Art Gensler on Gentrification, 7000 Employees and Early Days of the Firm

Design:ED Podcast is an inside look into the field of architecture told from the perspective of individuals that are leading the industry. This motivational series grants unique insight into the making of a successful design career, from humble beginnings to worldwide recognition. Every week, featured guests share their personal highs and lows on their journey to success, that is sure to inspire audiences at all levels of the industry. Listening to their stories will provide a rare blueprint for anyone seeking to advance their career, and elevate their work to the next level.

Art Gensler founded Gensler in 1965 in San Francisco. Art successfully grew his three-person design studio into the World’s largest architecture firm. He is a Fellow of both the American Institute of Architects and the International Interior Design Association, and a professional member of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Art is also the author of “Art’s Principles” a book which focuses on the tough business lessons he has learned from over 50 years in the architecture profession.

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We are recording in San Francisco, which has become the headquarters for issues of gentrification and rising costs of rent. What responsibility do you think architects have in this regard? (2:37)

“Well I think there is a contribution all of us can make. Not only architects but the people that live here and work here… I think architects have a very large responsibility to make cities a better place to live. It’s one of the main themes that the Gensler organization is focusing on for the next ten to fifteen years is making the cities better places to live. I think we can do that, but we have to work with the communities and we have to work with the government and we have to work with the infrastructure that we’ve got. One of the problems is, in certain parts of the world you can start a new city and you have a clean piece of paper to design on, but here every block is full so you have to tear something down to build something up. For example, in the area that we are sitting in, they have raised the height limits dramatically. It is about densification rather than spreading out more stuff away from the center city so focusing on the high rise in closer confines to one another…”

My understanding is that you started Gensler with just you and two other people. Can you take us through the early days and how you started the firm? (12:23)

“I ended up taking a job working for a San Francisco architect so my wife and I and our kids came to San Francisco and we never left. I ended up working for him and I learned that he was a lousy business man. He was a good architect but didn’t know how to run a business. One day he came in and said he said ‘I’m going to go drive a cab and you stay here and run the business.’ I said ‘your name is on the door, mine isn’t so I’m out of here’ and I went and set up the standards for our rapid transit system. There hadn’t been a subway system built since the New York Subway system and so the engineers were just going to copy that. A group of people said, ‘No, we don’t want that. We want something far better.’ So, I set up a set of standards working with a group of people. When that finished, a friend of mine asked if I knew anyone that could do the interiors for a building where he was the development manager… And so, I started a firm to do interiors which I didn’t know anything about.”

You are credited with developing interior design as a profession. What was the reasoning behind that decision? (13:40)

“Before it was being done by furniture dealers or a few architects. Very few, there were only two firms in all of San Francisco that did it, and didn’t do much of it. I thought it was a good opportunity and it turns out that probably 60% of the revenue in the profession now come from architects doing interiors rather than the other way around. It is where the rubber meets the road. That’s where people use something and touch it and feel it. It’s not just what they see driving down the street. They need to get in the building and use it and feel it and touch it and work with it. I found that fascinating, fun, and people-oriented…”

Gensler now has roughly 7000 employees. What specifically did you do that allowed Gensler to scale faster than other firms? (15:15)

“I never thought it was going to get this big. I hoped the firm would do garage remodeling and a few small projects and some interiors. I didn’t ever see this one coming. I believe you hire the best and most talented people you can find. Don’t be afraid to hire people smarter than you. I may be smarter in some ways but there are certainly people that are a lot smarter in many other ways… I felt architects made a difference, provided a service and should be paid well for it. The first job I ever took, I charged more fees than anyone had ever charged in the industry, but I said I’m going to do it right and make a profession out of it. When I dug into it, I didn’t like the way any of it was being done. It wasn’t being done very professionally. It wasn’t being done by the best architects. It was done by people that thought they were designers, and so they would buy four Barcelona Chairs and a Barcelona Table, put it in the lobby and call it a design. That is not what we are about at all. It’s not about objects, it’s about function, beauty, and flexibility. I just had a different attitude about what I was trying to do. I got a group of people that have been here forty or fifty years who believe that as I do. It’s not about them. It’s about our clients, so we have focused everything on satisfying client needs. We have many clients that we work with over and over and over again on a repeat basis, and that’s sort of the basis of our business…”

Put the audience in the room after Gensler has been shortlisted for a project. What sets them apart from their competitors? (27:14)

“We do research. We have a research institute and are constantly trying to keep up to date and know what is going on. It isn’t just making the building more beautiful, which we do by use of material, proportions, scale, climate because sustainability is a big deal. Two, we have quality people, and so when they make a presentation, they person they meet with isn’t some salesman. We don’t have a sales department selling our work. We have real people, real designers and architects, interior designers that are experts in their field so they have a great story to tell. Along with client references that are impeccable… And our people really bond with the client. We really care about them. Sure, we have pride and want our work shown in magazines, but mostly we are focusing on what the client wants…”

In 2010 you stepped down as the chairman of Gensler after 45 years running the company. What was that process like for you personally? (32:10)

“You have to go back. I decided to try to build an organization that would go on forever. I wanted to say to anybody that came to work here, ‘If you want to stay and work for 40 years, there will be a business that you can work for.’ I was very proud that I started it and ran it for 12-15 years and then we had four of us that ran it another 15-20 years and then we put in the group that is leading us right now. Politics is totally out of it. It is who is the right person or people, and we have a rule of two so that we don’t have a single CEO we have Co-CEO’s… We don’t make transition complicated, but we make them carefully. We make sure that we have the right people… I have stepped into a role as an advisor. Sometimes they listen to me sometimes, and other times they totally ignore me. It was the right time for me, I was about 74 or 74. It’s an evolution not a revolution. It’s worked for us and we intend to keep doing it that way…”

About this author
Cite: Design:ED. "Art Gensler on Gentrification, 7000 Employees and Early Days of the Firm" 09 Aug 2019. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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