Mar 03 2016

Kelly Robinson

The offices she designs are technological, healthy, and playful. The SoundCloud Berlin office which has been widely featured on design websites so far has her signature on it.

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“I can see the good in humans everywhere I travel and have learned that we are far more similar than we are different. Even though there are crazy things happening all over the world because of the illusion of separation, I truly believe we have the ability to live in peace, and that slowly, we are getting closer to a more peaceful way of life.” Designer Kelly Robinson got to know different geographies and cultures at a very early age. Her journey in designing is in fact related to traveling and discovering different architectural structures and people. She is the name behind the offices of SoundCloud, Airbnb, Couchsurfing brands which can be counted among the foreseeing companies of the new world when the current working conditions and design models are taken into account. While interviewing with her, we see how related are health, stillness, energy, working conditions, the work itself and human relations, and that the nature itself is the most inspiring element at all.

Could you please tell us about your career path in architecture and design?

My career in design was sparked by my passion for traveling the world. Experiencing so many different kinds of architecture in dozens of countries was the ultimate design school, and when I landed a job at Airbnb in 2010, it seemed fitting to have inherited the role of designing their offices. Creating an environment with the goal of enabling people to thrive and watching it come to life was really rewarding, especially for a company that I knew would have a big impact on the world. I decided to keep going on that path, and Couchsurfing, SoundCloud, and Headspace called asking for help too.

How do you define ‘design’ in your very own personal terms? What do you care about the most when you start working with a customer?

Designing for me is always about the humans who will live in the space. It’s about crafting an experience that is consistent, yet flexible, and remarkable. It is about building a container that vibrates on an elevated level so that the people in it can feel united and connected to one another. This means that everything must be taken into account - who design it? Whose hands build it? How are the materials sourced? Who manages the space once it is finished? Good design requires thousands of decisions and it is important that they are all aligned and focused on meaningful connection. What I care about most when working with a new client is who they are and how they are unique. We are all human, but what is it that bonds this specific group together as a company or tribe? What inspires them and excites them? Where do I notice they are lacking unity and how can design help?

SoundCloud Berlin office © Christian Werner

In your portfolio, there are SoundCloud’s headquarters, Airbnb and Couchsurfing offices… It sounds inspiring and fun. How was the creative process?

The creative processes behind these spaces were a solid balance of great collaboration and trusting my instincts. I have been fortunate to work with very cool architects and highly visionary founders, and when you have all of this creative talent at the table, the results are bound to be magical. For my own contributions, my process always involves taking inspiration from the world around me. I’m a very tactile designer in that I need to see and touch things in person. Materials, furniture, appliances, everything. When I choose a coffee machine or a dishwasher, I go to a place where it is already installed and use it myself first to make sure there are no frustrations. 

How about your favorite interior/exterior spaces around the world? What structures/buildings are you influenced by most?

Nature is my number one source of inspiration. This planet is absolutely magnificent. The redwood forests, the mountains, the oceans, the jungles; For me nature is the ultimate design. I am also really inspired by temples of the world. The bahai temple near Chicago is very close to where I grew up, and the temples in India and Thailand also fascinate me. The feeling that is evoked when entering these spaces is profound. Lately I’ve also gained a lot of inspiration from festivals, particularly Burning Man. The art and design at Burning Man is amazing in it’s creativity and universality.

What is the trend and what is the future of workplaces?

I’m pretty optimistic when it comes to the future, and I believe the workplaces will change in the same way the world will change. The future world of work will mean more freedom, more transparency, more sustainability, and a more passionate concern for the greater good. How does this translate into office space? I’m a big believer in free-address style of working. Gone are the days where we always work at the same desk. Future offices will offer a wider variety of ways we can move our body during the work day - standing, walking meetings, sitting on the floor, swinging, opportunities to hang and stretch our backs, even places to lie down and take a power nap. Food will change - far too many companies feed their people garbage and I’m seeing huge shifts around this as well.

SoundCloud Berlin, working area © Christian Werner

You are also a yoga instructor. How and when did you discover this spiritual and physical journey? And how did it turn into instructing?

In my early twenties I spent 9 months working on a billionaire’s private yacht, which was quite an experience. During this time I got overwhelmed by the wealth and waste of the yachting lifestyle, and also felt disconnected from my body after being stuck on a boat. The yoga practice had always called me in some way, but it was while I was working on board the yacht that I started really craving an austere environment. So, I quit the boat and flew to India to study yoga. The contrast of those two experiences changed everything for me, and my understanding of yoga will continue to influence everything I do. It took me about 5 years before I mustered the courage to begin teaching, and it was during my time living in Germany when that journey began. When I first moved to Berlin I went to a dozen yoga studios but none of them had the vibe or community I was craving. The classes seemed impersonal, rigid, non-spiritual, and quite masculine when compared to the studios I loved in California. So I decided to open up my own little yoga studio and started teaching. The community grew pretty quickly the studio still exists today.

Where have you traveled and settled in so far? Is there any unforgettable moment/memory related to a specific place that fascinated you?

I’ve lived in Chicago, Arizona, Australia, St. Martin, India, San Francisco, Berlin, and LA and am incredibly lucky to have experienced over 40 countries of this amazing planet. Travel became a top priority for me because I found experiencing other places and cultures to be inspiring, educational, spiritual, and fun! The two countries that have probably had the biggest impact on me overall have been Australia and India. Australia was the first place I lived outside of North America and what struck me about it’s culture was that travel was so deeply ingrained in the lifestyle of Aussies. I remember that no one cared which car you drove or what brand of jeans you wore. It wasn’t about big TV’s, it was about plane tickets. It was about experiencing the world. Australia helped me feel at home in my desire to see the world, which taught me that it was ok and awesome to live outside the status quo of the States. India was of course a game changer for me. So many moments about it opened my mind and heart. Seeing the children who would be labeled as materially very poor were so vibrant, smiley, and happy. Seeing their mothers also smiling in the simplicity of their lifestyle made me see that happiness is an inside job, especially when I compared them to some of the yacht guests with millions of dollars, many of whom were miserable. India also taught me that health is wealth. Their lifestyle makes them inherently healthy. It was a big wake up call on the difference between the eastern world and the western world and how backwards things actually are.

What are your favorite songs while working?

Typically I work to silence actually, but I find myself way more productive if I take a lot of breaks. That’s where music comes into play and I love yoga music. Most of my playlists are geared toward what I play in my yoga classes. This ranges from gentle piano to folk to blue grass to acoustic jams, to kirtan. Trevor Hall, Alexi Murdoch, DJ Drez, Fink, Nils Frahm, Nakho Bear, a bit of Bob Barley the sporadic Michael Jackson. Florence and the Machine if I need a boost of energy.

Is there any object or designing style that you definitely avoid in your living space?

I avoid clutter at all costs. Less is more. Minimalism is so calming. When my space gets cluttered my life gets cluttered, and I think we live in a world that is always telling us to buy and consume more. I try to make sure my space feels free of that.

Any object or designing style you embrace?

I love Feng Shui. Good design is all about balance. Contrast is great, if it is balanced. The balance of elements - water, earth, wood, fire, metal, and the balance of masculine and feminine (yin/yang) qualities. Our world is out of balance and I love to create spaces in balance because people can truly feel it. Even if they don’t cognitively recognize it, we all feel more at ease in a balanced space. When I started reading about Feng Shui, it was like I somehow already knew these secrets deep down and I was remembering them. It just makes so much sense to me.

What is the next destination in your mind? Where do you like to travel to?

Top of my list of countries I haven’t yet experienced are Bali, South Africa, and Japan. Let’s go!