Mancini-Duffy - March 2006

By Darius Helm

On September 11, 2001, most Mancini-Duffy employees were already in their offices on the 21st and 22nd floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower when they heard a loud explosion and felt the building rock slightly back and forth. They watched in horror as debris fell past their windows. 

They’d already been through the bombing in 1993, so the entire staff, except for two people, immediately evacuated. 

As they were leaving the building, news started to come in that a plane had crashed into the North Tower. Minutes later, when a second plane hit the South Tower, the last two staffers fled the building. Everything they’d worked on was left behind: designs, financial records, contacts. But unlike many companies with offices in the World Trade Center, no lives were lost at Mancini-Duffy.

The firm’s backup data, which had, ironically, been stored for safekeeping in a separate location at 7 World Trade Center, was also lost when that building collapsed just a few hours later.

At first, it seemed like the business was irretrievably lost, but by the next day, help began to arrive. J.P. Morgan Chase & Company, one of the firm’s biggest clients, offered Mancini-Duffy several thousand square feet of its midtown location, a space Mancini-Duffy was in the process of renovating. By the following Monday, everyone was back at work.

Over the next few weeks, clients, vendors and competitors alike helped the firm get back on its feet, in what was to become a common scenario among the thousands of downtown businesses affected by the 9/11 attack. And thanks to Mancini-Duffy’s software provider, which had been debugging files at the time of the attack, even their financial records were recovered.

Just four months later, in January 2002, Mancini-Duffy set up shop in new offices at 39 West 13th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues, without missing a single deadline.

The World Trade Center attack wasn’t the only event that impacted the firm’s business around that time. The dotcom debacle had begun eating into corporate business a year earlier, while the subsequent recession in the marketplace stretched into 2003 and the first half of 2004. The firm had to let go dozens of employees—nearly 40% of its staff. The corporate sector, Mancini-Duffy’s core clientele, continued to slump, and the firm had to look at other markets.

Now, some five years later, Mancini-Duffy is on the rise again, nearly back to where it was at its peak in 2000, serving new markets and adapting to ever-changing market conditions. Last year it posted design fees of over $17 million, with 7.8 million square feet of work installed. Its design staff of 122 people, including 10 LEED accredited professionals, is up nearly 30% from last year.

Mancini-Duffy was formed in 1986, when Ralph Mancini Associates, a commercial interior design firm created in 1981, acquired Duffy Incorporated, which was located in the prestigious Twin Tower. Duffy had previously acquired Halsey, McCormack & Helmer, a venerable New York design firm founded in 1920.

Dina Frank joined Mancini-Duffy in 1994, following a 15 year tenure with Gensler. With degrees in interior design and environmental design from Syracuse University, and an architectural license earned after working for a decade under a Gensler architect, the Croatian born president of Mancini-Duffy is known for her ability to balance the business and creative sides of the job.

When Frank joined Mancini-Duffy, the firm had a reputation for getting the job done on time and within budget. With Frank on board, that reputation soon included dozens of top design awards garnered over the next decade. Mancini-Duffy grew from 80 employees to over 200 and revenues went through the roof.

The first few years of this century have brought new challenges for Dina Frank and Mancini-Duffy. Last month, we spoke with Frank, who is also past president of the New York chapter of the IIDA, about how the firm has faced those challenges and emerged on top again.

Q: Could you tell us a little about what you consider to be Mancini Duffy’s core philosophy?
I think most firms are either very creative and they’re not running a very good business and they’re not responsive to their clients’ business, or they’re so business oriented that they’re not doing very nice creative work. I think we’re a rare combination of the two.

Q: How are you able to achieve that?
An organization always takes on the personality of the people at the top. For instance, I’m a rare combination of left brain/right brain. And so that reflects down through the ranks in terms of what we’re all about.

Q: Could you explain the range of services that Mancini-Duffy provides?
We have our own graphics group, so for every project we do all the signage and graphics—what I call the earrings on the outfit. It’s an important piece to complete the whole. We make all of our own marketing brochures and materials, that I think are very creative, and we also market to not just our architecture and design clients, but we do identity pieces for anyone out there. It’s a small component of the business, which allows us to go full circle with our clients.

Q: Do you collaborate with manufacturers in the production of interior design elements?
Absolutely. We have two products on the market that we’ve designed, two wood product lines. One is for Halcon and the other is for Tuohy. Both produce case goods. 

Q: Where do you have operations?
Right now it’s really New York, Washington, D.C., New Jersey and Connecticut. We no longer have an office in San Francisco.

Q: Is there any particular reason why you decided to get out of that market?
After the dotcom collapse and the recession in 02 through the beginning of 04, we had to hunker down. It’s very difficult to oversee offices that are that far away when you’re hunkering down and business is not good nationally.

