Karen Thomas worked for more than 20 years at architecture firms in New York, including Costas Kondylis and Beyer Blinder Belle, after graduating from Pennsylvania State University in 1988. But she eventually realized she would rather manage the construction of complex buildings than draw their blueprints. In 2007 she established her own firm, Karen Thomas Associates, an owner’s representative for high-end residential projects. Ms. Thomas, 45, lives in Greenwich Village with her husband, Ralph Gillis, an architect and former employer of hers, and their 9-year-old son, Henry.
Design gene: My family is from California, but I grew up in State College, Pa., where my dad was a college professor. It wasn’t an area rich in architectural examples; my schools were nondescript. Our house was modern and mostly designed by my mother. She went to school to be a costume designer and wound up becoming one of the first women to be an Episcopal priest.
Art plus math equals… My high school art teacher said I should be an architect because I loved math and art, and architecture combined them. Not exactly true. At my college there was a great emphasis on architectural philosophy and the idea that all design came out of philosophic notions.
Platonic Architecture 101? No Plato, more like Dante and Umberto Eco. But Penn State had a premier lighting design program, so I took a course in that, and also architectural engineering.
New York or bust: I came to New York City basically with not a penny in my pockets; I stayed on Long Island for a week with a friend’s parents while I looked for a job, and I found one at LCP, a firm that failed in the ’90s. They did commercial interiors.
Mixing it up: I worked for my future husband for five years on a nice mix of commercial and residential projects. Then I was with Costas Kondylis for two crazy years. He had a busy office and high-profile clients like Trump. An incredible opportunity, but at the time, it was like, “Here’s a 26-story building project, go do it,” and “Hey Karen, I know you’re working on two high-rises, but can you take on another?”
Sweating the details: Part of being with an architectural firm is having a lot of arguments with your respected colleagues about aesthetics. It got to where I didn’t enjoy it. Also, I didn’t like it that as an architect there were so many things you couldn’t control. You’ve got the zoning board, building codes, economics, permits and 88 community board meetings to worry about, but what I found out was I loved dealing with all that stuff, even the controversy.
Making it happen: I guess I’m totally a control freak. The work we do here, we let the architects and interior designers focus on the aesthetics and we do all the things they don’t want to; it provokes in me, frankly, more creativity than before. The architect designs the project and we make it happen. Everything has to be beautiful, but everything has to work perfectly. On a single house, there could be 20 consultants; it’s highly technical.
Personal projects: We gutted our apartment on 11th Street. I was up every night until 2 worrying over details. I’d call the aesthetic modern with a use of organic materials. Now we’re planning to tear down our little 1970s house in East Hampton Village and do something modern, low-maintenance and very, very sustainably designed. As an architect, you try to achieve perfection but never really can.
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