On International Women’s Day, Celebrating Women in Design

“Women Take Charge at SOM”: This May 2020 article in Architectural Record, a profile on the three women partners who lead SOM’s Executive Committee, describes a milestone in the journey toward gender equity in our firm and in our profession. Women’s History Month is an occasion to celebrate influential women in SOM’s long history — including Natalie de Blois and Norma Merrick Sklarek — and also those who are making an impact today. In recent years, the SOM Women’s Initiative, a group founded in 2010, has worked to build a pipeline for talent and to promote the visibility of women in architecture, engineering, and construction.

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we asked four women at SOM — in different cities, disciplines, and stages in their careers — to introduce themselves and to tell us what inspires them.

Makenna Kesterson

Product Designer, Los Angeles

Which woman in design do you admire the most?

I am inspired by Ivy Ross because of her multidisciplinary career path, and for her work at Google on neuroaesthetics. The form language that she and her team have been developing for Google Home and other products over the years is beautiful.

What is your favorite building?

The Dymaxion House by Buckminster Fuller. It’s an early example of architecture as a product as well as a statement on ecological design.

Left: Makenna at ICFF. Right: Visiting the James Turrell installation in Pomona, California.

What is your secret talent?

Putting things in perspective — seeing the big picture as well as seeing things from others’ perspectives and empathizing with their point of view.

What is the best advice you’ve received?

Take what you can from every challenge and learn from failures — don’t dwell on what went wrong, but use it as data to inform your next move! As someone who cares about the final product, I have to remember to trust that failure can be part of the process toward a positive outcome.

What is the most surprising or overlooked thing about being a product designer?

It’s easy to overlook the intensive process that goes into product design: first learning about people and their needs, finding the right problem to solve, and then iteratively addressing the problem with many concepts before landing on the final product. Jumping to a solution too soon or not creating space for divergent ideas can leave you with little room for change.

Tomi Laja

Junior Architectural Designer, Chicago

Which woman in architecture do you admire the most?

Lesley Lokko is a stellar woman in architecture that I greatly admire: her poetic use of language, commitment to creating nurturing educational spaces through her pedagogy, and emphasis on exploration and futuring are just some frameworks that have impacted me as a Nigerian-American designer, writer, and curator.

What is your favorite building and why?

Favorites are difficult, but two works that I find myself musing over, time and time again, are Maison de Verre — for its beautiful collaboration between the craftsman, architect, and interior designer (Louis Dalbet, Bernard Bijvoet, Pierre Chareau) — and the Floating University by raumlabor Berlin — which is one of the most radical and sustainable architectures I have come across.

Left: Tomi with the SOM Winter Shadowship cohort in Chicago, 2020. Right: Visiting Paris.

What is your secret talent?

People who I work and collaborate closely with notice my eye for composition. I adore finding aesthetic balance, whether in photography, editing a page within a publication, or forms within a space.

What is the best advice you’ve received?

The best advice I have received is the importance of confidence and really believing in yourself. People must take their desires and goals seriously, by questioning and understanding them and then implementing action towards those dreams.

What is the most surprising thing about your job?

The opportunities to use our skills learned through architectural education and practice in new and subversive ways lends to endless positive possibilities of what a designer can do.

Katie Stott

Associate Principal and Senior Marketing Manager, Chicago

Which woman in architecture do you admire the most?

Tatiana Bilbao. She has produced interesting, socially conscious designs with an attention to modular, expandable low-cost single-family housing. Also, her collages are beautiful. Instead of renderings, she uses an artistic style that allows for more of a creative dialogue with her clients — it leaves things open to the imagination. I’d like to hang some of them in my home!

What is your favorite building and why?

Villa VPRO by MVRDV because of its transparency, simplicity of materials, variety of interesting work spaces, and fluidity of space through sectional connections. It just seems like a fun place to work! It is located on a suburban site on top of a parking lot, but from the inside, with the level changes and connections, green roof and landscaping, it feels really connected to nature. Also, the chaos of the workstations inside reminds me of my days and nights in the architecture studio at college.

Left: Katie hiking in Breckenridge, Colorado. Right: With her family on a kayaking trip on the Crystal River in Glen Arbor, Michigan.

What is your secret talent?

I’d say it is two-part — first, being able to quickly identify what is most important and realizing the key message that needs to be conveyed. And second, being able to stay clear-headed in every situation, and always listening and getting the full picture before taking a step back and strategizing on a solution.

What is the best advice you’ve received?

To remember that just like everyone else, you bring a unique perspective and experiences that people will appreciate hearing.

What is the most surprising thing about your job?

Joining SOM’s marketing team after having worked in the architecture studio opened my eyes to the importance of the business operations teams in the success of an architecture firm. This type of marketing is so specialized, and yet we have such a diverse, talented group of people on our team, collaborating alongside our designers in pursuit of new clients and work for the firm. This has really inspired me over the years!

Sukriye (Rae) Robinson

Architect, London

Which woman in architecture do you admire the most?

Lina Bo Bardi is an inspiration for me. Her creativity transcended more than the realms of architecture, with her passion for arts and culture shining through in all her works.

What is your favorite building and why?

This changes regularly, but a favorite of mine is the Church of Cristo Obrero by Eladio Dieste. I was able to visit this building in Uruguay whilst studying for my master’s. I’ve always been passionate about building materials, and it’s a great example of how clever design and engineering can take a simple brick and use it to create truly captivating architecture.

Left: Rae on a visit to Iceland in January 2017. Right: Taking her Ducati out for a spin.

What is your secret talent?

Not many people know that I’m a really great tiler. If I wasn’t an architect, I would probably be a builder of some kind!

What is the best advice you’ve received?

I was once told that if you want to excel in your career, it’s not enough to be great at your job — you must bring more to the table. This has always stuck with me. I always find myself looking for opportunities to do more and learn more, not just in my career but also for personal development. This has further ignited my enthusiasm for getting involved with material research, both at SOM and in the wider industry.

What is the most surprising or overlooked thing about being an architect?

One of the most overlooked skills you develop as an architect is spatial conception. This means being able to walk into IKEA and know if a piece of furniture is going to fit into a space just by looking at it — and winning that bet with my boyfriend every single time.

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