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An interview with Meryati Johari Blackwell

By Steven A. Kordalski FAIA posted 01-18-2022 12:32 AM

  

Meryati Johari Blackwell, AlA, ASID, LEED AP, brings over 25 years of experience to her role at Marlon Blackwell Architects where she serves as co-principal and director of interiors. She acts as an anchor for the firm, working alongside Marlon to thoughtfully ground and guide the design ethos as the firm grows; always supporting the creation of award-winning architecture for any place, at any scale and for anyone. Additionally, her sensitivity as a designer and knowledge of materials and details enrich every project in the office. With a degree in Architecture and Planning, Meryati is both a registered architect and a registered interior designer as well as a LEED Accredited Professional.


Tell
me about your background and how you developed your interest in architecture and interiors?

Since I was a young girl growing up in Malaysia, I distinctly remember loving my art classes in school. My appreciation for art and creativity made me realize that I wanted to pursue an art degree in college. However, the scholarship that I was seeking at the time did not fund art majors, so I turned my studies toward an architecture  degree instead. When I was 18 years old, I was fortunate to receive a full scholarship to come to the United States and attend the University of Miami with a major in Architecture and Planning. After graduating in the early 90's, I was also fortunate to have had internships with both architectural and interior design firms and found that I had an equal passion for both disciplines. Working in high-paced architectural and interior design offices as a young graduate in Miami and Kuala Lumpur made me appreciate how these two practices interact together, each enhancing the other. It was during these years that I started forming my vision of who I wanted to be. I quickly came to the realization that I wanted to exclusively seek out work that would allow me to practice architecture  and interior design together.


What is your specific role in architecture and interiors at MBA?

As the Principal, Interior Design Director, and an architect at MBA, I work alongside Marlon and project teams to create the vision and framework for each project. Since I'm trained in both architecture and interiors, I'm able to inform the end product of each space from design conception to construction, which I think is a unique opportunity for our profession. Interiors and architecture often have separate departments and teams, so they don't frequently overlap. To have a say on both interiors and architecture early on in the design process is very important to me.

 

What specific talents and skills do you bring to the development of MBA and how you have impacted what MBA is today?

I genuinely love both architecture and interior design equally and am able to direct design decisions in both capacities in all of our projects, which impacts the final feel of the spaces we design. Working with the architectural team from the very early stages of a project, I am able to use my dual skills to help set the tone and feel of each building by intertwining the architectural forms with the aesthetics of the interior spaces. Every project begins with the architecture, and I am able to ensure that the vision then flows to the interiors. This makes each and every space stronger and integrated as a completely harmonious piece. I also feel that I am able to bring a unique, sometimes alternate, view to designs that Marlon might have during the design process. My perspective can further inform and drive the debate and iterations, which in the end makes each project that much better.

MBA was founded by Marlon Blackwell, but you join shortly afterwards, nearly two decades ago, tell me how you helped navigate MBA to be what it is today?

Marlon's initial thought was to focus on his career in academia and to only do a few great thoughtful projects a year as an extension of his academic research. Having a firm was not really part of the grand plan because he thought that he was going to stay as a sole proprietor model. While he may technically be the sole founder of MBA, I often advised his early business decisions and even helped him draw designs at our kitchen table. As the projects got larger and more complex, I quit my full-time job elsewhere to help with design and project documentation from our home office. Over time, MBA grew and now I'm the company's managing partner. I'm involved in the day-to-day operation of the firm, in addition to overseeing all business decisions from financials to staffing. I also help envision the future of the firm. Looking back, it's astonishing to see how far we've come and how this firm has grown organically and oftentimes inadvertently. We have evolved over the years together and have strategically assembled an incredibly talented team of designers and architects that continue to carry the ethos of the firm: that architecture can happen anywhere, for any budget, and for anyone.

 

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in your profession and how did you learn it?

Learn from the elders in your field, people you admire and who inspire your own path to your career success. Embracing lessons from them can provide invaluable experience, mentoring, training, growth, and success. In turn, I feel that teaching others what you know and being generous with your own time, words, and actions is just as important. One of our missions is to provide a model for young people to continue to do great work once they are ready to start their own practice. Thus, we are open for them to learn as much as they can while they are with us, such as how we do our contracts, how to convince a client about a design, how to navigate the cost control aspect so that a project can be built to budget without losing the soul of the design, etc. Everything is basically an open book if you want to know. We've had the pleasure of mentoring some incredibly talented individuals that have gone on to open flourishing firms. We hope that those we have helped will do the same for others.

 

What is the best advice you ever received as a designer?

Treat every project as though it is the best and most important commission that you will ever have.

 

What advice do you have for architects or designers who are just starting their careers?

Embrace your aspirations and career goals early on and plot a path to makes those a reality. Align yourself with people in your field that bring positive influence in your life. Reach out to those in your field that you admire and that you want to learn from and let them be your mentor. Intern at the best places you can, places that you value and aspire to be at one day. Be grateful and verbalize your gratitude to those that you value. Knowing that you need kind words from others to get ahead in life is a powerful motivator to do the right thing and to always do you best work because I believe that when you put your best work, all the good things you put out there will come back to you in folds.

 

How did running a business influence your creative outlook and vice versa?

I never want this work to be transactional or to be based solely on a monetary objective. The bottom line should always be about what is best for the project. I truly believe that if I put the project first, the financial success will follow. To me, the most successful architecture firms are the ones that put design as their most important objective to success. The rest tends to follow.

 

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give yourself earlier in your career?

Project confidence. As a young woman starting out, I thought that I had to know everything about a topic or practice before I could be confident about it. I realized that that's not necessarily true. What we don't know, we can learn along the way. Projecting positivity and confidence first will allow us to do what we need to do to get the best results.  Learn how to talk about your work in a meaningful and valuable way to ensure that your client will easily be able to see value in your work and that it's worth their investment. Learn how to effectively persuade your client and invite them to join you in the overall vision. The power of convincing a client and conveying the value of your design is perhaps the most important skill to have early on; it is the one thing that can take a project from an idea to reality.

 

Visit marlonblackwell.com to learn more about Marlon Blackwell Architects.

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