July 25, 2021

Alexandra Beer House

The Real Estate Experts

Art Gensler Approached Architecture From the Inside Out

Art Gensler

had modest ambitions for the architectural firm he launched in 1965 in a sublet space in San Francisco. “My original dream,” he wrote later, “was to have about a six-person firm to design houses and perhaps some small buildings.”

Instead, he built one of the world’s largest architecture and design firms, now known simply as Gensler, with more than 5,200 employees in 50 offices scattered across 14 countries. The firm got its initial traction in a type of work big-name architects tended to despise: designing interior spaces.

Mr. Gensler, who died May 10 at the age of 85, was simply responding to an opportunity. In the early days of his firm, he had drinks with one of his former Cornell University classmates, who was working on a project at the Alcoa Building in San Francisco. That led to work for Mr. Gensler in designing spaces for tenants at the building.

Shanghai Tower, right, is among Art Gensler’s grandest projects.



Photo:

Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News

Gensler designs exteriors and whole buildings too. Among its grandest projects is the Shanghai Tower, a twisting cylinder rising more than 120 stories. But the company is still known for interior work, including scores of airport terminals around the world and Apple stores.

Though Mr. Gensler’s name was on the door, his ego wasn’t out of control. Never a “starchitect,” he focused on finding clients and cultivating teamwork. After booking a

JetBlue

flight to save money, he ended up meeting the airline’s chief executive on the flight and winning a design contract.

“It’s not about me at all, it never was,” he said in a video interview. “It’s about what we call a constellation of stars. Everybody is a star; it takes all of us to do a project.”

One of his sales points was that Gensler would aim to please the client rather than imposing an artistic vision. “We don’t have a style,” Mr. Gensler said. “We can be flexible.” He told designers to focus on what people inside the building would want, not on the outer shell.

Millard Arthur Gensler Jr., known as Art, an only child, was born July 12, 1935, in Brooklyn, N.Y. His father sold Armstrong ceiling tiles; his mother had been a telephone operator. When he was a teenager, the family moved to Hartford, Conn.

His interest in design started early. By age 6, he was drawing house floor plans. Later he clipped out magazine articles on architectural topics. He designed and built a racing cart that won a soap box derby. Perhaps equally important, he learned salesmanship by hawking magazine subscriptions door-to-door.

During a holiday break from his architectural studies at Cornell, he met Drucilla “Drue” Cortell at a party. She was studying drama and French at Middlebury College in Vermont. They married in 1957.

Art Gensler got started with his own firm at 555 Clay Street in San Francisco.



Photo:

Gensler

After finishing his degree in 1958, Mr. Gensler worked at an architectural firm in New York. Among his early projects were schools and bomb shelters. He also worked for a British design firm on a project in Kingston, Jamaica. Tempted by California, the Genslers moved to San Francisco in 1962.

Three years later he opened his own firm, with a single draftsman and his wife as the office manager. The initial furnishings included old doors perched on sawhorses.

One of his big projects in the 1960s was designing interiors in the

Bank of America

headquarters to attract tenants for surplus space. “That was my job, to find a design that would attract law firms,” Mr. Gensler told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2014. “I was just trying to get my feet wet, and we’re designing space in the biggest building around.”

In 1990, Bank of America hired Gensler to transform a data center into office space. The bank rejected Gensler’s first proposal as “grandiloquent,” the New York Times reported, and demanded a no-frills approach. Gensler came back with a plan involving an atrium to bring in natural light and the use of recycled furniture to save money. The bank was pleased with Gensler’s flexibility and gave the firm more renovation jobs.

Though Gensler did spectacular projects like Shanghai Tower, “Art would be just as excited about a project where we redesigned an entry level or created the graphic design of a wine label,” said Diane Hoskins, co-chief executive officer of Gensler, which has diversified into digital-experience and brand design.

Perhaps his most demanding client was

Steve Jobs

of Apple. The computer company hired Gensler in 2000 to design a prototype for Apple stores. Gensler designers produced full-scale models inside a warehouse, and Mr. Jobs stopped by weekly to inspect the work.

“It was just him and me, every week for five months,” Mr. Gensler told the Chronicle. “We’d build a store, and he’d shred it, tear it apart.” Rivals were offering their own store designs to Apple, but “everyone got fired except us,” he said.

Mr. Gensler died of complications from lung disease. He is survived by four sons, 10 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter. His wife, Drue, died in 2017.

He served as a trustee for the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the California College of the Arts. The Gensler family recently donated $10 million to Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning.

He didn’t see Gensler’s designs as permanent monuments. “I’ve never looked at anything we did as so precious that it’s irreplaceable,” Mr. Gensler said. “My ideal building would be one where after 30 years—poof!—it disappears and we can start all over again.”

Write to James R. Hagerty at [email protected]

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