Talent and Tomatoes: Tom Ning Reflects on Life as an Architect
With a curious spirit and a love of art and design, Tom Ning, RA, realized he wanted to be an architect in elementary school. He arrived in Fort Wayne, Indiana, from Hong Kong with his family at age seven and became a U.S. citizen when he was 18. Earning associate degrees in construction technology and interior design and a Bachelor of Architectural Engineering from Purdue University, Tom continued his studies at The Ohio State University where he obtained a Master of Architecture. As an intern for Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill in their Chicago office, Tom had the opportunity to work on the Canary Wharf project before returning to Indiana to work for a 12-person firm with two computers and reams of paper. These were the wheels that set Tom’s career in full motion. Years later, he’s continuing to leave marks on central Indiana’s architectural design community as an asset to the Schmidt Associate team. We recently caught up with Tom to learn more about his career and the things that make him tick.
What fueled your interest in architecture?
I was always interested in how buildings were put together and why each building looked different. This got me wanting to learn more about design theory. I was not a confident artist, though I always enjoyed art. Over time, I came to realize that architecture is art with structure. There are rules, but once those rules are met, there is a freedom for design.
Who were some of your influences?
Everyone I meet influences me in some way. However, there have been people who shaped me and my thinking of architecture and design. Retired Principal Tom Neff taught me how to listen to clients and how the smallest details can become elements to a client or user. David DeValaria influenced my use of contextual elements as a generator of design. Jose Oubreie taught me how to think design and theory. Design is a state of mind where you need to be receptive to design to fully understand and appreciate it.
You have now been with Schmidt Associates for half of your working life. What have you enjoyed about working for the firm?
I love the people and seeing how things have changed. When I started as an architect, everything was done on paper, so drawing on computers was a huge change. But, even with advancements, I’ll always consider myself to be a bit old school because I prefer to plan on paper. You really must think about how to build something and be more organized, whereas it’s easier to make something look pretty on a computer.
With so many years at the firm, do you have any favorite projects or special memories that come to mind?
Every project I have worked on is a favorite, but the ones that really stand out are Lake Central High School and the Lawrence Township Transportation Center. As for memories, I have really enjoyed all the ways we get to collaborate. Whether it’s something project-related or teaming up to remove a squirrel from the building, Schmidt Associates has a great environment because of the people who are like extended family members.
Beyond the design work you do, you love to share with others. What does this look like?
I do. Part of my Asian culture means I am always giving, and I enjoy seeing other people smile because of my selfless nature. Several years ago, I started planting a lot. I got that hobby from my dad who was a gardener. About six years ago, I started planting specialty tomatoes every spring when I couldn’t find anything beyond the grocery store varieties at local garden centers. I researched award-winning tomatoes, ordered the seeds, and before long, I had an abundance of plants—more than I’d ever need. I started bringing them into the office to share so I could make more room. Our company ambassador, Tricia Smith, suggested that if I was looking to move plants out of my house, I should share with my co-workers, and they could voluntarily donate to the tomato fund. It’s something everyone in the office looks forward to when the weather gets nicer. I also grow peppers and basil, and I’m trying to grow more flowers to attract bees.
What kind of feedback have you received from your efforts?
Everyone is always very appreciative. One of the ladies took a few plants to her mom last year, and I’m told she hasn’t stopped talking about how good they were. Her teammate is always seeking advice on how to best grow everything. Another guy suggested that I grow pineapple tomatoes, which have become an office favorite, and our sustainable design advocate, Craig Flandermeyer, makes a ton of different salsas from what we grow on the green roof for the staff.
And how do all the positive comments make you feel?
It’s just always nice to give, and really seeing the satisfaction that it brings others is what I love and appreciate the most. Whether it’s tomatoes, sharing refrigerator magnets that I make, or buying a toy for someone that I know they will like brings me joy. I’m very into arts and crafts, so I am always looking for new crafting ideas or skills to learn. Some of my past projects have included oil and acrylic painting, sewing, 3D printing, and two-part resin casting. Lately, I have been dabbling in UV resin casting and jewelry making. Even as a not-so-confident artist, I find I am always creating.
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