The B&D Interview: Jackie Koo


AIA, (IIDA, LEED A.P.) Founder of KOO

With multiple high-profile projects underway in Chicago, Koo and her team are focused on finding stylish yet sustainable solutions to difficult design issues

Builder and Developer: You’re a licensed architect, yet you have deep expertise designing interiors. How does being an architect help you design interiors?
Jackie Koo: Architecture and interior design go hand in hand, but just because you’re a good architect doesn’t mean you are a good interior designer, and vice versa. As interior designers, we focus on the personal and emotional interface with a space that is crated by materials, colors, lighting, furnishings, and art. The architecture works hand in hand to create the space and light.

BD: How has your experience designing luxury hotels translated to residential spaces?
JK: With the focus on high-service, high-amenity, high style living, especially for Millennials and seniors, it seems that residential buildings are becoming more like hotels every day. Communal spaces are growing and becoming more important as spaces for socializing with other residents, for everyday activities like relaxing with a cup of coffee, and for programmed activities planned by property managers to build community.

There is no room for spaces that are nice-looking but not well used. So design has to be aesthetically pleasing but also engaging, multipurpose, and durable. Every detail, from the fixtures, finishes, and furnishings to the number of outlets in a space, needs to have broad appeal to residents’ design preferences and lifestyle needs, and reflect the identity of the building.

BD: What residential projects are you particularly proud of?
JK: Our latest project is a multifamily building that’s going up now. It targets millennials who need to live in a suburban location but want a sophisticated environment with an urban demeanor. It’s called 444 Social, and the name says it all.

The interior amenity spaces are designed to be “social” and provide ways for residents to interact. We put ourselves in the shoes of the resident, envisioning how they will use the space, and even imagining uses that may not be on their radar yet.

For instance, Gen Z is entrepreneurial. Someday the building management may want to hold mini-classes or mini-craft marts in that space, so we customize the design for current and future residents. There is a sunken area in the lobby that functions as a living area, a 20-foot high stone and moss wall, a two-story stair that can be used as theater seating for movie night, and a bar area with virtual golf. We add simple custom design features, such as dramatic wall coverings, tile patterns, and eclectic furnishings that transform the room.

BD: How does the idea of sustainability drive your designs?
JK: Sustainability is no longer an afterthought; it’s a primary consideration in everything we do. Much of that is thanks to the fact that codes and norms have changed. Low-emitting materials and finishes are now common. Sustainability is so critical in every project that it drives design, so we are always looking for new materials that we can use in interesting and consequential ways.

BD: What trends/technologies in architecture or interior design do you see dominating the industry in the next few years?
JK: Integrating great design with sustainable design is key. Sustainable materials that apply to both architecture and interior design will continue to become more cost effective and durable. For instance, instead of wiring whole buildings with smart technology systems, the trend is to use smart parts, and focus on what’s really necessary for your target market.

Or look at Terrazzo, an age-old material that is luxurious, incredibly hardwearing and easy to clean, bit is costly and takes days to install. Now, there are exquisite and cost-effective Terrazzo tiles that are made with natural resins and can be used inside or outdoors.

BD: What do you keep in mind when designing interiors like kitchens and baths?

JK: Hospitality design is trend-driven; so we try to never do the same thing twice and always push ourselves into new territory. Trends come and go, so for residential projects we try to design things that are fresh, but will stand the test of time. Longevity is one of our key considerations.

With kitchens and baths, durable, and almost commercial finishes are critical. There are so many options for finishes, and options that were once custom are now standard. Lighting is also often overlooked, but is a focus for us. It can make or break a space, and can have a huge impact on residents and homeowners since it affects how you function and how you look in your mirror.

BD: What’s next for KOO?
JK: We’ve developed such a deep and thorough expertise in interior design, that we’re expanding our interior architecture studio to do not only projects that are for the buildings we design, but also for other architects who do “core and shell.” We have a knack for using materials in fresh, interesting ways, so we hope to continue to do so and expand our practice in this area.

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