Carlos M. Martínez Flórez
Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I’m here with Carlos Martinez from Gensler. Carlos, thanks so much for joining us today. How are you?
CMF: I’m doing great. How are you?
SSR: So we always start this podcast at the beginning. So where did you grow up?
CMF: I was born in Cuba. I left Cuba when I was three years old, and we moved to Puerto Rico. So I spent my early years in Puerto Rico all the way through high school.
SSR: Wow. What were you like as a kid?
CMF: As a kid, I was kind of a very quiet kid, to a degree, and very curious. I was the youngest of… I grew up with a lot of cousins, obviously, like a typical immigrant family. So it was like an extended family. And we all live in the same street. And we were always, always together. But I was the youngest. And then eventually, another family left, and there was one person younger than me. But because I was surrounded by these older sibling and cousins, I start becoming a big reader. I start grabbing their books and started reading way before the time that I think I was supposed to be reading that kind of books. To me, that was an incredible passion. So I was very much about the world of stories. And I think maybe that’s why I was more of a quiet kid and always sort of observing my older family members and learning from them, so I was that kind of. Although when I was a baby, my sister was an angel, and when I arrived, my mother said that I was the opposite. I was a terrible kid, I guess. A terrible baby.
SSR: How did Puerto Rico influence you? I mean, it must have been so interesting to grow up on an island and have nature and beauty surrounding you.
CMF: Yeah, well, Puerto Rico was so fantastic. I mean, Puerto Rican people are so amazing, so warm, and so friendly. And their music and food is so much part of the culture. And we used to go to the beach every Sunday because that was kind of a great entertainment for the very extended family and for all the kids. And the beaches were free. And it was a lot of fun time all the time.
And growing up with so many people around you, it’s fantastic. It’s like every weekend was a party. And I think that was very much kind of the mentality, or what I always observe about being in Puerto Rico, is that every time you went to visit someone, it was like a gathering of people. And food and music played a very big part of that. I remember all parties, everybody will start singing. And my family’s a very musical family. Everybody plays some instrument. I’m the only one that doesn’t play an instrument. Maybe my creativity was more in the visual arts. Theirs was all in this sort of performance, but yeah, we used to always get together and sort of celebrate. And it was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful time. I loved and I have great memories of being in Puerto Rico through those years, all the way through high school.
SSR: I know you said you loved reading. Were you creative as well?
CMF: I think I was creative, but not maybe in the traditional way that a lot of people think about architecture and design. I didn’t draw. That was not really my skillset, but I was always seeking creative things. And I’m a very handy guy since I was a kid. And I was always kind of doing projects and things and building things and… Not real things, but even like fixing things around the house. And there was one thing I used to draw, which is kind of peculiar, but my mother used to work for a company that had an arm that was a development arm, and they had architects in it. And because it was a development, they used to do housing.
When I will go to her office, I will go into that department. And they had these shelves, and the shelves were the floor plans for all the different homes that they were designing and building. And I remember I collected those, and I found this kind of grade school in notebooks. And I always been drawing all these floor plans for these houses. They were always in plan. Nothing was elevated, but it was always sort of thinking about the layout of places. And actually, I looked at some of them, I was like, “You know what? They were not bad.” Some of these…
I mean, they had some interesting characteristics about the house, and they were always oriented around a courtyard, which is interesting because I was born in a house that had a courtyard in my bedroom. Again, this is all through photographs because I don’t really have a memory, but there was a courtyard that organized all the rooms in the house, and I didn’t… In Puerto Rico, we didn’t house like that, but all my floor plans had courtyards in it. And I’m not sure I was fully conscious that that’s how the house that I was born in Cuba was like. So that was sort of interesting, but yeah.
SSR: That’s very cool. What did your mom do for this company?
CMF: She was in finance. So I think she originally got started there by being part of the financial team. But she ended up becoming the controller in the company and working for the CEO of the company, handling all the stuff that part of his own personal stuff. So yeah, she was like a CPA, basically.
SSR: Got it. And what did your father do?
