An Interview with Todd DeGarmo
By: Ken Wilson, FAIA, FIIDA, LEED Fellow
Founding Principal, Envision Design
Interior Architecture Knowledge Community Advisory Group
From the age of five, Todd DeGarmo knew he wanted to be an architect. Today he heads STUDIOS Architecture, an international design practice recognized for innovation in both buildings and interiors. A graduate of the University of Cincinnati, Todd joined STUDIOS’ Washington, DC office over twenty years ago. In 1995, he founded the New York office and in 2005 was named the firm’s CEO.
Todd has guided organizations such as IAC, Dow Jones, the Department of Defense, and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe to envision new work environments. A strong proponent of sustainable design, he is currently leading the renovation of the American Institute of Architects headquarters, which will be carbon neutral by 2030.
Todd’s work has received numerous awards and has been featured in publications such as The New York Times, WIRED Magazine, Metropolis, Business Week, and Architectural Record. Todd is a member of the Partnership for New York City and a Trustee of the University of Cincinnati Foundation. He is on the Board of the New York Restoration Project, the Museum of the City of New York, and the National Building Museum.
Todd is a GSA Design Excellence Peer Reviewer and a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects. In 2007 he was inducted into Interior Design Magazine’s Hall of Fame and in 2010 was the recipient of a Doctor of Fine Arts, Honorary Degree from Gettsyburg College.
We are living in strange times these days with a considerable amount of lingering hesitation about the world economy. How are you coping and what are you doing differently than you did four years ago?
We have always run our business conservatively. STUDIOS went into the downturn with no debt, which allowed us a great deal of flexibility. We have spent much of the last few years organizing for the future by developing new markets, skills and leaderships. I would say we are perhaps more flexible.
STUDIOS is known for some highly innovative work with a number of very creative companies. What have you learned about what works and what doesn’t work in creating interior spaces that promote creativity?
Creative organizations are rarely “one size fits all.” When designing for these groups, you are constantly balancing the best way to motivate individuals and teams with a “big idea” that brings cohesion and focus. Gratuitous gestures are simply distracting. You must develop an authentic human experience that encourages interaction. For instance, in the renovation of 200 Fifth Avenue in New York, with a few simple additions to a historic structure, we were able to make an unused courtyard a focus for Grey Group.
I see you have just opened a new office in Mumbai. What is the business climate like there and what are the biggest challenges to doing work in India?
India and the US have a very strong relationship. They have great respect for our innovation and creativity. We find there the kind of excitement and energy we encountered in Silicon Valley thirty years ago. In any developing economy, you must choose your clients carefully, ascertaining their respect for contract law and intellectual property rights.
As CEO of a design firm with offices in the US, France, and India, you must travel a lot. What is your favorite city for interior architecture?
There are terrific interiors all over the world. From a practice standpoint, I really enjoy Washington D.C., where there are relatively large client programs to fit within the city’s height restrictions. As a result, even a 200-250,000 square foot tenant can drive a development. This inside/out approach to buildings almost always creates the best interiors. We are currently doing just that for the American Association of Medical Colleges and I am very excited about how the project is developing, especially in regards to the overall spatial sequence.
How to you promote innovative thinking among your project teams?
In order to innovate, you simply must be willing to try new things and develop a culture of incremental improvement. I encourage our teams to focus on developing the best possible outcome, rather than just using the idea that worked the last time.
Do you see any trends in office design that you believe are here to stay?
As baby boomers pass decision making to the next generation, I am encountering leadership that values personal flexibility and work-life balance over spacial status. These leaders are interested in creating the best place for the whole organization. Companies are choosing interesting mixed-use neighborhoods for offices with regard to attracting the best talent, not being near the CEO’s house.
How are you integrating sustainable design practices into your projects?
We were fortunate to be chosen to renovate the AIA’s National Headquarters to meet the 2030 Challenge for carbon neutrality. The design process helped us fast forward our thinking on sustainability. Nearly all our projects are pursuing LEED certification. From purely an aesthetic perspective, extensive use of glass to meet daylighting requirements has pushed us to investigate more organic interventions to contrast with the inherent rectilinear nature of glass.
What do you do to relax and get your mind off of work?
I think one of the great things about being in design is that you do not have to create boundaries between your personal and professional lives. I really enjoy being able to bring a creative perspective to the not-for-profit Boards on which I sit. Many of the projects I work on are quite large and take a long time to complete; I do enjoy the almost instant gratification of working in my garden.
What one piece of advice would you tell an upcoming graduate from architecture school?
Always try to work with the best firms on the best projects. Finish what you start. If you commit to working on a large project, see it through to completion.
What would you like to be doing in 10 years?
STUDIOS’ next generation of leaders includes some of the best talent with whom I have ever worked. I can imagine sitting on a terrace, sipping a great glass of wine and proudly reading about their accomplishments.
Dow Jones: 1211 Avenue of the Americs, New York, NY 10036
IAC: 555 West 18th Street, New York, NY 10011
Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe: 51 W. 52 Street, New York, NY 10103
Grey Group: 200 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010
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