Architecture for everyone – how one start-up design firm thinks beyond the building

By Bethel Habte

During a presentation at Creative Mornings, a free monthly conference and networking event, architect Katherine Darnstadt pulled up a photo of people waiting in line for designer cupcakes at a food truck on a freezing Chicago afternoon. She followed that photo with one of people waiting in line for fresh produce at a decommissioned transit authority bus her firm redesigned to serve communities in food deserts across the city.

“Same day, different parts of the city,” she told a crowd of nearly 200 people. “That’s the dichotomy that we do have in this city and we work right at that gap.”

Darnstadt, 33, is a Chicago native and the founder of architecture firm Latent Design, once an LLC, but now an Illinois Benefit Corporation. Benefit corporations are a new designation for companies that include a social good within their charter and comply with standards measuring social responsibility. Illinois is one of 27 states that recognize the designation.

Darnstadt’s firm specializes in human-centered design, merging traditional architectural practices with social activism.

When she began the firm in 2010, she had $10,000 and a laptop. After earning her architecture license and losing her job in recession lay-offs in quick succession, she took an apprehensive jump into entrepreneurship with the belief that it wouldn’t last forever.

“It was plan B,” she said. “I’ll just start an architecture firm and it will make me through a year and then somebody’s going to hire me.”

But five years later, Darnstadt’s Latent Design is still here. She turned a profit in two years, hired two employees and now generates more than $200,000 in revenues. On the way, Darnstadt’s been named one of Crain’s Chicago Business 40 under 40, received the American Institute of Architects National Young Architects Honor Award, and was listed among GOOD Magazine’s 100 Social Impact Visionaries.

Architect Katherine Darnstadt presents at Creative Mornings, a free networking event.
Architect Katherine Darnstadt presents at Creative Mornings, a free networking event. (Bethel Habte/Medill)

The small firm dedicated itself to its community-minded mission from the outset. Some of the first clients were non-profits and community organizations on the west and south sides of Chicago.

“We spend so much time focusing on the object of the building,” she said in an interview in her bright Ukrainian Village office suite. “So how do you make sure the building impacts the block that it’s on, the neighborhood that it’s in and the people that inhabit it?”

Darnstadt said the firm has also attracted private clients who “believe in the public mission of those public projects that we’ve worked on before.”

One private client, David Zoltan, “Fleet Admiral and leader” of Geek Bar Chicago, worked with Darnstadt on a design concept for the bar’s new location. He commended Darnstadt for her technical ability and ear for the clientele she works with.

“She has an amazing idea of what works functionally and what works aesthetically,” Zoltan said. “It feels fun. And for us, fun is a big deal – we’re designing a bar for geeks.”

In 2013 Latent Design helped create a pedestrian space with wooden seating and foliage over two former parallel parking spaces in Andersonville. In the same year the firm designed Kusanya Café in Englewood using salvaged material and vintage features to help founders create a “safe haven on a strict budget.

“Design can bring an emotional connection and awareness of our informal economies.”
-Katherine Darnstadt, Latent Design

The firm has worked for five years on projects through the Architecture for Humanity’s ACTIVATE! Public Space design competition for five years. The competition challenged participants to repurpose underused public spaces with an installation that would last one year and cost under $1,000.

The firm’s design idea in 2010 was a modular garden created from bright red plywood boxes in a vacant lot in Little Village. The installation was such a success that the neighborhood raised $100,000 and gained the legal right to make it a public community garden.

“Design can bring an emotional connection and awareness of our informal economies,” she said. “You connect with people at such a level that you understand what the building and the space serves. It doesn’t serve the person with the checkbook, it serves the whole entire community.”

Though “sustainable” is the fashionable buzzword around design, Darnstadt takes it a step further to include not only the materials used to produce the structures, but the community that will interact with the finished product.

“When I talk about a sustainable system, I’m talking about all of those other aspects,” she said. “Did we train any new people? Did we create new jobs? Were we able to leverage donated materials? Were we able to create an educational curriculum? Were we able to impact youth? What else have we done?”

Taking on a public mission also means wading through politics, said Latent Design employee Tina Kress. The election of Gov. Bruce Rauner meant grant money the firm was expecting for new projects is now frozen.

“There’s that political climate that seems really abstract sometimes, but can very much affect what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis,” Kress said.

But there are shortcuts in bureaucracy. The firm is self-certified, which tells the city that the business is aware of city codes and will comply with them. Though the certification means taking on more liability, Darnstadt said it means the client could get a permit from a city in a week rather than close to three months.

“Before we got it we would lose projects,” she said. “It would come down to the wire and they would ask us versus other firms if we were self-certified.”

Architect and Creative Mornings attendee Karen Rigg said that as a typical architect she doesn’t reach this level of the compassion for the users.

“This is how you’re taught in school to think about design, it just doesn’t always necessarily work out that way,” she said.

Rigg cited her own affinity for vacations and her mortgage as limits to how mission-oriented she could be in her career.

“Sometimes I think that level of compassion doesn’t necessarily mesh with money,” she said.

Rigg’s colleague Felix Martinez commended Darnstadt for bringing architecture to mass audiences.

“High design sometimes is not experienced by the every day person,” he said. “In this industry you have to pay to play sometimes…It’s good that she’s doing what she’s doing.”

Photo at top: The Lakeview Chamber of Commerce commissioned Latent Design to create the “Lakeview East People Spot,” a seating area made in two parallel parking spots to serve as a respite from traffic-heavy North Clark Street.(Katherine Darnstadt/Latent Design)