March 16, 2021Reading Time: 6 minutes
Karen Nichols, FAIA, always has a lot to say in championing architecture. A Principal of Michael Graves Architecture & Design in Princeton, New Jersey, she has managed its multi-disciplinary practice in architecture, planning, interior design, and graphic design, and led many client relationships and projects since 1977. She also works with the firm’s other Principals and designers on front-end planning, including feasibility studies, programming, research, and strategic planning. “One of the things I like best about our practice,” she said, “is the wide variety of our projects and the places we get to work. There’s always a learning opportunity that keeps me thinking.”
Since 2014, she has been the Project Executive for 2 million square feet of workplace interiors for a financial services company, a series of nationwide projects she recently showcased in AIA New Jersey’s ongoing series on post-pandemic design. At the same time, she wrapped up a large-scale mixed-use hotel and residential development in Cairo, Egypt. And she has been developing age-friendly design guidelines for hospitals and senior care, promoting accessibility in the broadest of terms.
Focus on the Arts and Urban Quality
Karen’s best-known work in New Jersey resulted from her 40-year relationship with the Newark Museum of Art, which has encompassed three master plans and over 20 individual projects. She led the 175,000-SF renovation of three of the Museum’s buildings on its eclectic, historic urban campus, which received a 1990 National AIA Honor Award, awards from AIA New Jersey, Downtown New Jersey, and the New Jersey Business & Industry Association. In 2018, she accepted the John Cotton Dana Commemorative Medal from the Museum for the firm’s 50-year service to the institution. “In building relationships,” she said at the event, “you don’t take anything for granted. I received my security badge, which I still use, in 1982. It says “Karen Wheeler (my former name) – Temporary.”
With a focus on the importance of the arts and education in our nation’s cities, she had a similar long-term relationship with the Detroit Institute of Arts, which lasted over 20 years. Likewise, she oversaw projects ranging from a feasibility study for the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta to the Riverbend Music Center in Cincinnati.
Developing a Versatile Practice
Karen has been a lynchpin in the development of the firm’s well-known practice, but it didn’t start that way. “When I met Michael in 1976, I was happily teaching design, history, theory, and criticism at MIT and working at Donlyn Lyndon’s office, but commuting from New Jersey to Cambridge. Massachusetts every week. While I loved the diversity of the work, the commute was getting old.” Michael Graves was then spending most of his time teaching at Princeton and lecturing all over the country, but always focused on building a practice. The firm, which had been in place for a dozen years but suffering during the early 70s downturn, amounted to four talented people in one room. They were working on a couple of houses and the promise of a large project in the Midwest, the Fargo-Moorhead Cultural Bridge.
“While it took a year from the time I met Michael to when the volume of work justified hiring me, he recognized that I was versatile. I could draw well, work with clients, manage a practice, write a book, help him teach, cook for the office picnic, and so on. Over the past 43 years, I’ve been able to do all those things and more.” Today, the legacy firm continues to grow and prosper. “Michael made several of us partners in the 1990s with the idea that we would continue the practice after his death (he died in 2015) and nurture the next generation. The mission is still on track.”
AIA Fellowship and Jury of Fellows
Karen was elevated to Fellowship in 2003, credited with building an award-winning design practice that broadened the role of the architect. In turning a tiny architecture firm into a worldwide multi-disciplinary practice, she thought the diversity and integration of allied disciplines would promote innovation and provide ground-breaking opportunities (it did).
Her case for Fellowship also focused on advancing architecture through education and promoting architecture to the public through books and exhibits. She has authored seven monographs and over 100 articles (including many written with or for Michael Graves), and has designed over three dozen exhibits. She has been a member of the Advisory Board of the Hillier College of Architecture & Design at NJIT for nearly 20 years, and advises the Michael Graves College of Architecture & Design at Kean University. She assisted Michael Graves with his popular course on Thematic Studies in Architecture at Princeton University’s School of Architecture for 15 years.
