Principal at Gensler, Collin Burry in conversation with Anke Summerhill about how he started his career, how he become a Principal at Gensler, and his favourite places.
Collin is a 2013 inductee into Interior Design Magazine’s Hall of Fame. A “soft modernist” at heart, he describes himself as both a left- and right-brain designer who creates environments that strive for beauty and are grounded in strategy.
Collin has transformed the interiors of many of the world’s most innovative brands, such as Apple, Samsung, Gallo and Dolby.
His creative and contemporary approach to design has earned him more than 60 design awards and frequent publications in international design and business media.
Hit the play button below to watch the full conversation, or read the full transcript below:
Anke Summerhill: Hi, I’m Anke Summerhill from Minotti, London. And today, I’m at the beautiful Gensler Offices in London with Collin Burry, principal here at Gensler.
And Collin just showed us around earlier and we’re very impressed with the beautiful working environment you have here. But now, it’s about you. So Collin, tell us your story. How did it start, how did you become an architect and how did she end up where you are today?
Collin Burry: So I’m actually originally Canadian. I grew up in Vancouver. And it’s one of the few times that I actually listened to my mother. So in Canada, in order to go to architecture school, you had to have a degree in something else, a bachelor’s degree, so I decided per her recommendation to study interior design, and I went to school in Los Angeles.
And at the time, we shared a studio with USC, the University of Southern California, the architecture school, and I was in the interior design programme at a university called Woodbury.
And I sort of saw what they did, heard that their schedules were five years long and thought, “That’s not for me,” and I fell completely and totally in love with interior design. So while I have a passion for architecture, really my degree is in interior design and I’ve basically since 19… Well, a really long time, ’80s-
Anke: You can say that. That’s a good time, the ’80s.
Collin: Yeah, exactly right. It’s an area of inclusion and diversity, so age also matters.
Collin: Yeah. So essentially I think I’ve been working now for about 35 years in interior design and was really fortunate that I found my passion again. The one time I listened to my mother, but it was absolutely the right thing to do.
Anke: So was it an ambition of yours to come to Gensler with it being one of the biggest, well, the biggest, architectural and design firms in the world?
Collin: Yeah, I mean, that’s also kind of an interesting story because it took me a bit to get to Gensler, but I remember I was living after graduation from university in Los Angeles, I moved to San Diego and I lived there for 10 years.
And during that time, my best friend from university was a rep and she would call in Gensler in Los Angeles, in that Los Angeles office, she kept saying to me, “Oh, you really need to check out this firm. They’re amazing.
There are people from all over the world. It’s really diverse. They do all this incredible work.” She was like, “There’s something about it that I feel like it would be right for you.” So a few years later when I felt that I was ready, I applied for Gensler in San Francisco.
And the first time, I got a rejection letter. Actually, I went and interviewed and I got a rejection letter, but at the time it was also the middle of a recession.
Anke: We’ve all had rejection letters.
Collin: Exactly. Right.
Anke: It’s part of the process.
Collin: Yes, absolutely. Yeah. Then fast forward many years later, and essentially the rest is kind of history. I think in the first couple weeks that I started at Gensler, if you’d ask me if I’d be here 25 years later, it’s actually… my 25th anniversary going to be on May 13th this year.
Anke: Is that going to be another party?
Collin: Yeah, I think so. Hopefully. Yeah. I think we get like a trip or something like that. But it’s been an absolutely amazing journey. I mean, I have to say like for a little Canadian kid to end up living in London, I think Gensler’s all about providing a place for people to pursue their personal passions and I think that’s been really, really true for me.
I mean, basically, anything that I’ve wanted to explore, the different positions that I’ve wanted to try or whatever, it’s really been unlimited. So it’s like it’s incredible… I mean, playground might not be the right word, but it is an incredible playground upon which to kind of build your career, so it’s been an incredible journey and I’m very grateful.
Anke: Yes. So you’re principal now.
Anke: So you’re leading young teams-
Anke: … or even old teams. I don’t know. So how do you mentor, inspire your team and encourage them to grow? What’s your trick? Or is it your experience that helps?
Collin: That’s a great question. I think that it kind of goes both ways. What I love is like you get to a point in your life and your career, and you can probably relate to this, where it’s-
Anke: I don’t know, what are you saying?
Collin: … where all of a sudden it’s like you really want to give back and you want to teach and mentor and share everything that you’ve learned over the course of a very long career.
I’m not done yet, so I mean that’s the other part of it. At the end of the day, it has to be kind of about them and sort of like treating each person… and kind of approaching them as an individual and sort of seeing where they’re coming from and how potentially I can somehow with what I’m sharing… what I’m sharing will resonate with them.
Anke: And do you feel over time, people’s ambitions have changed when you see young people entering?
Collin: Yeah, there’s so much discussion these days about like Millennials or Gen Z or whatever and it’s funny because like when I was young I was ambitious. I’m sure you were too. And I remember looking-
Anke: But I think it comes with being young.
Collin: Yeah. Right. Yeah. And I remember looking my bosses thinking, “I could do that.” I think it’s no different. So in many ways, I mean, I’m kind of blown away.
Anke: Do you think that people are more aware that dead surroundings have a big effect on the quality of your life?
Anke: You work and live in a beautiful space, it makes you happier, it makes you more productive.
Collin: I mean, I think that’s why in many ways, those of us that focus mostly on interiors… I mean the building obviously matters too to a base building architecture. However, what people look, touch, feel and use and experience is the interior.
Anke: So you’re principal now, so you manage people, you manage teams. Do you still get your hands dirty and do the basics?
Collin: Absolutely. Yeah.
Anke: Is that what you love?
Collin: Not as much as I love-
Anke: Do you have time for it?
Collin: Yeah. I mean, I have to otherwise a little piece of my heart, it dies.
Anke: Yeah, it dies.
Collin: Not as much as I’d like because for me it’s more about hopefully sort of inspiring the teams or framing ideas or sharing things that have happened from experience and then really giving them the bandwidth to sort of exploring.
Then if I need to, I can step in, but oftentimes I don’t. I’m always kind of blown away with what they come up with. But, yeah. So I think I will always be a designer. In my heart of heart, I’m a designer and a piece of my soul will die if I don’t do something. Every so often I just need to put a pen to paper and do a little space plan or something or pick a piece of furniture.
Anke: So where do you see yourself going from here? Do you have another goal or another ambition?
Collin: Right now, the primary goal is to give back, to get back to the people that I work with, that hopefully want to learn from what I have to share, to continue to do incredible work, to be relevant, to stay stimulated and to really enjoy the journey. I mean, that’s actually one thing I love about living here is there’s such a better focus on work-life balance.
Anke: And do you have a favourite place or building or?
Collin: I mean, with the pandemic, pretty much good chunks of London weren’t accessible to us for about two years, so now we’re like kids in a candy store, my partner and I, but I’d have to say there’s probably a couple… I mean I love the Tate Modern just for all the incredible contemporary art because I love contemporary art.
But at the moment, our real favourite is the Royal Opera House and going to see the ballet. The Royal Ballet is incredible. We saw Dante’s Project there a couple of months ago and it just sort of blew our minds.
We were big supporters of the San Francisco Ballet. So being able to kind of get back into the arts and get inspired. I mean, I find the arts just probably incredibly, incredibly inspirational.
Anke: Well, they are. Yeah. It’s all beautiful. Well, it was lovely chatting to you Collin and to get to know you a little bit better and thank you very much.
Collin: Yeah. So Anke, thank you so much for inviting me to do this. It’s been an absolute pleasure and delight.
Anke: Likewise. Enjoyed it.
Collin: Thank you.
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