In honor of International Women’s Day, we sat down with a few of the amazing women, designers, and architects who are doing great things at Steinberg Hart to discuss their inspiration, motivation, and words of advice for aspiring young professionals today.
Michelle Dumont, AIA, Associate, Senior Designer, San Francisco
What is something you learned on your first job that has served you well? Stay on module! (For the non-architecture folk, it essentially means use a grid). I started my career designing mega and super tall buildings. Rule number one was to have rigor and stay on a module, and that has stuck with me ever since.
Who is an architect, designer, artist, leader is an inspiration to you, and why? Zaha. Forever Zaha. Her translation of curves is unmatched.
What do you think companies can do to promote gender equity in the field of architecture? Promotions to positions of leadership are so important, as is the active promotion of gender equality.
What advice would you give to an aspiring female architect? Keep designing, keep refining, keep going.
What is your favorite part of your job? I love that I get to be creative everyday, using my design skills to piece together giant 3D puzzles.
If you were not an architect/designer, what would you do? Sleep!
Hannah Hobbs, Job Captain, San Diego
When or how did you know that you wanted to be an architect / designer? My father told me I should go into architecture. His reasoning was that I always loved being in and around buildings; I noticed the little details they offered, and I would talk about how the space (and general mass/form) made you feel. It was always a part of me since I was little.
What is something you learned in architecture school that has stuck with you? I can affect peoples’ minds through design! I learned this when I took my first studio class as an undergrad, but it was only because I happened to take Paranormal Psychology (understanding why people believe in the paranormal) in the same quarter. From the beginning of my studies in architecture, I also happened to be studying the brain, and naturally I paired them together to understand how we are affected by the built environment.
How do people typically describe you, vs. how would you like people to describe you? I’ve been described as “a puzzle” or “a conundrum.” Really, I’d like to be described as curious, playful, and enthralled.
What do you think companies can do to promote gender equity in the field of architecture? (1) Annual analysis of gender (race, etc.) pay, opportunities, and reviews. (2) Encourage equal representation at meetings, etc.
What motivates you? Donuts…But in all seriousness, giving back and doing good is what motivates me the most.
If you were not an architect/designer, what would you do? As a kid, when my life was split into two “seasons”: school and summer, I wanted to be a pediatrician during the school year and an archaeologist in the summer. My mother was a teacher, so I just thought everyone got summers off.
What would you say is an essential quality in an architect/designer? To be thoughtful and intentional. To question and keep questioning. Never stop learning.
Natalie Popik, Project Designer, Los Angeles
When or how did you know that you wanted to be an architect / designer? I come from a lineage of architects, construction managers and structural engineers. It feels innate to create. When I was growing up in the Soviet Union, I had the instinctive curiosity to question the purpose behind the rigid and systematic forms of architecture widely used at the time. It made me question what else is out there, and the future possibilities for places like my home. The transition and exposure of coming to the US opened up a new perspective about architecture for me – about its role and responsibility.
Who is an architect, designer, artist, leader is an inspiration to you, and why? The late Zaha Hadid. Her earlier designs appeal to me for her radical suprematist and deconstructivist approach, and later her architecture evolved into a canvas of fluidity, networking of lines, emerging passages, and integration of figure and ground. I respect her for pioneering new ground for women and the prolific quantity of work, some of it simply extraordinary. I am proud to have assisted in her vision over the time I worked for her.
What’s an all-time favorite project you’ve worked on? Heydar Aliev Cultural Center is built within a rigid and systematic urban context. The city fabric of Baku is like many cities of the former Soviet Union that still remain – predominantly monumental, authoritarian, or even austere. The project is divergent from its surroundings, blending fluidly and seamlessly with the site, obscuring boundaries of interior and exterior, and merging them into continuous surfaces.
What would you say is an essential quality in an architect/designer? Passion, or even obsession, to design, to talk about design, and surround yourselves with people alike.
What do you think companies can do to promote gender equity in the field of architecture? Continue the culture of embracing diversity and flexibility as an ongoing commitment to the entire workforce. Sponsor and offer an apprenticeship program to young women and promote career opportunities available in trades.
What excites you about the future of women in architecture? I’m excited that women are more united. Through design, women are improving life for other women as they are doing in politics, art, and beyond.
Janene Christopher, AIA, Partner, San Diego
When or how did you know that you wanted to be an architect? People used to say about architecture, “Oh, you need to be good at math to do that.” I’m not so good at math, so I briefly considered doing something else. Then, my uncle was building a house, and one day, he showed me a spot where he wanted to put a window. The next week I came back, and there was that window, framed out. He just dreamed something up, and there it was. I decided that’s what I wanted to do. And the math? It’s just feet and inches! If you can count to 12, you can do it.
What is something you learned on your first job that has served you well? I was always the only woman out in the field doing CA. All of the construction guys would talk as if they knew better than I did. One of these big burly contractors was giving me pushback on a detail one day, going on and on about how, “This is not how it’s done, I’ve been doing this for 30 years.” I just blurted out, “Well…it’s about time you start doing it right!” He backed down quick. I learned that day that having that knowledge of how things go together, really knowing my stuff, was a way that I could earn respect out in the field.
What advice would you give to an aspiring female architect? I think I would advise women (and any young architect) to try working in every different part of the architectural process. People go to school, do “design,” and think they don’t want to do technical architecture, or quality control. Well – as a technical expert, I actually control the design a lot of the time. I feel that there is design in every page of the documents we produce. It’s not limited to what you’re shaping in space.
What is your favorite part of your job? While I don’t do it as much anymore, I just really like putting together a set of drawings. It’s a real accomplishment to put together a set that has the least number of change orders possible. And really, at the end of it, when someone says they enjoy spending time in an environment that you helped create, whether they enjoy coming to work now, or whatever – I just really enjoy helping people in that way.
