Today I was here with Elizabeth Lowrey. Elizabeth is a Principal and the Director of Interior Architecture at Elkus Manfredi Architects in Boston (and one of this year’s WIN Awards judges).
Elizabeth has been responsible for the firm’s award-winning interior design studio since the practice was founded in 1988. Boutique Design magazine identifies Elizabeth as a “maverick” and “silo buster” for her unique approach to design that bridges disciplines, cultures, and aesthetics. She is widely recognised as a pioneer in the design of branded workplace environments, and works in hospitality, education, residential, research, and institutional interiors.
These are some of the fascinating and sensitive insights Elizabeth shared with me over lunch in Spring’s beautiful surroundings…
When you are in London where do you like to go? Do you have any favourite restaurants? Any galleries or museums that you always visit?
I particularly like how Chef Skye Gyngell has beautifully paired her menu with the design of this room at Spring for a totally immersive experience. Every detail is taken into consideration – the glow of the mint glassware as the creamy melon liquid is poured, all against a backdrop of the whisper-blue wall.
London and the entire U.K. are an embarrassment of riches every time I visit. As a matter of fact, I visited in June and attended the Women’s Henley Regatta to watch my youngest daughter row. We also attended Royal Ascot. Those are two very different events, but both are steeped in wonderful British traditions and great fun. I loved Ascot and its marriage of fantastic fashion with the romance of equestrian sport!
Of course, I also have to mention the Tate Modern – I always try to go every time I visit London. Elkus Manfredi has won numerous awards. What do you think practices gain from entering and hopefully winning awards?
It’s very important to be recognized by industry peers and a group of perceptive jurors – it’s important to the design team who worked on the winning project; it’s important to the client who took that journey with the designers; and it’s important for the employees who work in the winning space. Each group gains by knowing they are associated with organisations that cared to do something bold.
Many of the awards we have won also speak to our level of functional engagement in addition to our design – we’ve won business awards for the efficiency and productivity of the workplaces we’ve created. Being recognised in a range of award programs and categories demonstrates that we’re committed to the bigger picture – functionality and design.
You are judging the WIN Awards Interior Practice of the Year category. What appealed to you about this category, and what will you be looking for in the submissions?
I am looking forward to participating with the other jury members for this event very much! One of my favorite aspects of Elkus Manfredi is that we have the opportunity to work across all project types at all scales. We are committed to excellence in design, to pushing the boundaries of the profession, and most of all, to creating environments that enhance the human experience. WIN’s Practice of the Year category reflects that same commitment to excellence in design, regardless of type, size, or scope. As I review the submissions, I am particularly interested in discovering firms that have simultaneously produced successful designs and moved the profession’s collective thinking forward by asking new questions or presenting innovative solutions. Designers are a community of problem-solvers, and we’re always open to learning from the next thought leaders. With this category, WIN has the ability to identify those new leaders.
You have been with Elkus Manfredi since 1988. In fact, you were Employee Number One! Apart from the company now employing 300+ people, what changes have you seen in that time?
There have been numerous changes since I first undertook this great adventure: changes in the industry, changes in technology, and changes in the company as it grew in scope and scale. But one element that has remained constant throughout our evolution is the level of our personal commitment to remaining open-minded as both problem-seekers and problem-solvers.
By that I mean that we’ve learned never to assume that we know the answer. No matter the project, budget, or scale, we insist on walking in our clients’ shoes – every client, every time. We have always been, and remain, curious. When you immerse yourself in your client’s world, you discover things you’d never have imagined. That is the adventure that is always new, that keeps us fresh and energised, and that ultimately inspires a design as unique as the client is.
How do you nurture emerging talent?
Titles and tenure serve a purpose and are part of every employee culture, but they should not be the definition of a team member’s role. For instance, when we have meetings, it doesn’t matter whether you’re the junior person or senior person in the room. Inspiration is inspiration; good ideas are good ideas. If you come up with a good idea, we’ll run with it. In addition, we encourage our younger staff to really get to know our clients and the people who produce and sell materials, furniture, and finishes.
We also recognise team members for excellence – those who not only do a good job, but go above and beyond in their work. We also recognise the importance of professional associations that offer advanced learning and accreditations, and we encourage our designers to join industry organisations and advance their knowledge. How do you nurture tenured talent? By making them part of different and dynamic teams over the years. In my time at Elkus Manfredi, we have always focused on building teams composed of talented people of all ages with different skills, disciplines, experiences, and cultures. Everyone works on a variety of projects – there are no silos. This sort of cross-pollination keeps all of us stimulated, challenged, and creative.
How do you inspire your team?
Hopefully by example! I find inspiration everywhere – when I’m traveling, in personal interactions, at exhibitions like the Whitney and Venice Biennales, or just walking down the street. I take pictures of everything – people, buildings, rooms, furniture, fashion.
