Kate Aoki, AIA

Credit: Liane Swanson

Kate Aoki, AIA is the head of Exhibition Design at the Dallas Museum of Art. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design with a degree in textile design and the University of Texas at Arlington’s School of Architecture, she has followed a unique trajectory in her career. Kate has worked in the Dallas area for several notable firms and served in various positions with AIA Dallas and the Dallas Architecture Forum. She is passionate about community design and equity in architecture and seeking ways to improve the profession. 

You grew up in Dallas, where your father was the resident set designer for the Dallas Theater Center. This must have been a very interesting childhood. How was it formative for you? 

I went to the theater with my dad a lot when I was a kid. Many of my early memories were going into the theater space itself and going backstage. I vividly remember a production of Pinocchio where they had built a gigantic puppet that loomed backstage hanging, and it scared me so much.

I also ended up working a lot in the theater in high school and assisting my dad with the shows that he designed. He was always talking to me about drawing and design and telling a lot of stories that made the work sound really interesting. It wasn’t just designing that was important, it was the people. I internalized that growing up, and so I didn’t want to just do the artistic part, I wanted to meet the people. 

My parents had a lot of great friends, and they were constantly hosting dinner parties where people would imbibe and then start telling stories. I remember my dad told a really funny story about his experiences “acting.” The philosophy behind Paul Baker’s teaching method was that everybody involved in the theater should experience all the various roles it took to produce a play. So if you wanted to be an actor, you also had to go through the set design process, the stage manager process, etc., to experience all aspects of it. 

My dad was forced to act at a certain point. He was in Twelfth Night as a servant with a fruit tray, and he was waiting backstage to go on. As he was waiting to go on, another actor was coming off and he said something really shocking to everybody, and my dad started laughing so hard that the tray of fruit that he was holding dropped. So as somebody was giving the soliloquy out on stage, all the fruits started rolling off onto the stage. It was a lot of fun theater stories like that.

After high school, you first went to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) for textile design, and then you moved around a lot, eventually landing back in Dallas at the Dallas Museum of Art. What led you down this path?

I had very little direction after I graduated from college. I made a succession of moves where I was more interested in where I was living and just finding work in those places. I moved right after college to the mountains in Colorado, then to Hawaii, then to Boston. And then when I came back to Dallas, I worked for my dad for a little while and realized that I needed to get my act together since it turned out that working for family was less than ideal. 

I knew that I always wanted to work in the art field, and a job became available at the DMA in the education department. My initial moves were less intentional than I would have liked them to be. I was not very focused.

So, what influenced you to go back to school to become an architect? 

Well, I had gone after the exhibition designer position when I was at the DMA. It became open while I was there and I applied for it, but I did not have the experience that they were looking for. Growing up, I had always wanted to be an architect, but I knew that I lacked the maturity to actually study and focus my time. 

During my time at the DMA, I met my now-husband Brent, and at one point I was saying something about wanting to potentially go back to school for architecture, and he said, “You talk about this all the time. Why don’t you just do it?” I hadn’t realized that I talked about it so much. He brought that to light and made me realize that I ought to just do it, that it was the right time to do it. 

What was the experience of being in architecture school like as a second-career student? 

It was, for me, a lot better than if I had tried as a younger person. At that point, I had a little bit of life experience under my belt. I have never been an all-nighter kind of person, and that was one of the things that I didn’t want to do. I had a better understanding of time management, and I understood the dynamics of studio culture a little bit better. I knew that I had to work hard, but at the same time it was a second career, so if it didn’t work out, I didn’t feel like my whole life was riding on it and I could switch to something else. In a way, the pressure was off, and I really enjoyed the experience.

As an architect, you worked at several notable firms in Dallas. What are some of your favorite projects that you worked on? I’m not going to make you pick a favorite firm …

They’ve all been so different. One of the things that I enjoyed at GFF was the people. Working with Daniel Vaughn in Tammy’s studio on an Army project, I didn’t love the projects (which were great for learning the architectural ropes), but the people made it fun, and I got to go off on a couple of designs once or twice. They never took, but Daniel was open to letting me experiment, which was great. 

My time at MDW was valuable because it was boutique high-end design. It was not for me for the rest of my architectural career, because it’s way too much pressure, but I got to think about and design high-end details for some projects. 

