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A+D Partner Spotlight: An Interview with Angela Ryan

Ware Malcomb Director of Interior Design & Architecture, Angela Ryan, sat down for an interview with G|M to discuss her path to interior design, her greatest mentors, and what makes a great leader.

Angela Ryan 002

1. Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I was born in Los Angeles, CA, but moved to St. Louis, MO at 2 years old and was raised there. I went to college at the University of Missouri in Columbia, MO where I studied Environmental Design and graduated in 2006. After graduation, I moved to San Diego where my family had already relocated a couple of years prior. There, I delved into a couple of interior design roles, first in hospitality, and then on to healthcare for about 10 years. My career took a significant turn in 2015 when I became deeply involved with IIDA (International Interior Design Association), eventually assuming leadership roles within the organization. I took over DesignConnect and moved the event from where it was at the Hilton Bayfront to its current location at the Port Pavilion on Broadway, which greatly impacted event attendance and participation. Eventually, I became the City Center Director and then the Southern California President of IIDA. I’m not currently as involved, since I am now in a different stage of life with my two young children, but it was a huge part of my personal and professional growth. It was through my involvement with IIDA that I connected with Tiffany English, who was a 20-year leader at Ware Malcomb. This connection ultimately led me to come work for Ware Malcomb and that is where I am today as the Director of Interior Architecture & Design. I’ve been here for the past 7 and a half years and it’s been incredibly impactful to my development as a designer, team leader, and industry partner in the commercial real estate world.

2. That is amazing. What inspired you to pursue design?

Going into college, interior architecture and design wasn’t even on my radar; I was planning to study journalism. I was always “artistic”, but my parents advised that the “starving artist” route was not as reliable of a profession. I was very conflicted because I still felt pulled creatively. In the summer before my freshman year of college, a family friend was discussing my career identity crisis between journalism and something more artistic and recommended that Interior Design may be a good fit for my personality, bringing the creative and analytical together. Despite the well-intentioned concerns of my parents, I switched majors at the last second, enrolled in the design program, and ended up with the top portfolio in my class. My parents eventually admitted it was a good decision, but I honestly don’t blame them – all they knew about this career field was Trading Spaces on TLC (laughing)!

3. How would you describe your journey to becoming a designer in the professional world?

God has carefully guided me each step of the way to where I am today, revealing gems as I was ready for them; I truly love what I get to do, but I never would have imagined it would look like it does today if you asked me at the beginning. In no way, did I understand that Interior Architecture & Design was the perfect fit for me, but I truly can’t picture doing anything else. There was something great about school and the hypothetical explorations of studying architecture, furniture, and art. As a young designer, I loved modeling concepts, rendering, and nerding-out on the technical aspects of production. For many years, I struggled with the view I have of myself as a designer. You know, it’s common to epitomize the whimsical designer with outlandish ideas, but I was always so impressed by their lack of a “box”. With my beginnings in healthcare design, and also due to my inherent analytical nature, I was trained to look for the box – the parameters, the budget, code compliance, infection control – you start with the box then break it. So that was hard for me to come to terms with. I sought out mentors who were different than me, in that regard, so I could learn to think and design differently; I often questioned my value and impact as a designer because of this struggle. After hearing Todd Henry speak at the IIDA SoCal Leader’s breakfast in 2014, I read his book called “Herding Tigers”, which gave me a new perspective on types of creatives, and a greater appreciation for each type. This doesn’t mean I’m not a creative person, it just means that my version looks a bit different than what the world tends to celebrate. I’m still working on the self-appreciation aspect, but this perspective certainly helped me to be sensitive in recognizing each of my team member’s unique take on creativity as well. My role as a leader is nothing like I imagined. You know, I often said “I could never do sales”, which many would call business development in our industry. Never say never, right? But once I realized this can be done by building and maintaining relationships, being an advisor and advocate to our clients, that changed everything for me. The business follows you if you’re doing that well. Business development is half of what I do now. I truly love it.

4. Have you had any memorable mentors who have influenced your career?

The “out of the box” mentor I requested was John Pfluger, who worked at my previous design firm, Cuningham Group Architecture. He was an architect in another office and state, but he took my mentorship goals seriously and genuinely committed to that process with me. Possibly my most significant mentor has been Tiffany English who was with Ware Malcomb and is now at Qualcomm. Her impact on the San Diego design and commercial real estate industry is legendary, and I am grateful to have learned so much from her leadership. I’ve had great mentors since then as well including my past and current CEOs – Larry Armstrong and Ken Wink. They invested in me and believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. They’ve given me great opportunities and challenged me to continue to grow.

5. What do you think makes you a good leader?

Here at Ware Malcomb, we utilize Gallup’s StrengthsFinder, which is a strength-based survey that identifies your leadership skillset. One of my top strengths is Individualization. This skill allows me to uniquely lead each of my team members based on their individual strengths and weaknesses. My team is amazing and incredibly talented, so they also make it really rewarding and enjoyable to invest in them. As a leader, I love to get into the mindset of who each person is as an individual and try to understand what will push them further. That allows me to be sensitive to how people want and need to be led. All of that being said, I am not a perfect leader. Honestly, I pray every day that I’m having the impact that God put me in this position for. Being an effective leader means staying open to outside input and even correction as well.