Karen served on the AIA Jury of Fellows from 2016-2018. “While I thought nothing could top my own elevation to Fellowship, serving on the Jury was an incredible honor, a ton of work but among the most interesting and rewarding adventures of my career. I was thankful that AIA New Jersey – especially Bob Cozzarelli, FAIA and also Allan Kehrt, FAIA – recommended me for the post.” During her three years on the Jury, and the final one as its Chair, Karen reviewed a record number of applicants. “Obviously, I was awed by the accomplishments of so many architects. What struck me most of all was not just the breadth of their accomplishments, but also – finally! – the number of women and the diversity of the applicants.”
As the Jury Chair in 2018, she was tapped to present the Fellows at their investiture during the AIA Conference on Architecture in New York City. Her own investiture ceremony had been held on a sunny day in May 2003 at Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute in La Jolla. “In addition to being the honor of a lifetime, it was an amazing architectural experience, with the audience arranged in the courtyard looking out to the infinity of the sky.” The joy of that occasion came back to her in a rush when she presented the new Fellows in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “Wow! Talk about awe-inspiring!” During her time on the Jury, the profile of Fellowship became more representative of the population despite the still-lagging profile of the profession in general.
When Karen was elevated in 2003, she was only the third female Fellow from New Jersey, preceded by Eleanore Pettersen, FAIA and Suzanne DiGeronimo FAIA. “That was the good news and the bad news,” she proclaimed at the time. “There’s so much more to be done to diversify our profession in every way.” She says we’re now seeing the results, but we still have a long way to go. Over half of the employees of Michael Graves Architecture & Design are women and over a quarter identify as minorities, and the firm promotes diversity and inclusion among its consultants. “Our firm also has three ‘generations’ of architects under one roof, all learning from each other and having a voice in our work. I was pleased that Stacey Kliesch, AIA, included me on her AIA New Jersey panels on equitable practices, where I could address age as well as more typical topics.”
Always a champion for architecture and architects, she is optimistic about the profession while recognizing the challenges that lie ahead. “There’s so much to do in the world, dealing with everything from the threat of climate change to justice and equality in our society. We architects need to step up and make a difference. It’s an opportunity that lasts beyond our lifetime.”
Architects are creative professionals, educated, trained, and experienced in the art and science of building design, and licensed to practice architecture. Their designs respond to client needs, wants and vision, protect public safety, provide economic value, are innovative, inspire and contribute positively to the community and the environment. Founded in 1857, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) consistently works to create more valuable, healthy, secure, and sustainable buildings, neighborhoods, and communities. Through a dynamic network of more than 250 chapters and more than 95,000 member architects and design professionals, the AIA advocates for public policies that promote economic vitality and public wellbeing. Members adhere to a code of ethics and conduct to ensure the highest professional standards. The AIA provides members with tools and resources to assist them in their careers and business as well as engaging civic and government leaders and the public to find solutions to pressing issues facing our communities, institutions, nation, and world. The organization’s local chapter, AIA New Jersey, has served as the voice of the architectural profession in the Garden State since 1900. Based in Trenton, AIA New Jersey has over 2,000 members across six sections. For more information, please visit http://www.aia-nj.org
By Stacey Ruhle Kliesch, AIA, AIA NJ Advocacy Consultant | Posted in AIA Central New Jersey, Women in Architecture | Tagged: #AIAFellows, #AIAFellowship, #diversity, #equity, #FemaleFellows, #HillierCollegeOfArchitectureAndDesign, #Inclusion, #KarenNicholsFAIA, #KeanUniversity, #MichaelGravesArchitectureAndDesign, #MichaelGravesCollege, #MIT, #PrincetonSOA, #PrincetonUniversity, #WIA, #womeninarchitecture, #WomensHistoryMonth, fellows, NJIT | Comments (0)
Architects are creative professionals, educated, trained, and experienced in the art and science of building design, and licensed to practice architecture. Their designs respond to client needs, wants and vision, protect public safety, provide economic value, are innovative, inspire and contribute positively to the community and the environment.