Krista Ninivaggi discusses design inspirations and trends: Focus on Leadership - June 2017
Interview by Kemp Harr
Hospitality designer Krista Ninivaggi began her career at New York City’s Rockwell Group and continued to nurture her career at both AvroKO and SHoP before launching her own boutique firm, K&CO, in 2014. That’s a lot to achieve before the age of 40.
Last year, K&CO was one of five firms asked to collaborate on Tarkett’s Collections Infinies, an LVT collection that won Best of NeoCon Gold in the hard surface flooring category. The designer and her team channeled their love of city nightlife into Glow, which focuses on expressing the natural properties of the material through pure color.
Q: What initially drove you to pursue interior design as a career path?
A: Growing up, I was both creative and analytical. Math was my favorite subject, but I would also stay up late at night making things: paper sculptures, jewelry, funny little objects. I was naturally interested in architecture, and in high school took my first pre-college course in architecture at Bennington College. I was hooked. But I realized that what I loved about architecture was the interior space. I had less interest in creating objects and more interest in creating experience.
Q: Tell us about the Rockwell Group hiring you in 2002, decidedly not a great time to be seeking an entry-level job in the design field.
A: That is such a long story; I even have a diagram I made to explain how lucky I was to land there. But, to make a long story a little shorter, after many months of bi-coastal, post-graduation interviews, I managed to land an interview close to home at David Rockwell’s office through my very giving network of mentors. My interview initially was not a homerun, but as we were wrapping up, in a last-ditch effort, I pulled out a stack of 50 construction sketches I had done the summer before at Gwathmey-Siegel. They asked me if I was free that afternoon to start working for a freelance position. I stayed for four years!
Q: What is the difference between a good designer and a great designer?
A: Competence versus inspiration.
Q: How do the design demands of the hospitality sector differ from the other commercial sectors?
A: My designers laugh at me because on a regular commercial project, I am telling the client how to prevent illicit behavior, and on a hospitality project, we are trying to inspire illicit behavior. I’m sort of joking, but hospitality, even with all the crossovers in market segments we are seeing today, is the most escapist, experiential and transformative design typology. A night out is really a mini vacation-a release from the everyday. No matter how many lounges or ping pong tables you put into an office space, it will still be work.
Q: How do you convince clients to trust you, so that you can take a design beyond the obvious?
A: I don’t think it’s possible to talk someone into trusting you. It’s just chemistry. Entering a business relationship is not much different from dating; you’re going to “get” each other, or you’re not. With every client relationship, the aspects of design and money are coupled with trust and emotions. I never forget that, as a designer, I am spending my client’s money, and for many of them, it’s the biggest investment they will make. There is a responsibility to care and keep their best interests in mind, and I can only be true to my design voice. I believe that this outlook is why I have so many repeat clients.
Q: What’s your favorite project so far and why?
A: Every project has been meaningful through the stages of my career. They are all milestones in shaping my path in different ways. If I had to pick, though, I am quite fond of our ongoing project, Manhattan Park Pool Party. We have been painting an 8,000-square-foot ground mural on a pool deck for a rental building located on Roosevelt Island in Manhattan. We have had a different artist create the vision each year and are currently installing the new artist for year three. I closely curate with my team and my colleague Barak Pliskin from Pliskin Architecture. It’s a wonderful project that is both art and design. I encourage my team to get outside to paint as the weather is turning warm in New York City. It’s just so wonderful to have a vision that is bigger than yourself and then to physically create it. It’s better than meditation.
Q: What is your perception of flooring and the role it plays in the overall design of a project?
A: This is an exciting time for floors. We are seeing so many more colors and patterns in flooring that have not previously been incorporated into design trends. I have been noticing flooring progressively becoming visually louder, and I love it. I am seeing it with patterned tile, colorful stone, geometric painted wood floors and LVT.
That being said, I love to start with polished concrete in most of my projects, not because I think it the most beautiful, but because it creates a base and contrasts other flooring types. I use polished concrete the way some designers use the color white.
Q: In terms of flooring, what would you like to see that isn’t currently in the market?
A: I would like to see more shapes, planks or even just rectangular formats. Whether it’s wood, carpet, tile or stone, I would love to see more products that provide a toolbox of standard sizes and shapes that enables the designer to make their own patterns. And in general, I would love to see squares-2’x2’ in particular-disappear. In a time when design is trying to blur the boundaries between market segments, nothing kills the illusion more than a square carpet tile.
Q: How do you approach sustainability in your design, and how has your approach evolved over time?
A: I think that using “sustainable products” is a knee jerk reaction, and it’s very one-dimensional. What I realized when working with Google several years ago was the importance of paying attention to the ingredients, if you will, and being mindful not to put toxic chemicals into the environment for your occupants. Also, I feel that the most sustainable thing is simply to design well to begin with, so that projects last, both in terms of wear-and-tear and timeless style. Design projects that are less likely candidates to be ripped out and tossed into a landfill.
Q: What motivated you to start your own firm?
A: There was a moment when an old client, out of the blue, was looking for me to design a project for him, regardless of which firm I worked for. I was flattered and excited for a second project with him; at the same time, I was reaching a point where I felt as though I did not have enough control to shape the business side and the design side together. I knew it was time to move on, and the only option was to do it on my own. The biggest difference is the way clients treat me. They are now hiring me for me, so my ideas and opinions are much easier to carry out.
Q: What do you look for in a candidate when you are building your team?
A: Hands down, it’s personality. If we can be friends, we can work together. Obviously, I make sure candidates have a good sense of style, a passion for design and a technical understanding. I have passed on candidates who had beautiful portfolios but could not laugh at a joke. For that reason, I typically only hire through word of mouth. Friends of friends tend to be like-minded. I once had three pairs of roommates working for me!
Q: What is the source of your creativity?
A: I love looking at photos. Instagram is endless entertainment for me. It’s eye candy, and I am constantly analyzing the content. I love seeing how people document the spaces they visit. I love how Instagram enables users to view photos from one location, so you can see how the last 40 people took a photo of the same space. I love looking at what people were wearing, the camera angle they selected, who were they with, which filter they chose.
Q: How do you stay relevant, so that you can offer your client the best and most current solution?
A: I am social by nature, so I spend a lot of time with friends and meeting new people. It’s amazing what you can find out, and where life will take you, just by investing in conversation. I explore the world through the people I meet.
Q: What are your career goals?
A: I want to have a long career. I am slowly building my brand and my business, so that I can always do what I love. I hope my design ideas are relevant even when I am 90. My greatest hope is to have one or two designs that become iconic and are recognized by future generations as contributions to the design community. I’m working on it!
Q: What advice do you have for recent graduates who want to follow in your footsteps?
A: Intern as much as possible, so you land where you fit best. It’s much easier for people to take a risk on you when you are just there for a few months during the summer than to commit to you as a full-time employee. Working your butt off during school breaks will make you more valuable in the workplace, and, in addition, you can try out different firm sizes and market segments. You will learn what kind of designer you are.
Q: Who has had the biggest influence on you and what did that person teach you?
A: I know this sounds cliché, but it was probably my mom. She taught me persistence and ingenuity, encouraging me to figure things out, even when situations seem hopeless. I was not encouraged to be an overachiever but to be happy. I also learned from her mistakes. She was held back from her ambitions because she was encouraged to be practical. I am much less practical, and I tend to listen to my own instincts.
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