Gina Berndt, ’79, Artfully Leads as Chief Marketing Officer for Perkins&Will

By Eva Richards

gina-berndt-imageGina Berndt, '79, earned her B.F.A. in interior design.

For Gina Berndt, ’79, working for global architecture and design firm Perkins&Will is the perfect blend of business and design.

 “I find fulfillment in helping others learn, grow and reach their goals,” said Berndt, who is the newly appointed chief marketing officer for the firm after leading the Chicago studio for nine years. “Building upon the talents of creative people and seeing the social impacts of our work is inspiring. I love telling those stories, which is a big part of marketing.”

Berndt notes that, at Perkins&Will, their people are their values. She works to showcase the brilliant work of her colleagues, which strengthens existing client relationships, and helps attract new clients. Under her leadership, Perkins&Will has been recognized by Interior Design magazine as a "Most Admired Firm" and on Architectural Record’s 2017 list of Top Architectural Firms.

“Perkins&Will is a unique organization. We serve a broad range of clients and deliver many different project types,” she said. “What weaves the organization together is a genuine commitment to the health of our people, our planet and 'the broader goals of society'—a phrase that was once printed on the back of our business cards but remains prominent in our culture.”

In November, Perkins&Will was recognized by Fast Company as a “Brand that Matters,” which speaks to the ethos of the firm. The company touts that design has the “power to inspire joy, uplift lives and strengthen the spirit of community.” As chief marketing officer, Berndt sets this principle into action by communicating it to the world.

“I work with other leaders in the firm to set the strategic direction,” she said. "I have been very blessed throughout my career to work with talented people. I lead a team that seeks to communicate our knowledge and capabilities effectively with our clients, develop talent to meet our clients’ challenges, and present the very best of our firm to a wide range of audiences, from talent just entering the workforce, academia, our profession, and, of course, our valued clients.”

Each day’s work is quite different for Berndt, with some hours being spent on long-term strategic initiatives, while others are spent working directly with teams to win new business or find a creative way to respond to a client need. 

Creativity always came naturally to Berndt, who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Berwyn, which is known for its collection of 1920s Chicago-style bungalows. Her love of art is what sparked her interest in interior design at a young age, but her strength in both marketing and finance solidified her transition from an interior design professional to a business leader. 

“Growing up in a family of three girls, I had many interests, but was drawn to dance, visual arts, and student government,” she said. “I knew NIU had a good art program. Plus, I had friends that were planning to attend, and it was not too far from home. My experience was very positive at NIU, and, looking back, it was the perfect choice for me.”

Berndt majored in interior design with a minor in art history, earning her B.F.A. Her courses offered a historical foundation and meaningful context for the talents she had always enjoyed.

“I was able to take both technical and creative classes,” she said. “Being a visual person, history came alive to me through the arts. I was also able to study abroad, in Copenhagen, Denmark, my junior year. This was life-changing for me. I traveled extensively throughout the Nordic countries and Europe and was able to go to Russia over spring break. My mind and spirit expanded by exposure to so many different cultures and experiences. This experience positively impacts me to this day.”

After graduation, Berndt started her career working for a small retail store planning firm and, after one year, she moved to work for Continental Bank in Chicago inside the real estate and facilities group. 

“This was a wonderful experience, seeing the work of design through the client’s lens. There, I worked on projects throughout the United States and traveled extensively – again expanding my mind and spirit,” she said.

After five years, she joined the First National Bank of Chicago—also in their real estate and facilities group—and led a very large project in New York before moving to PHH Environments, which was a national commercial interior design firm. After three years with the firm, the parent company decided they wanted to divest of this business line. After much discussion and negotiation, Berndt bought the business with four colleagues, and they founded The Environments Group in 1991. 

“Leading a business in all aspects was an education and a labor of love. For almost 20 years, I loved building client relationships, leading teams, and building a business through each challenge and joy,” Berndt said. 

In 2008, The Environments Group merged with Perkins&Will, expanding the team’s capabilities to serve clients and offer more growth and opportunity for team members. 

After joining the firm, Berndt led the Corporate Interiors Practice, then moved to the role of managing director of the Chicago Studio in 2013, and to global chief marketing officer in 2021. She also serves as chair of the firm’s marketing board and sits on its board of directors. 

Berndt thoroughly enjoys her work and maintains that staying true to her instincts is what has led to her success. Reflecting back at her time at NIU, she knows her time there changed her career trajectory forever.

“How did NIU impact my life? If I could sum it up in one word, I would say confidence,” she said. “The B.F.A. program was challenging. After sophomore year, a portfolio review was required before advancing. We were required to present our ideas, and they were challenged in positive ways. The international experience was amazing and, again, a confidence-builder. The curriculum taught me discipline, rigor and commitment to my work. I am grateful for the foundation and friendships I built at NIU!”