Of place and past

An interview with Carrie Norman and Thomas Kelley

Norman Kelley, Inc. was founded by architects Carrie Norman and Thomas Kelley, whose partnership started auspiciously while sharing a desk as students at University of Virginia. Unlike most offices, Norman Kelley work jointly out of New Orleans and Chicago, with each place informing the tradition of their work.

Designers of both Aesop Lincoln Park and Aesop Bucktown in Chicago, Normal Kelley’s approach to collaboration suits Aesop’s approach to store design, which celebrates the difference each collaborator brings, lending surprise and nuance to built space. Read on below for an interview with the two architects about their work and the great city of the Midwest, Chicago.

Aesop 

By way of introduction, how did the two of you meet and how would you define your practice? 

Norman Kelley 

Norman Kelley was founded in 2012, but we first met in 2002 studying architecture at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. During that time, we even shared a desk while working for a couple of professors. We would later reconnect at Princeton’s Graduate School of Architecture where we would establish our shared interests in architectural drawing as both a technique and a theoretical agenda. Since completing school, we have been working together ever since, but always from the vantage points of two cities. First, New York and Chicago. And now, New Orleans and Chicago.

We regard our practice as an architecture and design collaborative. We have no employees, only collaborators. Some of them we compensate, some of them compensate us. We relish the stigmas associated with the term ‘collaboration’ and how it is often used to replace authorship with ambiguity. For better, our collaborations keep us fluid. A collaborator can take many forms: a non-profit institution, a performance artist, a ceramicist, a luxury brand, or even a graduate student. Whatever the input, Norman Kelley’s professional services tend to revolve around drawing and investigating the space between two- and three-dimensions. 

As neither of you are originally from Chicago, what does the city now mean to you? How has it become significant to you and your practice?

For us, Chicago embodies humility. The city set the tone for western architectural history not just once, but twice—first in the late 19th century with the first Chicago School of John Root through to the mid-20th century with the second Chicago School of Mies van der Rohe. With such grandiose beginnings its citizens still retain a humble view of Chicago’s global influence on the discipline of architecture. The fact that Chicago is often referred to by outsiders as a ‘second city’ does not bother Chicagoans; instead, it invigorates them to continually challenge expectations. 

Since we believe that Chicago is in the middle of its third school, or creative birth—fueled by architects and artists (and artist-architects) like Jeanne Gang, Virgil Abloh, John Ronan, Theaster Gates, and Amanda Williams—we feel a great sense of responsibility to shape Chicago and project its cultural capital onto the world. We are constantly asking the question: how do we balance humility with confidence? 


Inspiration collage for Aesop Lincoln Park, 2017. View of Mies van der Rohe relaxing on North Avenue Beach with view of Stanley Tigerman’s ‘Titanic’ in the background. Courtesy of Norman Kelley.

Carrie—by practicing outside of Chicago, from New Orleans, how can you describe your relationship with Chicago? How do you think this informs your perspective and work?   

Speaking as someone who has not lived in Chicago but studied it extensively, first in school and later in practice, I think we would look to Chicago for lessons in our craft even if one of us was not based there. As much as Chicago is considered local turf to us, it is foremost an American city with an unparalleled architectural heritage. Its list of credits include the first skyscraper, not to mention an abundance of landmarks by Mies, Sullivan, FLW, Adler, H.H. Richardson, and Burnham, to name a few. This also means there’s a lot of great work in the shadows that, for whatever reason, is lesser known or yet to be discovered. It either blends in too well or is hiding behind something existing. This is a little like our work—it tries to be exceptional but also negotiate its surroundings by opting to blend in. 

Thomas, you are based in Chicago and within the Monadnock building—itself a significant landmark in Chicago’s architectural history. Why practice in this building, and how does it inspire your work? 

My love of the Monadnock is twofold. First, the building is conveniently located midway between where my family lives and where I teach at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Second, and more importantly, it also happens to be one of my top five favorite buildings of all time. When it was first erected, people did not know what to make of it. In 1891, it would have looked like an alien. Now, we regard it as a harbinger of the Modern era due to its approach to ornament (or lack thereof) and its novel collapse of form and structure. 

We are fond of practicing in the Monadnock because even today, the building continues to set the standard for how structure and aesthetics should blend into a holistic tectonic. Historians and popular culture alike love to aggrandize Mies van der Rohe’s innovations on Modern tectonics, but the Monadnock came first. Look at its exterior corner detail from Jackson Boulevard: the same brick moves with such ease from a thick hard edge to a thin soft edge. Inside, its ground lobby is a utopian street, flanked on both sides by a diverse array of see-through storefronts. Each day I arrive to work I feel like I’m going back in time, but towards an image of the future. 


Sketch of Monadnock Building by Burnham and Root, 1889. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Speaking more broadly to Chicago and its robust architectural history, it seems to have inspired much of what you do. How does this landscape inform your work through style, materiality, or direct influences? 