CMF: My father was a banker, and… Actually, both of my parents were in banking. And in Cuba, they worked in the same bank. Yeah, so that was interesting. They both work in the same place. But my father passed away in Cuba before we left. So, of course, he didn’t live with us, so I don’t know what he would have been in Puerto Rico. But he might have gone into banking as well, or something like finance, like my mother did.
SSR: Yeah. And so you lived in Puerto Rico. How did you end up at school in Ohio, and how did you end up choosing architecture as your path? Because you got an undergrad and a master’s in it, correct?
CMF: Yeah, yeah. I always remember when people said, “Oh, when you’re a kid, and said what do you want to be, or…” I always said I want to be an architect. And I always said that, and I really don’t know. I don’t think I knew any other architects except that department that it was in my mother’s office, but I never met anybody there. But I always said I wanted to be in architecture. So I finished high school, and I knew I was going to architecture. And I always say that if I didn’t get into architecture school, I don’t know what I would have done. I don’t think I could have gone to school to study just anything. But luckily, I applied, and I went to a school in Miami first. I’ve always been a very independent kid, since the very beginning. My mother always said I’m very, very, very independent, and I really wanted to be on my own. So I wanted to be away from home, not because… I love my mother and I love my family, but I really wanted to adventure there.
And Miami seemed like an interesting thing to just go to the United States or the continent. I had an uncle. That’s a good thing about an immigrant family, that when people leave, they went to many, many different places. So I have family in Europe. I have family in multiple states of the US, so that became very convenient. So it became a very easy thing because I had an uncle that lived in Miami, and I could live with them, so facilitated for me to go there. So I was there for a couple years in the architectural program, and it just clicked from day one. And to your point about where you are artistic, I had never drawn anything. I was not a person that sketched anything. But my first class, on my first day, my professor said to all of us in the class, he said, “Take off your shoe. Put it on your table, and draw it.” And I was like, “I have never done that,” and I still have that sketch.
SSR: How was it? Was it good?
CMF: It was okay. It was okay. I looked around the class, and I thought everybody’s shoe looked better than mine because a lot of people really were very creative and artistic. This was my first sketch ever, or if anything. But I look at it now, and I think it was true to size and true to… You know what I mean? It wasn’t like a… It was-
SSR: What type of shoe was it? Now, I’m very curious.
CMF: I know. It was a desert boot.
SSR: Got it. Love it. Love it. And it just clicked. And you knew you were where you were supposed to be.
CMF: Not only just click, it’s like I was never the top of my class in high school, not because I wasn’t… One year, I remember my sophomore year in mathematics. I was the highest score in the school in mathematics. But the next year, I flunked mathematics, and my mother said, “How is that possible? You were the highest score one year and now you flunked?” And there’s a story to that. But what I’m saying is I was erratic. Sometimes I was top, and sometimes I was remedial. But the moment that I started study architecture, that was it. I was top of class every time. And I think it had to do a lot because it was something that I wanted to do and something that I felt so connected. And for me, it was a natural thing. I never struggled. For me, it was enjoyable. And architecture is a tough career in terms of time and commitment, long hours, all-nighters, and all that stuff. I was always full of joy doing it all the time.
SSR: That’s awesome. Why do you think you used to say when I grow up, I want to be an architect? What do you think was that inkling behind it? Was it from going to your mom’s office? Was it just the buildings in Puerto Rico?
CMF: Yeah. I think now, in retrospect, and especially looking at the journey of my career by first studying architecture, becoming an architect, practicing architecture for many years, I think for five years or six years, then starting to do interior architecture, and then even moving into things like innovation strategy and things like that is that I think what connected with me architecture was the experience of being in a place. So there was something about the awareness of the environment. And maybe at the time, the only way that I probably could verbalize that was, “Oh, I’m talking about architecture. I’m drawn to architecture. “But now what I realize… Because even my… When I first considered this notion of going into a firm that did interior architecture, which was a big step because, as an architect, you study so hard, and it’s such a tough career, and then all of a sudden to think that you’re going to be doing something different, it was really a very important decision.
But as soon as I start doing interior architecture, I realized, “Oh, this is even more connected to what I love about architecture,” which is the experience of the space. And the beauty of interior architecture is that what you’re doing is you’re shaping negative space. In architecture, you’re creating sort of this object. In interiors, you’re creating the void, and the void is… You know what I mean. And that felt to me… I remember telling myself, “I think this is even closer to what I really, really, really enjoy,” which eventually, especially going into innovation strategy, where I end up realizing that it was the experience that I was after.
