Design and strategy built around people, place, and brand identity
Kelly Ennis is the founder and managing principal of the Verve Partnership, a design and strategy firm based in Baltimore. With an emphasis on people, organizational culture, and brand identity, the Verve Partnership creates spaces that inspire success and are imbued with creative energy. The company has designed interiors for buildings used by clients such as Spark, Betamore, Penn Mutual Life, the University of Maryland, Volunteers of America, and numerous others.
EDWIN WARFIELD: You’re a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. Tell us about the school’s Interior Architecture program.
KELLY ENNIS: We live in the world of processes and rules, because at the end of the day you have to build a building or space that has to align with a set of codes. The most creative part about MICA is, when I was there, it was very, very much a fine arts school, and the creativity that came from painting, and sculpture, and things that had nothing to do with the built environment, were able to feed into the creative nature of how we actually develop space while we were in studio. Having those other disciplines at MICA that were very fine art-oriented—it gave you another creative outlet. Screen printing, ceramics, and really just having a cross section of different types of art influence your chosen path is really fantastic.
Q. Has your open-ended process led to confusion or tension with clients?
A. We had that a little bit with Harkins. They weren’t sure what they wanted to do, they weren’t sure why they wanted it, but they heard we could help them, so that was an interesting relationship formed because we didn’t know them and they didn’t know us, but they had heard we could help them. Through a series and a lot of preparation prior to the visioning session, we walked them through how we were going to get them from A to Z. When we got to Z—and I’m going to begin with the end in mind a little bit—at their grand opening party, the CEO Gary is saying “thank you everybody here”—there were a lot of people at this event—and he said, “Kelly and her team came in with some glue sticks, and some scissors, and magazines, and they had us cutting out vision, and we thought they were kind of crazy. But look at what has happened. Look at this space.”
That moment was so meaningful to us. Our team was there as well. They were kind of teasing us a little bit about the process, but in hindsight, they trusted the process and they went along for the ride. They trusted us. Building that trust, I think, is the best part. In hindsight, they clearly weren’t sure what we were doing when we started off, but we got in there, because we developed that trust with them. It’s really about trusting the process, and trusting your partners, and trusting the people you bring on your team. They did that hands-down with us, and it’s quite frankly one of our most successful projects.
Q. What do you think is the most critical component to your success?
I think we have the best and the brightest team in the industry. We’ve got amazing designers, we have amazing architects, we have strategists, and it’s the combination of design, strategy and architecture that I believe makes our approach stronger. Building a culture is hard, and it’s fun all at the same time. I think primarily one of our biggest cultural benefits is we’re a family internally and we recognize that everybody else has a family externally. That’s very intentional to how we’re building. It’s even part of our interweaving processes. This is who we are. We have an internal family here at Verve, but we also recognize that we have an external family as well. And to the degree that we can be flexible, and acknowledge that, and respect each others’ families internally and externally is really the crux of how we’re building the organization.
Statistically, with 10, 12, 15, people, your culture changes. It’s just a statistic of how people gather. The goal has always been when we get to 20, we’re going to take a similar model and we’ll go to a similar-sized city. We don’t want to compete in New York or D.C.—if our clients bring us there, we’re happy to go—but we want to stay small intentional. We don’t want to mess up that culture and we don’t want to mess up that sweet spot that we have, because with 20 people you’re going in a different direction and that’s not the direction we want to go. I’ve worked for organizations that have thousands of people. I started really high: thousands of people, drilled down to hundreds of people, drilled down to 50… We’re not 20. Growing down has been one of the best decisions of my life from the standpoint of building a team as opposed to starting small and going up, because we were able to make it that much more intentional as a group.
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