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Eileen Jones: Making a Difference in Design

June 23, 2011   |   Profile

By Beverly Bell for the Kentucky Alumni Magazine Fall 2010 issue

It was about 13 years ago, but Eileen Jones can still remember embarking on one of life's ultimate physical challenges. She laces up her hiking boots and hits the streets of her hometown, Chicago, Ill. This will be her walking routine over the next few months, until she reaches an average of 20 miles each weekend. As time passes and her distance improves, she ups the ante, strapping a full daypack on her back for extra weight and endurance.

The cyclists and joggers that pass her in Lincoln Park and along the Lakefront can't possibly know it, but Jones is motivated by something far more compelling than numbers on a pedometer. It's the destination at the end of the training - the Khumbu region of Mount Everest in Nepal. She knows she won't be able to control everything on the upcoming trek: the weather, how her body will react to the 15,500 feet altitude. But if there's one thing that life has taught Jones it's that preparation goes a long way in overcoming unforeseen obstacles and reaching new heights.

For all the talk about the so-called flash of genius where an answer to a problem suddenly appears like magic fairy dust,there is nothing accidental about Jones’ creative efforts. The 1976 graduate from what is now the University of Kentucky College of Design, has been laying the groundwork for her career since her first watercolors as a child. Today, as a principal in one of the leading architectural design firms in the world, Jones tackles her projects with the precision of an engineer, the research ethic of a scientist, and the imagination of a modern-day Van Gogh — all in the name of inventive solutions for her clients. If chance truly does favor the prepared mind, bet the house on Jones.

In the beginning, she was just a girl from New Jersey who enjoyed making art and planned on becoming a grade school teacher. When she was very young, her creations took the form of paper dolls complete with hand-made outfits. Later, they became pencil sketches and acrylic painting. But a visit to the dentist as a teenager changed how she looked at that art and the role it could play in her life. Sitting in the waiting room, the then high school junior noticed a copy of Interior Design magazine. “I picked it up and started looking through it and I was like, ‘This is what I want to do.’” Forty years later, Jones is at Perkins+Will, a world-recognized firm with 22 offices in North America, as well as locations in Shanghai, Dubai and London, and projects on four continents.

Her academic preparation began at Sullins College in Bristol, Va., where she earned an associate’s degree in interior design. Wanting to continue her education, Jones paid a weekend visit to UK. She met with Richard Rankin, who was heading up the interior design program at the time. “It was one of those opportune moments in life,” Jones recalls. “Based on Dick’s communication about the program and what it had to offer, I felt very comfortable that I could have a complete learning experience at the University of Kentucky.”

Once enrolled, her instincts proved spot on. “They had me looking at various complexities of interior design that I hadn’t imagined,” she says. From Joe Kuhn, she learned how lighting impacts an environment, in creating contrast and definition. Associate Professor Terry Rothgeb’s influence was important from a design exploration perspective because he “pushed the creative process.” Perhaps most important, Rankin challenged her thinking about how to communicate design. It wasn’t enough to create something special; she had to be able to explain it. “I remember him handing papers back and he looked at me and said, ‘Well, she can design. But now also, she can write.’ It was one of those moments I didn’t understand at the time, but subsequently became very apparent to me that the two sides of the brain have to be working simultaneously,” she says.

Creating Branded Environments for Clients
This ability to meld the two is even more critical in Jones’ position as head of Branded Environments, one of five disciplines at Perkins+Will. As the name implies, this discipline focuses on a client’s environments or any touchpoint where a client intersects with its various audiences. For a hospital, audiences would include the patients, medical staff and visitors. For a university, this could mean current and prospective students, professors, and the board of trustees. Touchpoints can be a hospital room or a lecture hall; employee office space or a retail floor; a corporate website or a company brochure.

Jones and her team determine how to make those environments more effective in communicating who the client is, what’s important to them and the unique characteristics that make them stand out among their competitors.

How this is done speaks to the true philosophy of the firm. Calling on the other disciplines at Perkins+Will such as architecture, interior design, urban design and planning and strategies, Jones and her colleagues take a 360 degree approach. They conduct extensive client interviews, workshops, surveys and site observations. With each discipline probing questions from a different vantage point, the deliverable — which can range from a strategy document to construction of new corporate headquarters — is both layered and synced with the appropriate environments and the desired message.

One client describes Jones throughout this process as an explorer. “That’s kind of who she is…someone who is willing to push the envelope a little bit,” says Kurt Vander Schuur, corporate brand director for Haworth Inc., a designer and manufacturer of office furniture/systems that operates in 120 countries. He met Jones 15 years ago when Perkins+Will was first hired to create the company’s Chicago showroom. They have done many projects sinc

e then, including a corporate headquarters renovation and a major re-positioning of Haworth in the marketplace.

