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In Memoriam: Jon Greenberg, 1925-2017

Ken Nisch, FRDI, recalls the life and legacy of his friend and mentor Jon Greenberg, the retail design pioneer and founder of Jon Greenberg Associates.


First and foremost, Jon will be remembered as a loving father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and friend. Beyond that, he will be remembered as a noble businessman and for his great accomplishments in the business world. Jon founded Jon Greenberg Associates, JGA, in 1971. The company is approaching 50 years in business, a particular accomplishment in the creative world.

Jon had a knack for identifying the right people for the right job, and his first selection when starting his business, was clearly one of his best, his wife Adelyn. Now whether Adelyn found Jon or Jon found Adelyn, I’m sure will be a topic of discussion, but Adelyn’s talent for the dramatic paired with her business and pragmatic side complemented Jon’s energy, sense of the customer, and ability to see what was next in the retail world.

Jon’s engineering background and belief in analytics brought a science to retail design and elevated the importance of strategy to what was primarily an exercise in decoration. Jon advocated and instituted disciplines around measuring results, better understanding how customers shopped, and the science of shopping. He brought a number of technical innovations into the industry. During his younger years working in the grocery industry, Jon saw early on that retail was growing towards self-service. He saw that customers were looking for both excitement as well as ease when they were shopping. He observed that the consumer of the 1970’s was looking for more than just acquisition, and that increasingly shopping was becoming more about lifestyle than pure function.

While Jon and Adelyn started the company as a “mom and pop” business when the design industry was much defined by being in New York, San Francisco, etc., they never thought like a “mom and pop.” Instead, they built a national reputation working with and promoting standards and improvements within trade associations in the art, home improvement, stationery, and gift segments.

Today, the company that Jon started with Adelyn from the basement of their Southfield home works around the globe – North America, Asia, the Middle East, South and Central America. If you have been to the Detroit airport, The Henry Ford, DIA, the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty, or even Mecca – yes Mecca – you probably have seen the work of JGA. The business started in Detroit working with brands such as Hudson’s, Winkelman’s, Avin’s, Sibley’s, Tapper’s, but concurrently, with international brands such as Valentino, Charles Jourdan, and Fendi.

But, I believe Jon would say his biggest legacy and his point of pride was seeing now almost four generations of people who have found a home to do what they love: design and create, provide for their families, build their dreams, and bring a bit of “surprise and delight” into other people’s lives through their efforts.

Each year Jon and Adelyn would come back to JGA for “Founder’s Day” to reconnect with former colleagues (yes there is a large number of people who are with the company who worked directly with Jon and Adelyn). They would talk to new designers who get a laugh out of Jon talking about taking the train or the first fax machine we had in our office. One of his favorite stories was about the time he told Sam Walton that he had to wait a month or so for him to visit in Arkansas as he had other pressing priorities . . . yes, Jon liked to laugh and no more so than to laugh at himself! But, again, Jon’s greatest sense of accomplishment and joy was in the opportunity, the encouragement, and the mentoring he was able to share with colleagues and newcomers to the industry.

Jon loved to be a catalyst and to make things happen, bring people together, and see something move from inspiration to reality. In the 25+ years since Jon retired, a year never went by that a call didn’t come from Jon that he met someone on a golf course, or a cruise, or a grocery line whose meeting had led to a conversation about an opportunity for JGA. Jon never ceased being excited about what the company was doing, its successes and challenges, and the people. He was always ready with encouragement and very respectful and appreciated advice.

Jon will be missed by the company and his friends at JGA.

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