New In Town: Q&A With Design Firm MKDA

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Architecture, interior design and advisory services firm MKDA continues to stretch out along the East Coast, recently opening its first Washington, D.C. office and hiring a Gensler pro to lead the charge. 

SEE ALSO: From New Tech to Rearranging the Furniture, DC Landlords Plot Reopenings 

The 60-year-old firm works with commercial owners and developers – which include names such as Boston Properties, JBG Smith and Oxford Property Group –  on repositionings and redevelopments. Its new office, a fledgling coworking space that it hopes to swap for a permanent space in 2020, builds on the firm’s presence in New York, Stamford, Conn., and Miami.

The expansion better positions the firm to provide its design services to current corporate and landlord clients with assets across the D.C. Metropolitan Area, according to Michael Kleinberg, MKDA’s president. Kleinberg has been with the firm since 1978.

The new office will be helmed by Kristín Aldan Guðmundsdóttir, who will serve as an  executive managing director. She previously worked at Gensler as a senior project designer and also owned her own design firm in Iceland. The firm has also hired Joanna Shin as senior design lead.

Commercial Observer spoke to Kleinberg and Guðmundsdóttir about MKDA’s plans for the area.

Commercial Observer: Tell us about the decision to open an office in D.C.

Michael Kleinberg: We had been planning it for a long time. When I was in D.C. for a convention, I would make appointments to meet with some of the real estate groups like Cushman & Wakefield and CBRE, among others. As I began getting a feel for D.C. and the surrounding areas of Virginia and Maryland, I quickly realized there was a sizable office market.

Upon digging further, I noticed that many of our landlord clients, such as Boston Properties, Rockrose, Edge Funds, JBG Smith and Oxford, also operated in D.C. With all of this in mind, it only made sense to open an MKDA studio in D.C.  

So, have you set up shop already?  

Kleinberg: We are currently in a coworking space, but will begin the search for own office in January. Coworking made sense when we had just launched, but our team is growing quickly and by the beginning of the second quarter, we hope to be in our own space.  

What will your role and responsibilities be?

Kleinberg: The involvement for me, as a CEO, is critical as I am plotting the best course and direction for the studio. For instance, I am ensuring that the D.C. studio properly represents the MKDA brand, which is one of listening to clients’ needs carefully while providing them with quick service and quality design. 

When we met Kristin, we knew that she would best represent our image. She is a great match and possesses the ability to independently lead an effective office. In fact, each of our satellite studios operate within the MKDA framework, but also somewhat independently, so that they can develop a unique identity that will best serve their respective markets. As a result, we are working hard to bring the best features of New York to the D.C. area while also capitalizing on the local design talent with a deep understanding of the market.  

Kristín Aldan Guðmundsdóttir: Setting aside my general role in managing a design office and representing MKDA in the D.C. market, my responsibility is to build a strong team that is capable of both delivering amazing design and an effective construction and design process from start to finish. We plan on doing this through creating smart, collaborative, organized and cost effective projects.   

Talk about the team in D.C. and what they bring to the table.

Kleinberg: Kristin brings 18 years of professional experience to the table. She began her career in Iceland and then she moved to the United States to work for Gensler in D.C. She has extensive experience in the office arena and possesses the right combination of understanding design, the D.C. market, and the people involved in it. All of these factors are critical for success. Kristin then brought in Joanna, who also previously worked for Gensler in D.C., as a senior design lead. Together they make a great team and bring a wide variety of experience to our studio. 

Guðmundsdóttir: The team has very diverse practice area experience. Jointly, we have years of experience in commercial repositioning, corporate design, hospitality, sports, law firms, mixed use and residential both in Europe and the USA. 

How will MKDA be an asset for D.C. landlords? What are some of the things that you will do?

Kleinberg: It’s multipronged. We will be introducing some New York design ideas to D.C. and will blend that with our D.C. team’s knowledge of the buildings and neighborhoods in the area. We understand the importance of response time, coming from the fast-paced New York market, and we also have a deep understanding of real estate. In New York, MKDA represents over 35 landlords. We work with them to lease buildings, along with design exercises, so we understand their thought processes very well. We think this will give us a huge advantage in D.C and will make us an enticing figure in the D.C. market.  

Guðmundsdóttir: In terms of approach, MKDA will always keep the same team throughout the whole process. We believe that design intent is less strong when the design in presentations are not carried out in drawing details. Consequently, we are implementing a radial design process in which efficiency is maximized through keeping the information flowing in a smaller circle. We believe that, through working with the same people from the project’s conception until its completion, it will result in a more cost effective, less interruptive process for our clients.  

Are there any examples of work in D.C. already?

Guðmundsdóttir: MKDA is only a few months off the ground in the D.C. market. Already, the team has multiple projects under its belt through the team’s network of connections and MKDA’s work in other markets. Unfortunately, we are not yet at liberty to discuss this work. 

Kristin, tell me about how your past experience with Gensler and the firm you launched, InnArk, and how it prepared you for this role?

Guðmundsdóttir: In Iceland, I was the owner and director of InnArk, a boutique interior design firm. I really relished building this firm and watching its successful development. I had previously worked as a marketing director for a publishing firm so my background in marketing, client relationships and management came naturally with the design. As a lover of design and InnArk’s project opportunities, I really enjoyed building strong teams and creating a compelling vision both for my teams and clients as I monitored the project from beginning to end. Many of these strong relationships with my clients developed into close friendships. 

When I moved to D.C., Gensler was an amazing opportunity as it exposed me to a large variety of project types on differing scales. As a result of these experiences, I have interacted with people from many different backgrounds and gained new specialty skills, which have further developed my whole perspective on design, teamwork and process. Overall, I believe my diverse background and experience will help MKDA thrive in the D.C. market. 

What can we expect from MKDA in 2020?

Kleinberg: Coming out of 2019, our 60th year and best year to date, our growth has always been solid, strong and stable and that’s what we’re looking at in D.C. Just starting out, we will move into our new office in 2020 and will make sure to hire the best people as we expand our team.

We expect to be involved in a lot of projects because our meetings within the real estate community have been overwhelmingly positive. At the same time, we will be careful in what we take on so that our growth remains stable and gradual. We are very committed to making this work, just like with the rest of our offices, and I am personally making a commitment to our team, and the market, that we’re going to stay there for the long term.