Through the Years: Reflecting on Personal Legacies
As we wrap up our 85th anniversary year, hear from a few members of our staff who have left an indelible mark on our firm’s history. We are honored and humbled by their dedication over the years—with some being a part of our firm for more than a quarter of a century. Here they share what originally drew them to Perkins&Will, the biggest changes they’ve been a part of, what excites them most about the future of the firm, and their reflections on our 85-year legacy.
Jump to a story:
― Ralph Johnson
Ralph is our Global Design Director and a Principal at our Chicago studio. He joined the firm November 29, 1976.
What drew you here?
I started working with Stanley Tigerman right after I graduated from the University of Illinois in 1971. Five years later I joined Perkins&Will. During my college years, I established a strong connection with Perkins&Will. I chose an unbuilt project of theirs for my thesis—a the design of a community college on Chicago’s south side. Working closely with a partner at Perkins&Will for that project, I learned a lot about the firm and their approach. That incited my passion for designing for schools.
It was well-known in the 70s that Perkins&Will was a leader in K-12 education, and I knew that’s where I wanted to be. I believe in the potential of public architecture to work for people, cities and students, and this firm gave me a chance to create some bold designs, and see them through construction.
Learn more about one of Ralph’s K-12 projects in our exhibition Perry Education Village.
What’s kept you here?
The variety of projects I’ve worked on over the years continues to keep me interested. There are so many opportunities to try new things and sharpen expertise in others. I also love how much I’ve been able to see the firm grow: When I started, we had barely two offices–my Chicago studio and a small New York outpost. Now, we have 25 studios all over the world. It was amazing to see the firm embrace globalization.
While I grew up in Chicago and have been a lifelong resident, Perkins&Will has never made me feel like I’ve been stuck in one place: our work takes us everywhere. I’ve worked at the same firm my whole career, but it doesn’t feel like that. We’ve evolved so much and grown so much.
I also work with great people–they have always been at the center.
What has been the biggest change in the firm?
The transition from drafting table thinking to computer thinking has definitely been the most dramatic change I’ve seen. We used to have our parallel bars and various architectural paraphernalia, like triangles, that sort of thing. Then there were the intermediary technologies, and today, we don’t just use computers, we think with them.
I’m inspired to see how our new designers are thinking, evolving and improving all we do. Our firm was always at the forefront of embracing new technologies, and I think that’s still true. While I don’t use the computer like our younger designers, we all sketch. I usually give them my sketch and they input it in the computer. Our collaborative process goes from there. For me it has always started with the sketch.
(Click to enlarge photo gallery) Ralph Johnson (third from right) and the O’Hare expansion team pose for a photograph at the new airport. Ralph has been a key figure in transforming Chicago, long a beacon for architecture lovers known for its skyscrapers and renowned designers, into the technology-forward hub it is today. Ralph’s work has been acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago, among others.
― Jean Mah
Jean is a Principal and Health Practice Leader based in our Los Angeles studio. She joined our firm in 1990.
What drew you here?
When my New York-based healthcare firm was acquired by Perkins&Will in 1990, my decision to stay on through the merger was a defining moment, where we had an opportunity to become part of a larger network. I embraced the new opportunities to connect with broader ranges of clients, and especially to explore practices beyond just healthcare—especially into education and commercial pursuits.
I was also drawn to this firm because while expanding, they let me keep innovating in the healthcare sector. I was able to move around and learn more about different regions of the U.S., moving first to Chicago and then to California, where I became a leader in the development of our Los Angeles studio. All of these opportunities have taught me so much, and were made possible through the network and collaboration within the firm.
What’s kept you here?
While it took a tremendous amount of work to establish my home, the LA office, every moment was worth it. We worked on our first project, a UCLA masterplan, by day, and interviewed exciting potential coworkers by night. I felt like I was part of a unique team, and I cherished the opportunity to start something so new, and on top of that see the unification of our Pasadena and Santa Monica offices unfold. I remember the humorous confusion clients and delivery workers faced, as both the studios were located on streets called Colorado (Colorado Avenue and Colorado Boulevard). But my voice was always heard, and my colleagues and I worked tirelessly yet with enthusiasm, and I have called our eventual hybrid office in downtown LA home ever since.
