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Meet the Curbed Young Guns Semifinalists: Justine Zielinski

After graduating from San Francisco's Academy of Art University with an MFA in interior architecture and design, Justine Zielinski was blessed with the most no-muss-no-fuss job search imaginable: she sent her portfolio to a single firm. The gig? No big deal, just a designer position at AvroKO, one of the biggest commercial and hospitality firms on the planet. Her very first project? Oh, it's nothing, just a real-life version of what she had been doing in school.

Zielinski, 26, was hired in March and works out of AvroKO's relatively new San Francisco office, and she's contributed to an L.A. project for restaurateur Michael Mina, the new Dropbox HQ here in town, and the various parts of the Santa Anita Racetrack remodel. Now, though, she spends most of her time as lead designer on AvroKO's part in the redevelopment of Denver's Union Station, part of a $500M project master-planned by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. The fact that Zielinski grew up about an hour south of Denver, and that her graduate thesis conceptualized what the abandoned 16th Street Station, in Oakland, Calif., might look like after being redeveloped to "reconstruct this urban pocket and to defragment its residents by planning an integrated community built around this beautiful and neglected piece of architectural history," as she writes, only adds to this bonkers narrative.

Here she tells Curbed a bit more about her background, what her first week of work was like, and why the Union Station project means really big things for what's essentially her hometown.

What first piqued your interest in the field of interior architecture?
My dad did a lot of development, and my brother's involved in development, so I kind of just grew up around it. I remember my childhood was a lot of scoping properties and walking around construction sites, and my dad got involved with historic restoration projects when I was really little. I watched him make decisions about these old things—how could it be something different in 10 years if it was treated correctly? It's just a family thing, and I've always felt very comfortable around that kind of stuff.

You've only joined AvroKO in March. Can you pinpoint something you've done for them that you're particularly proud of, even in the short time you've been there?
I worked in graduate school on my thesis on a train station in Oakland, and I'm from Denver, so it was just kind of this crazy thing: the week they signed a contract for this train station in Denver—it's a substantial project—I sent my portfolio to [AvroKO partner] Greg [Bradshaw]. Your thesis is your dream project, and my first week out of school I'm hired to do it in real life. I'm pretty excited and proud that I'm working on this huge project from where I'm from; it's kind of a big buzz in Denver and everyone's really excited about it. My family and all of my friends will get to see it happen.

Tell me more about this project.
There was this turn-of-the-century train station had been untouched for probably 40 years—it's just this massive, beautiful Beaux-Arts building. It's been in development for over 15 years, they've been putting funding together, and they're basically turning it into this mass transportation hub, along with a boutique hotel, and markets and restaurants and bars, and they're forecasting half a million people going in and out of it every day. AvroKO was hired to do some bar spaces as well as the great hall, which is kind of the central vein of the space. The project is really going to be a centerpiece of Denver; Denver has definitely been in transition, and it's catching up with the idea of being a more metropolitan city.

So I assume you're one of a much larger team working on this project. What does your day-to-day in terms look like?
I think AvroKO approaches things really differently, and it's really refreshing. The very first day I got to work, Greg and the partners throw you in. I'm working with the team in New York on custom furniture and lighting, but I'm the main designer on the project so from the very first day I got to work, it was like, OK, let's start concept, look into the history, let's come up with some ideas. We rolled into schematic, now we're in DD [design development], and now I'm full throttle, putting together the drawings, concepts, designs, pretty much everything. I was overhwelmingly surprised by how much responsibility AvroKO gives you from day one. I guess I never imagined I'd be doing this kind of thing right out of school. I feel as though I've gotten five years of experience in four or five months, which is incredible.

Weren't you slightly terrified?
Of course the first week of any job is a little bit scary, but I just know from AvroKO's reputation and the kind of work they produce that at the end of the day I'm working for some of the best people in the industry. Honestly after that first week it hasn't been scary. Greg has been incredible; he instills a lot of confidence in you and when you're working for someone whom you respect so much and you look up to so much it's really easy to follow his lead. I have a lot of confidence in the firm, so it's easy to have confidence in your own work.

When working for a larger firm, obviously you want to impress their stamp on everthing. But are there universal design tenets or elements that come into play for you, no matter what kind of project you're working on?
In college, identity and branding was kind of my thing—I learned to look at the at historical aspects of what I'm working on, at the history, how something started. What was so incredible about joining AvroKO's team is that their whole model is: let's look at the history of this, let's find some obscure story in the history that's intereting and roll with that. What was something originaly like? What story is here? What were the politics at the time? The first week of your process is geting to dig into any little details you can, and you end up unraveling these really interesting stories you never would have known about if it wasn't important to the firm and your work. It was really fun doing it with Denver because I'm from there and I learned this whole other side of the history of Colorado that I hadn't ever been aware of. Adding later via email: "You sign on for a project like Denver Union Station, for example—where hundreds of thousands of people are eventually going to be walking in and out of this space you design on a daily basis—and you have to assemble something very special and particular for it to work, for it to make an impression. We've all walked through train stations, through transit areas and public spaces, but the original question has always been: who are these people coming here and what kind of story do we want to tell them? I think my fascination with people and what affects them is the biggest influence in my work.

The person who nominated you mentioned that you designed his 300-square-foot apartment in New York. Do you have any desire to pick up residential work down the line?
Hospitality, bars, restaurants, hotels: it's all really exciting, and I think the conceptual end—at AvroKO we have this long conceptual process—is really fun. But something is appealing about residential work and how personal it is. You come to your home every day and that's where your comfort lies. So yes, I could see myself eventually transitioning into that.

What kind of home do you personally live in?
I live in an apartment in [the San Francisco neighborhood of] NOPA with my friends. It's a really traditional San Francisco apartment; it's small, and there's not a lot of space. I've been there for four years, and living in small apartments shows you how little room you actually need to be happy. I go home to my parents' house and I feel lost—there's so much space and no one's in the rooms. What we have is really nice, and we don't have a lot, so it makes it easy.

Finally, where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I'm really independent, but I've also found that I really like working with a team that's super talented. So as much as I'd want to say that I'd own my own business, I think I really like being part of a really strong team. Joining AvroKO has made me realize that I could really see myself putting roots there. It's really rare—every project that comes through their door is high profile, their budgets are amazing, and you get to do what you want to do.

? AvroKO's renderings for the Denver train station project are under lock and key for the time being, but here's a look at a rendering and concept sketch from Zielinski's thesis. She writes:
"Central Station aims to create the feeling of a small town within its walls, and do so with 'The American West' in tow. Over a hundred years ago travelers sat on steamer trains waiting in eager anticipation of a new life out west where anything was possible and wild adventures awaited them. My design scheme aims to capture this youthful and refreshing cultural idiom. A successful realization of the project meant a meeting in the middle of new and old: nontraditional modernism married with classic Beaux-Arts architecture, a fresh design perspective on the dusty Early American West, and conscientious programming that promotes behavioral transposition." · All Young Guns 2013 posts [Curbed National]
· AvroKO [official site]