A LIFE IN DESIGN

By: Jen Levisen, Communications Director, Mortarr

When you have 15,000 members across 58 countries, it takes exceptional communication, innovation, and visionary leadership to make it work. It’s fortunate then, that Cheryl Durst embodies all of these characteristics as executive vice president and CEO for IIDA, the Commercial Interior Design Association. She has made it her life’s mission to spur progress, drive change and encourage the expansion of the industry.

 

Durst was born in Toledo, Ohio. Her mother, a microbiologist, and her father, a teacher, instilled in her from the very beginning a passion for learning, for curiosity. Although if you ask her mother, or her husband for that matter, they’ll say she’s just nosey (more on that later).

 

After graduating from Boston University with degrees in journalism and economics, Durst began what she calls her, “checkered past — although looking back it all kind of makes sense.”

 

She was a substitute teacher in D.C.’s public school system. She took a job with Reff Furniture, later bought by Knoll, and then with the Washington Design Center. There she met the center’s property manager, Troy Durst, and they later married. When he took a job with Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, they moved to the city.

 

Durst started with IIDA, which is headquartered in Chicago, as director of education and two years later the board of directors came to her, asking she be CEO.

 

“IIDA was on a little bit of rocky footing at the time,” she says. “They were in financial free fall and they needed to look in a different direction. I was actually 8 months pregnant with my second child at that point, but I accepted the position and the rest is history. Now the child I was pregnant with is 20 years old and IIDA is 25, and they both are incredibly healthy.”

 

In between the 35 weeks she spends each year traveling, Durst took some time for a call with Mortarr’s Forum to explain how, “not a designer,” has become one of the industry’s biggest champions.

How would you explain the progression of your career to someone who was interested in your role now?

A little bit of luck, happenstance, serendipity, opportunity, you name it. I’ve been CEO of IIDA for 20 years now and I was the association’s director of education for two years prior to that. When the board asked me to come on as CEO they were on a little bit of rocky footing. They were looking to move in a different direction; to run in a different way.

 

You know, I was asked a similar question by a group of students at SCAD and it occurred to me that I’ve never actually applied for any job I’ve had. I’ve always had great conversations with people who offered me amazing opportunities. I became very good at asking, “But what about … ?” And because of that, in so many instances, I crafted my own opportunities. I’m grateful for the mentors I’ve had. Grateful for the folks that I’ve worked with who have been open, agile and flexible enough to match potential opportunities to my abilities and personality. It’s a little bit entrepreneurial and a little bit risk taking. I always encourage students that their careers not be black and white, that there be a lot of gray. That they say yes to professional opportunities they aren’t quite sure of, and that they have the courage they need to always be willing to make those leaps.

 

I have what I once-upon-a-time called a checkered past. Looking back at my resume and experiences, I remember, while I was in the midst of it, thinking that mine definitely did not follow a linear, logical path. But now when I look back, it almost makes sense. It almost looks like I planned it.

Who have been your mentors?

 

I grew up in the Midwest and went to Catholic school, kindergarten through twelfth grade. One of my first mentors, in addition to my mom, was actually a nun, Sister Kathleen. She was the Mother Superior of the order. She was, and still is, a CEO. She runs an order; she is the principal of a school. She is a strong woman. My mother was a microbiologist and ran a laboratory. I’ve always been surrounded by very strong women who were never deterred by the words you can’t, you shouldn’t, or you aren’t. Definitely though, my mom was my strongest cheerleader and mentor. I’ve always been grateful for the experiences I’ve had observing women run things.

 

What do you feel prepared you for your role as CEO at IIDA?

 

My husband will tell you — my mom will tell you, too — I’ve always been incredibly nosey. I would tell you I’m a culture stalker. I’ve always been really keenly observant of human beings and the human condition. And at the end of the day that is what design is about. So, I would say being incredibly observant of human beings, what they do and how they do it has been the one constant throughout all of my careers and a critical part to my success.

