I.M. Pei, the world renowned architect died May 16 at age 102. If you don't know his name you will undoubtly recognize his work, and there is much to learn from his creative strategy which blends craftmenship with the ability to sell through daring and seemingly impossible visions of the future.

Born on mainland China and raised in Hong Kong before studying in the United States, Ieoh Ming Pei soon became a leading architect.  He began as a junior designer with a New York developer, and made his name after winning the commission to design the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, shortly after Kennedy's assassination in 1963.  Pei built his reputation on epic projects like the entrance to the Louvre museum in Paris, the East Building of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar.  In fact, at age 80, Pei was still traveling the Middle East to seek inspiration for the museum. His unapologetic use of geometric shapes, plain surfaces and natural light throughout the years made his works structurally and visually impressive.

Pei's design style echos two geometry-driven art projects. One is Walter de Maria's famous installation of aluminum channels, "Triangle, Circle, Square" of 1972, and the second one is Sol LeWitt's drawing, "All Double Combinations of Six Geometric Figures" from 1977.  His extensive portfolio includes several important commissions in upstate New York, including the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse as well as Wilson Commons at the University of Rochester. Pei was hired for the UR job in the late 1960s. The university desired a new, central location to host the student union and serve as a hub for campus activities. Construction cost $9.5 million and was largely funded by Xerox President and UR graduate Joseph Wilson and his wife Peggy.

There are three design lessons any brand can take from Pei's work:

Develop a signature style

According to ArchDaily, as a student of Le Corbusier, Pei embodied the core belief of modernism that form follows function, and added his own interpretation. Pei believed that form follows intention (which incorporates function). His work reflects this philosophy by his incorporation of functional symbols into all his works. His signature style was geometric patterns and it's what makes his buildings instantly recognizable. He considered the role of geometry in planning and designing buildings by using a variety of lines and polygons. Pei's signature pyramids can be enjoyed at the National Gallery of Art East Building in Washington, DC. and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. When you see his pyramid at the Louvre you know that is Pei. 

Build resilience

Designers all know that the pain-staking detail of the process can be unforgiving and thankless. Being resilient in the face of adversity is a skill every successful designer must master.  Pei struggled in the early years of his own career to fix the John Hancock Tower in Boston, after the glass facade of the 60-story block had design issues that led to delays and cost overruns. He later faced criticism over the glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre.  During a NPR interview Pei said, "I couldn't walk the streets of Paris without people looking at me and saying, 'There you go again. What are you doing here? What are you doing to us? What are you doing to our great Louvre?"  According to Pei "Success is a collection of problems solved;" some thick skin.

Eliminate the inessential

This expressed goal of Pei should be the mantra of every designer or design studio.  Draw it on your white board or hang it on your wall.  Pei's simplicity and use of negative space are hallmarks that draw you into his structures. "You cannot defend your design without knowing what you're designing for," said Pei.  This devotion to craft and selling a vision make this design legend someone the world will sorely miss.

Published on: May 22, 2019
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