By Julia Gamolina
Renee Holsopple Glick is the Director of Retail and a Senior Associate at A+I, where she has worked on projects for brands like Vince, Worth New York and W by Worth, Ketra, and Under Armour. Prior to her current position, she worked in the shop at the University of Pennsylvania, and as a store designer for Kate Spade Saturday, Bobbi Brown, and her own firm Amalgam design. In 2016, Renee was named one of retail’s “40 under 40” by design:retail magazine. In her conversation with Julia Gamolina, Renee describes the benefits of a cross-disciplinary experience and how to posture oneself as a leader, find your resources, and say yes to opportunities.
JG: How did your interest in architecture develop?
RHG: I came to New York for the International Contemporary Furniture Fair while I was studying art. The theme at the ICFF that year was about new people in design. Blu Dot was on a panel, and they were talking about their goal to flat pack everything and their customer loyalty program – how one year they sent their clients a cheese wrapped in blue wax, and another year they sent blue M&M’s. That awareness of the details in each step in a process and an innovative way of putting things together really resonated with me. I had also met someone at the fair that invited me to his showroom; I remember him saying, “All the people here are designers,” and me not knowing what that meant. I felt like I had discovered this entirely other ecosystem of people that thought the way that I did. I took a couple of years off before grad school and ran the digital fabrication lab at the University of Pennsylvania, and then I came to New York to go to Pratt and pursue architecture.
How did your focus on retail develop?
After I left Pratt, I started a company with two of my classmates called Amalgam Design. We were doing residential and retail concept projects in New York and the West Coast. It was through this work that I got connected to store design at Bobbi Brown – they needed some new thinking and wanted to hire someone that wasn’t already in-house. Through that job, I later got connected to Kate Spade Saturday. Its position as a new brand within a broader company felt like the best of both corporate structure and resources and start up energy and enthusiasm, so I went there to pursue store design further.
What was it like to work in-house for a non-architecture company?
Working at Bobbi Brown and Kate Spade were really wonderful experiences because of all the cross-disciplinary learning that I got. I learned about product, merchandising, store openings, staff, training, operations, and so much more. I’m really grateful for this experience because it gave me a real respect for the need to translate – I couldn’t just fall back on architecture speak because I wasn’t in a context where people knew those words – and for the different things that are important to people in different contexts. There’s a lot of richness in expanding your knowledge.
How did you then decide that it was time to move out of an in-house role?
After working at Kate Spade for a while, I started to feel conscious of how I was resourcing myself. Because I was often the only architect in the room, I felt I wasn’t always able to give the most complete support. I started to think about working for a larger organization to continue learning from other architects for a while. In this context, I decided to interview at A+I.
How did you grow into your firm-wide management role in addition to your specialized role as Director of Retail?
When I started at A+I, there were about 45 people there. About a year and a half later, we almost doubled and there were very thoughtful conversations about our evolution and about me joining the leadership team – partly because there was a pretty big sector of work that I was involved with within the office that was good to have represented, but also because I made some significant relationships and connections with what was happening office-wide and have always been interested in organizational structures and the management of how people work in those systems.
Moving into a leadership role obviously requires different skills than being a designer. What are the key differences?
I think managing is almost a whole different profession. It’s a real shift in your understanding of a day – you go from working at your computer and creating something, to facilitating a team of people to work at their computers and create something. Think about when a manager comes back from a meeting and the shifts that she has to make between being at a client meeting, being on site, or being with her team at the office; each of those contexts require such different skills and it takes a lot of effort to manage the health of all those aspects.
With an industry like ours that requires you to master certain professional skills, it’s not a given that you are then also good at management. There tends to be this dynamic that when successful designers are promoted within a system, they do more management and that doesn’t always put people in the right place for themselves. The switch can be really hard for both the designer and the system.
What makes a good manager?
Successful management is the right balance of empathy and vision, and also the thoughtful translation from the clients’ needs to the team needs. In a service profession, the ultimate goal for us is to bring our expertise into servicing the clients’ expectations. Within that, there are so many subsets of how you communicate information internally and how you facilitate people. A manager has to bring clarity and the right amount of urgency to the task at hand. Ultimately you want to put everyone in a position where they can be the maximum of all the things they are good at, but that takes time, awareness, and sometimes it’s the luck of the draw.
