Monica 1

Interview: Monica Kumar

July 1, 2021

—How have you managed with the effects of the pandemic in the last year?

Perkins&Will interior designer Monica Kumar takes the opportunity to discuss design as we emerge from the pandemic, what makes New York City so special, and life in Brooklyn.

As grateful as I am for a ‘return to normal’ on the horizon, there were a few positives to come out of home office culture. By removing “face to face” meetings from the equation, I’ve been able to collaborate with people across the country and in diverse market sectors on projects that would otherwise never have existed. I also have more latitude to bring equity issues to the design table. It took a global pandemic and public execution of George Floyd Jr. for the world to see that social justice and environmental justice (and by extension design) are intertwined; what are we going to do about it? That keeps me up at night, and was a driving force in getting me through the pandemic.

Most people don’t notice buildings, even though we spend our lives in them. Meanwhile, buildings affect us in ways we are only now beginning to understand: health, mood, and even lifespan. Designers know this, but I’d love to bring this knowledge to an even wider audience: everyone should be able to use the power of design to envision and create a more equitable future—one where buildings make us (and the planet) healthier, not sicker. It’s the reason my colleagues at Perkins & Will—Erika Eitland, Lauren Neefe, Anna Wissler, and myself— solicited our firm, where we are working on a podcast (launching this Fall) to examine some of these issues.

I was joking how we are both very slow readers, so we started our own “SSBC: Super Slow Book Club” where the deadlines are very flexible, and hope to finish our first book this year. We started with Saidiya Hartman’s award-winning “Wayward Lives: Beautiful Experiments” a book about how black women lived in Philadelphia and New York at the beginning of the twentieth century and how they were perceived and accepted in public space.

—What makes living in New York City so special?

After living in Manhattan while I was a graduate student at Parsons, New York City changed me. It becomes the lens through which you see the world. It challenges me to be a more defined version of myself every day, and to constantly seek out new experiences. I chose Park Slope in Brooklyn as an antidote to the perennially cool life of a designer. I love that I can enjoy trendy restaurants and gallery openings through my industry, but I also love a greasy spoon diner, having boxed wine picnics in Prospect Park, and seeing three generations on the street at once. I love coming home late from work to a neighborhood where everything closes at 9 pm. All those things bring me back down to earth, which I find is so necessary when living in this city

New Yorkers are ridiculously committed to eating out: this shutdown proved that. My partner and I were dedicated to supporting local dining culture and ate out every Friday night of the lockdown, rain or shine. I’ll never forget dining at our favorite Italian restaurant, Pasta Louise in 38 degree-freezing rain, with two layers of thermals, two pairs of pants, and three blankets (and still freezing!)

—What are some favorite recommendations?

In terms of exhibitions, the Whitney Museum’s “Making Knowing: Craft in Art” (until February 2022) is a really provocative look at ‘craft’ vernacular in the context of ‘fine art’. The politics of that blurred line always fascinates me, and this exhibition has stayed with me, even a year after I saw it. Go see it!

I love riding the subway in the ‘opposite direction’ from Manhattan, and during the pandemic I felt like I traveled to faraway places. One of my favorite weekend trips was to take the Q subway to Brighton Beach, get beers at Oktoberfest, a massage for $30 at the place next door, and then sit on the beach. For another trip, I finally visited Jackson Heights in Queens to get a dose of South Asia. My three favorites are: Himalayan Yak for traditional Nepali Thalis; Maharaja Sweets (7310 37th Avenue) for their North Indian snacks and sweets (papdi chaat is my all-time favorite Delhi street food); and, Fuskahouse, a street cart outside the Duane Reade at 37th Ave and 73rd St, for classic Bengali street food like Fuchka.

Anna Zappia is digital content strategist at Google and the editor of Officeinsight.

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