for sophisticated commercial interior design. Phillips, overseeing a growing TPG office at the forefront of the radical changes taking place in workplace interiors, asked Subance Ferrier to join his firm. With TPG, she has designed offices for high-level clients, including Time, Inc., FCB, Forbes Media, and Weber Shandwick/Axis, as well as a new home for the Institute of Culinary Education.

“When you look at her work, it’s diverse,” Phillips says. “It’s not formulaic in any way, shape, or form. That’s a real credit to her. Every project brings a new challenge, and she approaches her work that way.”

Subance Ferrier merges her exceptional vision and diverse background and experience with the vision of her clients. “Each time, it’s new and it’s fresh,” she says. “That’s what keeps me going: getting to know someone new and developing that relationship. My goal is to make people come together. I believe each time it’s a different journey. It’s listening to them, figuring out the right look; figuring out what they’re looking for and delivering. It’s fun. It’s like a puzzle.”

Putting together this puzzle involves extended client conversations. She often asks them to come up with a headline for a project, as if it were being featured in a newspaper or magazine. She carries each “story” through with her sophisticated eye and ear. “I’m a storyteller. It’s about bringing that story to the forefront,” she says. Furthermore, “It’s really about gaining your client’s confidence. Once you have their confidence, they’ll come on board.”

For the Condé Nast Entertainment office completed in 2014 in Lower Manhattan, Fred Santarpia, the company’s chief digital officer, “wanted a space that would inspire people to think creatively,” says Subance Ferrier. After lengthy brainstorming sessions, they conceived offices that are bright, energetic, tactile, and blur the lines between work and play.

“We needed to infuse the space with more detail,” says Subance Ferrier, who devised a rustic, industrial aesthetic with poured and polished concrete, open ceilings with exposed ductwork, custom canted feature walls that mimic worn metal, and funky furniture that creates a homelike ambiance. Relaxed common spaces and fluid transitions make working here less formal and more creative. Offsetting the open offices are “nooks and crannies for people to retreat to,” according to Subance Ferrier, including a faceted enclosure in the center that houses private offices and conference rooms. A quilted-leather-padded room is cozy and warm, like a den. “It helps people recharge when they’re at work and gives them respite,” she adds.

Transforming a publisher through design
Subance Ferrier and her TPG team are currently in the midst of leading a radical transformation of the headquarters for publisher John Wiley & Sons in Hoboken, New Jersey, demonstrating the power of workplace design to meet business needs. Wiley, a 210-year-old publisher, is evolving its business from primarily book publishing to being a knowledge provider in multiple digital formats. The company recognized that its workplace, although only 14 years old, had to be reconsidered to coincide with its culture and business model. The once traditional, hierarchical plan defined by a sea of bland high-walled cubicles is being completely demolished to make way for a bright, airy open office taking advantage of light and views of the Hudson River and Manhattan. Employees will now have multiple areas for informal meetings, kitchens on each floor, and a large cafe for the whole company. One phase of the multifloor project was completed in 2016, and more will follow this year. As one steps from a yet-to-be-reconfigured floor to one that is complete, it is like leaping forward in time. “[Wiley] wanted to be about exchanging information and knowledge, and they needed an office to reflect that,” says Subance Ferrier.

Her savvy interpersonal skills were put to the test with a Wiley employee contingent that was wary of change and possible distractions in an open office, according to Jeffrey Pellet, head of global real estate and facilities for the company. “She made an effort to understand those concerns and address them,” says Pellet. “We went through numerous iterations of design and development. She was outstanding at thinking on her feet and bringing us all into the process. And she understood that this needed to work well, not just look good. If she were closed off to our feedback, she wouldn’t have adapted her ideas to our business.”

Pellet is most pleased with the timeless quality of the Wiley redesign. “This concept will still be relevant several years down the line,” beams Pellet. “It’s bringing people together, it breaks down hierarchies, and it’s inspired.”