 

Anecdotally, how has IIDA grown and changed under your leadership?

 

Part of our growth has been through outreach, establishing chapters throughout the country, and expanding internationally. The other growth has been in the products and services we offer to our members. We do the things other associations do, right? We have a magazine, we offer programming, but we’ve expanded beyond that and now we’re engaging in research. We did a research series with BIFMA called “Design Leveraged” and it’s about productivity and engagement and the implication of those on the built environment. We also have a book series we debuted a couple of years ago, called “What Clients Want.” I’m just proofreading the fourth volume in the series, “What Clients Want — Workplace.” The first volume in the series provides an overview of the design disciplines and each subsequent volume is specific to the disciplines of design — “What Clients Want — Hospitality,” “What Clients Want — Retail.” Each volume includes a compilation of essays, featuring interviews with a designer and their C-Suite clients. One project was the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium, so we interviewed the firm and Jerry Jones. Another project was the Armani Hotel, and another the first iteration of Facebook. The series provides an intimate look at how design has changed, particularly for those folks in the C-Suite. How what they think about their company, their culture, and their brand is shaped through the design process. Typically, everyone thinks about design from the client side. They think they want this beautiful, functional interior. A certain type of physical environment for their employees. But what a client learns through the design process is more about who they are as an organization, and what experience they want to provide for their employees and clients.

Looking back over your tenure with IIDA, what are you most proud of?

 

I’d say how the conversation about how vital design is to the world has grown so much outside of our industry. I feel strongly that I can’t be CEO of my organization and sit in my office. I spend 35 weeks out of every year traveling and doing presentations. Whether it be a commencement address, speaking to clients, or various associations about the importance of design. I think we do a great job talking about design amongst ourselves, and our next leap is talking about design to the client community – that outward focus. We’re celebrating our 25th anniversary as an organization this year and when you think about how the conversations about design have shifted over the years, it’s incredible. More people are talking about sustainability, social responsibility, the environment, wellness and well-being – those are all design conversations. For many, the original conversations about design centered around aesthetics and beauty. Now conversations around design have been elevated, due in no small part, to designers constantly educating their clients about the value of design. That design is efficient, functional, strategic, longitudinal and not just tactical and used to fix something. We’ve helped to create the space in which we can elevate the conversation around design. It is a really good moment for us to talk about design as it pertains to the workplace, health care, hospitality, etc., because people are realizing that they can’t get through a day or work week without encountering design — good, bad or otherwise.

 

What have been some of your, or IIDA’s, biggest learning opportunities?

 

Something that we’ve done and do well, and it may feel a little bit like a pat-yourself-on-the-back moment, is celebrate great design. We produce more than 15 international design competitions annually. When I started we just had one. Celebrating and promoting great design, projects and designers has been an absolute need for us and is something that is really important to the association. Another big learning curve was establishing round table conversations, which we now do across the country. We hold principal round tables that we convene for design principals, CEOs and COOs to gather and talk about current design challenges and opportunities in their worlds. We do specific round tales – hospitality, health care – allowing designers by discipline to have those conversations and stay on top of trends. You know, despite the opportunities that technology gives us, people still like to get together and have conversations about what they do. They still want peer-to-peer learning. Human contact and conversations still matter and that’s really become part of our brand. When we moved into our new offices, we very deliberately and intentionally created our IDEA Studio where we can hold programs and events, and host other organizations and groups doing the same. We’re partnering with AIA Chicago on the Designers & Architects Talk Series, which is held in the IDEA Studio, and Deloitte recently held a partners meeting in our space. Again, it’s the ability for people to convene and communicate with one another. It’s so interesting to me, because while people can find anything they want online, they still want to gather as a group and have these conversations.

 

You just mentioned IIDA and AIA Chicago’s Designers & Architect’s Talk Series. Why do you feel partnerships like this are important?

