30-Minute Interview: Michael Kleinberg

Mr. Kleinberg, 55, is the president and a partner of the design firm MKDA, along with his brother, Jeffrey, and his father, Milo, who founded the firm in 1959.

MKDA, originally known as Milo Kleinberg Design Associates, specializes in corporate interiors, and its list of clients has included developers like Silverstein Properties, Vornado Realty Trust and the Durst Organization.

Q. Is your father still involved much with the firm?

A. He still comes in four days a week. And he sits in the corner office. If we’re all lucky enough to be working at 85, it’s a great thing.

We’re happy — my dad and my brother, Jeffrey — all three of us work together. We get along because we each do our own thing.

Q. So what is your “thing”?

A. As president, I’m also a managing partner where I manage and run the firm, in addition to being involved with a fair amount of the clientele. Jeffrey is maybe a little bit more involved on the design side than I am. He also handles a fair amount of work in the fashion center. My dad started doing all the work in the garment center in the ’60s. Now we do maybe 10, 15 percent of our work in the fashion center.

Q. Were you and your brother groomed for this business?

A. When we were little kids we used to come in on Sunday mornings. I was very lucky to have my dad as a teacher because we were able to learn a lot quicker because he was very hands-on. Both my brother and I would come into the office through high school and college, too. I couldn’t wait to start working. Then when I started, I ended up measuring buildings for a year. I still carry a measuring tape in my briefcase.

Q. How is business?

A. Business is good. We’ve been busy through even the downturn. We work with tenants and commercial landlords that own the buildings. And usually that sort of hedges our bets a little bit.

Q. What’s the breakdown?

A. Ten to 15 years ago we used to be, maybe, 70-30, where tenant work was 70 percent and landlord work was 30 percent. Now it’s 50-50. Many tenants don’t want to pay out of pocket today for construction or our services and so landlords will offer up more than they did 10 to 15 years ago.

Q. Are you doing many “prebuilts,” where office space is built out by the landlord before a tenant is even found?

A. We’re actually doing more of what are known as “turnkeys” — where the architect draws up all the plans and builds it for the tenant — than what they call in the industry prebuilts.

Where there’s space that’s not moving is where landlords will want to do the prebuilts. Turnkeys are not always tied to the economy. Sometimes the landlord will say, “I can control the tenant by providing the turnkey.”

Q. How many projects are you working on now?

A. I would say we have 30 to 40 projects; it’s on par with last year.

Q. Let’s talk about some of them.

A. At 7 World Trade Center, we’re doing some prebuilts, and we’re doing a turnkey for 15,000 to 20,000 square feet of space on the 33rd floor, for Scottsdale Insurance.

At 280 Park Avenue — this is a joint venture between Vornado and SL Green — we’re working to create a marketing center on one of the floors. We’ll put in lighting and there will be one area where there will be floor plans, test fits and build a few offices to show how a typical layout will be.

We prepared about six months ago a marketing center at 1140 Avenue of the Americas. We’ve done a prebuilt and we have a turnkey in the works at 400 Park. We worked on coming up with standards for the building for offices and doing prebuilts and turnkeys.

So that’s the landlord side.

Q. And on the tenant side?

A. On the tenant side, we’re handling a sizable project for Guggenheim Partners, which is about 200,000 feet, at 330 Madison. We’re taking about six floors. We’re doing something for a firm named Fab.com; they’re taking space at 95 Morton.

Q. Are there any new trends in commercial design?

A. Almost every client we have will want to have more flexibility in space, and thereby, more open space. And they want to tighten up on their space per person.

Every year there are less and less offices that are required. Years ago there might be one person for 300 to 350 rentable square feet, whereas now I would say the majority of the firms are more at one per 200 square feet. Because they’re taking people out of offices they’re able to size down their real estate. We build “teaming rooms” for two, three, four, five, six people, because you need areas to sit and congregate. The collaboration from more open floor plans fosters more creativity.

Q. What’s the most popular color?

A. I wouldn’t say that there’s one color. The general view is that people want to be more neutral — with a pop of color. It can be in the chairs. Fifteen years ago we probably used a little bit more color than we do today.

(The New York Times)