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Architecture Alum Credits UC Co-op Program for Creating Connections, Opportunities

As a UC architecture student, Stewart Shillito Maxwell had co-op experiences that took him all over the country, helped him build an impressive personal and professional network – that he then translated into a successful practice.

Date: 9/24/2011
By: M.B. Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Michael Everett

In the early 1980s as he was beginning his professional career during a recession, University of Cincinnati alumnus Steward Shillito Maxwell was able to survive and professionally thrive by breaking down the barriers between architecture and interior design – which he felt should never have been divided into two professions.

In his career, Maxwell began an interior design department for a prestigious architectural firm and then turned around to found an architectural department within one of the country’s oldest interior design firms.

Today, Maxwell is the founder and principal of Stewart Shillito Maxwell & Co. in Cincinnati’s Hyde Park neighborhood. And he credits UC’s top-ranked cooperative education program for providing him with much of the experience and flexibility which has been needed for his “ambidextrous” career.
Stewart Shillito Maxwell
UC architecture alumnus Stewart Shillito Maxwell stands next to his 1980 senior thesis. That thesis focused on a major addition to the Cincinnati Art Museum. Maxwell has been a volunteer for 41 years at the museum.

“I chose UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP) even though I had visited and been accepted at Harvard University, the Illinois Institute of Technology, Tulane University and the University of Miami. I was ready to focus on the study of architecture, not continuing the liberal arts education I had received at Walnut Hills. I was ready to design. Co-oping, with its alternating of professional work and academic study, made perfect sense to me. DAAP’s program was definitely the best choice, and I never had any regrets. In addition, I even combined my DAAP classes with business finance courses which were helpful in establishing my own firm. All of it – the curriculum, professors, and my co-op experiences with six different firms – has never stopped paying me dividends, even to this day.”

Maxwell, a native of Cincinnati, remembers that he deliberately selected co-op work assignments in different cities. To take full advantage of the co-op experience, he wanted to sample as many firms of varying sizes, types and practices.

The result was UC co-op assignments in:
  • New York City with Poor, Swanke, Hayden, and Connell (now Swanke Hayden Connell & Partners, LLP), a large firm with an international focus.
  • Louisville, Ky., with Grossman Martin Chapman (now Grossman Chapman Klarer Architects, Inc.), a small firm known for its contemporary, high-end residential work, as well as its projects doing historic preservation and renovation.
  • Baltimore, Md., with RTKL, the global architecture and planning firm.
  • Cleveland, Ohio, with Goldenholz and Fischer, where Maxwell – then a fourth-year architecture student – was entrusted with his own clients.
  • Chicago, Ill., with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, LLP, where Maxwell was hired for the interior design department and was put in charge of remodeling SOM’s own apartment in the John Hancock Building, made available for their important clients visiting the city. As he recalled: “Given that it was a high profile project yet small, it was needless to say a wonderful, exciting, enviable project for a co-op student.”
  • Newburyport, Mass., (near Boston) with Woodman Associates Architects, where Maxwell made such good friends with principal Jonathan Woodman and his wife, Betsy, both DAAP graduates, that he still spends every Thanksgiving with them.
States Maxwell, “It was at my very first co-op experience at Poor & Swanke where I was exposed to a firm with an international staff, clients, and projects. They were one of the first architectural firms to establish an interior design department and realized its importance in providing full-service for their clients. Particularly impressive were a number of employees who were highly educated and multi-lingual, helping translate the firm’s contracts and involved in negotiations with international clients. I went there in 1976 when I was 19 years old, and I still keep in touch with members of the firm.”
Stewart Shillito Maxwell
Maxwell is sitting next to a custom-made, round V'soske area rug which he helped to design in 1968 for his boyhood bedroom, under the watchful eye of his parents' interior designer, Michael Greer of New York City.

His co-op experience sampling a variety of professional firms – large versus small scale, commercial versus residential, architecture versus interior design, historic preservation versus new development – all combined to provide great assets when he graduated in 1980 in an economy which was in recession.