I’ll give you an example, an early example to your question around how it started and how you saw it in the early days. Every summer, when I went to Miami to visit that uncle that I ended up living with later, we were there for two weeks every summer visiting our cousins. And every year, he will take us to this villa in Miami that is a museum. It’s the Vizcaya. It’s a kind of gilded-age sort of amazing property, and it’s a museum. And it was my favorite thing. My favorite thing ever. And I will go through every room, and I will look at everything. And I have it engraved in my mind. And I think that’s where it really started this idea of architecture was being in that house and realizing, because the beauty of Vizcaya is that it was the house and the garden. Oh, and the house had a courtyard-
SSR: Wow, there you go.
CMF: That’s where the courtyard came from because the house was all organized around that courtyard, and the courtyard related to the water and the courtyard related to the gardens. And because this was one of those villas that was created with actually areas to grow the food that was consumed by not just the people in the villa but the community at large, so it was a very comprehensive ecosystem. And I love that. To me, that was magical.
SSR: Yes. No, it’s beautiful. That’s amazing. Okay, so you studied architecture. What was your first job?
CMF: My first job after school, I’m not very proud of this, but I never worked until I finished my master’s. I just went through school and some people get internships and work in architectural firm. Actually, my true first job, which happened when I was in high school, was a paper route, which I loved. It was actually riding my bike and delivering newspapers. And I love that thing. But that was my first and only job until I finished my grad school. I graduated on a Sunday, that was a graduation day. And then Monday, I started because one of my professors offered me a job. And that was my first day. My first day was the day after finishing my grad school. That was my first day I remember showing up. And the one thing I will say after being through eight years of school, because I went through… I transferred to Ohio from… So I ended up doing longer for the masters. It was eight years.
And I remember being there and working from eight to five or eight to eight, depending on what was due. And after the first couple of weeks, I went home and said, “I can’t keep doing this for the rest of my life.” Because when you’re in school, you go to classes. You go to the library. It’s a very dynamic, and you have your own schedule. But this idea that I had to sit in at a desk and in a drafting table working for 8, 12, 14 hours and going home, eating, going to sleep, and getting up, I was like, “No, this cannot be it.” But all of a sudden, things got interesting.
SSR: Yeah. Well, I guess that’s your first kind of reality check, but you stuck with it and you kept going. And you spent some time right at the Doblin Group and then Perkins&Will. Then you had a couple of jobs before you landed at Gensler. What were those early experiences like, and what did they teach you or have stuck with you from them?
CMF: Oh, yeah, this is a great question, because really, I’m very, very lucky that every single one of my jobs was amazing, amazing for me. They were foundational. The first job was with Stanley Tigerman. So he was my professor in grad school. He offered me a job. And Stanley was the big dean of architecture in Chicago, and highly conceptual architect and unconventional.
I worked there for two years. It was great because, in a way, it was an extension of school. He was my professor. I felt like I was still listening to him. And he really had a lot of this sort of idea of this spirit of this, what was happening at the times with the emergence of postmodernism and really challenging the norms and all that. And that felt rich. And it also felt like I was getting used to being at the drafting table and all that stuff.
But then I had the opportunity to go to Holabird & Root. And Holabird & Root was a very, very important step for me because, having been immersed in that school of thought that Stanley and the University of Illinois had… Holabird & Root was all based on the teachings and philosophy of the IIT, which was the counterpoint in terms of philosophy. Mies van der Rohe Heritage, it’s all about the art of building and this sort of idea of amazing detailing.
So I took that job intentionally because I felt like that would complement my education. And I worked there for three or four years. And I actually got a very, very strong foundation to be a strong architect in terms of the delivery of architecture. I learned how to detail. I learned how to put documents together. I was surrounded with amazing people, many of them professors of design at IIT. And I felt like, all of a sudden, I had now completed the book. And I learned the beauty of Chicago architectural traditions, and I got registered during that time.