Haworth’s strategic decision to place more emphasis on design led to the renovation and transformation of the existing corporate headquarters into a world class facility that would act as a ‘living lab.’ Says Jones, “The renovated facility would need to reposition the Haworth brand in the global market, implement sustainable strategies, grow market share, create an unparalleled customer experience that both educated and inspired, and transform workplace and corporate culture — no small feat.”

As part of the interdisciplinary Perkins+Will team leading the discovery process for the Haworth corporate headquarters project, Jones notes that before any building form takes shape, the ideas that inform physical outcomes must first be explored. The identification of clear objectives, strategic project drivers, and alignment of desired outcomes with business goals sets the stage for the ensuing creative process.

“Eileen likes to try new things and explore the possibilities,” says Vander Schuur.

Perhaps that’s what Jones was doing when she visited friends in Chicago six months after graduating from UK. Since the previous December, she had been spending time with family and putting her portfolio together. Without connections or personal contacts, she landed an interview with John Cordwell, a leading Chicago architect at the time. He didn’t have a job for her, but recommended her to Eva Maddox Associates, another top practice. By October, Jones had a full-time position with the firm. The girl born in the Northeast and educated in the South would now make her mark in the Midwest. As it turned out, Jones would never be in the job market again. She stayed with Eva Maddox for 25 years until they were acquired by Perkins+Will in 2002.

The Outdoors As A Classroom
Jones’ college roommate would later tell her how surprised she was that Jones never changed jobs. “Who would have imagined that you of all people would have been with the same firm all these years,” Jones says she said. What the friend didn’t understand was that Jones had found all the professional challenge and growth she needed. She equates it to striking oil with the first drill. When it happens, you get out of the way and enjoy the ride.

For her spiritual fulfillment, however, Jones continued to retreat to nature. It was on one of those trips in April 2005 when she found herself in the Patagonia region of Argentina on the most difficult trek of her life. She had walked almost 20 miles that day and the terrain was relentless; from scree slopes (loose rocks on an incline) to bushwhacking through dense forests to glacier trekking with crampons. The wide range of landscapes along with the physical demands, says Jones, made the experience “hell.” Still, only one thought ran through her brain, “I’m going to do it.”

The beauty of place far out-weighed the physical demands, she says. Veteran climbers often talk about the clarity of thought and purpose they experience as they make their way on a mountain. Jones refers to it as perspective. “When you think about the world at large versus what we get wrapped up in everyday, there are things we create stress over that don’t need to be worried about after all.”

For Jones, the outdoors is also her classroom. Whether it’s in places like Copper Canyon, Mexico or the American Rockies, she is the student, observing structures in nature just as complicated as any corporate environment and learning from them. Upon returning to Perkins+Will, the-would-be grade school teacher incorporates what she has studied, drawing parallels that she can apply into her everyday work. “There’s not that many people I know who are as talented as Eileen is,” says Vander Schuur. “I’ve learned tons from her, about architecture and about space and about integration.”

Michael Speaks, dean of the UK College of Design, sees this informal instruction as a natural transition. “In some fundamental way, all really good designers are also educators,” says Speaks, teaching clients not just about cost or material choices, but also whether they’re asking the right questions in the first place. Jones, who received the 2003 Outstanding Interior Design Alumni Award from UK, represents this type of designer.

“She is a principal of one of the most important firms in the United States and one of the most important in the world,” says Speaks. “So, she brings a breadth of experience and leadership in interior design. She’s certainly one of the most accomplished graduates of the college and certainly someone everyone can learn something from.”

Jones has extended this teaching role to the university. In addition to serving on the UK School of Design Advisory Board, she has run workshops, given public lectures on campus and has even hosted students in Chicago at NeoCon, the annual trade show and exposition for the design industry. Last year, she participated in a two-day retreat with faculty to discuss where interior design as a profession was headed and what UK needed to do to stay on course with that direction.

Back in Chicago, in the Perkins+Will offices on the 35th floor of the old IBM building on Wabash, Jones looks ahead to her next trip. In early 2011, she will travel to the South Island in New Zealand and spend three weeks hiking along the Milford Pass and other scenic routes.

Outside the window, a front moves in over the city. Anyone who has lived there knows that some storms don’t descend on Chicago as much as besiege it; approaching it like a circling army, enshrouding the highest point of the former Sears Tower in a mass of clouds until the top floors simply vanish.

Since she was little, Jones has always been captivated by the phenomenon; the energy, the smell, the greenish tint to the sky before the torrents fall. Because even in the worst rain storm, even in the dead of winter when the dynamics of urban wind tunnels make the snow look like it’s falling up, Jones can see the beauty and learn from the perfect systems of nature — which prepares her for the next challenge, whatever that might be.

Beverly Bell is a freelance writer in Lexington and can be reached at bkbell2@windstream.net