Leading by Design: Larry Korman
Leading by Design explores the work of PennDesign alumni, faculty members, and supporters of the School who are expanding the practice of art and design to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
Larry Korman wears many hats. He’s co-CEO of Korman Communities, the Philadelphia-based real estate company that his family has run since the early 1900s, and president of AKA, a brand of hotel residences that’s growing globally. He serves on the PennDesign Board of Overseers, is a member of the Capital Campaign Committee, and holds key roles in the Kahn Society and the Kahn Collection at Penn’s Architectural Archives. He is also a trustee at Drexel University, chairman of the board at the Philadelphia Film Society, and a member of the Corporate Council at the Children’s Hospital of Philadlephia. He lives in and cares for the last residence designed by Louis Kahn. His wife Korin (WG’92) graduated from Penn, where his son Alec is a senior and his son Max started this fall. And now he’s helping the School support the next generation of designers and artists through Lead by Design: The Campaign for PennDesign. Here Korman talks about the role of design, and the School, in his life and work.
You’ve been involved in design since your youth.
From a very young age, I not only went to work with my dad on the weekend, but also rearranged the furnishings in our first house at night—when my parents were asleep!
Our company is a four-generation, residential real estate company, born and bred in Philadelphia. When I entered the family business—after working during the summers from age 10, on weekends from age 16, studying hospitality management in England, and graduating from Duke in 1986—we had 23 garden style apartment communities throughout the Delaware Valley. My father pioneered the nation’s first furnished apartment in 1966 at the one circular high rise his father built on the Ben Franklin Parkway. Philadelphians did not want to rent pie-shaped apartments on an annual basis, and he recognized an unmet need between the daily stay of a hotel and an annual lease of an apartment.
In 1987, after a year of bringing all of the properties together to create greater bang for buck, I focused my attention on marketing. My father and I wanted to not only create similar synergies with getting our message out, but we also wanted to take his furnished suite concept to the next level. We created KormanSuites, and brought in a marketing team and a designer to improve the collateral material and advertising as well as the appearance of the lobbies, models, and suites themselves.
You have various connections to Penn. And it starts with the Kahn house that you live in. Can you talk about how living in that house brought you to PennDesign, supporting the Archives and the other work that you support?
I first met Lou Kahn when I was 8, in 1971, when he came out to explore our property before designing our home. I remember him meandering around the fields, and my father allowed me to ask him what he was doing. He explained that he was looking to see where the sun came up, where the sun went down, and to get a general lay of the land. This house ended up being his final residential commission, taking into account the lessons learned from having designed 26, built eight other houses, as well as going through the catharsis of creating some of his most monumental structures around the world, from the Salk Institute, to the Kimball Art Museum, to the National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Having met Lou, and observed certain portions of his design process, and then the construction of the house, I became increasingly intrigued by architecture and development. We moved into the house in October of 1973, when I was 10, but the landscaping was not completed until the spring of 1974. Rather than having a grand opening of the house, in conjunction with the ICA, Lou had passed away right before, the opening became a memorial to him. Penn hosted the event, and the Inquirer covered it, and people from all over the city and world attended—to pay homage to the remarkable life of Lou Kahn.
Later, busloads of architects would come to visit and tour the house from China, Japan, India, and all over the world, to see “Kahn’s last home.” The architects, design students, lovers of architecture, and others were fascinating and had great stories to tell, and share with us, about what Lou meant to them, as well as what they saw within this house—detail by detail! Those tours, large and intimate, connected me to the world of design. While I already had an inner passion for design, this immersion into art and architecture catapulted my interest to a higher level.
When my parents got divorced, rather than sell the house on the open market, they rented, and then sold, the house to me—not only so it could stay in the family, but more so because I had always taken care of the house and grounds, and they knew how passionate I was about the house. My parents are still best friends, and we still hold all our family events at the house.
“There’s a whole world of design that has opened itself up to me personally and professionally over the past 20 years.”
When did you move in?
I think it was November of 1998 that my wife and I moved in. My dad and mom had separated maybe two years earlier and I was taking care of the house while my mom was there. My wife and I, for date night, would go clean up the house, or something like that.
Almost immediately, Julia Converse, who was running the Architectural Archives, would say, “Can I bring a tour over?” And I would get to spend time with her. I wanted to help, and got involved with PennDesign and the Kahn Collection. We made a video of the house to share with students. We created a website for the house so that those intrigued with architecture could connect with the house virtually. It was just a natural connection. We formed an affinity. She introduced me to the former dean, Gary Hack, at PennDesign and I became very involved with the Kahn Collection and joined the PennDesign Board of Overseers.
So as the steward of a one-of-a-kind house like that, what does it mean to have the resource of the Archives?
I have been so fortunate to work with Bill Whitaker at the Architectural Archives! Bill really is the foremost authority today on all things Kahn, so I do not do anything to the house without consulting Bill first! There are some challenging issues since it is an all-wood house with flat roofs, large windows, and a few leaks from the expansion and contraction from summer to winter. Any questions or concerns I have with the house, I go right to Bill, and he either has the answer or directs me to someone at PennDesign, or some expert in a field such as wood preservation or brick restoration.
When I first made the commitment to embrace the integrity of Kahn’s original design, Bill pulled out the 1000 plus pages of plans my father donated to the the Archives in the late 1970s. Bill also went through those plans and was able to explain Kahn’s thought process and intentions, as well as where certain aspects of the design were value engineered differently. He has been my consultant along that journey ever since! We are currently working with the Salk Institute and the Getty Museum to explore new ways of wood preservation—to maintain the durability and the natural coloring for the teak at Salk and the cypress at our house. We are also working with Harriet Pattison (who worked with Lou on the landscaping for both our house and the Kimball Art Museum), and David Rubin of Land Collective (who worked with Laurie Olin for years), to bring the landscaping elements to both sites, where Lou envisioned those elements, as well as to enhance the additional grounds we have acquired over the years. All of which needs to relate back to the spirit of the house.
