Despite being fired from two jobs, Monica von Schmalensee now heads Scandinavia’s largest architecture practice. She mulls over the merits of being direct in the design world.
“When I was young I wanted to be an admiral in the navy,” says Monica von Schmalensee from behind a pair of rounded Le Corbusier-style specs and with a shake of her blonde bobbed hair. “The first female admiral in Sweden.” Her success in this regard is debatable; we’re not, after all, sitting on the bow of a destroyer. Instead we’re at a table that Von Schmalensee, and sometimes her staff, use on the fifth floor of White Arkitekter’s office on the island of Södermalm, Stockholm.
Von Schmalensee is wearing the sort of no-nonsense flat-soled Chelsea boots needed for walking to work on a chilly spring day. Her aspect is inquisitive but firm; her clothes black and white. As she enters the office she fixes herself a coffee (black) and jokes with a few staff members at the welcome desk. She’s affable enough but she’s also clearly the captain of this ship.
For the past seven years Von Schmalensee has been at the helm of Scandinavia’s largest architecture practice. At White, where she’s held almost every position since joining in 1994, the architect-turned-CEO has overseen international expansion, opening outposts in London, Oslo and Copenhagen (of the 16 in total, six of them are now overseas). The offices run some 3,500 projects, from short-term consultations to the redesign of an entire town: Kiruna in northern Sweden. What’s more, Von Schmalensee has been able to grow her business in a male-dominated industry that gives women famously short shrift.
But there’s no dearth of diversity in this glass, concrete and steel box of a building, which looks out across the Årstaviken cove. There are roughly equal numbers of men and women – many young, all driven and earnest – and 15 per cent of the 1,014 employees hail from outside Sweden. The firm is owned by its employees and touts a bottom-up motto when it comes to decision-making. As of 2015 the shareholders were made up of 117 partners, two foundations and 465 staff.
This liberal working practice extends beyond financing to the house rules. “You’re forbidden to work on weekends,” says Von Schmalensee firmly. “Work that’s not completed on Friday night can wait until Monday morning. I also tell everyone to put their family first because if things aren’t working at home, they will never work at work.” Her sympathy with the plight of parents is enshrined in Swedish law but also informed by her experiences of juggling a career and parenthood.
Having studied architecture at KTH in Stockholm, a young Von Schmalensee landed a job in the early 1980s with Bengt Lindroos, the mastermind behind the city’s hated-then-fêted Kaknästornet TV Tower. Despite being nonplussed about the offer, Von Schmalensee accepted and her future seemed set – until Lindroos asked her to leave in 1984 when she fell pregnant with her first child. “He was honest at least,” she says with genuine empathy, as she leafs through a book of his work on her table. The pages open on an image of the late architect with his own children. “He was allowed them because he had a wife at home,” she says with a grudgeless grin.
The job loss actually worked in Von Schmalensee’s favour: she returned to university and bolstered her architectural credentials with business ones. In 1992 she had her second child and was fired again, this time from a company called Coordinator, which was forced into swingeing cuts during an economic downturn. In 1994 she rejoined the firm (by now it had merged with White) and was running it by 2010. “[I was offered] an ordinary position but you’ve got to have a good feeling in your stomach about work,” she says.
Twenty-three years on and that visceral feeling is still with Von Schmalensee. As we tour the building-length timber-floored gangways outside her office (past elegant black pigeonholes, teeming bookshelves and some good-natured smiles from staff), she clearly feels at home. “The more you work from a computer, the more important offices are,” she says, gesturing at a table presided over by low-hanging pendant lamps. “People thought computers would mean less travelling and fewer meetings but my God, it doesn’t.”
Conversation turns to sustainability and there’s a marked shift in the urgency of her words. “We need to think a lot more about how we can recycle buildings and spaces,” she says, letting the excitable architect in her overpower the cards-to-the-chest composure of her usual CEO demeanour. “I live in a collective myself and have done so for 30 years. I don’t even have my own car: I share it with my neighbours.
“The purpose of architecture is people,” she adds. “They’re the ones working in the offices, living in the houses and learning in the schools. The possibilities are greater than before and architecture is no longer just the package: it’s the content. We also need to see how buildings can be used 24 hours a day and understand the layers of planning involved in making cities in the future.”
This understanding that Von Schmalensee refers to isn’t just the remit of the architects at White: the 300-odd staff in the Stockholm office include social anthropologists, a biologist and an allotment of landscape architects who ask different questions, tweak proposals and bring an interdisciplinary flourish to proceedings.
As we pass the glass-sided model-making studio a young staffer called Amanda is assembling VR headsets for a presentation at a university. “We put a lot of money into r&d,” says Von Schmalensee, nodding towards Amanda as she demonstrates a 3D model of the office that’s being captured for the show. Most of White’s research is open-source and rarely hidden by the company. This isn’t just a nice idea: Von Schmalensee’s work has helped to build business as well as buildings. In 2015 the company turnover increased from €80m to €87m – and healthy profits are anticipated in 2016 reports too.
Looking over Lake Mälaren below the White office you can almost imagine the building as a vast boat. And there’s something irresistible about comparing Von Schmalensee’s childhood dream of being Sweden’s first female admiral with her fearless and fair-minded stewardship of White. Navigating the choppy waters of staff wellbeing while all the while steering a true course to financial success is a trick that even the most seasoned sailor could learn from.
What time do you like to be at your desk?
Ideally 07.30. But I wake early, run, read the newspaper and have a coffee so I never get in before 09.00.
Is it better to learn on the job or with an MBA?
An MBA doesn’t make you a better leader because leadership and management are different things.
What is your management style?
Direct. You need to be open but determined.
Are tough decisions best taken by one person or a group?
Consensus is very Swedish but tough decisions can’t always be made together.
Would you rather be liked or respected?
What does your support team look like?
I have two deputy CEOs, a CFO and someone else who helps. I check and delegate.
Do you have wine with lunch? Socialise with the team after work?
Never at lunch and I’m seldom here on Friday afternoons: I go to my island summerhouse and sleep.
Who do you go to when you need advice?
There are a few retired colleagues who helped me early in my career.
What’s the toughest part of your job?
Having to do it 24 hours a day.
Is it OK for employees to disagree with you?
Yes but I get very angry sometimes [laughs]. Today I arrived at reception and saw a cactus that wasn’t nice so I told them to take it away.