DSGN was my favorite firm. The Vickery Meadow Library was a really great project to work on, and the community engagement aspect of it was wonderful. Getting to design something for that community that they wanted for a very long time, to hear that from them, and to have the chance to incorporate those things into the building was a proud moment and a real highlight of my career. 

The last year has been one of drastic change for many. You recently made an exciting career, transitioning back to the art world and taking on the role as head of exhibition design at the DMA. What inspired this move, and what do you hope to accomplish in this position?

I was not looking to leave DSGN, but I had always thought to myself that if the Exhibition Design position ever became available again, I would reapply, assuming that it never would because these positions are few and far in between. People retire in them.

When I saw that it was open, I didn’t even think about it. I just applied, not knowing if I’d get it or not. I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring and see if it worked out, and it did.

I’m happy to be an architect in this position, because it brings a different perspective to the role. I’m surprised that more exhibition designers aren’t architects because it’s the right mentality and the right skill set. They’re very different worlds, art and architecture. Architecture is focused so much on the practical realities of our built environment, and I think that it gives you another lens to look at exhibitions through.

What was it like putting together your first exhibition? 

The resources for design were somewhat limited, so I focused all of my attention on the title wall and used materials that were unusual by the DMA’s standards. We’re using cinder blocks and some translucent cloroplast and doing something just a little bit different, which is very exciting. 

The concept of architecture and design in the museum world feels very different than it does in the architecture world. Even the terminology that they use is different. It took a minute for the DMA to get used to the idea of a material like cinder block being a good, beautiful material, but they’re on board now and people are excited. So it’s been interesting. 

What was it like going through this big life change during the pandemic?

I had the luxury of time. The DMA is a large institution. There are a lot of decision makers, and it took a long time to conduct all the interviews and get everybody on board. I applied in late August and they didn’t make a decision until December.

It made it easier to interview because I was at home [during COVID-19], and I had a long time to get used to the idea and also get passionate about it. I got pretty competitive by the time they were finally narrowing it down.

Generally speaking, going after it made a lot of sense to most people that knew me. I had a lot of support from my husband, and my son Holden was excited about it. Even Bob [Meckfessel of DSGN], when I gave him my notice, said, “OK, well I’m not even going to try to argue you out of that position.” 

After starting at the DMA, I was able to work from home for the first few months, but being in an exciting new role made working from home more challenging. I wanted to be in the museum, exploring the galleries and getting inspired. I was also anxious to meet my new co-workers and see old friends face to face.

Architecture can be stressful, and a lot of women, especially women of color, transition out of the field due to lack of equity, diversity and inclusion. What observations about the culture of architecture do you have? 

The museum world is dealing with the exact same concerns as the rest of the world. I know that a lot of museums are concerned about their lack of representation, especially in regards to representing women of color. But when I got to the DMA, I found that it is so diverse compared to architecture and noticeably more representational. 

There’s a lot that needs to change in the profession, and there’s a lot of community work that we as architects need to focus on and engage in. We’re at a pivotal moment where we’re starting to recognize that. 

A primary concern I have about the architectural profession is the financial barrier to entry. It’s ridiculously expensive to become an architect, from the cost of education, to the exam fees, to the licensing fees, to the professional organization fees, to the program and event fees. While I don’t argue that these are necessary requirements to becoming an architect, it really adds up. 

While it’s important to focus on representation, it’s also important that we think about the financial burdens of becoming an architect and maintaining a license. 

Money is a huge contributing factor and it’s discouraging. DSGN established a scholarship fund last year, and we spent a lot of time trying to talk through what that meant and how it could help. There is still a lot of conversation to be had and lots more work to be done, but I’m encouraged by the progress we’ve started to make. 

Speaking of the architectural community, you’re actually very involved in AIA Dallas and other architectural organizations, serving on several boards and committees. 

My whole reason for serving on all these boards is pathological. I just like being around people. But the other driving factor is that I want to try to lower these barriers to entry. And I really want to figure out how to get more young people involved, how to get more women involved who can stay in the field.

It’s something we have to realize, that architects cannot be a Fountainhead/Jewel on the hill persona. It’s not that kind of profession anymore. I want to help raise public awareness about how important it is that good design be affordable, that young people get involved, that we lower the barriers to entry from a financial perspective, and that by accomplishing these goals, among others, we make the world better.

