Lou Switzer on Diversity in Design Today

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By Zachary Edelson / Published by Dwell
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For our March interiors issue, currently on newsstands, we looked at superbly-designed rooms from all over the world. While the projects varied immensely, the U.S. architectural profession itself isn't so diverse: according the AIA, only 17% of firm partners and principals were women in 2013. Only 11% were ethnic minorities. While the lower ranks of interns and designers were more diverse, those younger employees will take years, if not decades, to reach architecture's upper echelons. We talked with Lou Switzer—who in 1975 founded The Switzer Group, a 100% minority-owned business of around 50 employees—on how he got to where he is and the current state of diversity in design.

Lou Switzer helped found the ACE Mentor Program of America, Inc. which works to get high school students involved in architecture, construction, and engineering. The Switzer Group is an interior architecture firm with clients that include the Walt Disney Co., General Motors, IBM, Columbia University, and AMC.

Lou Switzer (above) on wanting to become an architect:

Ever since I was in the fourth grade, I was interested in becoming an architect, getting involved in design. The reason for that is my aunt's husband was an architect. He was very talented and he used to do all these beautiful renderings of homes. I think that's what got me really into design and focusing on design and architecture.

Everything I did from the fourth grade on was really toward architecture. When I got into high school, I started taking mechanical drafting. In my mechanical drafting class I became very talented and had a mentor...who taught [the class] and who was an architect. He was a big influence on me continuing within the architecture community.

 

On growing up in South Carolina and his first job:

I had job opportunities when I was ten and thirteen...even if it [was] shelling beans. Even when I did that, I noticed that the store was busy. I remember the first phone call I made on a brand new phone we just got. It was back to that store. I said, "May I speak to the owner? I'm Lou. I'm one of the kids outside that helps you. I noticed you're very busy inside the store. Do you need some help? Can I work in the store?" He says, "What's your name again? If you are coming here tomorrow, come in and see me."

Right away, I was working in the store. I remember taking over the vegetable area and the stock was selling out like crazy. He said, "What are you doing? Giving this stuff away?" I said, "No! I'm giving them a good deal, which they think they're getting." It's not the way I sell design services. It's just being at the right place at the right time and getting the opportunity and seizing the moment. I think that that's key.

(Above: St. John’s University – 101 Astor Place, designed by The Switzer Group)

 

On moving from mail clerk to draftsman at an architecture firm:

When I arrived here [New York City] in 1966, right out of high school, I started looking for a job in the architectural profession. The first three months, I worked in a supermarket. Every Monday I could go to the employment office to see what jobs were available. I got a job opportunity: "call Elizabeth Hambright at Sherburn Associates." They were looking for a mail room clerk. I said, "Perfect!"

I took that job and within three months I got a tap on my shoulder. "I've [been] told you have a portfolio. Can you bring it in?" So I brought the work in, showed the guy who was the office manager. "These are your drawings?" he said. "Yeah." "You're sure these are your drawings?" he asked. "Of course they're my drawings!" "You did these drawings?!" he asked again. "Yes!" "Where?" he said. "High School". "They were teaching you this in High School?!" he said. "Yeah." "I'm promoting you to a draftsman. You're a draftsman now. Get someone to fill your spot."

(Above: St. John’s University – 101 Astor Place, designed by The Switzer Group)

 

On facing adversity:

Of course, when I became a draftsman, the next thing is, I said, "I better get to college." I applied to Pratt and was accepted at their night school. I was progressing pretty rapidly in this firm. Quite frankly, I stayed at this firm for a period of four years. The reason I left this firm was my mentor at the firm...had given me all of these assignments. I was the only one that was allowed to work overtime.

I was working on an assignment in Atlanta and it came time for someone to go to Atlanta. All of the sudden another person was put on the team and sent to Atlanta. It was a young, white, male architect that basically came into this assignment that I worked on for so long. [My mentor] was protecting me because Atlanta was a racist town. This is where diversity comes into play today. I grew up with that sort of stuff. I don't want to see it anymore in my life.

(Above: IBM Watson – 51 Astor Place, designed by The Switzer Group)

On starting his own firm after several interim jobs:

I started The Switzer Group in 1975 with the secretary and myself. A big client to start...a fairly decent-sized project. Of course, the rest is history. I built that one client, to my second client, to a client that I have today, which is still my largest client, IBM. We handle [them] from Maine, to Florida, to Texas, Germany.

(Above: IBM Watson – 51 Astor Place by The Switzer Group)

Is the design field getting more diverse?

Absolutely! Compared to twenty years ago, compared to thirty years ago. I think clients today, most of them, are opening the doors. There's always going to be a certain client that's going to go back to the same architect no matter what. There [are] categories that people get put into. I will say that, the opportunities for this firm have been equally as good as any other firm. If we're given that opportunity, that's all I ask for. We believe we're good competitors and solid citizens in terms of [how] we preform our services.

(Above: IBM Watson – 51 Astor Place, designed by The Switzer Group)

How do you view diversity at The Switzer Group?

I look at, not just as gender or race, but as: let's open the doors up. Let's open 'em up and allow people to perform. I really don't look at [diversity] as a way to sell. From the start, when I started this firm, it was all about performance, service, quality.

(Above: Vice Media Headquarters, designed by The Switzer Group)

Any advice for those, especially those in an ethnic minority, looking to enter design?

You don't just break into it. You have to have some talent for it. It's hard to just walk in and say, "This is what I'm gonna do." You have to have some knowledge of what you're getting into: basic [design] knowledge, ACE Mentor-taught knowledge. Kids progress...then when they graduate from high school, they [go] on to college for architecture or engineering.

You've got to keep the goal posts moving. If you keep the goal posts moving and never give up, you're gonna reach that goal every time.

(Above: Vice Media Headquarters by The Switzer Group)