Q: So does that mean that most of the jobs that you do, the actual physical locations, are up and down the eastern seaboard?

Q: What led to your growth in the retail segment in recent years?
For the last five years, we’ve been pursuing a strategy of diversification, both geographically and in market sectors, by project type, and we’re always on the lookout for acquisition candidates. There was a firm by the name of Tucci, Segrete and Rosen that decided to close their doors because the founder died, and retail was all they did. That was in June of 04. So this was an acquisition that kind of fell in our laps. We jumped on it.

Q: Can you tell us a little about the different challenges that the retail market presents?
It’s obviously a different business from corporate. The merchandisers have a different focus. We do work nationally and all retailers have a very large inhouse staff that implements the project, so we usually aren’t involved in implementation. It’s designed through construction documents and they do all the rest on their own. We only come in at the end and do a final punch list. We’re seldom involved in the construction process.

Q: Other than corporate and retail, are there any other sectors that are a big part of your business?
Again, we’re trying to diversify and have our eggs in many different baskets, really for self preservation. For example, we’ve been doing Equinox health clubs all over the country. We’ve done several restaurants and now we’re involved with Rosa Mexicana, which is a brand that’s being taken nationally. We did one in New York, we’re doing another in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and we’re going to be doing one in Vegas. We’re involved with Bliss Spa to help them roll out all their different concepts.

There are just a lot of things that we’re into that we weren’t into five years ago. 

Q: Are there other markets you’re looking to expand into?
We’re very close to another acquisition to get very seriously involved in base building. We’re primarily interior architects, so we’re looking to do an acquisition with a firm that has expertise in designing buildings.
It’s extremely exciting. It’s going to happen shortly. We’re just at the tail end of working everything out.

Q: What’s the role of environmental sustainability in the design community, and particularly at Mancini-Duffy?
Again, we need to be properly positioned. We put a focus on our staff to get their LEED accreditation. To be smart, we want to be rewarding people for constantly learning and getting proper pedigrees. But frankly, it’s not something that the New York marketplace is that concerned about yet. A very small percentage of clients really care about it. 
I think New York has a different consciousness and it’s more status driven than being a good shepherd of the earth.

Q: Your staff size is up significantly from a couple of years ago. Is that from acquisitions?
No. It’s because of the market. We’re back up to just about where we were at the height of our size, when we had about 200. So we’re getting there.

Q: Is it fair to say that Mancini-Duffy went through some tough times around the turn of this century?
Everybody had a tough time then. Some people went out of business, including some firms that were well known, in New York and across the country. I think we did an incredible job of staying the course. We managed our finances very well, putting money aside in the good years to be able to weather the storm, because after 2000, when the dotcom bubble burst, we knew that we were going to have a tough ride. You could just tell. That money we put aside, money that was going to allow us to weather the storm. And that’s very unusual for any architecture or design firm to do, because most people really pay it all out. When they earn it, they disburse it. We decided to keep it. You pay a lot of taxes on the stuff you decide to keep, but it was a prudent business decision and it really allowed us to weather the storm. And we came out of it stronger, smarter and better positioned.

Q: Right after the dotcom collapse came 9/11, and you had to move. Could you tell us a little about that?
We ended up on 13th Street. We needed to be below 14th Street in order to participate in what the city was offering in the way of rebuilding downtown New York, and anything below 14th Street was considered downtown. So we were able to get financial aid per staff member from the city and the state. That was important.

Q: How did the NY market change following 9/11 and the recession? Is it a different place to work now?
Well, the recession was long and hard for everybody. Every market sector in our client base was shrinking, except for law firms; they were growing. So prior to the recession, I would say that 65% of our business was coming from financial institutions. During the recession, they were one of the biggest downsizers in New York. And by the way, the financial sector drives New York City, and all other industries, such as law firms and accounting. Banking drives the city. It always has, and it will continue to do so. So when that dried up, that hurt us tremendously, and in the process, our law firm business increased tremendously.

We follow the leasing activity in New York City to the letter, so whichever market sector has the greatest leasing activity, that mirrors us. We realized in mid 05—when everybody was coming out of recession—that the financial markets, all those large institutions—JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Wachovia, Bank of America—that they were going to be waking up, and we had to position ourselves and be ready when it started to come alive again. And so, it has come alive, and we were ready. We had the right people in place to be able to respond, and that piece of the business has started to pick up.

New York is extremely busy, and the challenge now is that there is a real talent shortage, a real people shortage, and we’re all feverishly stealing people from each other.

Q: Was there any change in the way you did business following 9/11 and what was surely a traumatic event for Mancini-Duffy?
Well, I think we put it behind us and said we have to go forward, so we didn’t dwell on it. You’ve got to keep going. We used the recession, though, as an opportunity to internally make ourselves more streamlined, more efficient, more standardized, so that we’re more efficient now.

