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AR_EA USA: Norman Kelley

‘For us an ink drawing is as much a building material as are bricks and mortar’

Who are you?
Norman Kelley is a design and architecture collaborative founded in 2012 by Carrie Norman and Thomas Kelley.

Where are you based?
Chicago (Thomas Kelley) and New York (Carrie Norman).

Where do you come from?
Nowhere specific.  We both grew up in a lot of different places like Australia, Germany, Peru, Washington D.C., California, Wisconsin, Ohio and Arizona. Architecturally, we both studied at the University of Virginia and Princeton University.

Why did you become architects?
We love to draw­—and to draw big.  A small bonus in architecture is that sometimes those drawings manifest themselves into three-dimensions.

What kind of work do you do?
We began our practice making furniture and drawing on walls.  We are now beginning to move into small commercial and residential building design.  At present the work isn’t motivated by scale or medium, but by optics and its illusory gimmicks.  We’re currently working on a project for an Australian skincare brand where we hope to inspire some further insight into this line of research, or what we refer to as “eyecon” architecture.


The comb-back writing armchair

What is it like being an architect where you are?
Like in most major cities, it’s competitive and historically loaded.  That said, we’re lucky to have a strong support system from a cast of inspiring and accessible critics, architects, and curators.  People like Robert E. Somol, Stanley Tigerman, and Sarah Herda keep us out of trouble.    

What is the context (social, political, architectural) in which you are working?
We like to think of ourselves as right-wing disciplinarians (i.e. architecture history nerds).  Much of today’s avant-garde forgets history in favor of novelty or unprecedented subject matter.  We like to source architecture’s history because it’s familiar, almost normal, to us.  We do this not to alienate our audience, but as a means of establishing trust.  In this context, our work aims to produce new readings of old stuff.  The end game is a simple double-take.

What inspires you these days?
Naiveté and calculated mistakes. Like a child drawing on the walls instead of in her coloring book, we believe it is far more entertaining to modify the rules (of tradition, of convention), than it is to simply break them. Of course, the child is most pleased when their action goes noticed, provokes a reaction. For us, the desired effect is similar, but we’d rather if Mom and Dad would draw on the walls with us. Preying on the familiar found within our shared histories and culture of tradition, we hope, offers this.

What project are you most proud of and why?
A collection of Windsor Chairs we designed while researching “error.”  The project has set the tone for our shared obsession with geometry, craft, mischief, deadpan, and designing as little as possible.  It has also inspired us to address architectural concerns through the lens of other design disciplines. 

What is unique about your work?
Nothing. Look closely and you’ll see that it’s all been done before.  Maybe even better the first time around. 

What is your favourite building material or building technique?
Ink!  For us an ink drawing is as much a building material as are bricks and mortar. That said, right now we’re actually fascinated by dizzying brick bonds and Frank Lloyd Wright mortar joints.


The Early Learning Play Column

How do you get ideas?
By looking closely at the ordinary. This often translates to paying close attention to our client’s shoes, the typology of an adjacent building instead of our own site, cheap building materials, and archaic histories.  From here we toy with new narratives to elevate our found context and inspire it to outdo its point of origin.

What are your favourite design tools (models, hand drawing, digital 3D modeling, SketchUp, etc.)?
Manual and digital drawing. 

What would be your ideal project?
An exquisite corpse drawing with Madelon Vriesendorp and John Hejduk.

Where do you hope to go from here? 
To continue to find a balance between theory and the everyday.  For us that means working with forward thinking clients who have a vested interest in making a lasting contribution to popular culture. 

What do you want to be remembered for? 
Making you look twice.

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