Kate Aoki, AIA, is an architect and the head of exhibition design at the Dallas Museum of Art. With a Bachelor of Fine Arts in textile design from the Rhode Island School of Design and a Master of Architecture from The University of Texas at Arlington’s School of Architecture, Aoki is fortunate to practice in a profession that satisfies both her passion for fine art and the design of space.
Aoki has a relationship with the Dallas chapter of the AIA, where she is currently serving as president-elect. She is also a member of the board of directors for the Dallas Architecture Forum and has spoken in the past on craft and the art of weaving, and design influences in Dallas. TxA past president Audrey Maxwell, AIA, spoke to Aoki to discuss her professional path through architecture and design, as well as her goals for her 2023 presidency of AIA Dallas. The following has been edited for clarity and length.
Audrey Maxwell, AIA: I see you graduated from RISD in 2000 with a BFA in textile design. What did you do after graduation?
Kate Aoki, AIA: I did some traveling and lived in a few places after graduating from RISD. I lived in the mountains of Colorado, then for a year in Hawaii, and then lived in Boston for two years. After that, I came back to Dallas, where I’m from, to work with my dad. He has since passed away, but he was in the concert production industry in Japan at the time. It was something we both thought could be a kind of legacy transition. When people say you should not work with family, you should listen.
It’s around that time that I saw the job opening here at the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) for a coordinator position. The DMA sounded like a cool place to work, so I worked here for a couple of years. Around 2008 or so, the exhibition design position — this job — opened. I applied for it but didn’t get the job because I wasn’t qualified. At that point, I thought, “I can’t be a coordinator forever.” I’d always wanted to go to architecture school. With my husband’s support and encouragement, I went back and got my degree at UT Arlington in 2011. I’ve been practicing as an architect since then.
AM: What led you to your interest in architecture?
KA: Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be an architect. When I got to college, I didn’t think I had the maturity to commit to the demands of architecture school, so I went into textile design instead. My paternal grandfather and my uncle were both architects. My maternal grandfather was always good at engineering. I think that it was something I was always around and absorbed without making a conscious decision about.
AM: So why textile design specifically?
KA: I worked on a friend’s mother’s loom when I was a kid. My parents were both artists, and I was always interested in making art, so as I was considering my future I wanted to find a practical outlet for that interest. I wanted some kind of applied design degree. With textile design, I figured I could go work in a mill and work as a designer for production companies. Then I graduated, and I decided to travel instead. The degree wound up being very useful, though it was a very circuitous route to architecture.
AM: When did you get licensed and what prompted you to pursue licensure?
KA: I got licensed in 2018 when I was working at DSGN. I wanted to start a family and started taking exams in 2012. I finished my last exam in December of 2017 when I had only a week left on my rolling clock. I had a friend advise me to take all the exams before trying to have a family because it would be hard. She was right, but I also had a biological clock ticking.
AM: What kind of projects were you working on at DSGN? I know the firm has quite the mix of project types.
KA: They did. That’s what was really fun about working in that office. The firm has a very loyal, reliable shopping mall client in the Philippines. Those were quirky, fun, interesting projects, and they also paid the bills. They allowed Bob [Meckfessel, FAIA, founder and president of DSGN Associates] the ability to take on other projects he also finds interesting and rewarding. Rather than being known for only one project type, we were able to work on a bunch of different types. The last project I worked on there was the Vickery Meadows Library. That was really a feather in my cap, one of my favorite projects to work on. My mom was a librarian, so it was particularly meaningful. It’s in the Vickery Meadow neighborhood off Park and Greenville Avenue. The community needed a library desperately, and now it functions like a community center as well.
AM: You decided to return to the Dallas Museum of Art in January 2021. You said you wouldn’t have left DSGN if it had not been for this job. Was the job opening what prompted you to change, or were you one of those Great Resignation people everyone keeps talking about?
KA: When I applied for this job way back in 2008 and didn’t get it, I always had in the back of my mind that I would apply for it if it ever opened again. I liked being at DSGN so much, so it was a tough decision. When I saw that the position was available though, I jumped on it. I really put a lot of effort into trying to get an interview. When I did submit my resignation to Bob, he said he wasn’t even going to try to talk me out of it because it was such a cool job.
AM: It’s great that he recognized how compelling this new opportunity was for you.
KA: Yes. Art is something that has always been a part of my life. It’s something that I missed in architecture. The firms would always humor me, to a degree, letting me work on a project that involved art. Now I’m surrounded by it every day. If I’m tired, or I need to take a break, I can walk through the galleries — and getting to design spaces for art is pretty awesome. In addition to having a salary that is not based on a billable hour business model, it has revolutionized my well-being. It’s made a huge difference and impact in my life and the quality of my work.
AM: For the people who know nothing about how museums work, give us a high-level job description of your current role.
KA: It’s funny because when people think of museum work, everybody imagines a curator, but there is so much work behind the scenes. I can relate it to architectural-ish terms. I do mostly interior architecture and design because I don’t ever touch the outside of the building. We rotate our temporary exhibition spaces, generally speaking, every three to six months, sometimes a bit longer. Every time a new exhibition concept comes through, we have to design around it. This is a sneak peek, but we’re going to be installing an exhibition based on Flemish masterpieces from the 16th and 17th centuries. We are trying to reuse spaces as much as we can and design in ways that will allow for that. We haven’t done a lot of that since I’ve been here, so it’s fun because I get to re-create the galleries.