It’s also really tough to determine your posture as a leader. It’s like being a coach; some people respond to the trainer that yells at them and some people respond to the one that pats their shoulder. Are you going to be the leader who gives a very singular vision that’s clear for everyone else, or is it going to be a more democratic process? Like, am I going to give you the first line of the paragraph and you complete it, or am I going to give you a paragraph and you can edit it.
What advice would you give for designers that are learning to manage?
You have to think about it in terms of development of yourself; the best managers are ones that are able to manage their insecurities outside of their work. If a manager is insecure and needs positive feedback from her team to feel good about her day, that is irresponsible, as a manager. Managers need to have their own resources, and I think this is the thing about leadership and why I respect people in positions of leadership so much and tend to be less critical of it – it’s all about how you use the right resources and your own network to support yourself. If I’m leading a team and I’ve had a bad day, or I’m feeling like I came up with an idea and the client rejected it, and that filters into my team – that is inexperience.
What have been some challenges that you’ve experienced in your career?
Figuring out the best personal balance between design and management. I have no meetings today, and I woke up thinking “I might get to draw, or think, or look up a beautiful image,” and that is such a luxury. Architecture is also a profession of endless information, so I always feel a little bit overwhelmed, or inexperienced, or just aware of how much other information there is to know. Then, the struggles, the disappointments, the amount of work, and all the other residuals that build up can be really tough. However, in the end, the profession is so rewarding and when I’m looking back broadly it feels very rose-colored.
What is rewarding about it? What do you value about your work?
I value architecture as a creative practice. I like the balance of limits and the puzzle that’s being solved, the spatial and three-dimensional puzzle. I also really like the challenges of reconciling all the moving pieces within a project. You have to stay attached to the idea that there will be an ultimate resolution of things, but you can’t get attached to the moving pieces along the way because it’s a process that involves other people and there are many things out of your control. It’s very challenging but also very interesting.
What have been some highlights?
I have lots of moments that have been significant. The main highlights for me are the different opportunities that I’ve had. I can’t take full credit for them, but I can take credit for saying yes. I’m grateful to have gathered a range of experience – it builds courage to do so. It’s a little bit like traveling – you develop the understanding that you can be in a new place, and that you will discern, you will figure out how it works, and you will find your place.
What has been your approach to your career?
Being open and saying yes to a lot of different opportunities; I’m lucky the opportunities that have come up have been good ones. I’ve also been very thoughtful and intentional in making decisions along the way, so maybe that’s been my overall approach – being very intentional.
You mentioned needing to have your own resources earlier. What are your resources?
Being in New York has really affected how I feel about resources and what I have access to. You can seek out certain resources and be very specific about them here, but all that you’re surrounded by offers you indirect resources as well. For me, New York has been a really good fit. The chaos of it actually calms me down, because I feel like it’s OK to be figuring yourself out here as that’s what everybody is doing. Seeing the range of things people are doing and caring about has been a good resource for me; it’s a good challenge and a good check. A challenge to make sure I’m being fully engaged in my life, and a good check because it’s a reminder that I’m not the most important thing or person in the world. It’s a little bit hard to think that when you’re here.
What general advice do you have for young architects that are trying to find their place in the industry?
I also don’t feel like there’s a formula – you just have to keep checking back in with yourself. I do think a lot of things get done out of fear, but a lot of things also get done out of hope. My advice would be to do things out of hope, and you’ll have a little more of an expansive experience. Yes, every decision you make means you’re not making other decisions, but you have all of your resources and get to take them and yourself with you to the next decision. I think being crippled by a fear that you’re going to make a wrong choice is short-changing the resources you have as an individual.
Also, be grateful for the opportunities that you have! If you’re deciding between things, you’re already in a privileged position. That in no way means that there’s no struggle in the midst of that, and that you don’t have a valid place to have consternation, but I think that’s pretty helpful framework. Even if our profession is extremely complicated, and terrifying, and deals with a lot of human emotions and department of building constraints, we have a pretty fun job. For me, it’s a privilege to be working in this industry in New York today.