Since founding her practice in 2010, Darnstadt and her firm have been recognized as an emerging leader in architecture and have been published, exhibited and featured at the International Venice Biennale, Core 77 Design Awards, Chicago Ideas Week, NPR, and as the 2013 American Institute of Architects Young Architects Honor Award winner.
Photo: Julie Franzosa
Laid off. Married. Pregnant. When Katherine Darnstadt found herself in a career stalemate, this motivated young architect acted on her passion. Pursuing her dream of architecture for the social good, she took small steps to realize big dreams, starting with Fresh Moves--a mobile produce market inside a decommissioned transit bus which provides access to nutritious food and education in areas where it is not available locally—in collaboration with Architecture for Humanity Chicago. This award-winning project has given her the confidence and nod to advocate for public interest design for the benefit of the community and beyond. Katherine has begun to transform Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods one-by-one, a long-range goal of hers. She is an
educator and mentor to the next generation of global thinkers, inventors, and architects.
When did you start Latent Design?
In a 6-month span in 2010 I was promoted, received my license, was laid off, got married, then found out I was pregnant. You not only have the dramatic professional change of finally hitting this goal—I’m licensed, I’m an architect—but also dramatic personal change and the unexpectedness of all that happening at once, which is how it framed starting Latent Design. I had this stark choice: I’m an architect, legally, professionally and I could either be an architect right now or I could not.
Our industry in 2010 was at an extreme depression. I was in job purgatory because I had my license but only three years of experience. If I applied for jobs with that level of experience, no one wanted to pay for a licensed architect to do that type of work. If I applied for licensed architect jobs then I didn’t have enough experience. You only have a certain block of time, too, before no one wants to hire a pregnant woman. There were internships, but no pay.
In 2010 I founded Latent Design and the first thought in my head was ‘I’m an architect and can pick up small jobs. I’ll set this all up and 18 months from now, after I have my kid, and everything’s settled down, I’ll find a job. Someone’s going to hire me, right? I’ll look back on this time and laugh.’ And that never happened. Over time my plan B, Latent Design, had become plan A. Now you have to refocus and ask, ‘How do I grow this and be a firm, a good employer, good mentor, and train that next generation I want to advocate for?’
What are your Chicago roots?
I was born in Chicago and grew up just outside the city limits.
What led you to the path of architecture?
I started school at DePaul University and studied English and Philosophy. In my second year I realized that might not be a good career path. To the delight of my father, an electrical engineer and contractor, I said I wanted to go to IIT and study architecture.
Maybe architecture fell out of being on job sites and around buildings given my father had an electrical contracting firm. He was an entrepreneur and started from scratch. I think it’s the culmination of those two: being aware of the built environment and being curious about it at a young age, and thinking about what professions really have an impact on the world—doctors, policy, and buildings. I chose to enter architecture because naively I thought it was a way to incorporate both design and construction. I didn’t understand how divided architecture, engineering and general contracting industries really are in terms of how buildings get built, but I see that changing. I think that’s what makes Latent Design really unique; we’re a field and observational based firm.
How did your parents foster creativity and volunteerism?
Every Saturday we would hang out at my dad’s shop, meaning he would be in the office and say ‘go play in the shop’ go tinker, don’t blow the place up, don’t drive any trucks.’ My dad was and still is very pragmatic: ‘This is how it’s built, this is how it’s done, and this is what it takes to do it, any questions?’ My mother nurtured the creative side as I had an aptitude for drawing, painting, and music. She encouraged volunteerism because she wanted to go into the Peace Corps when she was in high school.
What did you want to be when you were 13?
When I was a pre-teen I wanted to be a librarian. When they were renovating our house, my mom found a piece of cursive writing paper of mine from elementary school that said I wanted to be an architect. That’s totally wild because I honestly don’t ever really remember having the desire to be an architect. I wanted to be a librarian and that was part of going to DePaul, studying English, wanting to go into that realm. I wanted a nice quiet job.
Did you work while you were in school?
I did a summer internship with my dad and taught the office how to use CAD. My freshman year at IIT I learned AutoCAD; I taught the office staff at the Freshman Center and also worked on projects for them. I worked on electrical plans for a Lucien LaGrange tower.