I might take pictures of people because I’m observing how they interact within a specific space. I recently visited a major auction house in London, and immediately became intrigued by how the docents were skillfully guiding the visitors into interactions with the art and objects in what was really a combination of education and sales.
On the airplane ride home, I’ll have a thousand pictures, and I’ll think through all the projects we’re working on and start sending clients and team members images and tidbits. At Elkus Manfredi, we don’t use images from the internet. Everything must come from our own experiences. So we encourage our people to get out into the world, explore cultural events, design events, restaurants, hotels, museums, and exhibitions. They come back with images, observations, and fresh ideas that they share with us at informal roundtables. We inspire each other that way.
What inspired you to be an interior designer and what has been the main highlight of your career so far?
I can’t remember a time I wasn’t interested in design, and spent hours as a child sketching fantasy houses and hotels. I grew up in a creative world – my parents are designers and artists, and I studied architecture and interior design at college. As far as the main highlight of my career, it’s always the project I’m currently working on.
As another example, the craftsmanship of a 19th-century New England accent chair prompts me to consider how to apply its inherent design elements and narrative into a contemporary situation. As I’m inspired by what I experience, I’m thinking about how that artist, craftsperson, or designer landed on a specific point of view to tell that particular story.
It is all about the essence of storytelling. A space should tell a story – unfold like a good novel or movie – welcoming you, drawing you in, then offering excitement and drama, or quiet and serenity – whatever is right for that particular space. I pull from my experiences and the memories that resonate.
For instance, a fireworks show in Cannes may come to mind as the feeling I want to create in part of a hotel. I greatly admire the fashion designer Dries Van Noten – every collection is a surprise using rich textures, fibres, and dramatic, unexpected colourations to tell a new story through fashion. I’m then inspired to reinterpret his skill through my lens as an interior designer.
The bottom line is that we need to satisfy our client on an emotional level, no matter if we’re working in hospitality, residential, corporate, or higher education. The question we need to ask ourselves is: what do the people who use this space want to feel there? I draw on my own experience, and the feelings of my fellow designers at Elkus Manfredi, to create that feeling. I’ve read that you love fashion. Did you ever consider being a fashion designer instead? I did try once, when I designed my wedding dress. The lesson learned was to have an even greater respect for fashion designers and the craftspeople who make their visions real.
Who was or still is your mentor?
My first role models were my parents, Lida and Austin Lowrey. They showed me what it meant to pursue a career in art and design, taught me how to channel my creative energy, and inspired me to follow my passion.
Professionally, my role models are Howard Elkus and David Manfredi, who together hired me in 1988 to develop and oversee the firm’s interior design practice. Both of them have been instrumental in my formation and evolution. Howard, who recently passed away, supported all of us here. He taught us to live life with our eyes wide open, to see and experience as much as we possibly could. He was a great mentor, and an unbelievable friend. I miss him every day.
What ambitions do you still have? Career and personal.
My career ambition remains the same: to create unique spaces that inspire our clients, their customers, and the community. I want to keep exploring how the designed environment can influence behaviors. We’ve never designed cookie-cutter spaces, and these days more than ever before, each venue needs to be a curated story. As far as personal ambitions, I’m incredibly fortunate. In addition to having the best job a person could wish for, I have a wonderful family with three extraordinary children, the youngest of whom just graduated from high school and is heading off to college, as her two older siblings are already doing in different cities across the country. I have much more than I could ever have dreamed of.
You mentioned that you would like to have more time for horse riding, travelling for pleasure, and studying comparative religion. Why would you want to study this subject?
My interest in comparative religion is part of the curiosity that drives everything I do. I’m fascinated by people’s motivation and inspiration, and I want to understand where those impulses come from. Religion is certainly one of the primary sources, and I would be fascinated to study and compare global religions.
How does living and working in Boston influence your design?
I’m not sure whether Boston has had a tangible effect on my aesthetic any more than other cities I love, but I am certain that Boston has a great influence on me. Living in proximity to and interacting with people involved in Boston’s community of advanced research and higher education institutions – one of the most concentrated intellectual communities of that kind in the world – motivates me to join in the dialogue and explore new ideas.
When you’re not working what do you get up to?
All sorts of things! Museums, theatre, shopping, horses, spending time with my family, travel, reading. I only wish the days were longer so I could have more time to indulge my curiosities.
Annalisa Hammond
Img 01: New Balance Headquarters, Boston by Andrew Bordwin
Img 02:& 03: The Modern, Fort Lee, New Jersey by Adrian Wilson
Img 04 & 05: LINQ Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas by Andrew Bordwin
Img 06 & 07: LINQ Spa, Las Vegas, Las Vegas by Andrew Bordwin
Img 08: New Balance Headquarters, Boston by Andrew Bordwin