If you were not an architect, what would you do? An orthodontist!
What do you do in your free time? Most people know I play tennis. But I also have a little organic garden, and I raise bees! I have two beehives. I have a beekeeper’s suit and everything. Surprisingly, I’ve only been stung four times!
Amanda Rienth, NCIDQ, Principal, New York
When or how did you know that you wanted to be a designer? I knew pretty early on in life that I wanted to be an interior designer. When I was 13 I started doing the displays in my parent’s store; it was my first foray into palettes and compositions. As a kid, I even wanted to paint my bedroom black, using different paint sheens (gloss, satin, matte) to create stripes. My mom, of course, said no, but even then, I was excited by color and texture and how it can create moods for spaces. I have a black bathroom now, so I guess my vision finally came true!
What is something you learned on your first job that has served you well? My first job was with an architect who was super meticulous about his drawings. Working on a computer, you’re looking at things from a narrow lens, up close, on a detailed, finite scale. He encouraged me to print my work at different scales, pin it up, and stand back to look at it. It really gave me an understanding of what other people see when they look at your work. Today, I encourage my team to print out and pin up drawings,or material samples, and look at it from 10+ feet away to see just how it will read in real life.
What advice would you give to an aspiring female designer? You need to find a firm where you feel supported and where you are able to exercise your creativity. Aspiring female designers should be open to learning and growing, but they should not accept being underestimated. It’s easy to get beat down, so it’s so important to be able to speak up for yourself in a respectful way. I don’t love the word grit, but that’s really what you need. Tenacity, perseverance, passion will get you far in life.
If you were not an architect/designer, what would you do? The only other thing I briefly considered was the field of psychology. It’s funny, because I feel like a lot of working with clients and owners has a huge psychological component, actually.
What excites you about role of interiors within the field of architecture? Great interiors really need to evoke a depth of feeling. Whatever that feeling is, it should be obvious the second you walk into a space. Ultimately, it’s so critical that interiors and architecture work together. When an interiors team can have thoughts and opinions about the architecture and when the architects can have thoughts and opinions about the interiors, the projects become much richer.
What excites you about the future of women in architecture and design? Just the fact that I see a lot more women entering the profession! I believe that women’s voices will add diversity to the way projects are approached, discussed, and implemented. Inclusivity and diversity in the practice of architecture are critical to designing spaces that will solve the complex problems of the future.
Rachel Case, AIA, Senior Project Manager, San Diego
What is something you learned in architecture school that has stuck with you? If a concept or design becomes too precious, you cannot develop it critically.
What is something you learned on your first job that has served you well? Always take your work more seriously than you take yourself. But don’t take any of it too seriously. Levity is what makes architecture fun.
What advice would you give to an aspiring female architect? Constantly build up your competence and your confidence. They pair well together. As a gender, we are socialized as a gender to have lower confidence. Reject that as much as possible by building a rock-solid level of competence.
What is your favorite part of your job? Being able to both teach and learn, in a million different ways.
What would you say is an essential quality in an architect/designer? Listen. To your clients, to your consultants, to your gut. Our power as architects is as great synthesizers, but you need good data to synthesize well, and that comes from listening.
Sarah Farnham, Designer, New York
When or how did you know that you wanted to be a designer? I figured out that I wanted to be an architect in High School. I was in accelerated science and math classes, but what I really enjoyed more was my art classes. I figured that architecture was a nice way to combine art, math, and science into one career path.
What excites you about the future of women in architecture and design? It seems that most college classes for architecture are mostly women now. My school’s class was 75% women. I am excited to see the professional industry catch up to that bit by bit!
What advice would you give to an aspiring female designer? I would tell an aspiring female architect never to give up or back down from what you believe in. It will always get easier once you have more experience and as the industry becomes more and more female friendly.
What motivates you? Creating great spaces that will hopefully be around for a very long time is a big motivation. And happy clients: there is nothing better than knowing you helped put something in this world that brings people joy, comfort, or positive emotion.
If you were not a designer, what would you do? If I was not a designer, and if I had all the money in the world, I would probably open and run a dog shelter. That way, I could care for more dogs than can fit in a small NYC apartment!
What would you say is an essential quality in an architect/designer? Compassion. It is important to remember the human aspect of your designs; you need compassion to care for the users of the spaces you design, as well as any effects your designs might have on surrounding communities.
What kind of project would you dream of working on? I am already working on dream projects! As a former theater kid in high school, it is so fun to be working on theaters, performing arts centers, and music studios.
Jin Zhu, Associate, Senior Project Designer, San Jose
What is something you learned in architecture school that has stuck with you? In one of my first architecture classes, the professor said, “All architects want to build their dream tower, but remember, the purpose of being an architect is not to make your own monument. Instead, what you will do is to serve the community and make a better world for everyone to live in.”
What advice would you give to an aspiring female architect? An architect is someone who makes an impact on people’s lives by shaping space. You don’t have to compromise your life to be a good architect. The experiences you have in your life will contribute to making you a more sophisticated architect.
What is your favorite part of your job? Problem solving and program planning. I love solving with puzzles. The more complicated the project program is, the more excitement I find in it.
If you were not an architect/designer, what would you do? If you were to ask my son this question, he would want me to be a zoo keeper. But if I weren’t able to do this job, I would want to be an Montessori elementary school teacher…another type of zoo keeper!
What would you say is an essential quality in an architect/designer? Honesty. Be true to people you serve, the materials you use, the quality you pursue, and you will never lose your passion.
Follow along all month on our social media channels @steinberghart to hear more from the incredible women who work at Steinberg Hart.