Harris Diamond, the chairman and CEO of legendary advertising company McCann Worldgroup, asked Subance Ferrier to capture the classic beauty of old Hollywood while still maintaining a contemporary slickness and style. For his company’s New York office, completed in 2015, the result is a mix of open and private offices finished with polished stainless steel and high-resin polyester, evoking a classic car or the magical aura of a 1930s starlet. Mirrored balls hanging from the ceiling combine with high-end lighting fixtures by Tom Dixon. “You walk off the elevator, and you think, This is McCann,” Subance Ferrier says. “It’s strong and powerful yet elegant and glamorous. It’s such a sexy project.”

While McCann called for an alluring interior, Subance Ferrier has developed bespoke approaches for other clients. In 2015, at the New York office of Havas Health/H4B, a healthcare communications agency, she married clear organization and clean finishes with a bright burst of red and whimsical accents, like padded fabric chandeliers, digitally fabricated wall details, and an outdoor patio dotted with resin chairs and glowing light balls. “Suzette did an excellent job of gaining our trust in her abilities early on and that carried over to all phases of our three-year project,” says Donna Murphy, the CEO of Havas Health. “The new office has allowed us to very easily morph the footprint of the agency as the client needs shift. Proximity has bred great examples of collaboration and teamwork.”

For the New York workplace of shared service provider CMG Group completed in 2013, Subance Ferrier focused open offices around a 20-foot-tall wood-clad floating stair. The look reflects innovation, but it also feels light, sculptural, warm, and sophisticated.

A love of light, sound, and people
 Besides the aforementioned fascination with fabric, color, and material, Subance Ferrier brings an equally intense love of sound and, even more, light, to each project. “You need variety in your life,” she says. “Drama and intimacy; loud and quiet; community and escape. I get crazy about lighting; I can sit there and look at it forever.”

One past colleague who knows her creative work extremely well is Larry Berger, who was a studio design director at TPG until he left a year ago for Interpublic Group, where he is now a client of Subance Ferrier. “She understands a project’s creative aspects. But she also understands how projects have to function after the designers leave,” says Berger. “She’s just so seasoned and knowledgeable, and it doesn’t hinder her creativity. If anything, it helps her creativity. She so easily comes up with solutions to problems that are logical but still creative and able to push the envelope.”

As a studio leader, Subance Ferrier has “demonstrated that she’s much more than a designer,” Phillips says. She is both a manager and a mentor. “Yes, the business is design, but almost more importantly, it’s about people: the people you engage with, both clients and other team members. Suzette completely understands that. A lot of entry-level and junior designers have shared with me how much they enjoy working with Suzette and respect her guidance.”

Subance Ferrier has often called upon students at her alma mater FIT to be interns at TPG. “She has reached out to me for student help, and we have worked together to set up internship appointments,” Forbes says. “All have come back to me with compliments of her support and thoughtful mentoring: What a strong and caring professional she has been to them. She’s such a pro.”

A designer and a mother
Subance Ferrier balances her design career and marriage to architect Brian Ferrier with being a mother to their two young children: son Fynn Valentine Ferrier is six and daughter Asha Faye Ferrier is three. Subance Ferrier sees motherhood as a benefit rather than a burden.

“I’d like to inspire new designers to know that you can have a family and work. It’s a challenge. Being a working parent is very challenging. However, in an odd way, I’ve done some of my best work during my motherhood,” she says, explaining that the experience has helped her focus on what is important. “You have to get to the point quickly; being succinct and getting the message across.”

Being a mother has also helped Subance Ferrier refine her team skills, as she plans childcare schedules carefully with both her husband and her parents. “When you say it takes a village, it takes a whole army,” she jokes. “A lot of designers drop out when they become mothers. But if you can muster through the difficult times, you’re going to be better off. And your kids are going to be better off.” She adds that her kids love to visit the office, and they are as proud of her work as anyone.

Outside of the office, further fueling her creative spirit, Subance Ferrier and her husband have been to Burning Man a number of times over the past 15 years. “To me, as a designer, it is the most inspiring place that you can be,” she says. “Beyond that, what is wonderful and magical about it is really the participation. It is driven home there. Everything you do there is about participation. You can’t be spectator.

“That has been something that has lived on with me beyond the time that I’ve spent there. It’s about being an active participant in your life. You can’t just go through it and not live it.”

Living her life fully—leading by example as a superb designer, mother, and mentor—Suzette Subance Ferrier embodies tremendous character as Designer of the Year.