Designer Profile: Kelly Cornell

What prompted you to start Cornell Collaborative?

I always knew I wanted to work for myself. As soon as I started my design career, I knew I wanted more control over who I took on as clients and the visual impact and statement that my projects made. I wanted to be sure I was working with people that wanted to do more than the basics of getting the job done on time and on budget.  I wanted them to also have a strong vision and be willing to take creative risks. I also started the company with the thought that it would continue to grow and live up to the name of collaborative.  This was specific to being in the Baltimore community, there are so many artists, makers, craftsmen and visionaries here that I knew I wanted partnership to be a part of the core of our mission.

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You have been documenting your home renovations via @cornellhome on Instagram as well as showcasing your design projects on @cornellcollaborative. What tips to do you have for managing two related Instagram feeds?

I don’t even think I am doing either of them well right now! I think the important thing to remember is that you don’t HAVE to post all the time unless you are solely a content creator and solely have partnerships that make money through your online presence. It can get really stressful when you do start to compare yourself to people that are solely content creators.  That’s not me, I don’t have the bandwidth for it since I have my own company actively designing and another full-time job in the design world as well. It was actually easy for me to remember this when I told myself, “This isn’t how you make money. This is how you have fun.” That’s especially how I see @cornellhome. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at design life, renovating a home on your own, being in Baltimore and just general ridiculousness.  It’s not polished, it’s not meant to be. As for @cornellcollaborative, that’s a general repository for our latest inspiration and documenting current and past projects that I’ve worked on both with my business and with other firms during my time on the West Coast. I am a strong believer in having all original content. I personally found I gravitated towards those feeds myself. I also noticed how bored I got of feeds that were the same shots of different angles in someone’s living room or wherever over and over again. I follow accounts that are strong visually but also compelling in their messaging either by their musings on design or if they are insanely funny. I try to do what I would be interested in seeing. If I don’t have anything interesting to put out in the world, I don’t push myself to do it. Social media isn’t a make or break for my business so I don’t let it stress me out like it did before.

You have worked on a variety of projects from designing hotels to store interiors and intimate residential projects. What is your favorite type of design?

It absolutely depends on the client. If they have the right spirit, attitude and vision, even the smallest or most dull sounding project can be a creative dream. Then there are times when it’s a struggle without solid directive, always changing objectives, bad and abusive attitudes and the most amazing opportunity on paper becomes an absolute nightmare. I have done this long enough now that I know I like a variety of projects being on my plate because that means it will never get boring. I have been lucky to have always been in positions where I was able to work across several different kinds of sectors and also straddle commercial, hospitality and residential. I have loved and hated jobs in all of those sectors and it has always come down to who you were working with. People make all the difference since design doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

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What is your favorite place to go for creative inspiration?

One of the things I have done in the last couple of years is scheduling in time every week to do something or see something new and different. It has made all the difference in my creative work to have time dedicated for this. It can be as small as just stopping in a new store I have never been in to revisiting a museum for a new exhibition. I also make sure that I am actively making something whether that’s in my own studio painting or drawing or learning a new skill. Over the last three years, I have been taking tons of classes in cooking, metal working, woodworking and sewing. This keeps me from getting in ruts and pulls me completely out of my regular routine. It’s like going to the gym but for your creativity. I’m also a foodie and I actively seek out new restaurants all the time. It’s about engaging all of the senses in something new.

If anyone reading this is in the Baltimore area, some of my favorite places for creative inspiration are: Baltimore Museum of Art, walking around Mount Vernon, the Rawlings Conservatory, listening to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Station North Tool Library and Baltimore Chef Shop.

Do you have any advice for fellow entrepreneurs who are struggling with balancing their day job along with their dream job?

Schedule and routine. You have to be almost militant about it. I find that my best work happens early in the day, and at the end of the day when I have spent 8-10 hours working for someone else, I barely have the bandwidth to feed myself let alone work on more projects. Because of that, I get up extremely early in the morning to work, and also do any self-care activities. I want to be sure my business gets the best part of me. It’s an investment in myself so I take it very seriously. Of course, I have to take client meetings in the evening and do follow up phone calls and emails during my lunch hour but the bulk of what I do is done in the early a.m.

What is the most important aspect to consider when redesigning a living room or bedroom?

Really consider how you live. There are things you see and may love that aren’t practical for how you live your life. Make it personal, collected and meaningful. I really hate walking in a room and seeing no reflection of the people that live there. I also think it’s dangerous when people will walk into one store and buy everything from that one source. There’s a sterility to that regardless of whether they have a contemporary, minimalist style or if they prefer the farmhouse traditional look. I’ve designed homes from one end of the spectrum to the other and it’s all about collecting and personality.


You have lived on both the east coast and the west coast. Have you noticed any major differences in terms of design trends and aesthetic?

Massive differences. Sometimes I am still trying to figure out what exactly makes it different. The very foundations of the East Coast vs. West Coast are what make these differences: availability of building materials, weather and climate, topography, seismic considerations, new money vs. old money, economic driving industries, etc.  Every single thing ends up forming aesthetics and influences our choices in design.

For example, I had not worked with brick at all in Southern California. It never came up as a finish material (most brick now isn’t actually doing anything structurally so I would hesitate to call it a true building material like it would have been a century ago). On the East Coast and especially in the mid-Atlantic, it’s everywhere. Its historic buildings, it’s how we clad new buildings, it’s requested over and over again by commercial clients for interior exposed brick walls. It’s actually one of my biggest design pet peeves—I am often being asked to do brick veneers on interiors where it would never naturally occur if you were using it as a building material. Always use your fake masonry where real masonry would be like an exterior or party wall. I have to be honest, I am pretty burnt out on brick and fake barnwood as finish materials but I am asked for them all the time. At the end of the day, I have to remember, this isn’t my space and making sure the client is thrilled with it is what is most important.

Follow Kelly on Instagram at @cornellhome and @cornellcollaborative.