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Meet Kevin Kelley of Shook Kelley on Melrose Avenue

Today we’d like to introduce you to Kevin Kelley.

Kevin, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
Although my father and grandfather were legendary newspaper leaders with deep advertising backgrounds—straight from the era of the MadMen types—I took a radically different path and decided to be an architect when I was six years old. Although I had scant knowledge of what an architect actually does, I was fascinated with how creating the perfect setting could change the way people feel, behave and interact with each other. When I started studying architecture at the University of NC at Charlotte, I created my own thesis of sorts to examine how environment affects behavior. During my education, I was surprised to find out that so much of architectural field of study was consumed with art and the laws of aesthetics (scale, composition and color) –which is all very conscience and intellectual— but very little of the profession was studying how people perceive the built environment from a physical, biological, sociological, anthropological, emotional or social perspective. Put simply, I was less interested in teaching people how to appreciate fine art and more interested in understanding how they encounter and interact with the real world on a sub-conscious level. I was particularly sympathetic and empathetic with what the average person goes through in their typical day. While museums, civic centers, stadiums, etc. are grandiose objects of spectacle, most people go through their day to day lives using dry cleaners, grocery stores, gas stations, parks, schools, banks, etc. I wanted to make these environments more conducive to living. I worked for a few firms doing large scale mall projects, but eventually in 1992 I co-founded this firm with my business partner, Terry Shook. We developed our own proprietary process for analyzing how people perceive their world and how environment affects behavior. Understanding these kinds of insights is of particular interest to any business that has “place” as a core part of their business plan and really value proposition. The clients we work with—Harley Davidson, Whole Foods, Kraft, Nabisco, Smucker, Gelsons, ArcLight and many other notable names— all have place as a key part of their business and they want to learn about the latest thinking and science for how they can improve their physical experience. To be clear, these insights are not about manipulating humans into buying more, but instead are focused on how to convene people in physical places that are centered around a core idea, forum and distinctive experience. Our approach is alchemy of branding, science and design. And our staff today is comprised of architects, interior designers, graphic designers, merchandising specialists. brand strategists, marketing experts, advertising professionals, cultural anthropologists and more. The companies that hire us today are looking to first figure what brings people together in a physical place and how they too can convene them around their brands.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Well on one level creating the business was pretty challenging because we had no other models or prototype firms. What traditional architects did was too limited for what we were trying to do. And while the advertising/marketing firms had certain aspects we were interested in, they did not understand the design science of space, place making and the physical world. We also looked a lot to the research world, particularly as it related to social science, but we found they tended to look at what has happened in the past or current, but not as much for insights into what could happen in the future, which is where experiential design innovation comes in. So we had to create our own type of consultancy and we had to convince clients they should try out this new type of service, even though there was no prior precedent or line item of the typical corporate spreadsheet for this type of service. However, as challenging as all this was, we were pleasantly surprised at how much the corporate world really wanted and needed the type of services we had pioneered, developed and perfected over time. The work we do with companies today doesn’t just touch their physical experiences, but as well starts to set the agenda for the brand strategy, culture mission, and larger strategy of the enterprise.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with Shook Kelley – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
We are known for creating places that have the power to convene people around an idea, forum and experience. Unlike many architects we do not believe that capitalism and commerce is the enemy of art or humankind. In fact, our belief is that since the beginning of civilization, the center of the community was always built around the agora, or ancient marketplace. And we are very interested in finding the intersection of where commerce and community meet in pro-social ways that solves people’s problems and make people’s lives better. One side of our firm, which my partner heads up, focuses heavily on large scale mixed used community, urban districts and town planning. The other side of our firm, which I head up, focuses on working with retail and food brands to help them attract and convene people around their venues. We sometimes joke that my partner is focused on how the boxes come together, whereas I am focused on the singular box. We are quite famous for our expertise in food, whether it be restaurant design or grocery store design. Back in the 90’s, grocery stores were mundane, chore-like experiences. Although our firm had never worked on a grocery store before, the first grocery store we did was called a grocery store on steroids. People absolutely loved going to our stores because they were so experiential. As I mentioned earlier, we believe that everyday experiences can be made extraordinary, and that is what we focus on a lot here at the firm. Probably what sets apart from most firms is our comprehensive approach to helping companies develop a strategy that is connected to what’s going in society with that of the best thinking in experience design.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
There have been a lot changes in the world these days with the advent of the internet and the globalism. Most of the institutions we all grew up with—department stores, newspapers, travel agencies, banks, universities, etc.—are all going through a period of massive disruption, but we don’t believe that the experience of encountering our world on a physical and social level is going away. People still need to meet in person, and still need to operate and exist in the physical world. We have been focused on studying how these new world changes are going to change the way businesses, institutions and other entities exist in both the physical and digital world. While many people think the physical is going away, we actually believe and find that it is becoming even better, more appreciated and more essential to life.

Contact Info:

  • Address: Shook Kelley
    5735 Melrose Avenue,
    Los Angeles, CA 90048
  • Website: www.shookkelley.com
  • Phone: 310-659-9482
  • Email: kevinkelley@shookkelley.com
  • Instagram: @shookkelley
  • Facebook: @shookkelley

Getting in touch: VoyageLA is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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