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Lou Switzer: A Life in Design

Lou Switzer (Photo by Michael Benabib)

Not many people turn a youthful fascination into a long-lasting and groundbreaking career, but Lou Switzer, the founder, chairman and CEO of The Switzer Group, a pioneering Black-owned interior planning, design and workplace strategy firm has done exactly that.

Switzer fell in love with design as a child.

“When I was 10 years old, my aunt’s husband was into design and was basically an architect,” he recalled. “I used to look over his shoulder and he did all of these beautiful designs and renderings of homes. I was fascinated and decided early on that this was what I wanted to do.”

He studied sketching throughout his high school years, then moved to New York at the age of 17 and found a job in the mailroom at a design firm.

“They knew that I wanted to be a design professional, and given that opportunity, I took advantage of it,” he said. “They realized I had talent, that I could draw.”

He also had a portfolio of sketches, astounding for a teenager. It was clear he had as much talent and experience as many of the employees. Those who saw the drawings were astonished at their maturity and skill, and Switzer was promoted to a draftsman in three months — once he found a replacement for the mailroom.

“They told me, you’re just 17, just out of high school. I told them I had a high school mentor who was an architect and taught me mechanical drawing. It only promoted the desire to become a professional. I was very fortunate that someone mentored me at an early age,” he said. “I happened to be at the right place at the right time with the right concept as to what I wanted to do.”

For that, he needed a bit of help. It was clear to Switzer even as he was working full-time as a draftsman that he’d need a college degree to progress. He applied to Pratt Institute and was quickly accepted. Paying for it was another situation.

“I asked my mentor at the office, ‘Do you have a tuition program? It costs money to go to Pratt, and I can’t afford it,’” he recalled.

How much, the boss asked?

“I gave him a number and he called a bookkeeper. ‘Make a check out to Lou,’ he said, then stopped. ‘Actually, make it out to Pratt Institute,’” Switzer recalled with a chuckle.

Switzer went to school at night while receiving on the job training while working full time. His first firm specialized in corporate offices, especially in the finance industry downtown, and Switzer spent the early 1970s serving major Wall Street firms.

It wasn’t always easy for a young Black architect. Switzer recalled spending more than three years on a project, only to be pulled when his firm brought in a young white peer. Switzer then left for another firm shortly thereafter. But a year later, with Switzer involved in other projects, he got a call from that colleague, who had left to head facilities worldwide for that client.

“He said, ‘I want you to be my assistant director. You’ll be responsible for negotiating the leases and designing and getting all these facilities done,’” he said. “My answer was, ‘When do I start?’” A quick meeting with the CEO, who had been impressed with Switzer’s work on the company’s Atlanta office, sealed the deal and Switzer moved over to the client side — for a while. Switzer left Wall Street after that company closed and started a small firm in 1973 with a partner.

When that partnership ended, he launched Switzer Group in 1975, one of the first Black-owned design firms in the city. But New York was in an economic crisis, Switzer related.

“I couldn’t think of a better time [to launch],” he said. “I knew that by the time things recovered, I would be an established business, and that came true.”

His first client, First National City Bank, came through a quick meeting, a letter and a follow-up that was particularly convenient; the company was located down the street from Switzer’s 54th Street offices.

From there, Switzer Group built a business around providing workplace solutions that meet the clients’ needs. Collaboration and listening are paramount, with a goal of creating community and assessing how a space will be used. This is especially true today, as companies right-size their offices in light of hybrid and co-working. Ironically, those concepts aren’t new — Switzer pioneered it decades ago.

“We went through this in the 1970s, when corporations were going through all kinds of changes,” Switzer said. “We were among the first firms to do hoteling. We had a client in New Jersey with 400,000 square feet they wanted to convert to 100,000 square feet. We created a space where you’d come in, get a desk and a file. It’s very similar to what we’re trying to do today. Every client is looking at that.”

And that’s what Switzer Group, now a 70-person firm, still does, for clients as varied as AMC Networks, Roku, Metropolitan Commercial Bank, Blackstone, JPMC, District-37, Paramount, BlackRock, Global Relay and St. Francis College. Services can include interior design, sustainability and even furniture consulting, to give each client a modern, yet timeless look that (pun intended) works.

“When you look at our designs, they’re fairly classic,” he said. “They still hold up 10 years later.”

It comes down to working with the client to project their brand. Maritime construction company Weeks Marine wanted its Cranford, New Jersey offices to reflect their state-of-the art equipment. The design included materials and forms reminiscent of boats, cranes and rivets. The reception desk even resembles a ship’s hull. A financial headquarters in New York City was created with employee experience in mind. The new home for St. Francis College in Brooklyn takes cues from its industrial neighborhood and the diversity of its student body.

And diversity is important as well. Switzer has donated a “substantial” sum to Pratt to assist minority students.

“That has paid off significantly,” he said. “We have the very first recipient of that scholarship working for us.”

The company has also expanded to an office in Los Angeles, after the Group was tapped to help a client open in California. Switzer called a peer to share the efforts, and then saw the opportunity to grow. The two offices collaborate constantly.

Now, after more than 50 years, the master draftsman who loved design from childhood spends more time delegating and meeting with clients — though he keeps a careful eye on the details.

All of that pioneering and success resulted in an honor or two. He is a member of the Minority Business Hall of Fame and Museum, and in 1993, he was in-ducted into the Interior Design Magazine Hall of Fame.

“That was an exciting time for me, that my peers thought I had enough talent to be inducted,” he said. “But each and every one is special.”

Ultimately, the real satisfaction is in the listening and the work.

“It constantly comes back to the quality and the service we provide,” he said. “You learn from listening, paying attention and creating from what you hear and see.”

Classic style for a financial firm (Photo courtesy of Switzer Group)