If you have dined at a top restaurant in Calgary, there is a high chance it’s a project by Frank Architecture and Interiors. In less than a decade, the firm’s novel approach to hospitality design helped establish the city as a culinary destination, whether it is the elegant Royale, a traditional French brasserie, or the vibrant Ricardo’s Hideaway, a Havana-inspired rum bar.
Frank’s three partners – Kate Allen, 33, Kristen Lien, 33, and Kelly Morrison, 39 – each bring unique qualities to the mix. The three women met as students at the University of Calgary’s master of architecture program. Allen, who comes from a fine-arts background, is in charge of fostering and establishing the firm’s aesthetic. Lien’s meticulous technical eye sees the projects to the most efficient execution. And Morrison’s knack for client relations plays a critical role in translating Frank’s design ideas into creative business-building solutions for its clients.
Allen and Morrison took on their first independent project shortly after graduation in 2009, while Lien, who graduated a year ahead, went to work for the city’s top firms until 2012 when she joined her classmates’ budding company. Lien, who at the time already obtained her professional designation, brought necessary credentials to establish the company as a registered architecture firm, Ryan Andersen Design (named after Morrison and Allen’s respective maiden names) to RAD (Research and Design Architecture Inc.). Last year, they rebranded as Frank. Despite Alberta’s flailing economy, the trio has completed more than 100 projects.
“When we graduated in 2009, due to the economic crash, it was very difficult as a new grad to find a job in architecture,” says Allen, who received her professional designation last year. “We were given an opportunity to design a restaurant for Victor Choy, and we took it.”
Choy, one of the city’s leading restaurateurs, took a chance on Allen and Morrison, and it paid off. For the first project, the duo converted a 1930s dairy factory into a contemporary restaurant, Model Milk, while maintaining the building’s historic elements. It helped that the women had a background in the sector. “Our first project was in the hospitality sector and it did seem like a natural fit,” says Morrison. “I grew up in the industry, and all of us have worked in hospitality in some capacity.”
The success of the venture led to other restaurant commissions, including the Parisian-inspired Pigeonhole that topped enRoute’s Best New Restaurants list in 2015, the bright and airy Alforno Bakery and Café in the heart of city’s Eau Claire Market, and the rustic Last Best Brewery and Distillery with an added barbershop. The firm has grown to a team of 15: a mix of architects, interior designers, interns, students and administrative staff.
The atmosphere at Frank’s office in the city’s design district is hard-working but also supportive. “We have created a family of passionate, collaborative, like-minded design professionals,” Morrison explains. “Our team takes work seriously, but we encourage everyone to experience the world, travel, and spend time with family and friends.”
That is not always the case in an industry known for its demanding expectations. The nature of the industry’s extensive training has the odds stacked against women. By the time women complete the seven to eight years of education and clock in another three or so years of internships required for professional designation, most are getting ready to start a family, which can interfere with their career trajectories. According to the 2011 census, female architects make up less than 30 per cent of the profession in Canada, although that number is projected to rise when the 2016 census results are released this year.
“Being a female-led firm in a predominantly male-dominated industry has had its unique challenges, from interfacing with people from all different industries, to the stereotype of what an architect looks like,” says Lien, who is on maternity leave with her third child, having left shortly after Morrison returned from hers. “We truly strive to ensure this topic doesn’t overshadow the accomplishments of the firm, as our triumphs are the high-quality projects that we have completed and our solid client relationships.”
In a business that involves immense financial commitments, customer trust is everything. “We have never advertised, and have built our business solely on referrals and word of mouth,” adds Allen. “We have never been forced to look for work; we have been fortunate enough to have clients seek us out.”
The trio attributes part of their success to having an experienced mentor, Dale Taylor. “When we first started out as an architecture firm, we approached Dale Taylor to act as our mentor,” Lien explains. Taylor, who was the president of the Alberta Association of Architects for numerous years and a director of the architecture program at the University of Calgary, brought more than four decades of expertise to the fold and spent a few days a week working at the Frank (then RAD) office. “He is in the office less now, but always a phone call away when we need him.”
Their work landed the trio on the city’s Top 40 Under 40 list by Avenue Magazine, which further solidified their impact on design in Calgary.
With an extensive portfolio in their town, Frank is starting to expand its eclectic signature to other locales. They recently completed Alpine Social at Chateau Lake Louise, and are working on another project at Fairmont Chateau Whistler.
While they sometimes work on two dozen projects at once, the designs are unique to each project.
“What drives the concept is different in each restaurant, whether it may be a method of cooking, or a way to gather, or an aesthetic,” says Allen. “This process allows us to dive into something different with each project.”
The team looked to Swiss guides, who founded the Chateau, for the inspiration behind Alpine Social, bringing the concept to life with details such as leather strapping, lighting that references hook-and-pulley systems, and artwork that pays homage to the culture of mountaineering.
For Anju, a South Korean tapas bar, they looked into Korean folklore as a starting concept point.
“We generally split the work equally between the three partners, but we bring our heads together on each project to play to our strengths in the office,” says Lien.
“I think Frank’s growth and success thus far are attributable to the diversity of strengths that the three of us, and our team, bring to the table. We lean on each other both professionally and personally, and I’m grateful for this.”