So, the house is still being built after all these years?
The house is now 45 years young, and it continues to present new challenges and opportunities. The ongoing maintenance revolves around the exterior wood, the roof, the windows, the brick, the HVAC, and other normal issues relating to a house from the 1970s. Every 15 years, the interior design has been updated, transformed, but always with respect towards Kahn’s architecture. I’m constantly striving to please Lou, and maintain the integrity of what he envisioned—and share the house with others who are passionate about Kahn and architecture.
Currently, we are in the process of replacing the tennis court with a water feature, and moving the pool house to the other side of the pool—all in an effort to make the drive from the road to the arrival at the house more of an organic path of trees, grass, and gravel.
There’s a whole world of design that has opened itself up to me personally and professionally over the past 20 years. There are people that I get to interact with that I would not have met, if not for the affiliation with Kahn and Penn. I have always opened my door, as my parents did, in honor of Lou, to students, teachers, architects, and admirers of his work. And I have built relationships with interesting groups and intriguing individuals from all over the world.
“Not only Kahn, but also Horace Trumbauer, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown are . . . legendary Philadelphians, and the Archives has a plethora of valuable holdings from them.”
How has the experience with the Kahn house, and with Kahn himself and the Archives, influenced the way you carry out your professional projects.
Meeting great designers opened up my mind at an early age to embrace the world of architecture—to see that design does matter, and it does create value and strength. So, when we went to New York to do our version of hotel residences, I partnered with designers that I met through Penn that are affiliated with PennDesign, and we used design in a way that had never been seen before. Furnished apartments in New York City were usually a few units, with a lock box on the door, a lumpy mattress shoved against a plaster wall, in a dated apartment with a stale, traditional lobby, and few amenities or services.
With our first entrée into the New York City market, I wanted to stand for something, not be everything to everyone, or imitate something someone had already done. I love contemporary minimal design, and partnered with a young architect I met through PennDesign who had just opened a small office in New York City and South Korea. We had a small budget, but big ideas. The building was a 1980s nondescript high rise, that, ironically, housed one of the lowest end versions of what we were attempting to take to the highest level–which is why we were able to buy it. In less than a year, we transformed the exterior, lobby, amenities (using spaces that had been a dentist office and maintenance residence, and an outdoor back terrace where the old appliances were put out to pasture), as well as all 95 one-bedroom residences. We created our own furniture, accessories, art, and kitchen and bathroom packages. We brought in a whole new look to our name, collateral, advertising, and created unique amenities and services for individuals staying weekly and monthly.
AKA has renovated two Horace Trumbauer properties in Center City Philadelphia, receiving multiple AID awards, and recently helped Brandywine construct a 50-story high rise in University City on land owned by Penn. We also operate 6 properties in New York City, 2 in LA, 1 in DC and 1 in London. Our goal is to open two to three new properties a year over the next decade, with many overseas. I always envisioned AKA to be a global brand that connects with global citizens who appreciate design and respect the integrity of the architecture, the neighborhood, and spirit of a community. So, I do think there is a clear connection between my obsession with pushing the envelope with design in the real estate development arena and growing up in a Kahn house and being a part of the PennDesign family. I also attribute my global outlook to the friends and connections I have made through Kahn and Penn over the many years—from my comfort level with cultural barriers to a universal appreciation for diversity, and a desire to explore and share ideas.
How do you see Philadelphia developing, relative to the way other cities, global destinations, are developing?
I am bullish about where Philadelphia is heading as a national and world-class destination. When you look at University City, which I consider now to be the city’s sixth square (after City Hall, Franklin, Rittenhouse, Washington, and Logan), you can see how far Amy Gutman has taken Penn, John Fry has taken Drexel, Madeline Bell has taken CHOP, and how high Jerry Sweeney is taking Brandywine. AKA is proud to operate our offering in University City too, as well as in historic Washington Square and prestigious Rittenhouse Square. It’s one thing to do it because it's your home, and it’s another to do it because you are bullish on Philadelphia, and we are bullish on Philadelphia.
What do you hope the Lead by Design campaign accomplishes for PennDesign?
PennDesign attracts the most talented students from around the world because of the amazing teachers and resources at the University, but I worry about today’s students not becoming tomorrow’s innovators because of the burdens associated with student debt. How can they attempt to blaze new trails, or pursue their passion fully, if their primary concern is to pay back burdensome loans? I would like to see the money raised from this new campaign go towards reducing that burden, so that students can attempt something “outside of the box” in their profession.
I would also like to see the Architectural Archives expand, by moving from the basement of the Fisher Fine Arts Library to its own building, similar to the ICA. Its collection is world-class, and can be presented more three dimensionally to engage the next generation of PennDesign students, and visitors to Philadelphia. Not only Louis Kahn, but also Horace Trumbauer, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown are represented in the collection. These are legendary Philadelphians, and the Archives has a plethora of valuable holdings from them.
Being a part of PennDesign, from the people I have met to the places I have seen, has blended my personal and professional passions. While I support the School with time and money, I get so much more back in return. I am blown away by the things I see going on at PennDesign, where the practice of design extends from the design of a house to solving problems resulting from climate change, improving how cities function, and more. At the end of the day, we all have a mission to elevate design: those studying design, those teaching design, and those embracing design as business, for a living.