 

I think the knowledge that comes from how designers and architects interact with the clients and projects is incredibly important. Designers and architects work closely together, but they touch projects in very different ways. There is such synergy between architecture and interior design. Increasingly there is also tension and I think the more architects understand the work that interior designers do, and vice versa, the better each understands and builds a mutual respect for what each brings to their projects. Additionally, this series was really important for us, because our members are both interior designers and architects. The best projects seamlessly meld together architecture and interior design, so we wanted to exhibit that through these conversations.

While a typical day might not exist for you, what makes for a good day in your book?

 

Regardless of where I am, a good day is when I can have conversations with our members about what they are doing, what is going on in their chapters, and what needs they might have. I never want to have a day where I don’t have a conversation with a designer, or with someone who is a member of IIDA. I also write every day – whether it is a presentation I’m working on, or something for myself. I consider myself a writer and its part of my creative expression. I’m currently playing around with a couple of book ideas. I also really like the feeling that I’ve accomplished something, meaning I’ve started and finished something. That might sound funny but being able to accomplish something on a regular basis is huge. We’ve implemented “No Meeting Wednesdays” here at IIDA, so come each Wednesday, no meetings. You can respond to emails and work on projects. It’s the whole idea that you can come into the office, start a project and finish it by the end of the day. It’s been tremendous for us.

What advice would you give students or those new to the industry?

 

I definitely tell students when they start at a new firm, dealership, manufacturer – wherever they find their design degree has taken them – to make connections throughout the organization. Look for a mentor, ask great questions, ask people the questions you don’t get to ask when you are in an interview. Really work hard to understand the culture of your new work place and become involved with it. I particularly tell young designers to be a brand champion for the place you work. Organizations aren’t just looking for employees, they are looking for brand and culture champions and you can’t be that if you aren’t a part of the fabric of the place you work.

What is something that you are excited for?

 

Right now, we are having a lot of momentum and great conversation around diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s one of the things I so enjoy talking to students about in particular. They are excited about diversity. They’ve been brought up in a diverse environment, with diversity as part of their education. The design and architecture fields still have a lot of work to do. Recently John J. Nelson, Sr., the founder and principal of NELSON, donated $50,000 to IIDA to establish scholarships for African American students to pursue careers in interior design and architecture. Often there are economic barriers in design schools, so he wanted to help alleviate some of that burden. Just last week I was in Philadelphia, Penn., with a group of colleagues doing the evaluation for the scholarships. We’re going to be giving three scholarships to students at NeoCon this year. That was really exciting to see. The firm IA Interior Architects also donated $50,000 to IIDA for diversity scholarships. IIDA is certainly not the only organization to be having these conversations and I’m glad. We’re creating tools to make it easier for designers to talk about diversity in their own firms. IIDA is very excited about this work and it is particularly gratifying for me as an African American woman who is leading the organization.

"WE'RE CREATING TOOLS TO MAKE IT EASIER FOR DESIGNERS TO TALK ABOUT DIVERSITY IN THEIR OWN FIRMS. IIDA IS VERY EXCITED ABOUT THIS WORK AND IT IS PARTICULARLY GRATIFYING FOR ME AS AN AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN WHO IS LEADING THE ORGANIZATION." 

Last question, what is on your night stand right now?

 

Oh, I love it! I have a reading list I share whenever I give a presentation. I have a Kindle because I travel so much, but right now on my night stand are two books. Once is a book from National Geographic called “Drives of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Most Spectacular Road Trips.” My husband and I love to take road trips. I’m also reading a book called “Educated.” It’s No. 1 on The New York Times Best Seller list as a memoir and it’s been named one of the best books of the year. The author was 17 years old the first time she set foot in a classroom and the book is about her quest to learn. What I love about it is we are all life-long learners. It really takes me back to my roots. My father was an educator. Learning is just one of the most human things we can do. Just like design is something that makes us human, so is learning.

Event photos courtesy IIDA; Jordan Fuller.

To see more from Cheryl, or to just give her some digital high-fives, check out her LinkedIn.

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