My first job in the city was a waitress and a hostess at Mon Ami Gabi in Lincoln Park. That’s when I first met Helmut Jahn. He was funny. I loved being the hostess and I think that is why I always worked customer service jobs. There is a microcosm of people coming up to your hostess stand, all different personalities, from super aggressive, and quasi VIP to just wanting to have a really good dinner. You have to react to that, and those skills make me very successful now. Customer service—you end up being a great community engager; you can stand on your own. I was a telemarketer in high school so I can cold-call anybody. In addition, I worked through college as a bartender.
When did your first significant career opportunity present itself?
Right out of school I worked for FitzGerald Associates Architects because I was interested in affordable housing. I studied in Paris and Copenhagen during college, and had this radical design shift. In Copenhagen, they deal with housing and equity issues through design. They use design as a tool to build equity and sustainable communities, and that was different than how it was treated in the U.S., and definitely in Chicago. They want to create elevated design for all income levels and they see being around this wonderful environment as an opportunity that elevates a person’s aspirations and hopefully brings them out of their situation. They also see affordable housing as something that’s temporary, and thus put in a significant amount of social structure behind that to make sure it’s a temporary piece. In addition, they see individuals that need affordable units not as the stereotype that we had in the U.S. in 2005-2006: predominantly minorities and single mother households. They see it as young adults, married couples, people coming out of school; a broader range of who qualifies for and needs quality affordable housing. That shifted how it was designed, built and executed, and the perception that was attached to it. It was used as a tool to promote young start-up firms, and they made sure they saw design as one of their exports. That inspired me to know more about affordable housing.
We’re catching up now: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her outgoing speech, talked about design as a source of American
power and export. Denmark was already there. They’re pushing craft, saying this is how they infiltrate and spread their culture and power and they see that as valued. We’re doing that more in the U.S.: they’re changing how federal buildings look, going from a fortress to something more transparent in physical and metaphysical ways. What I’ve been seeking is to build that design
infrastructure here in Chicago where it’s using design as that tool of equity.
How did you get involved with Architecture for Humanity?
I was trying to figure out, ‘How do I be an architect, what’s out there, what’s available for me?’ I wrote an email to the organization and they introduced me to four architects who were starting the Chicago chapter. In 2010 when I was unemployed I took on more of a role. We had some successful projects because we had people who were very interested in applying their architectural skill to projects in their own backyard. It was a very interesting form of nimbyism. Instead of: ‘Not in my backyard. Should I have this project?’ people were really thinking: ‘Not in my backyard. Should I have this problem?’ You really saw design activism come out of that.
Architecture for Humanity was defining the context through directly engaging community in a participatory design process, defining the content that we were going to design. All of the experiences with Architecture for Humanity posed the questions: ‘Why don’t we do this in practice? Why can’t Latent Design do this? If this is what we’re taught and this is how we build, why is there this huge gap? If organizations and non-profits fill this gap then why can’t it go into practice?’ That’s what started to push
and frame the mission of what we wanted to do at Latent Design and how we become a social impact design firm for the built
How did you arrive at the firm’s name?
Latent Design is really the pure definition of latent. We want to make the invisible visible through design. We look at all the factors that influence design—policy, environmentalism, community, power structures, municipal forces, culture, economy, environment—we want all of those to be manifested physically into the building itself. We then look at the other latent factors of influence at the final building that has those first influencing factors. How does that building now influence the community beyond that? When a building’s loved, that’s actually a well-designed building. We’re taught to look at the system of a building just by what’s inside it, from the shell to the interiors to an internalized professional structure. It is complex enough, the ecosystem of a building itself. But we also need to look at the ecosystem of building as part of and how that building influences other things, and manipulating these other areas can actually make a better building.
How many employees and interns?
We have one full time employee and two summer interns. The first two and a half years we only used contract employees on a project-by-project basis.
Latent Design is a registered ‘Benefit Corporation’ in the State of Illinois. Define.
A ‘Benefit Corporation' is a business organization structure of a corporation that has a triple bottom line business focus and is reflected in your articles of incorporation, your annual reports, and your overall business structure; your work and what you do has a greater benefit to the citizens of the state. Many people might have heard of B Corp, which is a third party certifier of businesses—from sole proprietorships, LLC’s, to corporations—that have a social impact within their work. A Benefit Corporation is actually a state level way to structure your business. We were the first architecture firm in the state to be registered as a Benefit Corporation.
