We recently had the pleasure of announcing the promotion of two dedicated, talented Wight & Company employees: Lisa Schmidt AIA, LEED AP has been named Principal, Interior Architecture, and Wendy Watts, IIDA has been named Principal, Education Design.
Lisa is committed to the design and execution of interior architecture of the highest quality across corporate office, hospitality, federal, library, justice, and educational markets. Her expertise ensures cohesive and holistic interior design and the continuous improvement of quality in design and construction.
Wendy designs inspirational spaces that shape the learning experience, resulting in environments where students can achieve their full potential. She draws upon user behavior insights to inform design strategy. This approach results in unique solutions for today’s evolving world of teaching and learning.
In honor of Women’s History Month – and in recognition of Wendy and Lisa’s accomplishments and Wight and elsewhere – we sat down for a conversation to discuss their careers and what it means to be a woman working in design and architecture.
Tell us a bit about your career journeys. You’re both working in the fields you went to college for, so did you always know you wanted to work in architecture and design?
Lisa: It’s funny because everybody sees your degree, but they certainly don’t know your journey. I originally went to school for psychiatry and started out pre-med at Michigan. After one semester, I decided that was not what I wanted to do. Fortunately, Michigan had this Mentorship program where a junior classman would guide a group of six freshman through their first year of challenges on campus. My mentor asked me about the things I liked doing, and I said that I enjoyed drawing and photography but never really had the opportunity to pursue either in high school. One of his roommates was in the architecture school and ended up taking me on a tour there. Right away I fell in love with the studio environment. The only obstacle was that admittance to the architecture program required a portfolio, which I didn’t have. So, I enrolled in a drafting class that was led by, a female professor, Leslie Van Duzer. She was incredibly encouraging of somebody like me, who had not done any of this before. She instilled in me a sense of self-confidence and a drive to learn all I could about the profession. I noticed how much conviction and passion she had for Architecture. Her confidence encouraged me put my apprehensions aside of entering into a very male dominated profession. If I had not had her as my professor, I am almost certain I wouldn’t be working in architecture today.
Wendy: My high school didn’t have classrooms, just lab and lecture. And students had abundant free time to study subjects of their choosing. I loved spending time in the art lab. Like Lisa, thought, I never took a drafting class until college. I had been focusing on fine art and design but ignored these passions when I enrolled as a marketing major. After a year, I decided that wasn’t my calling, and essentially flipped a coin to decide whether to focus on teaching or interior design. Interior design it was! After college I worked at a retail design firm doing a lot of international work, and I never looked back. The women in my professional life have meant a lot. On one project, I had the luxury and joy of being on an entirely women-led team – including the structural engineer – for a female client. It was a great experience, and at the beginning as a team we thought, “It’s all women – this is so exciting!” And then at some point it didn’t really matter, which was the best part, a full team of females became as ordinary as all men. We were just professionals doing a great job for a great client.
Let’s talk about your work: How have your design sensibilities changed over time? What experiences do you draw upon? What notions have you left behind?
Lisa: People always ask me, “What’s the latest trend?” But design shouldn’t be a trend; it should be catered to a client’s needs and desires. The right design is the one we create together with the client. I didn't always know this, however. Early on, I was so process focused and wanted to know everything about the discipline. I worked on corporate interiors, hospitality, government, airports, residential – you name it, I’ve worked on it! From each of those, I learned something new and slowly developed my own unique design sensibility, which I would say has truly been refined within the last decade or so. Today, I devote an exceptional level of care and rigor to a project’s details. This is in no small part to my mentors along the way, particularly those who gave me a seat at the table – literally – early on when I was working with an interiors group. It takes time in this profession to not only build up the knowledge, but to have the confidence to be able to share that knowledge with others.
Wendy: Details are everything! Having that level appreciation for details takes years of experience – to know what’s important, to know that what you draw really matters. More recently I’ve arrived at a point in my career where I can embrace the chaos a bit. What I mean by that is letting go of the desire to design a space that’s so picture perfect and precious that it only looks good in the professional photos but doesn’t account for how the end user will inhabit the space. People are going to tape things to their walls, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But that’s okay. You must design in a way that accounts for the life and vitality of the space with real people in it, which means you need to anticipate – down to the smallest detail – how they’ll use that space.
Favorite project you’ve ever worked on? Why?
