2018 Legend: Joan Blumenfeld

Joan Blumenfeld, the 2018 Legend Award winner. Photograph by Brian Ferry

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A proponent for design excellence, and a champion for social responsibility, sustainability, and women in leadership, Joan Blumenfeld, FAIA, FIIDA, did not begin her career expecting to be a legend in her own right. She was not even expecting to be an architect, let alone a principal and global design director for interiors at Perkins+Will. Her journey inspires lessons for fellow design professionals across generations.

“I could not wait to get out of there,” Blumenfeld says of her hometown of Oceanside in Long Island, New York. “I was the only person in my high school of 3,000 kids who spent weekends in New York City at the Art Students League. I would walk around the city thinking, ‘Why do we live in the suburbs and not here?’” In the 1950s, she adds, “It was assumed that girls would find a good husband, get married, and have kids. College was intended to make you an educated person to be a suitable mate for the husband you would find there. So many things have changed for the better.”

Not exactly having a set career path from the start, she obtained a bachelor of arts degree in philosophical psychology from the University of Chicago, followed by a few years waitressing. For advice on next steps, she turned to her father, who had overseen the building of about 200 public schools over 10 years as the director of planning and research for the New York City Board of Education. “‘You like to draw. You’re good at math. Maybe you’d be interested in architecture,’” Blumenfeld recalls him saying.

She visited six Chicago architects to learn more about job prospects. It was the middle of the recession of the early 1970s, and they all said variations of “Don’t do it,” “You won’t make any money,” or “It’s a tough field for a woman.” That last piece of advice came from Gertrude Lempp Kerbis, FAIA, who, after working at Bertrand Goldberg and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, founded Lempp Kerbis in 1967, the first woman-owned firm in Chicago. “She was a real pioneer,” Blumenfeld says. “I was not aware at the time how unusual and remarkable she was.”

The words of warning had no effect. “I completely ignored everything they said,” Blumenfeld recalls. “All I could see were drawings, models, the collaborative atmosphere—so full of energy and creativity. I knew this was what I wanted to do.”

Joan Blumenfeld: Contract 2018 Legend Award Recipient from Contract Magazine on Vimeo.

Graduating from Harvard with distinction
While she did not know much about architecture schools at the time, Harvard University Graduate School of Design “sounded good,” and she was surprised to be accepted. Blumenfeld graduated from Harvard with a master of architecture degree, with distinction, in 1979, and her class was composed of about 20 percent women. “We [Blumenfeld and her female classmates] were a novelty, the first class with a substantial number of women. A few professors gave us problems, but for the most part, we were treated equally,” she says. “When I got out of school, I just assumed that it would be an equal playing field.”

That assumption held true at her first job. In 1977, while still at Harvard, she worked for Sert, Jackson & Associates in Cambridge, Massachusetts, starting when Josep Lluís Sert was still active. Sert was inspiring and encouraging,” she remembers. “I watched how he worked with a team and got the best out of everyone. He also had no qualms about working with women.”

Upon graduating and after the experience with Sert, Blumenfeld worked at several Boston-area firms. In 1984, she moved to New York to work for Emilio Ambasz’s firm, where Robert Krone, AIA, interviewed and hired her. She married Krone in 1985, and they have two sons, Max and Robert.

At Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) from 1985 to 1987, Blumenfeld was only the second woman to be a senior designer at the firm and “the first woman in any position, including secretaries, to come back to work after being pregnant,” she notes. She later skipped around to a few firms because advancement possibilities within a firm were rare. “There were no opportunities for a woman to become a principal,” she explains. “There were no women principals and very few or no other senior designers at any firm.” She landed at Butler Rogers Baskett Architects, where she was the senior designer on the Chelsea Piers renovation in New York in the early 1990s. When another recession hit, her work became more focused on interiors.

In 1994, Swanke Hayden Connell Architects hired Blumenfeld to design both architecture and interiors, and she remained with the firm for nearly 12 years despite obstacles. “I was given several architecture assignments as a senior designer, but [some] partners refused to take me to meetings because I was a woman. Some would not even sit with me to go over the work I was doing, [it was] clearly not a tenable situation,” she said.

Richard Carlson, Swanke Hayden Connell’s principal in charge of interior design at the time, was happy to work with Blumenfeld on corporate interior projects. “There was a bit of a learning curve,” Blumenfeld says, “but I loved the quick turnaround and dealing with lighting, materials, and furniture.” Her many New York projects with the firm included the interiors of Sotheby’s 500,000-square-foot headquarters (2001); executive offices for IBM CEO Louis Gerstner (1996); and offices for Reuters (2001).

Becoming global design director
Blumenfeld was drawn to Perkins+Will because of the firm’s emphasis on design excellence and genuine commitment to sustainability and social responsibility. “That is a really important aspect of any organization that I would want to be a part of,” she explains. She instantly felt at home when she joined Perkins+Will in 2005, and she has been at the firm ever since.

For five years, Blumenfeld was the first Perkins+Will global design director for interiors, overseeing the firmwide interiors practice. She also was a member of the firm’s Design Leadership Council, led by Ed Feiner, FAIA. “What started purely as project-based conversations flourished into Joan assuming a key global role on the council,” Feiner says. “Her versatility to engage in almost every design discipline puts her in a class by herself.”

Her recent projects with Perkins+Will reflect an evolution in her own design work and in the firm’s interiors practice. This past year, she oversaw the design of the Häfele showroom (page 116) in New York, which is also a winner of a 2018 Interiors Award. The New York office and showroom for the Austrian crystal manufacturer Swarovski was designed in 2016 by Blumenfeld’s team in collaboration with Valerie Pasquiou Interiors & Design. “Because a product like crystals are so sparkly, the challenge was to not have the showroom be too sparkly, to let the product really speak,” Blumenfeld says.