So they all that amazing… And I was lucky, also, that I got to work on two small projects that were small enough that I was the only person working with one of the principals. So I got to do everything from showing up at the hearings in the town to get the project approved, working on the design, doing the drawings, and the construction administration, that it gave me a solid foundation to get registered. So from there, that’s when a friend of mine said, “I’m working on this firm. And he was also an architect.” And he said, “But they do interior architecture. And I think you should try it. And you will be so good.” So I interviewed, and I really, really like what I heard, and that’s when all of a sudden I discovered that. And that was ISD in Chicago. And I discovered the beauty of interiors, but the beauty of architectural interiors, and that was a great, great journey.
And with that came also what experiential meant, working on projects. And I got to design the offices for Doblin. They were my clients. So when I finished that project, I was so inspired by that client and so inspired by what they were doing that they… I talked to them, and they offered me a job. And I said, “I have to do this.” I mean, it was a very tough decision because he was really leaving the profession. And a friend of mine asked me, and he said, “I can’t believe that you’re doing this. You are the ultimate creative director, thinker person. I cannot imagine you’re not being in design.” I said, “No, no. I’m doing this because I want to see if I can retrain my brain from the way I was trained, because I think there’s something emerging here that is really great, but I’m doing it because I’m coming back to design.”
I end up being actually a total of four years at Doblin and an amazing perspective of our thinking strategically developing rigor and ideas and how do you create ways of looking at how you arrive at things that matter, that kind of have impact. And then I went back to design because a person that knew me at ISD had gone at Perkins&Will, and she recruited me to go back. And I was ready. I felt like I had already been. I got my master’s now in strategy. And it was time to apply that. And, to be quite honest, that’s when my career really took off. I think when I got back and I took Stanley Tigerman, Holabird & Root, and then ISD, and what I learned at Dublin, and I put it all together and just happened.
I just start doing work and thinking. And obviously, I was now more seasoned. I became a partner there. And it was sort of a great way maturing into a position of leadership, both with the work but also in the market as a leader in the community. And then the time came for me to join Gensler, and they approached me. At first, I wasn’t sure, but I finally realized, “No, I think I learned about Gensler and learned what they were all about. And I think it’s like, “That’s my tent. I think that’s where I need to go.” And yeah, here I am.
SSR: Going back to Perkins&Will, what type of projects were you working on, and then when you came over to Gensler, did you continue those type of projects, or did you go a different route?
CMF: Yeah, so I mean, at Perkins&Will, I was working on, obviously, in corporate interiors. I think one of the interesting accounts was we did work for Perot Systems. We did an office in the US and an office in London. And that was actually a project that came out of a relationship I had that they developed when I was at Dublin. And that was interesting. It was a tech company. And I start specializing in that emerging thinking around work. Tech companies had a very different take on what the workplace needed to be. So that’s kind of where I started putting together this idea of how you reinvent things, but not reinvent them from a design perspective, reinvent them from an experience perspective.
SSR: Got it. And so you went over to Gensler. And what was it about the firm that attracted you, and then what has been about the firm that you’ve stayed for more than two decades?
CMF: So one of the things that I’ve always used as a… If I go back and I look at the moments that I decided to leave a place is that I joined a firm, and I always feel like, “Oh my God, you got to get busy here and really measure up to your peers.” Because I remember when I arrived at Holabird & Root, I was like, “Oh my God, everybody here is so good at what they do.” And I feel like I have a lot to learn. But it got to the point that when I prove myself, and I feel like now I’ve met the bar, I feel like, “Oh, what’s the next challenge? Where do I go next?” And coming to Gensler was the place where I arrived.
And I remember I was asked to attend a global thought leadership retreat, and it was only a week in the firm. Lucky. I was lucky that they asked me to join us because I was a lateral hire as a way to understand the company. And I remember it was like 150 people from all over the world. I knew nobody except the woman that recruited me from Perkins&Will had gone to Gensler, and she was there. She was the only person I knew. And I sat in that room, and I just listened. In that way where I’m like, it’s being with my cousins, listening to all the grownups. And I remember telling myself, “Everybody here is so amazing.” They say, “What are you doing here? You’re not going to make it.” And when I put myself in that mental space, that’s when all of a sudden I’m like, “I’m one of those people. I’m not going to fail. I got to prove myself.” But that thing has never disappeared.
