Kolar finds success at intersection of brand, architecture, interiors
Whether she’s helping design Cincinnati’s newest “front door” on the riverfront or transforming corporate headquarters around the globe by blending graphic and industrial design with architecture, Kelly Kolar revels in integrating her passions to create what she likes to call “massive change.”
Kolar, who founded Kolar Design
21 years ago as a “single shingle” operation downtown, now employs 12 and counts Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and the Cincinnati Parks among her clients.
“My firm practices at the intersection of brand, architecture and interiors,” says the Michigan native who moved to Cincinnati in the 1980s to study graphic design at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning. “You migrate, in the end, where your passions are.”
Before she graduated, Kolar had already landed a unique gig, one that persuaded her to forego job offers on both coasts and instead begin her career in the Queen City. Her winning graphic designs for the city’s first Tall Stacks celebration, the result of a DAAP student competition, led to an offer to serve as the festival’s design director.
“That’s when I fell in love with the city,” says Kolar, whose has had a hand in the design of six riverfront parks in Cincinnati, Covington and Newport, including the latest, Cincinnati Riverfront Park at the Banks. “It’s our city’s front yard. And we are finally honoring our connection to the river. This is about reconnecting with the river and honoring how we started.”
As she learned Cincinnati history, Kolar became more and more enamored with how the city’s story combined arts with industry, “how art and design become good business, too,” she says.
She found echoes of that integration at DAAP, especially in the co-op education model that sent budding craftspeople into the business world to learn and grow while still in school.
The second-generation entrepreneur grew up surrounded by the emblems and logos of the auto industry—Cadillac, Peterbilt, Ford—and by the intricacies of the plastics and manufacturing industries. From her company’s current 5,000-square-foot space in the Ford Factory in Uptown, she can see clearly how her childhood helped prepare her for running her own company. “I have this whole chapter of industrial knowledge that I use in the work that we do,” she says.
But beyond her technical prowess, Kolar embodies what she calls the most critical entrepreneurial trait—passion—with every conversational turn.
“As a businessperson, you start out thinking you have to do business the way other people do business,” she says. “It took me a long time to figure out that each business is unique. Your core philosophy is the part that people really want to buy from you.”
Her philosophy revolves around creating holistic environments to make a substantive difference not just in appearance, but in impact.
“It’s really about environments that communicate,” she says. “I help companies leverage their largest asset—their real estate. How do you leverage your built environment to shape your future? How are you using your real estate to drive business forward? The connecting of the design and the business has been our success. That’s my sweet spot.”
She describes three phases of her business’ growth—from her solo operation in the late 1980s, to a “mom and pop shop” operated out of a house in which she shared space with her husband, industrial designer and creative coach Dave Eyman, to her current studio-style office in the Ford Factory.
“We use it like a gallery because the work we do is visual,” she says. “You’ll see the studio environment is pretty much like DAAP.” Kolar, who has taught classes in a variety of departments at her alma mater, points to her work on UC’s Main Street project as a perfect example of creating “meaningful, memorable and measurable” design.
Kolar helped connect the varied components of the redesign of the main Uptown campus corridor, transforming it from a concrete-laden space constructed for commuters to a campus now listed by Forbes as one of the top 10 most beautiful college campuses in the country. “What’s the value of that?” she asks, noting that research shows prospective students make their decision about a campus within the first 15 minutes of their visit. “We designed every single view, vista and message around the first 15 minutes. That’s where the magic was.”
The region’s parks also hold a steady supply of magic for Kolar. “Our parks system is amazing,” she says. “I really believe we are a city within a garden.”
Her passion for the parks inspired her to volunteer to help design the Cincinnati-Liuzhou Friendship Garden in the Chinese sister city in the mid-2000s. Her research of and respect for Chinese culture helped attract an unexpected new client—Procter & Gamble. First approached to redesign P&G’s central office’s lobby, Kolar’s responsibilities grew to include creating global guidelines for the corporation’s facilities. “They were looking for innovative thinkers to help transform the shape,” she says. “It was an ideology and philosophy.”
After spending a good part of five years working with P&G architectural teams around the world, Kolar, who lives in Wyoming, decided it was time to create her own “no-fly zone,” and bring her newfound global knowledge home.
While the city’s parks remain a priority—she’s currently working on a “Parks in your Pocket” app set to launch in time for the re-opening of Washington Park—Kolar’s latest plans focus on new ways of measuring the impact of her firm’s design work.
In order to do that, she needed a different kind of client, a business where using design as a tool to drive change could produce meaningful and measurable results. With Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, the mom of two teens found an opportunity to measure customer experience and outcomes in powerful ways..
“They have saved my daughter’s life twice,” says Kolar, who has been part of an ongoing transformation process with the hospital’s design and planning teams. At Children’s, her passionate belief that the built environment can have a real and lasting impact on holistic experiences is being put to the test.
What started with the design of 3430 Burnet Ave., the hospital’s special needs facility, has grown to encompass six clinics, from endocrinology to cardiology. “We started out with qualitative focus groups,” says Kolar, who met with parents and patients to determine criteria for success. “We looked at the brand not as a visual, but as an experience.”
Moving from a past in which hospital buildings were designed around technology to a future in which art on ceiling tiles and music in procedure rooms engage patients allows the hospital team to gather concrete data about patients’ experiences, from heart rates to blood pressures.
Initial results, from hospital staff, have been impressive. “The change is unbelievable,” Kolar says. “They were so happy to have a welcoming place to have them do their most meaningful work.”
With six Children’s clinics in the testing phase, she looks forward to learning how the measurements bear out her belief in the power of design. “Think of me like a visual chef,” Kolar says. “First we look at the emotional—we use the recipe—shape, color, form, transparency. We customize that recipe to create a certain look and feel.”
Driven and high-energy in all she does, Kolar describes her approach to creating a well-rounded life in terms that illustrate how well she knows herself, and her capacity to imagine, create and nurture innovation.
“I don’t believe in this work life balance thing,” she says with a laugh. “It’s really about integration for me.”
Photos by Lauren Justice