If you’ve been in an Apple retail store anywhere
in the world you’ve experienced the stunning work
of Collin Burry, design director and principal of
Gensler, the San Francisco-based architecture and
design firm. The same is true for Burry’s designs
for other immediately recognizable international
brands, such as Samsung, E. & J. Gallo Winery,
and Dolby. His groundbreaking work has
been recognized with more than 60 prestigious
design awards, including being named to the
Interior Design Hall of Fame. A writer published
in many publications and media platforms,
Burry also is a teacher, bringing his experience
and expertise to students at the California College
of the Arts and chairing the board of the Council
for Interior Design Accreditation. One of his
signature accomplishments was leading the team
that redesigned Terminal 2 at San Francisco
International Airport, a $383 million project that
took in 640,000 square feet and houses
12 restaurants and nine retail stores among
its many amenities.
Born in Alberta and raised in Vancouver,
British Columbia, Burry went south to college at
Woodbury University in Los Angeles, where he
earned a bachelor of science in Interior Design.
He lives in San Francisco with his partner, real
estate professional Milko Encinas, and their
rescue dog, Frieda.
i+D spoke to Burry from his San Francisco
office, where he looks out on panoramic views
of the East Bay.
i+D: What’s the first thing you designed or built?
Burry: I spent every summer with my grandparents
on their farm when I was little. When I was about
five, my grandfather took some 2-by-6s he was
working on and carved out blocks for me to play
with. It cultivated my imagination. I had to make
something. And, then, when I was about 11,
I started doing home plans. I had a three-ring
binder and I’d draw on lined paper. I was fascinated
with houses that had courtyards. I have no idea
why. Maybe because I lived in cold places.
i+D: What was your first job?
Burry: Working for my dad, tarring roofs.
i+D: Any great lessons learned?
Burry: I discovered I wasn’t a laborer.
i+D: Going to most airports these days is
entering the ninth ring of hell. It wasn’t always
that way. What happened?
Burry: The big thing was 9/11. Before that,
security wasn’t cumbersome and there wasn’t fear
or anxiety in an airport. The airlines also were
struggling to make money—none of them were
doing very well, and it was a race to the bottom.
i+D: So, you didn’t have to go looking
for challenges when designing a new wing
of an airport?
Burry: The cool thing about Terminal 2 is that
we had a visionary client—Airport Director John
Martin—who said he wanted to bring joy back
to the passenger experience because it’s become
so awful. We decided there’s no reason why people
shouldn’t have great healthy food, a place to fill
their bottles with filtered water instead of buying it.
There should be places that, when you’re on your
way home, you can grab a bottle of wine or a roast
chicken to take home to the family. We also wanted
to treat the entire waiting area like the red carpet
area of a business lounge, with comfortable chairs,
including egg chairs, bringing a hospitality aspect
back to travel. The restrooms are like those in
five-star hotels, rather than the horrible,
institutional places built just to be indestructible,
which says to the passenger, “We don’t respect you
to take care of this place.”
i+D: That message comes in loud and clear
in most spaces.
Burry: You should never design down. Design up.
If you respect people, if you don’t talk down to
them, people will take care of the environment.
i+D: I heard there’s a “recompose zone”
at the airport. That sounds like a time-out area
Burry: It’s right after security, somewhere
comfortable and dignified where you can put your
clothes back on and regroup after the security line.
i+D: Have you ever lost work because you
refused to take ideas from a client?
Burry: Luckily, no. Clients are almost always an
amazing source of inspiration. But, you don’t go
to your doctor and tell them how to diagnose you.
Working for Apple, for example, designing retail
offices, I realized that these people have designed
some of the most beautiful objects in the world.
But, designers have to be leaders, guides, and earn
the client’s trust.
i+D: The future of cities always seems tied
to transportation, with changes over the years
made for trains, and then cars, and getting to
and from airports. What’s next?
Burry: Look at millennials, many who say they
don’t want to own cars, and, in some cases, even
a home. But, they want to be mobile.
i+D: Public transportation, then, becomes
essential and cities become greener?
Burry: I hope so. The suburban, automobile-dependent utopia has turned out to be a nightmare
for many people. The United States is so far behind
in the area of public transportation. The first time
I went to China in 2000, there were no subway
lines. I went back a year later and there was one;
a year after that, there were 12. A real revolution
is driverless cars. Living in San Francisco, we see
them being tested all over the city, much to our
dismay, because they sometimes stop in the middle
of an intersection. The car is misbehaving, but
i+D: How do driverless cars change a cityscape?
Burry: There’s not a real need to build more,
bigger, wider roads. The efficiency of a driverless
car is five times that of humans.
i+D: Meaning more green spaces?
Burry: Potentially, yes. And, with people using
Uber or Lyft more and more, think of repurposing
parking garages and the garage at your house.
i+D: What do you always have with you?
Burry: Not any object, necessarily. My memories.
But, I do have an art problem.
i+D: Trouble kicking it?
Burry: Yes. Photography and some painting.
Collage, mixed media. Artists who push
boundaries. Kind of a case of the weirder the better.
i+D: What elevates you?
Burry: People. My mom taught me that everyone
brings something unique to the world. And,
teaching and mentoring also do it for me.
i+D: What’s wrong with design today?
Burry: Design is having a major moment. There’s
more awareness and it’s more valued than ever.
But, it’s bittersweet, because, for example, people
see what we do on [television], what we do on
[social media]. The downside is there’s a generation
of designers who are not being thoughtful and
just copying ideas. That’s a death spiral. Clients
go to contractors, show them something online,
and say, “Build this.” It’s incumbent on all of us to
keep pushing ourselves to be original. There’s no
problem being inspired by contemporary art
or other people to help solve problems, but we
have to be careful. With information becoming
ubiquitous, people forget and cross lines.
i+D: When you wake in the morning, how long
is it before you think of work?
Burry: (Laughing) Depends on the day. I always
try—it doesn’t always work—to have a work/life
balance. When I’m at home, I’m at home. I try
to put my phone away. I try.
is the editor of the
Shelter Island Reporter and
a novelist, nonfiction
author, and journalist. His
work has appeared in GQ ,
The Washington Post, and
Los Angeles Times.
i+D — March/April 2018 45
ICONic Profile: Collin Burry — By Ambrose Clancy