I always feel against there that. I’m surrounded with people that are smarter than me. Everybody around me is smarter than me, and there’s so much I have to learn from them. And I think the spirit of that for me is what’s always been the motivator, because I realize there’s so much for me to learn. And the reason why that lasts for 23 years is because Gensler is full of people that have such a broad spectrum of expertise. So it doesn’t matter because, when you are among architects… Okay, so you get as good as them, but then everybody’s an architect or everybody’s a designer. But in Gensler, we have such a huge range of expertise in here from all things, design and non-design. So I’m constantly surrounded by people that are experts in their field. And I feel like working side by side with them makes me better, makes my work better. And I feel like I learn from them every day. And that’s always been my motivator. It’s like being at school every day.
SSR: Yeah. No, and it’s been interesting too. I mean, you’ve had many different roles at Gensler, right? You were global practice area leaders, studio director, design director, creative director for Northeast region, and now you’re the co-managing director of the New York office. So have you been able to have a hand in different facets as you’ve kind of grown up within the firm? And what do you think were some of your defining projects as you kind of moved up the rank to where you are now?
CMF: Yeah, so that’s the other thing about Gensler that is interesting is that there is so much room for stepping into positions of leadership or about building things, building markets,, or building practice areas, or growing practice areas. So I think that for me, it’s a very healthy space to realize that all of a sudden, you’re being asked to do something, and that becomes a project into itself. So you got to crack the code of what it is. You got to sort of figure out a way that you can create value and advance the thinking and then deliver on that. And that’s good. And then along the way, for me, one of the big drivers in my career is always to build leadership around me. In other words, mentor people so they can do what I’m doing. And I think when you do that, you create great space because then there’s a point that others can do what you’re doing and somebody can ask you to do something else because you’ve already kind of created a platform for succession around what that is.
And I think that every single one of these assignments or these sorts of roles that I’ve had have allowed me to expand my skillset and allowed me to expand in how I think and how I put things together. And all that stuff at the end is fertile ground for design, especially nowadays where, when we’re doing design, we’re solving problems. We’re using design as an element to provide a solution and to provide value in what that journey or aspiration is. And all of these things, all of these experiences end up being very, very, very strong elements for creating the path for solving the problem. And I think, also, it gives you a great opportunity to understand the firm and understand all the things that the firm needs in order for us to all be successful together.
SSR: And has there been a couple of defining projects for you that you’ve been able to problem-solve in interesting, innovative ways?
CMF: Actually, I’m lucky that I’ve had a big range of projects that I’ve done. I think sometimes we can specialize in one area and really sort of become incredible thought leaders around a particular type or particular industry, which is very valuable. And other times, working in very different industries and in very different things gives you a platform for you to innovate by borrowing things from different places and combining them. It’s one of the things that I talk about. Innovation is not creating new things, but it’s basically putting things that already exist together but in a new way.
So I have done things from working financial services work in professional services. I’ve done works in consumer goods companies. I’ve done tech. And then I’ve done hospitality. I’ve done healthcare. So I mean, that’s a pretty diverse, but at the core, I think the reason why I’ve done all that is not because I’m jumping from thing to thing. It’s because all those assignments were always where the client was looking to probably reinvent, or shift, or change something that within that particular industry had been progressing in one way.
In other words, when a client is actually looking to break away, and one of my most recent clients, which is a financial institution, is a company that was looking to be not like a financial institution. In other words, they wanted a work environment that borrowed from things that were happening in other industries that they felt were valuable to them and core to their DNA, because it really aligned with their values. And it aligned with how they looked at the talent that they wanted to attract. So the translation of that was important. And I became valuable to them because I knew very well what worked in that particular industry. And what I did was I translated to making sure that it was appropriate for what a financial services companies in who they are not in some sort of abstract notion about what financial services are.
And the same thing, BCG, for instance, was a very important project for me because it was the first project I did in New York. And I think it was really one of the first times where a professional services firm really wanted to create something that was so, so breaking away from the traditional model that that industry had followed from just not only the space itself but even the location. They were coming from being on Park Avenue. They wanted to go to a place that was not the predictable. They wanted to have something that… They wanted to change, even the dynamics of how people thought around the office and even how clients even thought about their office. And that became a really… Actually, that’s where I use a lot of my skills that I learned at Dublin and that I learned in this past jobs that I had because you really had to create something new.
And my client. Working with management consulting people, they’re incredibly smart. You cannot fake it. You got to be super sharp because that’s what they do. They operate in space of ideas and complexity. And that project was just fantastic. And not only fantastic in how successful they feel it was for them, but the project actually became very, very good in this market. It became almost like a benchmark, where a lot of people wanted to tour it and wanted to see it. They wanted to experience it because they had heard about it. And I gave many tours there.
And one of my biggest satisfactions is when I heard people from very different industries. And one was the CEO of this company that toured the space, and he had his whole entourage of all the business leaders in his company. And I was overhearing them at the end after I gave the tour. And he grabbed them all around. He said, Guys, this is not us. This space is not us, but whatever we do, it has to feel like this space.” And to me, I was so shy because that’s experience design. And for another client to realize that even though this is not what I want in the way it looks, this is how I want it to feel and to work for us.
SSR: Yeah. What do you think was so special? What did you do in this space, if you can describe it? I don’t know if it was just sometimes that coveted. You just know it when you’re in it, but was there something that you can point to that really pushed the envelope, or changed the perspective but made that special experience?
CMF: This project was done a decade ago. One of the things was we challenged the idea of dedicated office spaces for partners. We challenged the idea of the hierarchy within even private offices. We challenged the idea of homogeneous open plan.
I remember actually one of my first presentations because clients usually want things to be efficient. So we created many of these ideas, but we created a stack six floors. And we created something that could be applied and delivered with certain sense of system. And they looked at it , and they said, “I want every floor to be different.” And I was like, “What?” What client is going to ask for it? Because that’s more complex, both from the design but also from the delivery. So they really wanted to create something that had almost… The best way to describe it is that it had almost the DNA of urban planning. Cities are interesting because they have different neighborhoods. And each neighborhood has a different character.
Think about New York, right? I mean, I go to Midtown because it’s different than Soho and because it’s different than the Upper West Side. So this project had a little bit of that. It had this sort of district quality. And then the other thing is that it was really one of the first times where we were creating incredible amenities where even each conference room felt like an amenity. It actually felt like we were doing private homes and challenging the notion of a regular desk with the regular chairs. So everything was disrupted, but in a way ultimately that had an incredibly holistic story, which is something that they were also looking for. And also something that reflected the diversity of services that the company provides.
SSR: It’s interesting too. I know that was a decade ago, so you’re probably ahead of the time. Back then and now, to be able to see across all these disciplines, and take the best ideas from each of them, and apply them ,and also then push at the same time within different niches.
CMF: The beauty is that tech was the big disruptor of workplace. And at first, it became very almost like so… What’s the word? It was almost about being counterculture, or like created offices that have ping pong tables. And it looked like they were designed by children or all that stuff. But that was actually important because it was a way to break away from tradition in a very, very intentional way. And then what happened was that a lot of other industries started realizing that there was some of that that was valuable. And that’s when we started seeing that more and more companies were sort of willing to give up some of the sacred things that have been created in corporate interiors.
But it got to the point that then the magic of tech in terms of the cool factor of tech was diluted because now a lot of other things look similar to where tech was going. So working for some of these tech clients more recently where we were then trying to say, “Okay, now that the world has cut up to you, how come now you take the world to the next level?” And that’s actually the most recent project that I am finishing right now with my incredible team, is a project that has done that for a big giant, and where we’re created something that we call, we’ve taken them to a new level of what that journey of creating this unconventional place of work should be.
SSR: Awesome. Now, as co-managing director, what is your day-to-day like?
CMF: Well, one of the things that I’m enjoying the most about this role is that I have two amazing partners. So it’s three of us are the co-managing directors. And what I really like is that… And I’ve had incredible working relationship with both of them, so Joe Lauro and Amanda Carroll. Because we had that history of working together either in projects or working together in something like with Joe’s internal initiatives around some of our organizational structure around design and the design sort of axis of the firm, we are operating as a unit. Because the three of us together, each of us come from a very different point. Joe comes from kind of a technical core expertise that come from a kind of creative design expertise. And then that comes more from the client relationship and practice area expertise.
