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Mar 28, 2022 By IIDA HQ
Women Lead Design: Women’s History Month 2022 Part 3
Jennifer Graham, FIIDA, Catherine Heath, FIIDA, and Karen Muraoka, FIIDA discuss groundedness, empowerment, and what it means to be a woman in design.
By IIDA HQ Mar 28, 2022
Published in

In celebration of Women’s History Month, IIDA continues its annual conversation series, Women Lead Design. This segment highlights three inspiring women in the industry: Jennifer Graham, FIIDA, senior project manager and principal at Perkins&Will, Catherine Heath, FIIDA, AIA managing principal at Hyl, and Karen Muraoka, FIIDA, principal at Karen Muraoka Interior Design, LLC. They discuss strength, focus, balance, and meaning as found through mentorship, their sources of inspiration, the design industry, and the world around us.

Who has been an important mentor to you over the course of your career? Have you mentored others? What impact has mentorship had on you?

Jennifer Graham: I grew up in a home where nurturing and mentoring were part of our family’s DNA. Mentoring came from within the family, from teachers, and from close family friends. I was fortunate to have experienced mentors after arriving in the U.S.—while in college, Jeannie Bouchet and Isabel Taylor-Helton; early in my career, Bob Burling. I have also been a natural mentor myself because of my upbringing. I am always happy to share experiences and give guidance when asked. In the most recent years I have emphasized the importance of mentoring by expertise (which crosses years of experience) and peer-to-peer mentoring. These experiences instill the importance mentoring has on professional growth but also the impact one can have on others and the influence others impart on you.

Award of Excellence Honoree
Jennifer Graham IIDA
Principal, Perkins&Will
Award of Excellence Honoree
Jennifer Graham IIDA
Principal, Perkins&Will

Catherine Heath: I have been fortunate to have numerous mentors over the years who really supported me in my career development. One of the most important mentors has been Mark Regulinski, who helped me to understand project management and the business side of an architectural practice, which later gave me the confidence to open my own firm. Additionally, I have tried to support others through both formal and informal mentoring relationships. Mentorship is incredibly important, and I believe we must pay it forward to future designers. Finally, we have organized an advocate program in our own office to help support career growth for our team members, both with day-to-day issues and with their overall professional goals.

Karen Muraoka:
To be mentored and to mentor are two sides of a very special coin. At the beginning of your career, absorb everything from everyone. As you begin to understand the important points that work for you, filter out and/or prioritize your own guidelines. That’s what I did. I did not have a single mentor, but worked with so many different designers, project managers, co-workers and management teams that each day at school and on the job was a learning and mentoring opportunity. I recall the interview I had for my first interior design job. I had college degrees in design, environmental design and art, but not in interior design. I asked the interviewer if I needed additional education and he said, lessons are important but put your focus on learning on the job now and you will develop your future. That was my first real career mentoring lesson. Through my 30-year career at a large architectural design office, I hired about 12 young designers to join the firm. Each had a different expectation, design focus, strengths, skill set, and work ethic. Mentoring each one brought various successes, but by being open to their creativity and curiosity, I also learned a lot from them. It taught me how to interact with a variety of people and how to become a more effective leader. Keeping an open mind rather than a rigid sense of instruction provides the give and take for open communication, camaraderie and successful achievement.

Where do you look for inspiration?

JG: I am fortunate to work with amazing talent, each person I work with in my day-to-day life inspires me. Also my children inspire me—they are so far ahead intellectually than where I was at their age. And, lastly I am inspired by the exposure and global access we have to brilliant minds through our modern day life—almost beyond limit. Whether it is art, film, literature, articles and white papers, social media, new inventions, and new discoveries, I am constantly in awe. As a project manager it is my vocation to problem-solve but when I look for inspiration I am not looking to problem-solve, I am merely enjoying the marvels of the earth and mankind. To quote Soren Kierkegaard, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced”.

CH: I find inspiration in conversations with others outside of my typical day to day circle. I have enjoyed being in industry groups, such as CREW DC (Commercial Real Estate Women Washington D.C.), where I can learn the perspectives of other businesswomen who are not in the design field. I learn a lot from them and it helps me to understand what is important about design in the environment and its impact on others who are not immersed in it daily. I also am inspired by public spaces and parks—specifically people watching. How people interact with each other and use space, public furniture, and pathways can be very informative for future interior design efforts. It is also interesting to see when they pause to look at art or an object, or what they choose as the background for their selfies.

Catherine Heath, FIIDA, AIA managing principal at Hyl
Catherine Heath, FIIDA, AIA managing principal at Hyl

KM: Inspiration for those of us fortunate enough to be designers is all around us. To design is to open not only your eyes, but all of your senses of vision, smell, hearing, taste, touch and what I call “the atmosphere of awareness around you”. It’s definitely not just what you sense but also what senses you allow to come into your being, your environment. Experiencing all of the colors, space, shape, texture, size, and light in nature and the world in just the right combination becomes a basis for our creativity. That awareness of what you create in the environment and the understanding of what and how that affects others is your brain connecting to the world. Inspiration becomes apparent in the outcome of your design and it becomes the three-dimensional interpretation of that expression. Just look at how varied that expression results in all of the design around us—from our minds to reality.

What do you see as the role of women in design in light of the past few years?

For me recent events have empowered me to speak up, defend my voice. It is important for women to communicate authentically—we must validate our professional roles.