What does the 85-year legacy celebration mean to you?
For me, it’s a renewal, an opportunity to reflect on how I’ve contributed to the growth and quality of the work we do. It’s a celebration of the innovative and creative problem-solving we do as a team, and the forward-thinking designs we’ve developed that we now see performing and succeeding as they’re tested over time. Already we’re seeing such successes at Rush University Medical Center in the context of COVID-19. Our legacy of helping clients mitigate and avoid crises is a testament to so much at our firm, including our compassion. I can‘t wait to see where else it takes us.
(Click to enlarge photo gallery) When not on site, donning scrubs and conducting vision sessions with nurses and caregivers, Jean enjoys catching up with friends outdoors, enjoying her hometown of LA’s renowned weather. She has been instrumental in engaging with the medical community for decades, collaborating on solutions to keep pushing healthcare design forward.
― Deepa Tolat
Deepa is a Senior Project Architect in our Atlanta studio. She joined our firm January 3, 2000.
What drew you here?
I grew up and earned by bachelor’s degree in Mumbai, India, and had become familiar with Ralph Johnson’s work. I knew I wanted to come to the U.S. for my masters, and when I began thinking about a career here, I looked into not only Ralph’s work, but that of Perkins&Will. I was impressed and they were my first and last interview when I visited the Atlanta studio. I’ve been here ever since!
What is your favorite part of Atlanta studio culture?
I am so passionate and always learning more from my specialty in science and technology. I love the process of designing for labs, as the researchers and scientists that I work with are so inspiring. The challenges and nuances of building for such specific buildings—for example, where over 70% of energy use goes to engineering systems—is always new and exciting, and I love that I get to collaborate with this specialized team in both Atlanta and frequently with other studios, like Washington D.C.
What excites you about your future at the firm?
I am so excited to continue working with the researchers I’ve built relationships, and push the boundaries of a building sector that’s constantly working to make real differences. I have upcoming projects working with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which seems especially relevant and inspiring now. I look forward to increasing my focus on holistic design solutions, especially in the realms of sustainability.
(Click to enlarge photo gallery) Community involvement and giving back are essential to Deepa’s connection to our firm and the communities she designs for. Whether interacting with clients on site (and having fun with it) or giving of her time through her studio’s social initiatives and outreach, she always has a smile on her face.
― Floyd Cline
Floyd is a Senior Project Architect in our Atlanta studio. He joined the firm June 12, 2000.
What drew you here?
I grew up and got my bachelor’s degree in small Midwestern towns, and when starting my career I was eager to relocate to a city with more culture and opportunity. I was immediately drawn to Atlanta, and recognized that this firm had a large presence there. I had admired several Perkins&Will-designed buildings working as a college intern, and I was offered a job on the spot during my interview!
What’s kept you here?
The culture here is so rich and diverse, and that’s one of my favorite things not only about the Atlanta studio, but about the firm as a whole. The culture change was a big deal for me as a young architect, but the firm opened lots of doors for me, and also allowed me to balance work and life so I could get involved in other aspects of the city, like my church group.
What excites you about your future here?
I’m excited by the amount of growth I’ve seen consistently over my years at the firm. We work on one-of-a-kind projects that I learn so much from, and I look forward to more opportunities to lead, with both design and diversity. Diversity is especially important to me, and I know it’s a pillar of our firm, and I see that reflected in many ways, but especially this year’s renaming of the internal design competition to honor Phil Freelon was especially important. I look forward to continuing to search for the places I can have the biggest impact.
(Click to enlarge photo gallery) Floyd Cline enjoys his opportunities to participate in a variety of volunteer organizations and committees, from our internal emerging designers to national programs like National Organization of Minority Architects. His engagement deepens his close connection to Atlanta, Georgia as well abroad through travel.
― Iffat Mai
Iffat is our Design Apps Development Manager, and is based in our New York studio. She joined our firm August 29, 2005.
