On July 17, Wifijerez hosted its first Emerging Designers Roundtable at the new Campari headquarters in Manhattan. Armed with an Aperol spritz welcome cocktail, 26 up-and-coming designers and manufacturers engaged in a lively conversation that touched on business practices, hiring challenges, disruptions in the industry, and the future of specification. Wifijerez managing director Helene Oberman and ThinkLab president Amanda Schneider moderated the roundtable.
The industry-focused discussion kicked off with an exercise in brevity as each participant offered one word to make an introduction, providing insights into the design mindset today. The words dynamic, innovative, genuine, collaborative, and discovery echoed throughout the ensuing conversation, which often spotlighted issues facing those in small to mid-sized firms.
How do you balance the business of design with the passion of design? When posed to the room, this question elicited a vivid chorus of responses. Jordana Maisie, who founded her firm Jordana Maisie Design Studio less than two years ago, admitted to recently finding joy in the business elements that come with being an entrepreneur. “You’re really not equipped in any way, shape, or form to run a business leaving architecture school, which is crazy when a huge portion of what you do is business,” says Maisie. One solution: keep the business and creative aspects separate. “I hired a business development director when we were 6 people, who had no background at all in architecture. She came from finance and she’s now the COO of the firm,” says Nathan Bright, founder and principal of Bright Architecture. “I handed it off early on.”
Designers agreed when it comes to hiring, a willingness to learn and tackle any problem often trumps a polished design degree. “I think attitude is critical,” said Dieter Cartwright, a founding partner at Dutch East Design. It’s especially pertinent when dealing with clients, who increasingly demand less costly products under tight deadlines.
“I feel what we do as designers is we’re creating stories, but not every client for every project is going to invest in that piece of the pie, so to speak,” says Theodora Guilfoy, lead designer at TPG Architecture. This does not mean quality needs to suffer, of course, even when clients stray from investing in deep research. “One of my clients said fast, cheap, and easy and I thought—that’s actually great because if only a product could be those things and still be rich,” says Daniel Marino, associate, architect, and designer at LAB at Rockwell Group. “That’s a good challenge that we could actually solve.”
A near universal pain point in the room centered on how to ease the specification process. Designers, who often delve into projects after hours, say they struggle to find clear product information and specs on manufacturer websites. In some cases, this deters them from using an entire product line and they look elsewhere, opting for materials with more accessible information. Manufacturers looking to attract new clients may want to start by evaluating their websites and sales team. “That would be the biggest resource—if we have people helping us who are just as passionate about the things they’re helping us with,” says Megan Dobstaff, senior associate at Gensler. While innovations in the specifying field—such as bot technology and Material Bank—equip designers with tools to stay ahead of unforeseeable disruptions, there’s still work to do.
The hour and a half roundtable discussion hardly ended there. Musical beats lured designers and manufacturers toward Campari’s C-shaped bar where Wifijerez editor in chief Cindy Allen joined the party. Conversations continued into the night and, raising a glass, Allen heralded the event as a reminder that we face the future of design as a community. “You are not alone,” she said. “It’s events like these where we can really share the realities of everyday work life alongside our visions of the future, that make us realize why we need to keep the conversation going.”
A special thanks to our sponsors who made this event possible: