publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Doug Niwa
December 3, 2013
When I met Doug Niwa (pronounced nee-va) recently I was struck by the unexpected. I expected someone who would walk/talk/exude design, attention to detail with a sense of style – as befits his stellar reputation as a designer. I found all that, as expected, in a sense of natty appearance, interesting wrist-watch and understated pride in his design achievements.
Gem from the interview, this quote: “Space is a tool. Design influences how it functions – how people collaborate”.
Prying open his history was a challenge. I’d say it is privacy thing more than modesty – seems the man behind the eyebrows that pierce the room like razor-wire has a soft side, but perhaps cautious. As our interview progressed, he warmed up, opened up . . .
I found something else, or perhaps – more. Down to earth. Incredibly humble. Open minded and open to talk, though I detected some skepticism, perhaps concern that I would hastily write up something which might distort the picture or show his firm or their work in an incorrect light. I didn’t take that as ego or pretentiousness, but as carefulness to get things right, which seem to embody his work, reputation and projects for his clients.
The big deal – like winning an oscar in the design business in Canada – is the ARIDO award his work recently earned for his firm Martens Group, the 2013 PROJECT OF THE YEAR, the new offices of Burnet, Duckworth and Palmer LLP, which Doug designed.
Going back to beginnings – born in Edmonton, mom’s influence (francophone) and teacher was strong. Dad, a physics teacher. Growing up in Bonnyville – an admitted nerd, liked water sports at MooseLake. Doug’s post secondary hop-scotch was a 2yr. architectural technologist program at NAIT, then U of A, then U of Manitoba where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Interior Design and where he met his wife Roxanne. His career began in 1988 – moving to Calgary as a stepping stone to Vancouver (that never happened) his early work with Morley Winnick, Marshall Cummings and Rice Brydon (where he met colleague Sharon Martens), and then Martens Group..
I asked Doug how he sees the office market in Calgary – particularly the interiors business, or new construction and renovations – over the next quarter; what’s the marketplace like for the next 90 days?
… busier than normal at this time of year. I heard there is a slow-down, but I haven’t seen it. We tried a 4 ½ day work week for a while but had to go back to 5. We have a staff of 28 and low turnover. We’ve developed a process that works well.
And over the next 5 years?
…. extremely positive! American firms coming in, doing projects – then going home, will take some of the market. Our firm, and our contemporaries will have to work hard to maintain relationships and market share. Innovation. The trend to factory built product will continue. The quality is very high. More use of 3D design software.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
…#1 - integrity, #2 - commitment to a common goal, they become an extension of our team, #3 – quality. I’m always open to working with new suppliers. I find that price doesn’t vary so much among competitive suppliers as quality does.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Doug Niwa, and your firm to do business with – why are you been selected over your competitors?
… a proven record of design excellence. Traditional to contemporary - how it functions is more important than how it looks. A high level of customer satisfaction. You have to be a fabulous listener.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… I do my worrying during the day!
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… nothing extraordinary stands out. We’ve had a good life.
Work life balance?
… more ‘blend’ than balance. 50 hr. week, my wife working on her MBA with Royal Roads, studio environment, pairing up with junior colleagues to makes sure nobody is mentor-less, socializing, vacations. I’m more quality driven than quantity driven. More attention to detail early saves costs and surprises later. We (my wife and I) renovated our 1930’s Rosedale bungalow we loved. Nothing more exciting than to design it yourself.
What do you read?
… a lot. I have eclectic taste. Historical novels, contemporary fiction.
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