The 17th Annual Pratt Career Night

The poster for the event presented the professional members of the panel. All images courtesy of Pratt Institute Interior Design.

This year was the 17th annual Pratt Career Night, an event led by Pratt professor Jon Otis and his wife, Diane Barnes, who is the Haworth Collection hospitality sales director – Haworth being the industry sponsor of the event.

The concept is to give graduating Pratt students, with both BFA and MFA degrees, an opportunity to meet and present their portfolios to principals of major design firms, face-to-face.

Pratt Professor, Jon Otis and Haworth Collection Hospitality Sales Director, Diane Barnes

officeinsight has covered the event every year since its founding because we believe in the mission, and we love the opportunity to meet the dedicated faculty and some of the students, basking in their energy for an evening.

With COVID-19 ravaging New York City, it was obvious to all that a major pivot was required. What wasn’t obvious was figuring out how to duplicate the opportunity past events have afforded students to “strut their stuff” to potential future employers. The experience gained was invaluable, in part because most if not all the professionals doing the interviews were sympathetic Pratt graduates, many of whom had been through the event as students.

So even if a job with one of the firms didn’t develop, much coaching happened that could help with future interviews. An irreplaceable victim of the COVID-19 shutdown on this year’s graduating classes is the personal touch Pratt Career Night has always occasioned.

Given that fact, the organizing team came up with a virtual mirror image of the event, sans hors d’oeuvres. Standing in for the face-to-face event, we enjoyed a lively Zoom gathering of some 75+ students, practicing professional architects and interior designers, Pratt faculty members and administrators.

The Zoom screen at one point

The virtual event was organized as a dialogue between a featured guest, a panel composed of design practitioners and a selection of students, with the remaining students allowed to participate by submitting questions for the panel members, and Mr. Otis acting as moderator.

Looking back from the vantage point of a day or two, I think it was a tremendous success. At a time when the graduating students are filled with the angst we all experience when we don’t know for sure what’s coming next, the practicing professionals all conveyed a reassuring message that everything will be alright – that firms will once again be hiring young graduates of Pratt.

The featured guest was Audra Tuskes, VP of Design for the Luxury Segment at Marriott International, and the panel members were Lauren Rottet, Founding Principal at Rottet Studios, Maddy Burke-Vigeland, FAIA, Design Principal at Gensler, Matthew Goodrich, Founding Principal at Goodrich, and Mapa Jaramillo, Junior Designer at Rockwell Group. The Pratt students selected for the panel were Ting Chu King, Erin Loffler and Valen Zhang.

In addition to her rather big job at Marriott, Audra Tuskes is currently a visiting professor at Pratt. Mr. Otis asked her to give a brief outline of “the arc of your career.” Ms. Tuskes related how she grew up surrounded by designers, and that she was never in doubt about the career path she’d pursue. She holds a Master’s Degree in Architecture.

Screen Capture of the BFA ISSUU site

Because she graduated in 2001, her first year out was colored by the aftermath of 9/11. As a consequence, the jobs she held early on, were in her words, “doing lots of unglamorous work” in the healthcare sector, such as waterproofing details, etc. But from those unglamorous details, she learned many things she has been able to bring to bear on her career as it developed along more “glamorous” lines.

Drawing a parallel between the shock of 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic, she advised the students to look for opportunity even in unglamorous positions and to learn from whatever jobs they were able to get following the COVID-19 shutdown, assuring them that all those learnings will be of value later in their careers.

Screen Capture of the MFA ISSUU site

Shifting his focus to other members of the panel, Mr. Otis asked Lauren Rottet how she thought the practice would change and adapt after the COVID-19 crisis. Ms. Rottet said her business was running along quite well even during the shutdown. She reported selling projects since the stay-at-home mandate was put in place.

But while her firm was used to working remotely, having three offices, the shift to 100% virtual, and working from home had some challenges. Ironically, she thinks the younger members of her firm are struggling more than the veterans. She noted that on the upside, she felt working 100% remotely had helped them become even more organized.

Matthew Goodrich was in his last year at Pratt when the 9/11 attack happened, and it made him and many of his class wonder what they were doing studying design rather than becoming first responders or something more obviously useful in the aftermath of the attack. But, in the ensuing years, he has come to appreciate the problem solving skills he learned in studying and practicing design. Now he hopes to be able to focus that problem solving ability to help with the recovery after the COVID-19 shock is past.

Screen Capture of the Facebook page

Maddie Burke-Vigeland acknowledged that these are difficult times for everybody, including architecture and design firms, with high uncertainty about the future of projects. She reported that when the Gensler offices in China were hit hard, the firm’s management reacted quickly to get all their platforms in the cloud, so that when the pandemic hit America, they were able to transition to work-from-home quite seamlessly. She joked that Gensler had gone from having about 50 offices worldwide to having 6,000 offices, as everyone started working remotely.

Ms. Burke-Vigeland said that just as Gensler had learned from its China offices how to react to the onset of the crisis, they were now learning how to phase back into a more normal, yet still different mode of working as the crisis passes. She said they’ve seen that clients are eager to tap into that knowledge and experience.

Mapa Jaramillo is a class of 2018 Pratt graduate who works at Rockwell Group. She is representative of the foreign students who have to decide whether to stay in the USA after graduation or return to their home country. For her, the hardest part of the shelter-in-place mandate has been being far away from her family and loved ones. However, she loves her job and is very positive about the role she sees for hospitality design to help bring people back together after this forced separation.

An interesting aspect of the panel discussion was that there was so much discussion of trends and changes we can expect to see in virtually all aspects of life when the crisis has passed. In whatever way that transpires, architecture and interior design will be key in designing healthier buildings.

The students on the panel were asked to express their perceptions of continuing with their studio work while separated physically. It was obvious that they greatly enjoyed the camaraderie of working together in the same place and missed that aspect, but that they were able to carry on with getting their work done remotely.

Screen Capture of the Instagram page

The problem still awaiting a solution is what to do about this year’s missed internship opportunities. Since internships are a tried and proven method of securing that first position after graduation, there was concern about whether and how firms would go about hiring new graduates this year.

One method Pratt has developed for students to display their portfolios is a site on ISSUU – or rather, one site each for graduating BFA and MFA students. I’ve checked out the sites, and ISSUU works very well for perusing a portfolio, especially in the full screen mode. And the professionals on the panel expressed their comfort with hiring from a virtual interview and portfolio review.

Pratt has also made its Pratt Interior Design Instagram account, @prattinteriors, and Facebook page, @prattInstituteInteriorDesign, available for students to post work and get their names out there.

As much as I’ve enjoyed the physical face-to-face events of the past, I think Mr. Otis, Ms. Barnes and the Pratt Career Night team have responded extraordinarily well to a crisis, providing the students with an outstanding event they can use as a springboard to their post-college life in the profession.

To those of you in leadership positions (the hiring and firing bunch) in A&D firms, I encourage you to take a look at the portfolios on ISSUU and check out the Instagram and Facebook posts. You’ll be impressed with the creativity and work of these students.

And, my personal thanks to the professionals who gave of their time to make this event a success.