I am not sure that there is a particular role for women. I believe that women can fill all roles in design.

KM: The past years have changed all of us—no matter your age. We’ve had to basically develop a new way to live, to stay connected and manage our own way of working, parenting, socializing, and thriving. Women have always been the backbone of family life and for many decades have also been the strengthening element for keeping the family strong, healthy, and economically safe and connected. As designers, women have applied that same attitude of focus and management to working remotely, and successfully. Things we had compartmentalized as "work" or "home" life were now part of a combined home/work/life environment, and we had to learn to manage them all at once.

This dedication to making it work increased the element of how to be even more efficient for our work schedule. Clients still needed work completed, and although allowing for a somewhat varied schedule, expected work to continue. Women in design actually toughened up and made it work. The integral manner of incorporating what had to be done (remotely) is challenging, but I hear of more and more women who have successfully met the expectation—these skills will carry over to working in-person strategies as we come out of the pandemic more and more.

Healthcare interior design has always focused on creating a concept that protects the patient, staff, and family within the space. The awareness of the need to understand infection control, and how best to develop a safe environment, has been heightened in the past few years and is now even more important to manage and develop in every project—we must pay attention to it.

What do you do to remain balanced amid change?

JG: Enjoy my free time with family and friends.

CH: I am fully on board with hybrid working, and spending some time weekly working remotely from my farm in central Virginia. The peace and quiet of the countryside is the perfect setting for focused work, where I can recharge and practice mindfulness. In good weather I will often practice yoga outside with views to the landscape which feels like a luxury. I love that I can balance introspection with the collaborative energy of being in the office with my colleagues—it is the best of both worlds.

KM: Valuing family and friends’ relationships has always been the core of my life and that connection continues to give me strength, focus, balance, and meaning to why I exist. We are each independent of the other, but the bonding of who we are together gives us purpose and contentment, especially in difficult times.

Along with that, making sure to stay physically and mentally healthy as I age—it’s a discipline that I take seriously six days a week, whether it is for an extended 90 minute brisk walk outdoors or a CrossFit type of weight training session in the gym. No matter where I am, music and audiobooks take my mind to another world. I’m finding that still working in my later years provides great satisfaction and balance.

It brings me so much joy to still work in healthcare interior design. It’s been my focus for most of my 40-year career. To provide a better physical environment that aids healing and comfort for patients going through concern and difficulty still gives me an importance to what I do. I think that is even more apparent and true today with all of the changes in the last few years and the agitation and stress we are all experiencing.

Karen Muraoka, FIIDA, principal at Karen Muraoka Interior Design, LLC
Karen Muraoka, FIIDA, principal at Karen Muraoka Interior Design, LLC

What's the best piece of advice you can give to emerging women designers?

JG: Find good mentors and mentees. Give back to your communities. Find and grow your voice.

CH: It’s important to be authentic and grounded. Building trust with others by being your authentic self is a key characteristic of being a respected team member, and ultimately a team leader. When others know that they can count on you, you will be able to step into a leadership role, and become more confident in presenting your design ideas.

Here’s what I believe are important words of advice:

  • Begin with the right attitude to learn. You may not start on your dream project or be in the design department of your choice but you will learn from every step along the way.
  • Be ready to open your mind to listen and learn. That doesn’t mean everything you hear will be right for you, but be willing to consider new ideas that you’ve never heard before.
  • Listen completely. Then ask questions for clarification, don’t be afraid to ask questions.
  • Communicate. Have an open conversation with your managers AND co-workers. Develop learning opportunities and liaisons.
  • Design solutions. In creating design concepts, develop several options quickly and then dive deeper into the best ones. Don’t get stuck on one best, only solution—each concept gets you to the best option.
  • Participate in a variety of activities at work and on your personal time. Join in and have a life.
  • Stay excited about the field of design, it never stays static, it’s always changing. Evolve with it and you’ll never be disappointed you made the choice to be a designer

What is one thing you wish more people knew about women in design?

JG: Women bring unique perspectives, experiences and insights. We often fall into the imposter trap (maybe this is generational). I think it is important to understand what you know and where you can grow—where are your trusted resources and who is in your professional circle. Trust your instincts. It is also important to understand the value men hold. It is not either or—it is all, respectfully and in unison—that will be a benefit to us all.

More people should be aware that there are numerous firms, like ours, that are predominantly female, and that the issue of gender never even arises in the course of a project, not even in the field. Significant size projects are routinely being led, designed, managed, and built by all-female teams and neither clients nor contractors are questioning it. Women-led and majority women firms are among the top firms in the rankings, winning awards and impacting the world with design excellence. It is also noteworthy how many clients are women.

KM: There is a true value to professional women designers. It is not just the fantasy concept and the designers you see on TV. It takes a great deal of effort and time and hard work to develop the right design concepts for each project. We are a working member of a team bringing a concept to life for the client and end user. Interior design can have beautiful and transformative results, but it doesn’t just happen.

The amount of expertise that goes into a design project is the cumulative work of a team effort, making sure that it is not only a design concept brought to life, but one that is designed and built responsibly and with the correct efforts of providing a safe and sustainable environment. The materials available today are tremendous, but it is the designer who puts the right combination together with creativity to express the outcome.

Want to hear more perspectives from women in design? Read Part One here, Part Two here, and watch the panel discussion to earn 1 IDCEC CEU.

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