When Robin Klehr Avia joined Gensler in 1980, she was only the 24th employee to join the firm’s New York office. Fast-forward 36 years, and that office has swelled to well over 600 employees. In that time, she’s climbed the ranks from junior designer to regional managing principal, a role she assumed in 2002. She oversees the firm’s operations in the Northeast and Latin American regions. For its part, Gensler has grown into a behemoth in architecture, interior design and planning and has more than 5,000 employees across 46 offices globally. In her storied career, some high notes include leading Gensler’s design of the New York Times’ headquarters, Condé Nast’s new headquarters at One World Trade Center and the ongoing renovation of the landmarked Ford Foundation headquarters at 320 East 43rd Street. Avia, who majored in interior design at the University of Tennessee, described her career ambitions as a balance of creativity and pragmatism. “I think I might’ve been an artist or a painter, “ she said, “but I felt like I needed to do something where I could make a living.”
Purple orchids are Avia’s signature flower. Her house and desk are never without them. Although the flower has become a bit of a cliché, she is unapologetic about the choice. “I like beautiful things,” she said.
moved into its new office at 1700 Broadway in October after 25 years at its former location at 1230 Sixth Avenue. A year ago, when the firm designed the space — which spans five floors and 120,000 square feet — Avia received a virtual reality headset that showed what their new digs would look like. The firm routinely uses the technology with its clients. “This is the way we’re storytelling with our clients now,” she said.
Snow globe and glass apple
Every year in December, Gensler has “promotions day,” a ceremony when the company honors its newly named associates, senior associates and principals. Avia was named an associate in 1981, and received — as all newly named associates do — a snow globe featuring New York City. “Everyone who passes through Gensler, they know our globes,” she said. “It’s a rite of passage.” Principals receive a glass Tiffany apple, which Avia also keeps on her desk. Despite successfully climbing the management ladder, “at heart I will always be a designer,” she said.
In the bottom drawer of her desk, Avia keeps a very special pair of red suede Louboutin heels that she saves for special occasions. The designer shoes were a gift from her colleagues. “I expected to get, like, a gavel or something,” she said. Instead, they “scoured,” calling “every shoe department of every department store until they found a pair of red shoes.” The color was intentional: Red is the company’s official color.
When Gensler moved into its new office, the company’s brand and graphics group made red, three-dimensional nameplates for all the employees. Avia’s sits on a small ledge outside her office door. 3D printing has a special significance to the firm: Earlier this year, Gensler opened the world’s first 3D-printed office building, in Dubai.
Avia is originally a Jersey girl. She grew up in Verona, in the northern part of the state, and later decided to raise her family in Englewood. When her daughter, Alli, attended the Dwight-Englewood School, she served on the school’s board for roughly 12 years and is now a trustee emeritus. As a gift, the board gave her a glass sculpture by the Fräbel Studio, titled “Sea Oats.”
Gensler funds individual research projects every year. Teams of employees apply for grants to pursue projects they’re passionate about that don’t necessarily relate directly to their work for the firm’s clients. This year, 138 teams submitted proposals for the grants, and the firm selected 31 teams. “Two of our guys this year are doing something on gender-neutral bathrooms,” Avia said. “They’re doing a whole study on that.”
A picture of Avia’s husband, Ken, and their 26-year-old daughter, Alli, sits at her desk. Their daughter works in marketing in Michigan, where she’s lived for four years. Avia and her husband moved to Manhattan once their daughter graduated high school. “I said ‘I cannot commute anymore,’” she said. “I’ve been commuting for 30 some-odd years.”
Models of Shanghai Tower
Shanghai Tower, which was designed in Gensler’s Shanghai office, rises 121 stories and 2,073 feet tall, making it China’s tallest tower and the world’s second-tallest. From her visit to the Shanghai office, Avia has two models of the tower in her own office, a glass model made by the firm’s client and an aluminum souvenir model that she bought in a local shop. For her job, she travels around the world. In her office, she also has a picture of the Great Wall of China taken during one of her visits. Design is always at the forefront. “I’ve had the opportunity to experience these places with other designers as my tour guides and see their cities and their communities through their eyes,” she said.