AM: How do exhibition ideas come to fruition, and are you a decision-maker in that process?
KA: No, not particularly. I can always give an opinion, which people may or may not take into consideration. We have exhibition concept workshops two to four times a year. We’re planning out at least three years in advance. By the time it hits design, they’ve already done a lot of the work, and they’ve already moved on to the next exhibition concept. A few times a year, the curators that have exhibition concepts in mind will present those to a group of stakeholders. They talk about what’s interesting about that concept, and then everybody goes back and weighs whether the exhibit would be a draw. They start to decide what shows will be picked up for the future and what might go on the chopping block.
AM: With several exhibitions under your belt now, are there lessons learned that you are carrying to your new endeavors?
KA: There are definitely threads that are standard and consistent. I can design space all day long and feel pretty good about it. The hardest thing for me are the intricacies of, say, case design — what goes into a case and how that all works or what information needs to be shared out. I was used to detailing and I really enjoy it, but these are a new kind of intricacy that I was not familiar with. They are similar layers to what I dealt with as an architect, but it’s a different animal here. Things like text routing, signage, graphics, production, all of that is more or less an analog comparison but still kind of tricky.
AM: I can imagine some parallels between exhibition design and architecture. Has your architectural background contributed to your current role?
KA: Yes, 100 percent. I feel like everybody who works in a museum and with an exhibition designer should have some kind of week-long architecture crash course.
AM: Is it typical for someone with an architectural background to be in this role?
KA: I haven’t networked enough to know yet. I’m talking to somebody from LACMA next week who’s a reformed architect. I’m excited to hear their perspective as well because it’s such a useful knowledge base. An understanding of space, or what makes a drawing useful or informative, is something that a lot of people don’t appreciate until they have access to it. It’s unbelievably helpful. I could not do this job if I didn’t have an architectural background.
AM: There is currently a lot of conversation happening in our profession about “alternative paths in architecture.” I’ve encountered members who are skeptical of any path outside the bounds of a so-called traditionally practicing architect. What is your take?
KA: It seems like we want to be generalists. We want to know a lot about a lot. We want to help shape the environment, and as much perspective as we can have on that, the better, in my opinion. Architects’ skills are really undervalued. I don’t know if we did that to ourselves by making ourselves inaccessible to people. I feel like as when you go to have surgery, you want somebody who’s qualified to work on your body. And when you’re building a house, you want to have somebody who’s qualified to design and build it. We’ve left a lot of that up to other people.
The more perspective and experience we have, though, the better equipped we are to do that work. If somebody wants to design a museum, then you have somebody who’s an architect, but who might also have worked as an exhibition designer or as a curator. From where I sit, I believe that we should welcome people with alternative career paths. We don’t want to tie ourselves up into a little siloed bundle where we can’t relate to anybody.
AM: It looks like you first became involved with AIA Dallas in 2017. Tell me more about your reason for becoming involved and why you’ve stuck around.
KA: I’ve been a member since I graduated. The AIA Dallas Communities by Design committee was sort of the impetus. I have always been interested in how the community and architecture are related. It was a fun committee to be a part of and seemed most applicable to my interests. It was the committees that really drew me in.
AM: What value do you see in AIA involvement?
KA: It’s for the reason we were talking about a minute ago — alternative career paths. It’s good to promote that message. I would like to see involvement from more people. I’m trying to get people here involved in AIA to, again, bring that outside perspective. It’s also for the networking opportunities, being able to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the architecture world. I don’t want to give up my license. I foresee myself doing this until I retire, but I still am very interested in architecture and what’s happening in the world, the way it’s evolving and changing. It seems to be changing really quickly. Especially as people in our age group come into leadership roles, our priorities are different. And that’s important to convey. I’d like to be able to maintain that connection to my recent past.
AM: What do you think the AIA needs to do to evolve?
KA: We need to do a lot of outreach to our current membership and assess where we are. The people who understand the value of their membership are the folks who are very actively involved. Members who aren’t actively involved are just as valuable. What can we be doing to make sure that people want to stay, that they want to keep renewing? I’d like to talk to the members and hear from them directly, not make a bunch of assumptions. I also want to talk to the members who aren’t involved or who are lapsed. There’s a perpetuity question about what we should be doing to make sure that AIA remains valuable, that these professional organizations are helpful instead of only being there to collect dues.
AM: Any big goals for your AIA Dallas presidency in 2023?
KA: This year has been focused on the strategic plan. If I can put a bow on some of those initiatives, then that is what I’d like to focus on: from an accessibility standpoint — and I mean that in the full scope of the word — making sure that our members understand what the value is, what they’re getting in return for our very expensive dues. I’m going to be working a lot on how to convey that value and making sure that we internally understand what that value is. And then trying to boost membership with younger folks because it’s an important institution. Again, it needs to be relatable, and people need to understand what the value is. I wrote down some key words: accessible, equitable, and actionable. I have to figure out how to translate these into action, so I’ll be working on that in the coming months.