Art Gensler, who died at his home in Mill Valley, California, on May 10, helped design hundreds of buildings around the world, but his greatest creation was the collaborative culture that helped his namesake company become a global powerhouse. What is now the world’s biggest architecture firm, with 5,000 employees in 50 offices, “was not about him,” says Andy Cohen, its co-CEO with Diane Hoskins, “but about all its people moving forward together.”
When he founded M. Arthur Gensler Jr. & Associates Inc., in San Francisco in 1965, he never imagined the firm would surpass $1 billion in annual revenue, as it first did in 2014. With just $200 in the bank, he was still working mornings for William Wurster to make ends meet. The space he rented had a beaded curtain for a door. And the “associates” were his wife, Drue, who served as secretary, office manager, and accountant, and James Follett, a draftsman.
Looking for jobs that established firms didn’t seem to want, he focused on commercial interiors. His first big project was the Alcoa Building (now known as One Maritime Plaza), which opened in 1967. Alcoa had “hired SOM to do the building, but they needed somebody to put the tenants in there,” he recalled in a 2014 oral history for the Bancroft Library at Berkeley. “Furniture dealers wouldn’t do working drawings or figure the ceiling systems out.” A niche was born. In 2018, he told Catherine Bigelow, of the Nob Hill Gazette, “I’ve known since age 5 that I wanted to be an architect. It wasn’t until later that I realized how much I love doing interiors too, because they really touch people’s lives.”
Over the years, Gensler came to so dominate the field of corporate interiors that it was common for the firm to design offices for companies that were direct competitors—for example, The New York Times and The Washington Post. With its headquarters based in San Francisco, Gensler had many tech clients, including Facebook, Adobe, Oracle, and Airbnb. And though the firm designed acres of interiors for big new commercial buildings, it also excelled in more unusual environments, like the Masonic Temple in Glendale, California, that it converted into stunning offices for the real estate-company CBRE.
These days, the firm seems to touch every area of architecture and design. The gently twisting Shanghai Tower in its skyscraper portfolio was the world’s second-tallest building when it was completed in 2014. Its aviation group designed the massive Terminal 2 at Seoul’s Incheon Airport (with Heerim Architects and Planners, opened in 2018) and made dramatic improvements to San Francisco International Airport over a 35- year period. The firm has designed stadiums, hospitals, and museums. As a retail designer, Gensler created the second-ever Gap store, followed by hundreds of Old Navys and Banana Republics for the same company. And in the early aughts, it designed the first 100 Apple stores. But then Steve Jobs learned that a Gensler architect was designing stores for Microsoft and cut the ties to the firm. “Jobs was right,” Art conceded to Bigelow. Gensler was ahead of many other offices in developing sustainable, LEED certified buildings. And it was often entrusted with delicate or logistically difficult projects, including the renovation of Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo’s landmark Ford Foundation Building in Manhattan, unveiled in 2018.
Gensler sometimes served as the executive architect to “design architects” like Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Norman Foster, Daniel Libeskind, and Fumihiko Maki. The firm didn’t object to the less glamorous role, seeing it as a profit center and a way to cement relationships with clients, who might later hire it directly. Indeed, its 28 different practice areas—from branding to real-estate services— gave it multiple entry points to clients building types and market sectors.
That was one secret of its success. Another was the avuncular, 6' 4" founder. “Art had a seemingly endless amount of positive energy,” says Mark Coleman, the firm’s director of communications from 2005 to 2016. And, though he expected professionalism from colleagues, he didn’t ask for martyrdom. One of his maxims, included in his 2015 book Art’s Principles, was: “It’s 6 p.m. Go home! Get a life!”
Millard Arthur Gensler was born in Brooklyn and raised in West Hartford, Connecticut, where his mother worked at the phone company and his father sold ceiling tiles. In 1958, he graduated from Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, having already married Drue Cortell (who died in 2017). They had four sons, including David, who had a 23-year career with the firm, most recently as coexecutive director, and Douglas, the comanaging director of the Boston office.
The couple moved to the Bay Area in 1962 and never left. Over the years, Art served on the boards of many of San Francisco’s most important cultural organizations and, after giving up the chairmanship of Gensler in 2010, devoted much of his time to philanthropy. In 2021, he made a $10 million gift to Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning to fund its New York satellite program in perpetuity. That, and many other multimillion-dollar gifts, was a measure of how far Art had come since taking a chance on interiors 55 years earlier, when his desk was a door laid across sawhorses and, he recalled of the first office, “we swept our own floors and cleaned our own toilets.” In recent years, though theoretically retired, “Art never stopped coming into the office” and would leave little notes on people’s desks, remembers Hao Ko, managing director of the firm’s San Francisco office.
Decades earlier, as the firm became known for designing office interiors, he recalled in the 2014 oral history, “the employees would constantly say to me, ‘Art, when are we going to do real architecture?’ But I had an attitude that what I was doing was important.”
Video courtesy Gensler