What is the most challenging aspect of working with political/neighborhood groups?
Challenges arise from different personalities and agendas of those wanting to be an influencing factor. My particular brand of going about architecture and design is that we have fluency in both directions, with the community organizations in talking about what these projects mean and how they get implemented and with the policy officials. As professionals, we know both, and become a neutral source that can mediate this entire process. We want to be there early on and have intimate moments and honest talks with all involved.
A great example is the Fisk Power Plant Remediation and Redevelopment. Last year the mayor convened a task force to develop guiding principles for the redevelopment of both the Fisk Power Plant in Pilsen and the Crawford Power Plant in Little Village, coal fire power plants. The community organizations in both neighborhoods had been working for over a decade to get them closed down. They had a very effective marketing campaign right before the plants finally closed down; they worked with the EPA, the Sierra Club, and Natural Resources Defense Council. It made me realize that to get noticed in Chicago for any of your initiatives you actually have to do something bigger than Chicago; you have to go to the national level and then they actually listen.
Latent Design in tandem with Architecture for Humanity was asked to help them create their guiding principles. We created a beautiful 70-page document about public space, access to the river, jobs, economic development, and also included the community engagement surveys and flyers; we did it in English and Spanish, which should be a no-brainer given the community, but the city was not doing that with its reports. To tell the message authentically we have to start educating a broader group of people; it’s talking with aldermen and policy officials about building these skills also.
Currently where are you currently teaching?
I teach at Northwestern University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. For SAIC, I teach Intro to Sustainable Design in the Built Environment and Intro to AutoCAD, two courses I created for the School for their Interior Design Certificate, which is part of the Adult Education program in Continuing Studies. At Northwestern I was working with Design for America, an extracurricular and multi-disciplinary program where the students at the school work on practical and professional projects and use design and Human-Centered Design thinking to find solutions to those problems. This year students are working on how to
increase self-esteem and other issues related to personal development within homeless youth in Chicago.
It was working through DFA that Northwestern noticed the design process our students were using, and asked if I would be part of the Segal Design Institute. Currently I’m not teaching any courses; I’m a thesis advisor for the Master of Science program. The program has a sub category called Engineering Design and Innovation that utilizes Human-Centered Design approaches to develop processes, products, or systems solutions.
One of my students is developing immersive empathy labs for individuals; another student is developing a communications tool that replicates the intimacy of a whisper. It’s conceptual but what he’s seeing is that as families become more geographically divided, relationships suffer and there’s no way to build the one-on-one personal relationship. How can you use an interface to share information of what another person is doing? It’s a platform for relationship building. When you whisper to someone you’re in a very intimate relationship with them. If you can’t do that, how can you use a device to replicate that? The platform serves to start building relationships between parents and children, especially as they’re going away to school, and between loved ones who travel a lot. It combines many different things including gamification. I’m excited how this will turn out.
What would be your ideal class to teach?
I had a very circuitous, alternative, extra-curricular education path that got me to where I am, so I promote institutions and organizations that want to encourage and build on that type of education. I’m a huge proponent of field based, professional and project based learning over traditional Masters or MBA programs.
What percentage of your time is devoted to Latent/Teaching/Family?
It changes. I’m a person who has to put strict boundaries on myself or I bleed over into lots of things. Now that I have a dedicated office space, the family time is evenings and weekends. Latent has become a pure weekday structure. Teaching is part of that and falls on nights so I have very extended 12-hour days.
I’m phasing out of Architecture for Humanity Chicago; that used to take up my weekends. I then have to look at teaching and how to balance the two schools. With the mentorship at Northwestern, we set our own schedule with our students so there’s flexibility, but teaching nights at the School of the Art Institute makes for a long day.
I have to consider if Continuing Studies is the best place for me to be teaching. I’m hoping to migrate into the School of the Art Institute’s AIADO Department—Architecture, Interior Architecture, and Designed Objects.
What three words describe you?
That’s a tough one. I would say bold, naïve, and open.
Do you have a mentor?