For Haworth, Blumenfeld redesigned the New York showroom in 2013 and designed six others in the past decade. “We explored the local culture and particularities of each location, and combined them with the company’s global brand to create something unique for each,” Blumenfeld says.

Bloomberg, a media company with a strong interest in design excellence and sustainability, hired Blumenfeld and her Perkins+Will colleagues to design offices in Sydney; Frankfurt, Germany; Mumbai, India; and Dublin. All of the Bloomberg workplaces attained either LEED Gold or Platinum certification.

Collaborating with fellow Perkins+Will architects and designers as well as Michael Fieldman Architects, Blumenfeld designed the New York City Police Academy (2013) in College Point, Queens, New York. The 730,000-square-foot LEED Gold facility, which comprises academic, training, and office functions, was the first ever to achieve the LEED innovation credit for health through physical activity, which Blumenfeld helped to develop.

Leading with a sense of purpose
Perkins+Will CEO Phil Harrison, FAIA, says he considers Blumenfeld’s “focus on design ethos—the spirit of the practice” to be one of her most important contributions to the firm. He commends her experience in both architecture and interior design that has helped Perkins+Will transition into a truly multidisciplinary practice. He also credits her with much of the firm’s growth in corporate interiors work and admires her as, he says, “a holistic thinker” who is dedicated to active design, health, and wellbeing.

She particularly relishes working with Harrison and other firm leadership to support women in design leadership roles. “As our interiors practice grew, we needed to become more diverse and inclusive. Joan is tough in both standing up for design excellence and as an advocate for women, making the firm substantially more diverse,” Harrison says.

Blumenfeld has been passionate about mentoring young talent, who “come out of school with so much energy and fresh ideas,” she says. Her role is to, as she sees it, “nurture that energy and give them guardrails so that they stay within the realm of the real and the possible,” helping them grow without becoming, what she calls, a “Madame No.”

Giving back to the profession
With a keen interest in supporting and advancing women in the architecture profession, Blumenfeld became active with the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF), which is an organization focused on changing industry culture in architecture, engineering, and construction to be more equitable for women. Blumenfeld was the first board chair of the organization from 2013 to 2017. “Joan has successfully guided BWAF,” founder Beverly Willis, FAIA, says, “while increasing the impact of the foundation’s mission” by spearheading a number of new programs.

A New Yorker through and through, Blumenfeld says she “wanted to do something, anything, to help the city heal” after 9/11 in 2001. She joined the urban design committee of New York New Visions, a coalition of about 20 architecture, planning, and design organizations working pro bono to establish guidelines for the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan. The experience opened her eyes to a whole new world. “I realized I could actually contribute to the public realm in a way that I had never considered before,” she says. It was a revelation on another level as well: “I discovered a much greater correlation between interior design and urban design than between architecture and urban design. Urban design is all about circulation patterns, dealing with public ‘rooms’ inside the walls of an urban field.”

Bruce Fowle, FAIA, founding principal of FXFOWLE (then Fox & Fowle), chaired the urban design committee of New York New Visions. He had worked closely with Blumenfeld, then at Swanke Hayden Connell, on the Reuters project in Times Square beginning in 1996. “I was already impressed by her logic, pragmatism, and range of talent,” he says. “I asked her to take over for me as co-chair of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) New York Chapter (AIANY) Planning and Urban Design Committee, where she continued her engagement in public policy processes.”

That was the beginning of Blumenfeld’s long involvement with AIANY and its Center for Architecture, culminating with a year as the chapter’s president in 2007. The theme for her presidency was “Architecture Inside/Out.” As Rick Bell, FAIA, then AIANY executive director, recalls, “[Her theme] encouraged an understanding of collaboration with a focus on the future of the profession. That future was predicated on turning architectural practices inside out, removing gender barriers, and fostering diversity. Joan’s vigorous leadership and impassioned spirit defined the place and the pace.”

Shortly before assuming her AIANY presidency, Blumenfeld wrote to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg about the sad state of the city government’s own offices, which had largely been built to standards developed in 1971. Much to her surprise, the mayor’s office asked her for a presentation of best practices that the city could use to establish new standards. She coordinated several interior design firms to formulate recommendations. Where previously there were guidelines for some 32 workstation or office sizes—with high panels, of course—the city streamlined the options based on her group’s recommendations to be more flexible and conducive to collaboration using just a few configurations.

Health and wellness in interiors
In recent years, Blumenfeld has developed a stronger interest in health, wellness, and active design. In 2011, Blumenfeld was among the consultants working with the U.S. General Service Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to create Fitwel, a health-and-wellness rating system for buildings. Blumenfeld was one of the first board members of the Center for Active Design, founded in 2013 by several New York City agencies, AIANY, and members of the private sector to promote and help implement the active design strategies. David Burney, FAIA, co-founder and chair of the Center for Active Design, says, “Throughout her involvement, Joan has helped change the paradigm of building design to focus more on what we can do to promote healthy living.”

Although a New Yorker at heart, Blumenfeld and Krone have lived for the past year in a house that they designed in northern California, near both family and the ski slopes that they enjoy on a regular basis. But she remains active with Perkins+Will, often winging her way to work on projects in New York and beyond.

“It’s always such a thrill when you imagine something, then draw it—and then actually walk into it,” she muses. “That’s why we all get out of bed in the morning.”