Q: How would you characterize the current state of the interior design industry?
Well, in New York it’s very, very strong. DC is almost as strong. But we think it’s going to be short lived, and we always need to be prepared for another downturn.

Q: Are you going to keep your focus on the eastern seaboard or do you intend to open up new territories?
Our approach has always been that we’re going to go where our clients take us. For instance, in San Francisco a major client took us there and that’s how that was born. So we go wherever a large project might take us.

That’s one way, and the other way is obviously to do an acquisition. But I think we’re probably focusing on not doing an acquisition that’s further than a two hour plane ride. We’re not that good at it yet.

Q: Are there any particular interior design trends of note?
There’s still a movement toward clients being very cost conscious.

Q: How does that reflect itself in the job?
That requires a multifaceted answer. It depends on how much they want to pay for us. If they only want to pay very little for us, then we can’t be innovative. We have to give them a more standard solution. If they’re willing to pay more, we can take them to all sorts of great places. It really depends on the organization. And our clients run the full gamut.

Q: What are the most important interior design elements in your work?
For us, it’s more about getting a real three dimensional architectural solution, and not relying on a decorative solution to carry the day.

Q: What would you like to get from flooring producers that you don’t get now?
I tell this to everybody: quick sample turnaround. That’s the most important thing. By quick, I mean a week. I think they’re all struggling to figure out how to do that.

Q: Would you say that you specify more hard surface compared to carpet than you used to?
No. Maintenance is always a big discussion point and clients come with different points of view as to what’s easier for them to maintain. There’s not a right or wrong answer to hard surface versus carpet in terms of maintenance. 

Q: Where do you think the firm will be in five years?
The four leadership executives of this firm are going to meet at the end of this month for a day. We’re going to actually hash that out, where we think we need to be and where we want to be. So I can’t answer that, other than to say that our mission is still to diversify both geographically and by market sector. We will continue on that path.

Some of it’s very strategic and focused. For example, there’s a passion in people for what they want to do and there’s also a demographic that tells you what you should be thinking about seriously, but the passion perhaps isn’t there. The demographics tell you in some way, shape or form that we really need to begin thinking about assisted living centers and hospitality. But unless one of our partners has a passion to drive that, it’s not going to happen and we’re kidding ourselves. So we have to do a lot of soul searching, and we’re always relying on a partner to have the passion to drive it there. 

Lisa Contreras, resource director for the retail group, talks about specifying floors:


  • Hard surface in general is more common in the retail sector than in corporate, but carpet is still strong.

  • For clients like Bloomingdales, carpet, and sometimes wood, is used in the departments and other hard surfaces are installed in the aisles. Vinyl and VCT are found in areas like fitting rooms, usually in creative applications rather than relying on the inherent decorative qualities of the products.


  • Concrete is in demand right now. Colored concrete, along with mosaics in creative designs, are key components in the Rosa Mexicano restaurant chain that Mancini-Duffy is designing

  • Products like Amtico's vinyls, bamboo and high end rubber flooring are in demand for certain retail applications, while cork is rare.


  • Porcelain tiles that don't just look like faux stone, designs that take advantage of the creative possibilities of porcelain.

  • For carpet, there's demand for design mentalities that move beyond corporate and hospitality styling.

  • Demand for green products is light on the retail side.


Mancini-Duffy designer and associate Erin Sherman talks about specifying floors:


  • Corporate interiors, Sherman says, are still dominated by carpet for its acoustical properties, comfort underfoot and cost.

  • In the New York market, which tends to have a more conservative aesthetic--particularly in the financial sector--broadloom is more common than carpet tile, which lends itself to a more contemporary sensibility.

  • In its corporate work, Mancini-Duffy doesn't expect carpets and other interior elements, like furniture and fabrics, to be designed to coordinate, leaving those choices to the creativity of its designers.

  • Carpet is generally selected early on, since it's such a dominant interior design element and affects the entire space.

  • Mancini-Duffy generally prefers to navigate around neutral tones for carpet, with brighter colors for accents, or to define areas like corridors.

  • The firm is careful in its use of patterned carpet since it's more susceptible to trends and shifting fashions.

  • Sherman would like to see more coordinated broadlooms for use in areas of differing functions within a single installation.


  • While products like cork and bamboo are used more often in the corporate sector, in part because of their environmental sustainability, they're still fairly uncommon.

  • When it comes to hard surface flooring, more often it's porcelain or terrazzo tile in pantries, storage areas, cafeterias and bathrooms.

Copyright 2006 Floor Focus Inc

Related Topics:The International Surface Event (TISE)