Peter Exley from Architecture is Fun has been my mentor for the past few years. We’re on the AIA board together but we met through a mentoring program from AIA Chicago and we’ve kept a good ongoing relationship. I had two very amazing professors at IIT. Annie Pedret who is finishing teaching at UIC and moving across the world, was an incredible, theoretical architect. She wasn’t a practitioner, she was a theorist, and had an eye for stripping down your design to the essentials and pushing you to articulate the process and the product of the design. Pedret was tough, accurate and very insightful; she helped me think critically about my work. I wouldn’t say promote it, but be ready to defend the work and then be ready to rip it apart and do it
The other professor, in my last year of school and his last year at IIT before he moved to the School of the Art Institute, was Ben Nicholson. Ben is an amazing thinker and he challenged me and our entire studio to ask, ‘What’s the point of architecture if you don’t have the world to build it in? What the hell are you doing and what does this do? What’s the influencing factor?’ He taught us to be very aware of the surroundings of our work, what influences it, and to take risks to make two disparate ideas connect. For Nicholson, you can’t get caught up in the building, you have to get caught up in the world. Being able to have individuals that have shaped how I think, and who I can still fondly write an email to, have a drink with, or ask those difficult questions, makes me cognizant of how good a mentor I am to people.
What has been your most rewarding or significant accomplishment?
The most significant would be Fresh Moves. That project has won many awards, and became a model of how a design project integrates community, engages a personal agenda, and withstands a lot of patience. We started working on that right before I got married in November 2009 and it didn’t launch until 2011—two years of development to get that perfect concept model out there. It was a significant project in terms of the exposure it’s received, and also being able to work the entire process around a design project. I think rewarding accomplishments are always the ‘next one’ because there’s always a new challenge.
What would you still like to accomplish?
There’re more gaps that need to be filled; gaps that need to be discovered. One that Latent Design is looking at is incorporating the build aspect to design. The small scale projects that have been influential are from the Activate! Public Space Design Competitions—the human sized croquet wickets, pop-up shops, Fresh Moves. The next three weeks are the ‘boot camp’ inside Chicago Public Schools. We’re transforming a room at Fenger High School on the South Side to be a community Safe Space; the students are going to design and build it themselves. Those types of projects, when bid by contractors, are too small, too weird, too whatever, but they’re actually the projects that make the biggest impact. These small scale pieces start to make transformation within the communities.
How do you relax?
I don’t think that I do. I need to start carving out time for hobbies because I don’t have any. I don’t work out, do yoga, or anything like that, but I need that. On the weekend I get a few hours to read and that helps. Trying to find new ways to make my family laugh is fun, but there’s a difference between family time and personal relaxation time.
What are you currently reading?
I always read the Economist. That’s my weekly reading, and that’s good for me. I have stacks of partially digested books.
What are your favorite Chicago spaces?
There’re a lot of different, interesting spaces, the more you know about the city. There’s a funky little public park in the Loop, off Adams and the riverfront. For one of the big buildings that was developed on the east side of the river—I don’t know if it was the MillerCoors building or the one right on the corner of Wacker and Adams—they had to probably create public space to increase their floor area. Their public space is right on the river, is very small, has a waterfall and is beautifully landscaped with lots of trees and little benches. When you go in and sit there, you’re up against the river, you’re totally somewhere else. It’s really cool, a secret concrete garden.
If you could have lunch with any architect, past or present, who would it be?
Lina Bo Bardi, a Brazilian architect, prominent during the 60’s and 70’s. She created amazing public spaces throughout South America and truly embraced community and participatory based design by bringing cultural influences from her surroundings into her buildings, and using design as an egalitarian structure and her buildings as equity building elements. She also was a Brutalist so her structures were all concrete, but she actually was able to bring a lot of soft qualities through color, shapes and
Do you have any advice for emerging architects?
I’m terribly optimistic about the next generation because I think they have opportunities to influence design and the profession of architecture. It’s difficult because you have to find ways to be heard but they have more tools at their disposal to make those ideas heard, to capitalize on them, bring in business development structures, and change how our profession acts.
(Kathleen Waterloo had an 18-year career in interior architecture in Chicago. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago in 1996 and is currently an artist in Chicago.)