The King of the Garment District – How Milo Kleinberg Founded MKDA
In 1959, Milo Kleinberg made a bold move: He quit his job of 12 years working for another architect and designer to start his own company from scratch.
Text by Emma Tessler Photography courtesy of MKDA
While I think we often attribute “hustle culture” to the modern century, if we can learn anything from Mr. Kleinberg’s story, it’s that there were some who were hustling long before many of us were even born. As an Austrian immigrant who fled Vienna during the Nazi occupation, Milo Kleinberg learned from a young age what many of us learn in a lifetime. When his family settled in Brooklyn, he didn’t speak a word of English. Yet within six months of attending public school, he’d learned the language so well that he began to translate for the other German-speaking students. As a young boy, he decided to get into the handkerchief business, buying the cloth from the father of a friend and selling them door-to-door. When he began attending the School of Industrial Art as a teenager, his artistic talent flourished, and it was soon after that he landed his first job working for a fellow immigrant and architect, Max Gerstl. However, after 12 years of hard work and no opportunity to become partner, Kleinberg chose to strike out on his own.

In the beginning, Milo Kleinberg Design Associates, now known as MKDA, was nothing more than a borrowed desk in the office of a general contractor. Yet Kleinberg was determined to succeed, and with the reputation he had developed during the previous 12 years, it wasn’t long before business was booming. His first big break was with Lufthansa, who chose him not only because of his reputation, but also because he was a German speaker. The success of that commission led to many more jobs, and he quickly became known as King of the Garment District.

Kleinberg was an innovator in his field from the beginning. He stood out for his ability to understand his clients’ needs and his eagerness to work one-on-one with them to make their dreams a reality. Eventually, Kleinberg took his ideas from apparel and applied them in other industries as well—from retail stores to financial institutions. During the 1970s, many large buildings cropped up and with them came the challenge of how to market new, larger floor plans to small tenants. Kleinberg came up with the idea to carve out smaller spaces to reach more tenants, which has turned out to be a transformative movement still utilized today in coworking spaces. In the same decade, MKDA continued to grow slowly yet steadily, as Kleinberg emphasized the strength of his relationships with his clients over rapid growth. This was true amongst his team as well, which, at that point, was composed of 10 designers and architects who treated each other more like family. Kleinberg also took two true family members, his sons, under his wing. Jeffrey and Michael shadowed their father as teenagers and joined the company shortly afterwards.

By the turn of the century, MKDA was designing for some of the top law firms in the city. It was also doing business with many in the hedge fund sector, which Michael saw early on as a good fit for MKDA. As a boutique operation, the firm shared a commonality with many hedge funds, who search for unique work environments to attract the best people. MKDA has the perspective and ability to design those spaces and environments to help them do just that. At the same time that the firm was growing exponentially, Kleinberg began to take a step back. In exchange, Jeffrey and Michael took over as partners, leading MKDA into a new millennium.

As talented workers have begun to seek a slower lifestyle away from the fast-pace of Manhattan, many companies have responded by establishing offices in the suburbs. Once again, MKDA was at the forefront of this wave, opening its first satellite office in Stamford, Connecticut in 2006. In 2013, MKDA continued to expand, opening an office in Miami. The market there had a need for design of all kinds, including retail, hospitality, and mixeduse projects. In response, MKDA Miami has launched the firm’s first architectural and hospitality studios, and began working with mixed-use and retail projects. There, once again, MKDA’s emphasis on its relationships with its clients has led to innumerable opportunities. Since then, a Washington D.C. office has also opened, expanding the firm into yet another booming marketplace.

From one desk in a GC’s office to multiple offices around the country, MKDA is a shining testimony to what it takes to withstand 60 years in the commercial industry. We can all take a page from Milo Kleinberg’s book when it comes to the perseverance, innovation, and charisma necessary to open and sustain a commercial firm, whether it’s 1959 or 2020.

Source: Design Quarterly Digital Magazine