Design Principal Celebrates his Staff

In the wake of a collapsed construction industry, I’m constantly looking for good news coming out of the architecture and interior design industry. So when a note came from Pollack Architecture about the firm turning 25 this August, I reached out to founder Richard Pollack, FAIA, FIIDA, to give me hope. Known in the industry as a knowledgeable, committed, yet easy going guy with a great sense of humor, I asked Rich to talk about the current market and the future of his respected firm recently recognized as one among Interior Design Magazine’s Top 100 Design Giants. With offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Delhi and with a commitment to nurturing the special skills of the new generation of designers (recent hires include a junior designer with a dual degree in architecture and business), we had something to talk about.

August 1985, when you first hung out the POLLACK shingle, was the beginning of a quarter of a century of growth. Today, as the economy shifts into the 21st century’s unique needs and young designers look for new directions, how is your original entrepreneurial spirit helping you create a new direction? And what is that direction?

I believe that our approach is different from that of many firms that have one, or a few, founders’ names on the door. I was born in 1950 and therefore came of age in the 60s. That crucible instilled a very strong social conscience, one that always had me thinking of the firm as a collaboration of great minds – not my ego to the exclusion of others’ individuality and contributions (note the “our” in the first sentence). We’ve never had a POLLACK design, because it’s never been about “my design” or the “firm’s design” – it’s the client’s design.

This distributed approach allows the younger designers to have a strong voice almost from the beginning. If you recall, one of my current partners was named one of IIDA’s Thirty To Watch Under Thirty about 6 years ago – he’s now 35 and heading up major client relationships along with doing the conceptual design for their projects all over the world. I don’t even travel to any of the global locations since it’s his client and design – and there’s no angst that I’m somehow missing out – I revel in his and other colleagues’ successes.

What excites you today about the business of architecture/interior design? (In other words, what drives you to work every day?)

I love design and mentoring staff. I have a huge amount of experience with many different clients and project types, and I enjoy sharing that with younger colleagues to use as a jump on their own growth. I’ve seen many interviews with executives saying that they only try to hire professionals who are smarter than themselves – I’ve really done it and celebrate it!

I also have a blast working with senior client representatives in determining how to use the work place to improve their businesses. We’ve developed metrics which can demonstrate the success, or failure, of design approaches specific to a client, and I continue to enjoy that strategic front-end consulting.

How important is the new generation of tech-savvy, environmentally-concerned, socially connected designer to your business? How are their special skills reflected in your hiring practices?

They are hugely important. When the design world was first using the computer and CAD there was a noticeable lack of unique and special design because people truly didn’t know how to document their designs through the machine. The current younger generations have it nailed and are designing fully within the computer – sometimes with a reduced ability to draw with pen or pencil in hand. In any case the skills embodied in 3D Studio, Form Z, Sketchup, Revit are what our firm uses continuously, and the younger staff members are the go-to people to make it happen. It’s also giving those generations to jump up even quicker than often happens in interiors vs. core & shell owing to their computer-based design and rendering capabilities.

We absolutely look for those skills in our recruiting – and we’re thrilled to be hiring junior, intermediate and senior staff in our LA and San Francisco offices right now.

Where does the work come from today, as opposed to the boom times you’ve lived through?

The work comes from the same places. It’s primarily through ongoing relationships with clients that “get us”, i.e. understand and appreciate the knowledge and skill that we bring to helping to improve their businesses. We’re also seeing new work come to us from new clients that have seen what we’ve done for other clients and call us cold. It’s nice to know that after 25 years our brand is known and appreciated and doesn’t always have to be the broker or owner’s rep referral and the associated beauty contest.

Your firm is known to be engaged with a new generation of designers, especially in your scholarship program. I ask you to take the long view, assess the benefit of the program for POLLACK, the new generation, and the industry.

The scholarship was started on our 10th anniversary and was to help get underprivileged, talented young kids into colleges and universities they might not otherwise afford. One young man who was awarded the scholarship and went to CCA became a paid intern in our San Francisco office during the summers and even the school year. His youth, energy, skills and knowledge amped up the studio, and he was a ‘go-to’ person for helping on projects. He continued to grow and was even working on some smaller efforts as a core team member. I was absolutely thrilled when he graduated as an architect this year, and I thought back to presenting him with a big check (we mount them on large boards) at the Architectural Foundation of San Francisco annual awards event.

There’s probably some spill-over of the parent in me, especially with younger staff, and I’ve always had great pride in seeing them succeed. I love forwarding letters and emails from clients to the whole firm which extol the virtues of a colleague – and then basking a bit in their glow – it gives me great satisfaction. That all feeds into the long view, because the firm is not just about me. By developing an environment that fosters professional growth and promotes accomplishments, I’ve laid the foundation for the firm’s continued development and success. I have partners that have moved the firm beyond where it was, will continue to expand its successes, and they’re the youth who will end up higher on the mountain than I was able to climb during my long career. As a larger community, we need to push for higher compensation to adequately reward all practitioners – and especially the new interior designers and architects. I toast the future!

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