Today’s jobtalk is with Kirsten Thoft, whose architectural work you can see firsthand if you live in Princeton. You can also see samples of her beautiful work by visiting her website.
Title: Licensed Architect
B.A. Design of the Environment University of Pennsylvania, 1986
M. Architecture, University of Pennsylvania, 1991
Career Stage: Advanced
How did you discover that you wanted to study architecture?
Before I went to college, I really liked art classes, and I did a lot of building projects – I was one of the only girls (I think there might have been one other one year) in woodshop in junior high and I would avidly read Better Homes and Gardens for their woodworking projects and make stuff in my family’s basement.
What type of things did you make?
Planters, benches. I also did ceramics and all kinds of craft stuff.
When I went to college, I thought that I wanted to be a doctor or a civil engineer because math and science were really my strengths. So I started out as a pre-med. And by the end of that year, I decided that I didn’t want to be pre-med at all.
I missed art, actually. I missed drawing and the feeling that going to a museum was actually furthering my education. When I was pre-med and went to a museum, it felt as if I were sneaking out on studying.
So I started reviewing what my options were. I picked The University of Pennsylvania because it was a big liberal arts university – there were lots of options. And fortunately for me, they had a undergraduate degree in design of the environment, which was a 3-year major that you had to apply to get into.
I started looking at it at the end of my freshman year, so I had enough time to go through it. I talked to people in the program and talked with people in the department and thought it was the right fit. The first year, all we did was draw – buildings when it was nice out and nudes when was not. Based on that, they either accept you or reject you.
So you did have to be good at drawing for the design of the environment major?
You did. You had to be able to get what was in your head onto paper – that was key. That was actually the only requirement. If you could draw, they took you. And I could draw.
When you finished your undergraduate degree, did you intend to go to architecture school?
No, I really didn’t. The reason I majored in design of the environment was because I liked design. It was about architecture and landscape architecture and some product design; I knew I wanted to be in design, but I didn’t know doing what. I like to sew, so after college I even pitched a clothing line to a store.
They wanted to do it, then they didn’t. I don’t think they were ready to make that commitment. It was probably a good thing.
Then I started working in a model-making company after college. The company wanted to start an architectural model division to build building models. This was before 3-d graphics had become commonplace, so people built a lot of models. When I worked for them – for a hilarious brief two weeks – they were building models for the defense industry.
So I built a model of a vertical take-off helicopter blade. I worked on a model for a nuclear reactor. I couldn’t stand it. I had an interesting conversation with one of the guys there that said, “You really should be in an office.” And I thought, you’re right.
I had a professor that told me to call him if I ever wanted a job, so I called him, and said, “I need a job!” He had his own architecture firm that I went to work for, but all along, I kept thinking, is this what I want to do? But I stayed there because I liked it. After a year went by, my father said, “I’ll pay if you get a master’s degree in architecture.” And I said, “I don’t know if I want to be an architect.” To which he responded, “You already are an architect.” So I took him up on it.
The great thing about this profession is that there are lots of different ways you can be an architect. And I’ve done a bunch of them. This professor of mine had a firm where he did residential work only. It turns out that it is what I like the best because you get to do lots of different things on a small scale.
I’ve also worked for Michael Graves Associates and I’ve worked for The Hillier Group, which are bigger firms. At Michael Graves we’d do competitions, schematic designs, and design development, but I wouldn’t even see projects to be completed. I’ve seen classmates of mine choose to be in very different parts of the process.
How did you end up going into business for yourself, and what was the process of becoming established like?
I started thinking about working for myself when I was working for The Hillier Group. I was in my late 20s or early 30s and thinking about having kids. I had always thought that being an architect might be a good profession for having a family, and it became apparent to me that to have a family and a career, I would do best to work on my own.
Before I went to graduate school, I learned computer graphics, and I took to it really quickly. I kept up with it all through grad school and became the computer expert. The reason I initially got hired at Michael Graves was to teach people how to use Autocad. They figured they’d try me out for the summer, and I pretty much spent all my time teaching older people how to use the program.
When I left The Hillier Group, I got hired back by them part-time to do some computer consulting. I also, worked for another architect in town helping him to digitize his drawings. He didn’t know how to use the computer, so that’s why he hired me. So I worked for those two places for about a year and began doing more design work. During that year, I thought about what I wanted to do and knew that I had to choose whether or not I wanted continue working with computers or do design. And once again, I found myself missing design.
That’s when I had baby number one. A contractor that worked on my house recommended me to one of his clients because we had stayed in touch. And it was that contact with him that helped me to get one or two part time jobs. I was not working full time at all – I had an infant. I was probably working 10 hours a week. So it was a very slow build up, but it overlapped with me having three kids in five years.
I had my first job in ’98, and I remember bringing my two-week old to the construction site.
Aside from design, what do you love about your work?
Working for other people is interesting and a lot of fun. You get to work on a lot of different projects because there are a lot of different kinds of people out there and lots of different kinds of buildings. I’ve always been interested in development too. So in 2001, we bought the first building that was not our house, and now I spend half of my time working on projects that we own, and half of my time working for clients.
What are some of your favorite buildings in Princeton?
Witherspoon Hall on Princeton campus is a building that I love. It has a crazy amount of variety in its façade. I like Pyne Hall in town, the Gund building on the corner of Bank Street and Nassau Street, and Princeton University’s Frick Chemistry Laboratory.
What advice do you have for someone interested in going into this profession?
Make your own path. Don’t think that it’s just for better or for worse, it’s not just architecture with a capital A. There’s a very tiny quantity of people that end up working in firms with renowned architects such as Rem Koolhaas, and they aren’t terribly well paid and they’re very hardworking. And I’d say if that appeals to you, realize that it’s kind of like becoming an NBA basketball star.
Keep in mind that it’s a very competitive profession made up primarily of type-A people. But there are a lot of things about the profession that are very appealing. It’s an incredibly broad degree to get. You can do all kinds of things. I think it’s just a really good discipline. It teaches you how to think and how to solve complex puzzles. So if you like that, go for it.