Fortunately at the time, two DAAP classmates were working in Houston, where the economy was robust. So Maxwell moved to Houston, too, and interviewed with the firm, CRS, which was the largest architecture, interior design, planning and engineering firm in the world at that time and was even traded on the New York Stock Exchange. “They had two openings for which I interviewed, one in architecture and one in interior design. The interior design position paid significantly more because it combined both architecture and interior design training and education. With my UC experience, I had the necessary credentials and received that job.”

He later moved to San Antonio where he became a senior project designer with Chumney, Jones and Kell, Inc., which had recently opened a corporate interiors unit at the time. Maxwell was hired to design the large, prestigious headquarters for La Quinta Motor Inns.

“The project won a national AIA interior architecture award and received coverage in professional magazines, not to mention that my firm and the client had faith in me: this was very gratifying.”

Still, with an improving economy, Maxwell had the chance to return home to Cincinnati where he first headed the interior design department for BHDP Architecture and then was hired by KZF Design, even designing KZF’s corporate headquarters in Cincinnati’s historic Baldwin Building. It was for KZF that Maxwell helped create the firm’s KZF Gallery representing regional artists and open to the public, located physically within the design firm itself.

After four and a half years at KZF, Maxwell went to work for one of the country’s oldest interior design firms, Greiwe Interiors, Inc. There he did the opposite of what he had previously done – he began an architecture department within an interior design firm.

Finally, at the age of 39, he started his own firm about 16 years ago.

“Since I had designed many corporate projects, I decided to broaden my experience by also doing residential work at Greiwe. Having worked for many large firms, I appreciated the virtues of being small and personal. In establishing my own firm, my clients were hiring me to do their work, not an assistant.”

It’s a career where attention to details matter, something drilled into Maxwell by his DAAP professors, faculty such as David Niland and John Peterson, as well as Bruce Goetzman whose courses concentrated on historic preservation.

Maxwell recalls: “Upon entering DAAP, I had always been very competitive and concerned about receiving the highest grades.” At graduation from high school, he achieved cum laude status from Walnut Hills. However, professors at DAAP soon cured him of his competitiveness with others in favor of competing with himself in order to better measure his growth in learning.
Stewart Shillito Maxwell
Stewart Shillito Maxwell stands next to his 1980 senior thesis rendering of the original Cincinnati Art Museum's facade, designed in 1881 by James W. McLaughlin.

Still, Maxwell claims that nothing and no one could compare to the tough regimen imposed by one-time architecture faculty member David Niland who oversaw students’ senior thesis projects: “One hundred architecture students were accepted my first year in 1974. The tough curriculum had weeded out all but 40 of us by senior year, and some didn’t know if they would finish. The important thing to learn was that as long as one met the basic requirements of the assignment and turned it in on-time, a student would receive a passing grade.”

Maxwell adds, “David Niland said he liked my senior thesis project but he didn’t love it.  So, he gave me an ultimatum. I had my final quarter – ten weeks – to rethink my senior thesis and redo it . . . or I wouldn’t graduate.”

“For the next ten weeks, I worked around the clock. I would fall asleep with my graphite pencil in hand and later wake up covered in graphite markings,” he says.

In the end, the resulting eight-foot by eight-foot model of a five-story addition to the Cincinnati Art Museum was so precise and detailed that the proposal even had artwork-to-scale hanging on the walls, and the model came apart floor-by-floor.

As the day of his final critique approached, Maxwell’s mother provided a needed boost: “My final crit was at 1 p.m. My mother realized that Niland, the other professors and my fellow students would not have had any lunch, which she figured would put everyone in a bad mood. So, she catered lunch and a bar serving Bloody Marys for those attending.”

Whether it was the quality of his work or the quality of the catered lunch, Maxwell did graduate on schedule, having learned to challenge himself at every turn.

That is what he recommends for those now in DAAP programs and heading toward graduation. Whether in class, co-op, or even at lunch, he recommends, “Vary the fare.  Take art history, personal finance and economic courses. Take full advantage of the international world in which we live by varying co-op assignments -- both in size and scope, and work abroad, if possible. Also, study at least one, if not multiple, foreign languages. The broader your world, the more likely you’ll be able to identify and seize opportunities. To take full advantage of the co-op program, students should sample – just like a menu – as many different firms as possible, while one still has the luxury and ability to do so. As is often said: ‘Variety is the spice of life!’, and it certainly holds true for co-op experiences, too.”