Wendy: I have to say, new construction is great, and it brings so many possibilities, but my favorite projects are renovations. I love experiencing that before and after. Mid-career, I worked on the Adlai E. Stevenson High School library renovation, where we cut a big hole in the floor, connected two levels, raised the roof to add light monitors. What had previously been an unpopular space was now a go-to spot for students. That’s exciting. Now we’re taking that idea on a much bigger scale with the to work Wight is doing in for Maine Township High Schools.
Lisa: My favorite projects are those that help further advance the ways I look at architecture and design, and the Langham Hotel renovation was certainly one of those instances. The scope of the work on paper was modest: just the lobby and entry canopy. The hotel is in the landmark AMA Plaza (formerly the IBM Building) designed by Mies van de Rohe in the heart of Chicago’s Loop. I had the opportunity to work with Dirk Lohan, who has such a passion for even the tiniest of details. We worked very hard through every aspect as this went through both National & Chicago Landmark reviews. Meticulously selecting everything from the wood veneer flitches of the millworkers to the level of oxidization in the bronze, to the artists whose work we commissioned.
It was a transformative project to work on, and it opened my eyes to this idea that I should put this type of rigor and passion into any project I do, regardless of the budget. At Wight, I appreciate that we’re always looking to bring the highest quality for all our clients.
Have you had an experience where you felt that, because you were a woman, you were given a certain type of role to play on a project? What was that like, and how – if at all – have you seen changes in the workplace since then?
Lisa: The only thing that I can recall is probably the first day that I started as an intern at the first architecture firm I ever worked at – which was mostly men – and they asked me to make coffee. They were probably joking, but that day I determined that perhaps this was not the place for me. I only worked there for six months and learn all that I possibly could in that time. Then I moved to a larger firm, Epstein, because I knew that there were quite a few women in leadership roles, and I really wanted to get experience working with other women in the profession, both architects and interior designers alike. At that time, Elva Rubio and Mark Fischer were the equal co-leaders of their interior design studio. I had a great experience there and knew that in pursuit of my career goals I would be well served to work in large, diverse firms that could provide more opportunities.
At Wight, I’ve always found that leadership assesses employees by their knowledge, hard work, and what they bring to the table. That makes for a more balanced workplace, which hopefully leads to a more equitable industry.
Wendy: In my current role, I believe I’ve benefitted from being a woman, in that I focus largely on education projects. Early in my career I was exposed to healthcare and corporate interiors but just wasn’t feeling it. As I mentioned before, had that flip of the coin gone differently, I would probably be a teacher instead. Once I discovered the PK-12 market work, it was like a lightbulb went off: I knew I loved education; I just wasn’t an educator myself.
Lisa: It’s interesting that for both of us, our early experiences were the most challenging. And then as we were exposed to more areas of the profession and homed in on our chosen areas of specialization, we were able to adjust our expectations and become even more satisfied in our work.
That’s the perfect segue to our final questions: Where do you see opportunities for growth in the industry with regards to supporting women designers and architects? What advice would you give to young women who are considering entering this field?
Wendy: For those entering the field, try to get exposed to as many different market types as possible, because something might turn you off and something else might really click. It's better if you can find that path on your own rather than it being assigned to you. And don’t shy away from the little projects, because you’ll get more responsibility on them. That’ll be a valuable growth experience.
Advice-wise, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the constant juggling of being both a parent and a working professional, which is hopefully becoming as true for the dads as for the moms. It’s such a tough time when you first have kids, and I’ve observed it’s a time when a lot of women leave this industry. You’ll make some difficult compromises, but my advice is to stick with it and keep your foot in the door in some way, whatever that looks like for you. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, I promise.
Lisa: I am lucky that by the time I had my kids, the industry was starting to recognize that it’s okay to think creatively about how to retain experienced employees and accommodate for their family needs. I took a year off after my son was born but worked from home for much of it. My husband was an Architect at the same firm, so he would transfer files to me for use in my home office. Again, it was a lot of luck, but it was also still extremely difficult. Over the years, I was raising my two kids while studying for nine architecture exams!
When I’m mentoring colleagues who are getting to the age when they're thinking about starting a family, I tell them it’s okay to shift priorities for a while. If you’re passionate and talented, I believe there will always be an opportunity out there to suit you. Stick with it. It’s tough, and this profession can take a lot of your time, but have patience and never, ever stop learning new things. The more you learn, the more respect you’ll get and the more satisfied you’ll be in your career.