So the three of us, as we sort of look at both things that are structural around running of the office but also around the market, around this idea of leadership, we are complementing and creating something that is very well-rounded.
It reminds me a lot of what at the core Doblin Group was based on, which is this idea of a think tank. What you do good experts to work together, not in silos and not doing different areas of responsibility, but at the table with a common language, looking at how you solve the problem together. So it’s symbiotic.
So I, of course, I’m learning tremendous amount of stuff from them. They’ve been doing this for longer than me, but at this time and sort of bringing my own lens and realizing that we affect each other’s areas of responsibility as well. Not affect but influence or we use each other as sounding boards. And on decisions, we make them together. So every time that we look at a decision, we consult each other. We want to make sure that we’re all on board.
I’m enjoying the job a thousand times more than I thought I was going to. And I thought I was going to enjoy it. But it’s been so fantastic to… And I also feel like a lot of what I do from actually having delivered projects, and being very much with clients, and all that. And now, sort of bringing this notion of leadership and advancement for the teams that I lead is also something that I feel like I’m really using in a very great way, so I’m thrilled.
SSR: How would you describe yourself as a leader?
CM: I am highly approachable, so that’s very important to me. I work very hard to make sure that people know that I will make time for them. I have a very, very, very busy schedule. And I work long hours only because I want to maximize the time for me to be accessible. I’m personal and informal. And by that, I mean, I don’t like to play hierarchy. I like for the teams to realize that we are together in this. And I’m also about the long view. I always like to look at things. We always have to take the long view. We cannot look at short gains. Short gains are not… They don’t give you the same results as always looking at ultimately. I think that’s kind of where this idea of purpose matters most is you have to make decisions for how they play out in the long perspective. And it’s all from clients, business, talent.
SSR: And what does the idea of form follows purpose mean to you?
CMF: This is probably a long conversation, but it’s fascinating to me because obviously, as an architect training the 20th century, I was trained by the results of what form follows function was all about, and form follows function, which is really a 19th-century thing. So it was a way for designers at the time to challenge the norms where design had become highly. It was about the style. So it was a way to break away from things that were stylistic and realizing that when you’re solving problems conforming or fitting to a style, a classical style or a formal style, really didn’t have the same power by actually solving a problem that reflected a need. So that was transformative. I think that over time, and this is my own personal take on it, but I think over time the form follows, function has become stylistic to a degree.
And today, we also live in a world where function is not the end game. The end game is actually the results of an effort. So sometimes being functional is not necessarily the best path to solve something that is important. Sometimes, you’ve got to create potential inefficiencies or friction because that’s the only way to get there. So form needs to follow purpose because, at the end of the day, that form should be the end result of ultimately what it’s trying to do. And it might not necessarily be about being functional. And it might be like the function that we feel like we need to fit in there is too tactical. And what we are trying to achieve is something that has a much higher sense of intention. So it’s interesting because, in a way, I see it in a personal way as another way to break away from being stuck in things that appear to be sort of stylistic and to actually go to what ultimately it’s all about.
SSR: And moving on that thread for a second, I know you look at innovation and strategy a lot. Because I know Gensler is always releasing their trend reports for the year and always very big on the research. What are you paying attention to moving forward, especially for ’24, after everything you saw in ’23 and what you see clients asking for?
CMF: For me, one of the things that I read a lot, and I read a lot of things about what’s happening in the world. So I get more inspired by not necessarily reading about design but reading about our communities, and our cities, and our society, and our planet. So I follow headlines I read about. One of the things that I like to do is I’m a pattern recognition person. I like to sort of realize what are the patterns that you’re seeing because it’s a one-off. But when you all of a sudden start realizing something and you see that that’s feeding a constant pattern, that becomes a very, very clear data point that this is real, and this is here. And it’s here, part of us. And that happens both in terms of social issues, in terms of political issues, in terms of economic issues.