As this year’s AIA President for the Dallas chapter, I’ve been focusing on the priorities of the chapter through the lenses of accessibility, affordability, and equitability. We are here to serve our members, and all of our members, so we have to think about how we can accommodate so many people in so many different stages of their careers and their lives. I was nervous about coming into this position at this particular moment in time because of the political climate – it’s affected every part of our culture. But I’ve been pleased to experience incredible thoughtfulness and honesty, and a real collaborative spirit. The board, staff and members all share the desire to make our world more beautiful, and everyone’s definition of beautiful makes for a much more holistic approach to the process.

Tell me a little bit more about your work with the Communities by Design committee. You were co-chair a few years ago, which began your leadership journey with the AIAD.

My co-chair, Nick Thorn, and I set our goal to revamp the committee by redefining the mission statement with the members of the committee. We wanted a more active committee, and we wanted to further engage members that were already passionate about community change. We wanted to find ways to get out there and influence policy or at least bring more issues to the surface so that more people are aware of what they are. 

We didn’t want to just invite speakers in a format that people would come and get a free lunch and sort of half pay attention and then leave. We wanted to create opportunities and events that were more active so that people left meetings feeling empowered with a drive to go out and change things. 

I’m pleased by the direction that it’s taken, like the Kaleidoscope sketching series partnered with DFW NOMA that’s focused on communities of color and how those have been affected by urban change. It’s been going in a good direction because the people who’ve taken over since us have shared that passion. Zaida Basora has also done a really good job in trying to engage other outside organizations as well, so it’s not this silo of the AIA, that we just do events on our own.

What has been your experience on the AIA Dallas board this year? 

It’s been great! I’m the VP of Programs. The committees have their own marching orders and defining what our programs outside of committees are has been interesting. This has been really top of mind, there have been a lot of discussions about change and how to be better, how to engage the community, how to engage other, larger institutions, and how we can all work together, which I appreciate. There’s a lot more work to do, but I have been encouraged to solve what this role that I inhabit should be doing.

Tell us a little bit about your involvement in the Dallas Architectural Forum? 

The Forum has been invaluable to my success. Before I went back to school, I reached out to Nate [Eudaly, executive director of The Forum] because they hosted their lectures at the DMA while I was first working there. I said, “I’m thinking about going back to school. Do you know anybody you can plug me in with?” I knew I needed to network, and he said “Well, why don’t you become a volunteer? You get to go to the lectures for free, you get to network with people.” 

That was back in 2008, so I’ve been with them for almost 14 years. Nate and his wife, Jean, are great supporters, and I have exceptional fondness and appreciation for them. They provide critical programming for our city, with the best design lectures around and topical panel discussions that address the more regional questions about design and urban planning for Dallas. It’s just such an honor to get to work so closely together.

It’s probably one of the better lecture series in the country.

It’s great, and they’re really focused on the mission of connecting communities through their programs to enhance our lives (I’m paraphrasing). They always are thoughtful in trying to recruit board members who are passionate about design instead of just chasing donations. I have nothing but good things to say about them. 

I started the Design Society initiative for The Forum, because I wanted to engage younger emerging professionals as part of the membership outreach. An organization must have a younger audience to sustain itself, which was my impetus for starting this initiative. I was also interested, along with the Forum leadership, in reaching beyond our architectural boundaries and engaging an audience with a passing knowledge of architecture but an interest in other design fields. Architecture is so much more than building design, and it is informed by all aspects of the world around us. It was important to find those people and bring them in. We haven’t been as active since COVID hit, but I’m looking forward to a revival soon.

You wrote an article for Columns a few years ago on weaving, something that you have long been passionate about. I know that you took the extra downtime last year as an opportunity to reconnect with the loom. What has that been like? 

I had taken a weaving class a couple of years prior just to sort of dip my toes back in after 20 years. I had a loom, but it was big, and I never found a place to set it up. In talking to a friend, she suggested I buy a smaller loom with more limited function that would get out that creative urge, and so I finally did. 

It was like revisiting an old friend. There were some parts of it that came back to me really quickly and easily and other parts that were more trial and error. In the article, I wrote that the process of setting up the loom and getting it ready to weave is my favorite part. I enjoy it more than the weaving itself. You’re repeating these motions over and over; it’s very meditative. I’ve woven blankets, wedding gifts, dish towels, scarves — it kept me pretty occupied!

Interview conducted by Mia Ovcina, senior project leader at GFF.

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