A master of form and function: Alumna Marlene Liriano’s work showcases contemporary trends in commercial interior design

Interior designer Marlene Liriano ’89 remembers the lady who cried at the YMCA.

Liriano and her team had taken a “sick” 40-year-old space – one that lacked proper ventilation and contained flooring and furniture today known to be made with toxic components – and turned it into a multi-functional community center in a low-income neighborhood. With a concierge-style reception area featuring podiums instead of a traditional desk, child-centered classrooms and a dedicated play area, in addition to plenty of natural lighting and access for the disabled, the end result wowed users.

“Here enters this woman with two kids,” Liriano recalls of the grand opening. “She comes in, looks around and drops to her knees. She was overwhelmed by emotion because, for the first time, her kids could go to a facility and be safe and be healthy.”

And while not all of her jobs end with such a dramatic display of approval – Liriano works mostly with corporate clients such as Sabadell United Bank and Bacardi, as well as FIU – she recognizes that feeling figures prominently in every project.

Related: Alumnus of the Year Gerald Grant Jr. ’78, MBA ’89

“I think most people don’t realize the power that we have as designers to influence the way people learn, the way they work, they way they live,” says Liriano, today the vice president and director of interior design for the Miami-based Florida practice of HOK, a global architecture and engineering firm. “Whether it’s a museum, whether it’s a university space, whether it’s an American Airlines Admiral’s Lounge, there’s an emotion that happens when you walk in.”

And that happens by design. “Most clients want their physical space to showcase who they are, and it’s not just a sign on the wall,” says Liriano, an Alumni Association lifetime member.

Her ability to give physical expression to how a company perceives itself or, more importantly, wants to be perceived, has propelled her locally within the industry. During her 30-year career she has landed big projects and developed long-term relationships that have brought her repeat business.

Today’s Trendsetters

In the last several years, Liriano has witnessed the downsizing of the corporate footprint. More interesting, however, is a trend that involves those closest to the bottom of the corporate ladder: millenials, the 20- and early-30-somethings who have redefined the workplace of today by literally breaking down walls – for which they have little need in the digital age.

“Baby boomers like me and clients my age still tend to want enclosed spaces. Millenials want to be able to pick up their laptops and work anywhere,” says Liriano, 50, who with a daughter that graduated from FIU in December enjoys direct knowledge of the demographic. (She and her husband also have a high school son.) “They want much more open, much more collaborative areas.”

In HOK’s own Miami offices, on the ground floor of a refurbished warehouse in the Wynwood Arts District, that reality hits home: open cubicles with access to daylight from expansive windows; free-standing work stations available to visitors; walls covered with architectural plans and design renderings. Nothing is hidden. And inhabiting the place: young FIU graduates. Fully half of the 12-person staff hold FIU degrees. Their presence – in an urban space that also sports the exposed brick, stained-concrete floors, visible ductwork and clean, modern lines one might expect at such a firm – backs up Liriano’s observations about what the up-and-coming value in a workplace.

“The younger generation wants vibrant, really cool spaces to work in,” she says. “If they walk into a space and it looks dreary, and it’s not very attractive, they don’t want to work there.”

Emotion rearing its head again.

The New Interior of FIU

With FIU in the midst of another building boom, Liriano has had opportunities to develop creative study spaces for young adults. The $57.5 million Academic Health Center 4 at MMC, on which she worked while with her previous company, is a catalog of the ways in which architecture and interior design have together responded to the demands of youth.

The structure features floor-to-ceiling windows and, inside, open interior stairways and transparent office walls that allow natural light into every corner and views of virtually all activity.

“Students need daylighting. It’s proven,” Liriano says of the new emphasis on sunshine for all. “The more daylighting they have, the more they learn, the more vibrant they are, just their physical being inside the room is different.”

Upholstered couches and chairs, small meeting tables and wall-mounted dry-erase boards fill the building’s common spaces in support of group studying and team projects. Exterior stairway landings feature outdoor furniture that turns a pass-through into a gathering space. And throughout the teaching areas, flexibility reigns.

“The last is part of what FIU appreciated very much, to be able to look at a footprint for a classroom and see how many different ways they can reconfigure that room,” Liriano says. “Students and professors no longer want classrooms lined up with tablet armchairs. They want group learning where students are engaged with their classmates and professors.”

Now working on the College of Business’ $35.7 million MANGO building, Liriano talks about “student streets” – active spaces for meeting friends and interacting with classmates. These will exist along open bridges that connect the two halves of the building. The lack of enclosure overhead and inclusion of a food court on the ground floor – an area left to the individual vendors to outfit – will ensure that the buzz of community fills the air.

“Vibrancy is not just about color. It’s also sound,” Liriano says about what young people appreciate. “I don’t think students want quiet spaces unless they’re inside a classroom. They really, really want these student streets to support who they are and what they’re doing. It’s the learning environment of the future.”   

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