So for me, one of the most important things is to realize how things are manifesting itself. And important or great sources for that is to look at things like what I call fast-moving data trends. So if you look at music, if you look at advertising, if you look at technology, if you look at consumer patterns, if you look at fashion, if you look at entertainment, there is so much there because all those things are points that touch on how people are reacting or behaving. So you start realizing what is sticking, what is of value to citizens and consumers.
You start decoding the moment in time, which is very important because we all come with our own baggage and our own preferences, but you need to realize what’s happening outside. And as a person that works in creating spaces for others, and not only for others but for big groups of others, New York is a big city, and when we do a project, it’s a project that is going to affect a lot of people that are going to be in that space or around that space. It’s important that that project has relevance into what that community is going to use in order to assess what that means to them and how it affects them positively or negatively. So the headlines are, to me, incredibly important information.
SSR: And is there one project looking forward that you haven’t done that you would like to do that might incorporate some of this?
CMF: I mean, there will be something, and this is sort of far-fetched. And I’m not sure that I will be any good at it, but I’ll actually love to be involved someday in doing like a design for a movie. Not stage set, but even the whole… Setting a movie in a place like the Backdrop. In theater, it will be a stage, but in a movie will be the, what are the places that you will film? That sounds to me so cool. I mean, that’s one of the things I love when I watch a movie. It’s like the backdrop.
Actually, I was reading about Maestro the other day and this fascinating article around the sound of Maestro and how they created. When they did the filming, the way that they used sound was very unique because a lot of movies are made with the main characters, the soundtrack of them talking, but the rest is then in post-production, they put the context. They were talking about the party at the Dakota. And in a typical movie, you have the main actors talking and the other hush-hush of the parties added later. No, they miced everybody. So they created incredible authenticity because, in that moment, you really feel like you’re in the space. And then, when they were doing the big concert in the cathedral, they did the same thing with the instruments. They miced all the instruments. So to me, that’s so cool. So again, I would love to work in something like that.
SSR: What is one thing that people might not know about you?
CMF: That I’m a knitter.
SSR: Oh, really? What do you knit?
CMF: I knit these, what I call extrusions. They are this sort of bands of… I’ll tell you the story. I became a knitter because my mother lived in Miami, and I lived here in New York and in Chicago. And I’m not a phone person. I hate being on the phone. It’s like one of the things I detest the more is actually being on the phone. But I felt like I was not connecting with my mother. And by coincidence, I happened to be one time in the Denver office of counselor, and a rep came and brought in some needings and did an activity just to bond with a team of knitting. And I was there on business. And I stayed with a team. And I learned how to knit. And I thought, “Well, this is cool.” So I got on the phone with my mother the following week, and I had the needle and the thread there, and I started knitting. And I talked to my mother for two hours.
So I started knitting because I realized that if I sat down and I had knitting needles and I got on the phone, I will talk to my mother forever. And it changed my relationship with my mother on the phone. We will have these great, long conversations. So I started knitting because I’m not follow… I’m not doing a hat, or gloves, or anything. I start doing what I call… It’s like… I don’t know. They’re like pieces of art, I guess, is this very, very, very, very, very, very long bands. During COVID, I did one that was… I think it was like 10,000 yards long. And then I coiled them, and I create this sort of pieces. So anyway, that’s how I got into knitting.
SSR: That’s amazing. All right. I hate to end this conversation, but for the sake of time, we always end the podcast with the question that is the title of the podcast. So what has been your greatest lesson or lessons learned along the way?
CMF: I don’t know. I think I might have too many. I think everything has been a lesson, but I think… I don’t know if this is the right answer, but the greatest lesson was coming to New York.
SSR: What year was that?
CMF: So that was nine years ago this week or this month. And it was a lesson because since I left Cuba, I’ve lived in amazing places, and I have loved the places I’ve lived. Absolutely loved the places I’ve lived, but I always felt like they were not my place. It was a place that I had the pleasure to enjoy. But coming to New York, I finally feel like I’m from here. To me, this feels like this is my place, my people, and I had never felt that in my entire life. So there’s something for me. Coming to that realization, it’s been an unbelievable thing. So that’s been the greatest lesson.
SSR: Amazing. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. It was such a pleasure to get to know you more, and can’t wait to see what you all do next.
CMF: Thank you so much. This has been really fun.