Contract Magazine - January/February 2018 - 54
A proponent for design excellence, and a champion
for social responsibility, sustainability, and women in
leadership, Joan Blumenfeld, FAIA, FIIDA, did not begin
her career expecting to be a legend in her own right.
She was not even expecting to be an architect, let alone
a principal and global design director for interiors at
Perkins+Will. Her journey inspires lessons for fellow
design professionals across generations.
By Kristen Richards,
Hon. AIA, Hon. ASLA
"'You like to draw. You're good at math. Maybe you'd be interested
in architecture,'" Blumenfeld recalls him saying.
She visited six Chicago architects to learn more about
job prospects. It was the middle of the recession of the early 1970s,
and they all said variations of "Don't do it," "You won't make any
money," or "It's a tough field for a woman." That last piece of advice
came from Gertrude Lempp Kerbis, FAIA, who, after working at
Bertrand Goldberg and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, founded Lempp
Kerbis in 1967, the first woman-owned firm in Chicago. "She was a real
pioneer," Blumenfeld says. "I was not aware at the time how unusual
and remarkable she was."
The words of warning had no effect. "I completely ignored
everything they said," Blumenfeld recalls. "All I could see were
drawings, models, the collaborative atmosphere-so full of energy
and creativity. I knew this was what I wanted to do."
"I could not wait to get out of there," Blumenfeld says of her
Graduating from Harvard with distinction
hometown of Oceanside in Long Island, New York. "I was the only
While she did not know much about architecture schools at the
person in my high school of 3,000 kids who spent weekends
time, Harvard University Graduate School of Design "sounded good,"
in New York City at the Art Students League. I would walk around
and she was surprised to be accepted. Blumenfeld graduated from
the city thinking, 'Why do we live in the suburbs and not here?'"
Harvard with a master of architecture degree, with distinction,
In the 1950s, she adds, "It was assumed that girls would find a good
in 1979, and her class was composed of about 20 percent women.
husband, get married, and have kids. College was intended to make
"We [Blumenfeld and her female classmates] were a novelty, the first
you an educated person to be a suitable mate for the husband you
class with a substantial number of women. A few professors gave
would find there. So many things have changed for the better."
us problems, but for the most part, we were treated equally," she says.
Not exactly having a set career path from the start,
"When I got out of school, I just assumed that it would be an equal
she obtained a bachelor of arts degree in philosophical psychology
from the University of Chicago, followed by a few years waitressing.
That assumption held true at her first job. In 1977, while still
For advice on next steps, she turned to her father, who had overseen
the building of about 200 public schools over 10 years as the director at Harvard, she worked for Sert, Jackson & Associates in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, starting when Josep Lluís Sert was still active.
of planning and research for the New York City Board of Education.
JANUARY | FEBRUARY 2018