May 12, 2021

Art Gensler, Founder of World’s Largest Design Firm, Dies at 85

Art Gensler. Photography courtesy of Gensler. 

Art Gensler, industry titan and Interior Design Hall of Fame member, passed away May 10 at his home in Mill Valley, California, at age 85. During his 65-year career as an architect and an entrepreneur, he transformed what started out as a three-person practice in San Francisco into the world’s largest design firm. Launching offices around the globe, he and Gensler the firm forever changed the profession by elevating the practice of interior design and inviting client collaboration. 

Since opening its doors in 1965, Gensler has amassed an unwavering reputation of excellence stemming from its “one-firm firm” culture, which values “we” over “me,” stressing the importance of teamwork. This ethos has won and guided countless projects worldwide, starting with such early clients as The Gap and expanding to office headquarters—including TikTok’s and the Motion Picture Association’s—airports, showrooms, hospitality environments, even the Shanghai Tower, recognized as the second tallest building in the world. They’ve all lead to widespread admiration both for Art and the practice.

Consolidated Freightways. Photography courtesy of Gensler. 

“As editors, my team and I have followed Art’s signal achievements from almost day one, and continue to feature and award outstanding Gensler projects the world over,” shares Interior Design editor in chief Cindy Allen, recalling the firm’s 2009 Hall of Fame induction. “We feel very fortunate to have recorded his history and that of the company in the pages of our magazine, and we hope to have contributed some of the means allowing his legacy to live on forever.” 

A dedicated teacher and mentor, Art avidly supported design education and emerging talent. To this day, the firm’s entrepreneurial structure enables employees at every stage of their career to thrive by fostering connections that enable free-flowing ideas and innovations—ensuring no one feels undervalued despite the company’s size. Herein lies the heart of Art’s legacy.

MGM CityCenter. Photography by Jon Schmidt/MGM; courtesy of Gensler. 

Born in 1935 in Brooklyn, M. Arthur Gensler earned his bachelor’s in architecture at Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning in 1958. Around that time, he met and married his wife of almost 60 years, Drucilla, known as Drue. Soon after, the couple moved to San Francisco, where, in 1965, they co-founded M. Arthur Gensler Jr. & Associates, Inc. with James Follett, paving the way for Gensler’s beginnings. Working out of a one-room office, Art turned his attention to the importance of space planning and interiors, solidifying interior design as a new category of architectural practice and shaping the future of his work.

His life-long career encompassed countless accolades, including his own induction into the Interior Design Hall of Fame in 1985, the year the award was initiated, the Cornell Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 1995, the Design Futures Council Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016, and Ernst & Young LLP’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He was named a fellow of both the AIA and the IIDA and a professional member of RIBA. In 2000, Gensler the practice received the AIA Architecture Firm of the Year, the institute’s highest honor.

Art Gensler. Photography courtesy of Gensler. 

Eager to give back to his community, Art served as a trustee of the Buck Institute for Aging, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the California College of the Arts. He and his family gifted $10 million to his alma mater to sustain the AAP’s New York City-based program. And he wrote Art’s Principles, his 2015 book that offered entrepreneurs the business insights he wished he’d had when he was starting out.

In 2010, Art stepped down as the firm’s chairman, putting a co-CEO model in place that still exists today, with Andy Cohen and Diane Hoskins leading. “We will forever honor Art’s leadership and legacy as an industry pioneer,” Cohen says. “He taught us, through example, that putting our client’s success at the center of what we do allows us to overcome even the greatest challenges and seize the greatest opportunities across the globe.” Hoskins adds that she joined Gensler largely because of Art, because his “vision and values were so compelling: a deep commitment to the human experience as well as a belief in people, the power of design as a tool to propel business performance and growth, and a can-do attitude.” Each of these tenants lives on today through Gensler’s culture and in the greater A&D community who had the opportunity to know and work with Art.

Art was predeceased by Drue and is survived by his and Drue’s four sons and their families.

SFO. Photography by Bruce Damonte and courtesy of Gensler. 
Shanghai Tower. Photography by Blackstation and courtesy of Gensler. 
Art Gensler. Photography by Emily Hagopian and courtesy of Gensler. 

A full retrospective of Art Gensler will appear in the July print issue of Interior Design magazine. In lieu of flowers, donations can be directed to diversity scholarships for California College of the Arts students through the Gensler Family Foundation Scholarship via the CCA website.

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