6. What do you enjoy most about what you do?

Now that I have more appreciation for who I am as a creative, designer and leader, I am discovering more that I can enjoy about my career every day – from design, to analysis, to leadership, to relationship building. Being able to tap into all these different aspects is fulfilling for me. I had a false perspective as a young designer, that if I became a leader, I’d lose touch with the creative side of design. But, as I stretched into this role and let go of design control to my team, I began proactively giving myself new creative outlets. My husband and I (pre-kids) took a trip to Italy, and on my trip, I committed to doing a sketch a day and even told industry friends for accountability, then shared it on my Instagram. It’s still on there today! That sketching assignment renewed my confidence and opened the door to other creative endeavors, including watercolor painting and wall murals. I realized that I can focus more on leadership and mentoring the team, letting go of creative control of our projects so my team can thrive, when I have these outlets.

Italy trip 2
Mural meyer
Mural vivian

7. Is there a memorable project you worked on?

There are two ends of this spectrum for me. Early in my healthcare design career, I worked on the Sharp Mary Birch renovation. I gave birth to both of my children there, so it was sort of a full-circle moment for that “design baby”. I learned many lessons from this client. A recent project I worked on that has been memorable, and is still being finished, is Vuori’s new office headquarters. We were able to design 150,000 square feet for them in Carlsbad. Since 2020, workplace projects of that scale are fewer and farther between, as many companies have downsized their office footprints and have moved to more hybrid/remote work environments. First of all, what a great brand Vuori is! And then, to have a client who is in such an anomaly of a position of growth, who has selected our team to walk alongside them through that process…that’s priceless to us. It was not lost on me, that with all that was changing in our world, the design industry, and our market, that we had one of the greatest workplace design opportunities that has hit the market over the past few years. Our team is absolutely knocking this project out of the park, and it has been fun partnering with G|M on it!

8. I saw that you were an Associate Professor at New School of Architecture San Diego. What did you teach?

When I worked at Cuningham, there was a class that partnered with our office, and focused on healthcare design. We walked them through planning and designing a hospital, starting with the patient room, an entire floor with support spaces, and then vertically, looking at the entire building's architecture. It was just a single course, but some of the students would come back and visit us since we were just down the street. It was a great experience, and I’d love to teach again someday.

9. Do you have words of wisdom for young, new designers?

Back to my Individualism quality, I’d ask them questions first as it really depends on what they want out of their career. I don’t think there is any blanketed advice I would give to anyone; I would help them lay out a path based on their specific passion. I have team members who are more technically strong versus conceptual, extroverted versus introverted. Regardless, I think it’s important for all designers to have a great foundational understanding of construction and architecture. I see young designers want to jump into a design visionary role. You can’t speak about the end result without a strong foundation. It’s tempting to want to skip the “mundane” aspects of the production roles you start in, but you have to take it one step at a time. Being a strong design leader is speaking from a place of understanding how all things come together and are detailed. You will be a much better designer if you start with that.

10. What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

Painting and sketching. I always long for more time for this. Prior to having babies, I started doing paintings of their new space as housewarming gifts for our clients. Next, I’d like to learn how to paint with ink.

Callaway CROPPED
Housewarming gift for client Callaway
Housewarming gift for client Florence Restaurant

11. What is your family life like?

I am married with two kids. My husband, Mike has been an irreplaceable supporter and encouragement to me in my career, and this [career] would not be possible without him. My daughter, Vivian, is almost four, and my son, Meyer, is almost two. Our days are lively, bright, exciting, overwhelming, full, joyful, stressful…abundantly more than I could have hoped for or imagined, and God gets me through it, moment by moment.

12. Do you have any favorite recent travel destinations?

I haven’t traveled in quite a bit, as it’s hard with young kids. In the US, I love New York. Internationally, I loved visiting Italy and Barcelona, Spain. My greatest work trip was to Doha, Qatar as we were designing a new hospital. I was able to travel first class, which was a great first for me; that trip was significant exposure to culture through design. To be trusted with that experience by my previous firm was huge at the stage of my career that I was in.

13. Do you have a favorite piece of furniture?

Yes, I do – the Womb Chair by Eero Saarinen. Saarinen also designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, MO which obviously has a special place in my heart, since I grew up there. It’s a masterful piece of architecture. To be an amazing architect and an equally amazing furniture designer, that is just the epitome of design goals. What more can you do?!

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Knoll Womb Chair
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St Louis Gateway Arch

14. Favorite food?

I am Sicilian, so I have a special place in my heart for Italian food, especially my Nonna’s, but I am always open to trying new foods. I am not picky.

15. Drink of choice?

Drinking my calories is my toxic trait, and I don’t even mean alcohol – I am a sucker for a drink-y treat (laughing). I have three drink options on hand at any given point…usually a latte, iced tea, or something bubbly. For coffee, I love a fluffy, sweet, frothy coffee. Alcohol-wise, it’s a very bold red wine, dark beers, like stouts or porters, or something with bourbon or whiskey. I typically only have one glass though; I’m not a huge alcohol drinker.

16. Is there anything people would be surprised to know about you?

This might be weird, but for people who know me, it’s not. I have a phobia of vomit. And unfortunately, it affects more than you think. I have two kids, so we are working on it.

17. You’re a new addition to the crayon box. What color would you be and why?

Probably fuchsia with glitter. I’ve always been drawn to this color, and how it often pairs with greenish-blue hues on magazine covers. And… why not sparkle?

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