Michael Kmak: Design with the volume turned up

Michael Kmak1

Hillary Simon, Laura Peters and Chris Whitcomb

August 9, 2022

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Michael Kmak is in love—with design, with Chicago, with guitars, with Lake Michigan—and he’s set to unite his passions to create a better future for his city and those who call it home.

Spending time with Michael Kmak is a wonderful sensory experience.

There’s his LAUGH. It’s both recognizable and unforgettable the moment you hear it. And, Michael shares it often while working with design teammates, on conference calls, over a beer. It’s the sound of an optimistic soul that has an infectious way of bringing smiles to others’ faces.

On a cold January day in Michael’s Lakeview apartment, there’s no denying his laugh is intensely warmer than the temperatures outside. Light shines in through expansive windows as we gather to talk about all things Kmak: his childhood, his passions, how he became enamored with architecture and design, his ideas for the City of Chicago and beyond.

Michael Kmak

There’s the AROMA. Michael is a proud coffee aficionado, on a never-ending quest to find the best cup of coffee in Chicago. He tells us that Intelligentsia, Heritage and Gaslight are great places to start if we want to begin our own journey. Today, he’s brewing Single Origin Colombian La Mina from Intelligentsia in between chats, video takes and photos.

As we talk with Michael, there are also VIVID IMAGES. Michael is ever-immersed in his work. There are sketches on the table and renderings on the computer screen awaiting his return. There are books, so many books. On design, architecture, creativity, fictional adventures. There are snapshots from past projects and buildings that inspire him.

CannonDesign Chicago Office
Get to know Michael in this short video.

This immersion is amplified when we walk with him in our Chicago office. Images from his work with Kirkland Ranch Academy of Innovation: a breakthrough career-tech education school opening later this year; a Planned Agricultural District for West Garfield Park in Chicago; University of Wisconsin’s new Chemistry Building—they’re printed large and pinned up across the office. There are thoughts and ideas on sticky notes and on our offices’ writable walls. Michael lives amidst his work, seemingly ready whenever a creative idea might spark.

Chicago, Illinois
Michael shares his love for the great city of Chicago.

We’re also inspired by his VISION. Design is anything but just an exploration in beauty for Michael. He’s made CannonDesign’s Living-Centered Design approach his own in a sense as he talks about “Living-Centered Design in the community.” He echoes bold questions throughout the day. If our design work doesn’t help our neighbors, our friends and make their lives better … if it isn’t positively changing the course of communities? Then we’re missing the point.

Michael discusses what Living-Centered Design means to him.
Michael discusses what Living-Centered Design means to him.

Michael sees bold opportunities for change in Chicago. We need to overtly design to alter the equity equation in this city. Ramifications for urbanity at scale. As a world, as a country, we need to invest more in public transit and create incredible cities for people to thrive. And hope for the future. We have every tool we need to design a more sustainable planet and future, we just need the courage to unleash these solutions without hesitation.

Michael Kmak2

There are also the ACOUSTICS. Michael loves guitars and has many he can grab quickly throughout his office. During our visit he picks up a 90s Fender Jag-Stang and begins playing 90s hits including “Miss World” by Hole then “Blister in the Sun” by the Violent Femmes and “Last Dance with Mary Jane” by Tom Petty.

After the concert session, Michael talks a bit more on the guitars. There’s the magenta glitter top Epiphone Les Paul. Here’s a Fender Stratocaster. But, and he’ll tell you with a smile, his most prized acoustical possession is a 1968 all-tube Fender BandMaster Amplifier in near perfect condition.

Michael Kmak Guitar
Michael Kmak Cat

There’s his PRIDE. Michael is a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community and an active member in both our firm’s Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Council and its LGBTQ+ employee resource group. He took part in the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Chicago’s first-ever LGBTQI+ Alliance and works to be an advocate for deeper inclusion in both the design profession and society at large. We need more diverse voices at the table. And we also need them to be comfortable being every ounce of their authentic selves.

Michael shares how traveling has made him a better architect.

After meeting Michael, you’re also affected by his OPTIMISTIC ENERGY. Everything is or can be great, amazing, incredible. The next cup of coffee. The new school he’s helping design. Tomorrow’s design charette. Today’s walk through the city. A new chord he’s been practicing on the guitars. Our discussions and video shoot; let's do this, he says with a smile.

Rockford Elementary
Michael shares a special moment in his career.

Maybe lastly, but definitely not least, there’s also Michael’s HUMANITY. The door to his apartment was open when we arrived with pastries from Artemio’s, a nearby Mexican bakery. And there’s a metaphor there for Michael’s life. His “door” is always open to new people, new ideas, new opportunities, new places, new creative sparks. As you experience Michael—his stories, his life, his work and everything in between—you realize he deeply wants to make his city and our world a better place. And, he believes we can do it, if we dare to design it so.