What drew you here?
Our firm has always been known for its dedication to research and innovation, both in practice and through our programs for designers and staff. And on top of that, we’ve been leaders in green building and sustainability initiatives in the industry since the beginning. A convergence of technological research and environmental responsibility fueled my interview at the New York studio, and my acceptance of my position.
What is a favorite project you’ve worked on and why was it important to you and the firm?
Right now, my main focus is in Virtual Reality (VR), which is exploding in the architecture and design industries. For the past decade, this technology has grown and advanced so rapidly, and it excites me so much. With the right headset, a client can visualize a space that feels immersive, and ask our designers to make changes in real time that he can see and feel. But one of the biggest obstacles to VR implementation is that the hardware changes so quickly. I see so much potential in this technology, especially if it can be integrated with our existing programs and lifestyles.
I spearheaded the move to high-powered MSi gaming laptops across the firm, heavy-duty computers that are still portable while having the power to run VR programs, so our designers can actually design with VR technology anytime and anywhere, integrating it into their work process rather than having it just as an add on after the fact. I integrated a new headset to work with our VR technology, transitioning from cords and wires to a wireless system that runs on sensors in the ceiling or walls. This VR project is ongoing and always exciting, but it is amazing what technology can do when it fits organically and effectively with designers and clients alike.
What does the firm’s 85-year legacy mean to you?
It goes to show that a firm so consistently committed to innovation and open to new ideas can survive for so long. Innovation is so important, it’s at the core of what we do. And technology goes hand in hand with this attitude. Throughout all my years here, I’ve always seen this drive and constant capacity for adjustment. Thinking about how quickly and seamlessly we were able to transition to working from home amidst COVID-19, I am proud of our achievements and know we’ll continue. I so clearly remember the 75th anniversary—time flies when you’re in a good place with wonderful people!
(Click to enlarge photo gallery) Iffat not only busies herself testing her own prototypes, but she travels with her teams to present groundbreaking new work and tools around the country. Building customized solutions for our firm, Iffat is passionate about staying close to her work, wearing and using it every day to ensure a seamless experience for everyone.
― Andrew Tsay-Jacobs
Andrew is a Project Architect in our Los Angeles studio, and the Director of our Building Technology Lab. He joined our firm October 18, 2010.
What drew you to Perkins&Will?
I joined the firm on the heels of the recession of 2008, a crisis time for many of my fellow recent graduates. I had a dream of moving to the West Coast, and interviewed for the San Francisco office. Perkins&Will was hiring and confident in acquiring new talent even during that turbulent time, which I found a great deal of hope in.
What’s kept you here?
The two main things that have kept me here have been the firm’s small-studio culture and their amazing ability to listen to and support new ideas. I had so much support from key mentors right from the start, and was treated like a person, not just a worker or a gear in a large corporate machine. I still think it feels like a small firm. I moved from the San Francisco studio to the Los Angeles studio to pursue a different interest, from healthcare to transportation, a change in practice that the firm wholly supported. Here, I continue to be able to work with my team to push for things like social responsibility and engagement and sustainability, facets of my work I hold very close, and I know Perkins&Will does, too. I see our values and campaigns delivered in real time, in real action.
Another big reason for staying has been the phenomenal outlets for independent research I’ve been granted. I was given a few hours and some money from the studio to pursue a project in façade design, and that first request turned into an extension, and eventually led to the creation of a new lab, which I’m now leading. Perkins&Will’s willingness to listen to my ideas, to take a risk, and to continuously award new and emerging work is so unique, and something I’m very grateful for.
What does the firm’s 85-year legacy celebration mean to you?
I am really inspired by our expansion over the years, even just since I joined. I’m excited by our new studios, and particularly, the expansion of my area of expertise, transportation. I see so much potential in this practice, and I’m both eager and optimistic about being a part of it.
(Click to enlarge photo gallery) A passionate member of our growing tech and research communities, Andrew has been a leader in our Innovation Incubator and research initiatives, specializing in robotics and collaborative tech solutions like his original facade work.