April 24, 2017

How SOM Calls on Its 80-Year Legacy

Global architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill traces its roots to 1936. Brothers-in-law Louis Skidmore and Nathaniel Owings joined forces to work on the Century of Progress exposition in Chicago in 1933, and went on to establish a firm three years later. Not long after they added the partner John O. Merrill, and the name SOM was born.

“There was a freedom and a confidence in their work that is undeniable,” explains Stephen Apking, the firm’s interior design partner and an Interior Design Hall of Fame member. “Skidmore and Owings wanted to express the vernacular of their time and to look forward. The Depression was behind them and the possibilities seemed endless.”

That optimism has come to fuel eight decades of architectural output. Among the company’s notable works are One World Trade Center, the Burj Khalifa, and Willis Tower. But as the firm’s broad archive informs its aesthetic and approach, there is a constant drive toward innovation, research, and exploration that propels SOM forward. We sat down with Lois Wellwood, who joined the New York office last year as associate director and interiors practice leader, to ask about what’s next for the interiors division and how the firm’s legacy defines the way designers work.

ID: How does it feel to work at a firm with such history?

LW: There is such aspiration here to continue to be innovators and to be constantly crafting the portfolio of the future. But while it’s awe-inspiring from some perspectives, it’s also very inviting and very inclusive. That makes it an amazing experience each day.

ID: How does the legacy of the firm come up on a day-to-day basis?

LW: Coming out of that legacy is a firm that showed immense discipline in the practice around the siting of a building, how it made people feel when they were standing on the ground beside it, and how people felt inside the building. We still talk about the discipline of our craft, but we talk about it in terms of the excellence of detailing and how people are going to feel when they touch something and when they walk into a space. Our legacy guides us in that—it’s our responsibility to ensure that everything is cohesive. We bring our expertise to every project that we do.

American Radiator Company, 1937. Photos courtesy SOM / © Hedrich Blessing.

ID: What’s it like working with the partners who have been at the firm for decades?

LW: A lot of the partners are still very much involved in the day-to-day. Much of the surprise and delight in what we’re doing comes from them. They are still often the people that have the clarity to say, “I see what’s happening here, and I can help you with that.” And then they do. Their presence is very real and very available.

ID: What projects from the archive inspire you?

LW: One is the Weyerhaeuser building that we developed in Federal Way, Washington. It was so far ahead of its time in terms of sustainability and respect for the environment, even health and wellbeing. It sits amongst the rolling hills in the Cascade mountains and there are views from all parts of the building. We custom developed every piece of furniture because what we needed didn’t exist at the time. After the project, that furniture became a line for Knoll. The building has remained relevant in many ways.

UI Labs, 2015. Photo courtesy SOM / © Christopher Barrett.

ID: What do you think is next for the firm?

LW: One of the things we are both challenged with and excited about is that our clients are more knowledgeable than they have been in the past. There is a real desire on the part of leadership to take a much more meaningful role in selecting their firms. Organizations now want to be very involved in all parts of design, so we need to bring them in and engage them in a very different way. The work we do is much more about capturing the three-dimension versus just presenting a basic model or some drawings. There are 3-D experiences, which we are starting to do a bit with our clients.

The next development is that people are transforming the ways that they work. In the past, there was a specific chair a person sat at every day of every year that they worked at that organization. That is fundamentally changing; now you don’t have to sit at that desk and that chair to get your work done. We are at a sea change moment where we are able to transform the workplace such that it’s about far more than going to the office. That’s what’s really challenging us to be innovative in new ways.

ID: Any initiatives that you’re particularly excited about for the future?

LW: In the past, the structure of the building drove the behaviors of the people inside. The shift around clients being more knowledgeable and having an awareness of how much the workplace matters—this is a really influential time for us to consider a different approach. Instead of structure driving the behaviors, what would happen if the behaviors that need to happen inside could really influence the structure? We’re almost there. We can see buildings being developed through Revitt and other 3-D tools, and we can make it so that the things that go on inside the building are better. And people do better work because of it.

Recent DesignWire