Relative to most cities, Chicago’s architectural history has a fairly easy through line; more like a Florence than a Rome thanks in part to a destructive fire in 1871. In our work, we like to complicate that seemingly legible history. After all, Chicago’s social history is far more convoluted, and its architecture should be required to wrestle with that sense of conflict. Because most of our work is often applied to something existing—a public library façade or a factory interior, for example—we expose new contexts, or lenses, to see something old. We often extend this form of seeing into the ways we work with materials. An exterior material is interiorized, or a 19th century domestic plan is applied to a retail environment. Some influences are more direct than others, while others are meant to slow you down. The Midwest is not known for its nuance, but if you look closely it is not for lack of trying; it’s related to modesty. That modesty can then be translated into surprise, wit, charm, illusion, etcetera. We learned that from our late friend, Stanley Tigerman.  

How does Norman Kelley’s work have a cultural dialogue with the history and neighborhoods of Chicago? Do you see a sociological role your work plays within the city? 

Sadly, Chicago is not one, but two cities. This dualism is not easily defined: northside and southside, Loop and neighborhoods, city proper and surrounding suburbs. It is a divide that transcends geography, rooted in years of socioeconomic and racial tension. And while that divide is currently being questioned by many creatives and policy-makers alike—many of whom we are fortunate to regard as our friends and collaborators—our contribution to this discourse takes shape in our practice’s research on physical and theoretical optics.

Like Chicago, our work is often divided between multiple audiences. No matter our audience’s eyes (new, old, seasoned, or amateur), our work asks them to look twice. In doing so, we manage attention spans. Eyes are invited to slow down, look closely and question their conditioned responses. With some works, that means studying the banal idiosyncrasies of neighborhood culture or drawing connections between accessibility and aesthetics. In all cases, the work bends toward inclusivity in how we approach architecture’s single most important medium: the drawing. We believe that identity begins with how one draws. In recent years, we’ve been able to work with community projects to showcase how drawing informs how one sees the world. For example, we are currently working on a project to teach figure drawing to young Chicago artists and entrepreneurs. As a workshop on design identity, we hope to engage directly with Chicago’s youth and help inform new ways of affecting change on the world of consumerism and imageability. 

Can we see this in your projects with Aesop? 

With our two Aesop projects in Chicago, we aimed to collapse a couple different audiences—downtown and neighborhood. At Aesop Bucktown, we draw your attention to Chicago’s alleys. By using a ubiquitous material—the Chicago common brick—we speak to the city’s history of rebirth. After the fire of 1871, the Chicago common brick was used as a fast and economical building material. Today, we work with a brickyard in Pilsen’s neighborhood to source this aging material in other projects as well. At Aesop Lincoln Park, we draw your attention to a figurehead—the architect Mies van der Rohe—whose Chicago buildings have had a large impact on the world. In this project, however, we sidestep the commercial and residential towers Mies is known for building throughout Chicago and focus one’s attention on the domestic scale of architecture he designed before immigrating to the United States in the late 1930s. So, with both Aesop projects, we speak to two perspectives on how to understand Chicago’s relationship to itself and the world.

Norman Kelley Stairs
norman kelley bricks

If we look even closer, you mentioned how your practice has a rich sense of engagement and exchange with individuals in the city. What is the importance of this network? 

Before moving to Chicago, we have always subscribed to the concept of ‘Midwest nice’—a stereotype that Midwesterners are inherently honest, inclusive, and friendly. In that sense, we pride our practice on its ability to preserve a critical identity while simultaneously shaping our ideas through the intentions of others. We listen carefully to our collaborators and credit them carefully. The era of the master architect is dead, and we firmly believe that ideation in any form of creative discipline is a team sport. Lately that has meant playing with some really amazing partners, like the artist Brendan Fernandes or non-profit institutions like the Graham Foundation. With each collaboration, we’re introduced to a world of new knowledge. With Brendan, we were warmly introduced to BDSM culture and the Whitney Museum of American Art. With a new collaboration with the ceramicist, Anders Ruhwald, we aim to learn more about craft poetics through ceramics. And each time we play with the Graham Foundation, we’re helping shape an institution that is becoming as influential in art and architecture as the Art Institute of Chicago or the Museum of Contemporary Art.  

Lastly, what have you learnt about yourself, your practice and the city in developing these projects and relationships? 

You are only as good as your surroundings. Chicago is a city that continues to struggle with its own identity. Like Chicago, so do we. Our practice is continually changing and testing the boundaries of what constitutes as architecture and what it means to practice architecture in a contemporary city. When we first arrived in Chicago in 2009, there was a sense that the city was on the verge of a tipping point, both culturally and politically. Now, our Mayor is the first black female and first openly gay mayor in our country’s history. With that, we not only believe that our practice still has much to learn from Chicago, but we believe that so does the world.   

‘The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.

Albert Einstein