Profiile: Margaret McCurry, FAIA, IIDA, ASID, ALA, Tigerman McCurry Architects

This Chicago-based architect and interior designer talks about the importance of perseverance
By Alice Liao
September 22, 2010

When architect and designer Margaret McCurry graduated Vassar College with a bachelor’s degree in art history, the professional world offered few female role models. Her father, an architect, suggested she follow in the footsteps of her mother and other family members in the teaching profession, but McCurry thought otherwise. And the world may thank her for that. After talking herself into a job at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, where she spent 11 years working on projects ranging from a 20- story office building to The Art Institute of Chicago, McCurry went on to enjoy a distinguished career in architecture and interior design. In 1977, she founded her own practice, Margaret I. McCurry Ltd., which merged with that of her husband, Stanley Tigerman, in 1982, forming Tigerman McCurry Architects. McCurry’s work has appeared in several publications, including a dedicated monograph, Margaret McCurry: Constructing Twenty-Five Short Stories (Monacelli Press). She has received numerous awards from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID). In 1990, she was inducted into Interior Design’s Hall of Fame, and in 2002, ASID named her “The Designer of Distinction.” This year, she was a keynote speaker at NeoCon.

If someone had asked you when you were a child, “What do you want to be when you grow up,” you would have answered…
It depends. When I was really small and horse-crazy, I would have said a jockey. But once I realized I was going to be bigger than most jockeys, then the answer would have been an artist.

What learning experience has had the most impact on you?
There isn’t one “a-ha” moment. At Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, I had a wonderful mentor named Davis Allen, who was in the New York office and was the head of interiors. I learned a great deal from him about how many different ways you can skin a cat with interiors. For him, it was certainly modern architectural interiors, but he had a wonderful sense in collecting eclectic objects and antiques.

What’s the biggest misconception about what you do?
That it’s easy. It’s not that hard to be an architect or interior designer; it’s just very hard to be good. To be really good takes extraordinary perseverance and tenacity, as well as salesmanship, frankly. You have to figure out a way to have your clients buy into what you do and accept it as something that’s unique to them.

What is the most intriguing aspect of your job?
The problem-solving aspect of it and that you’re making people happy. You’re not only resolving design issues, but also personal relationships.

What do you hate about your job?
I hate it when the work isn’t valued. I sort of hate the world right now because it’s taking such advantage of architects and designers by having us cut our fees, when, in fact, out of all the professions, such as doctors and lawyers, we’re probably among the lowest paid. And the City of Chicago just announced that they want everyone in contract now and in the future to cut their fees by 10 percent. You’ve already cut to the bone to get the job. We’re never valued to the level we should be. But right now it’s even worse than it’s ever been.

What “words of wisdom” can/do you share with others?
You have to have a lot of patience and be very stoic. You also have to let things happen and be able to take any setback and turn it into a plus.

What is your greatest strength as a designer?
Probably my inventive problem solving—I’ve always been able to create a piece of architecture that works for people.

What is your most annoying weakness as a designer?
My inability to dumb down a project or an RFP just to get the work.

Who are your role models?
My biggest role model is my husband. We’re opposites, so we don’t work together that often. When we do, however, there’s a real synergy but also an abrasive quality. When we’ve designed together, it’s been for clients who are our friends. They know us and they know that edginess isn’t going to resolve itself in a divorce.

Do you derive any ideas from nature or other disciplines?
Nature, but it’s just a sense—like its stillness or the way it creates patterns. Otherwise, it would be literature, like Hemingway’s prose, which is very taut and tight and elemental. Emily Dickinson’s poetry is the same way. My work tries to be elemental, too, distilled down to the essence of what I’m trying to accomplish.

What is the best thing that’s happened to the profession in the past five years?
That the public has finally caught onto the fact that it’s fashionable to be sustainable. In the past, everyone did passive solar. Pre-air conditioning, there were many interesting ways to move air through a house or a building, such as cupolas on top that drew the air up through the staircase and moved it around, breezeways and even solar orientation and trees to shade in the summer. People are becoming more aware of these kinds of things now.

What is your favorite place on earth?
I love Chicago. It’s a city that feels good about itself. Neighborhoods are constantly being revived, and we have a wonderful program for landscaping neighborhoods, buildings and parks.

What’s the one thing you hope to accomplish in your lifetime that you haven’t yet?
For the last 15 years, I have wanted someone to make a TV series for architects and designers. The public doesn’t value us. They don’t think we sweat blood and tears for what we do or that we have personal lives. So many architects get divorced because they’re so passionate about what they do, and most end up marrying other architects because there’s an understanding.

People would be surprised to find out that you…?
Have an Irish temper. It appears occasionally on the golf course when I hit a really crummy shot. I’m pretty good at being controlled in client meetings and very tenacious, but I’m quite capable of explosions.

What’s the one thing that keeps you up at night?
These days, it’s survival. In this recession, it’s the thought that, when we run out of work, will there be any more work? Friends are closing their offices. These are the worst times since my dad grew up in the Depression and actually had to stop being an architect for 10 years and teach school. The work has dried up for everyone. We have to be inventive about how we stay alive.

What would you be doing if you weren’t in your current profession?
I would probably write novels and paint, which I used to do a lot of when I was a kid. Both of those activities say you create something all by yourself. And if someone likes it, they buy it. You don’t have to wait for a client to call you to produce something. You’re free in a way. Those are the things I dream about when I’m waiting for the phone to ring.
North Shore Residence Master Bath, designed by Margaret McCurry; Photo: Steven Hall, Hedrich Blessing
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