Luke Kelly, Gensler London
Luke Kelly, Gensler London
A man in a black suit.

Luke Kelly Discusses Diversity and Inclusion as a Designer Living with HIV

This Q&A is part of a series of interviews with Gensler architects, designers, and others in the firm about their career journey, and the impact that design and architecture can have on our communities and the human experience.

For those living with HIV, fear of stigma, marginalization, and discrimination can negatively impact their personal health and well-being. HIV-related stigma and discrimination can also be a barrier to the type of public action we need to raise awareness about HIV prevention. We sat down with Luke Kelly, an interior designer at Gensler London, to talk about his own journey as an HIV positive gay man, and the steps he is taking to educate others.

Luke recently did a video on Instagram Live talking publicly for the first time about his HIV diagnosis, which led to his being featured on BBC News with David Furnish. He is also featured in a BBC News article about ending the stigma associated with living with HIV. We also talked to Luke about his design journey, his career path at Gensler, and how design can help raise awareness about subjects of wellness, equity, and inclusion:

What was your first introduction to the field of architecture and design?

Early on, I was obsessed with the magic of theatre, and how the actors were just behind the curtain, ready to transport you with them to another world. I was intrigued with everything from the building itself, to the sets, to the stories the actors told. The idea of bringing people together to gather and enjoy a shared cultural experience still fascinates me today, and going to the theatre is one of my favourite things to do.

What was an early experience that influenced your career path?

Growing up, my family owned a caravan, which we toured all over Europe as a child. I used to lie in the bunk beds at the back and mentally rearrange how everything could be packed in there. It may have been 90s décor, but they were amazingly well designed; everything had a place — even the kitchen sink! That made me question what makes people really feel comfortable in a (small) space. I also loved the idea that you can set up home very simply in any location. And this is really relevant today, this idea of ephemerality and being able to leave the site just as you found it.

As a result of my early love for theatre I became a thespian. I think that’s when the act of storytelling and getting into the minds of different characters became a passion. It helped me as a designer to be able to walk in the shoes of another person; relatability /empathy is key in understanding a client’s needs, being able to tell their story, and meet their needs authentically.

What brought you to Gensler?

Prior to Gensler, I had been working on some beautiful hotel spaces, which really are all about making the user have an unforgettable experience. I brought this experience to a role within the Workplace Studio of Gensler’s London office. It’s so amazing that workplace is nodding more at hospitality design, where the focus is on user experience, putting people at the heart, and making their experience the best. Now, with the evolution of the ‘working from home office,’ people have become used to a more residential environment.

How has your career shaped your understanding of the world?

I remember in Architecture School at Newcastle University they said to us in our first week that we would never view the world the same. Ever since, I have had a heightened awareness of my surroundings. This awareness creates a certain amount of responsibility for the designer. Designers are artists who populate the canvas for human interaction, and thus, influence how people are to act. Understanding the human condition and what makes people ‘tick’ has not only helped me as a designer, but as another empathetic being in this world.

How did your HIV diagnosis impact you in your career?

If anything, my HIV diagnosis did everything but hold me back. Growing up gay in a straight world, I was constantly overachieving to try deal with the shame I was experiencing for being gay. As Billy Porter put in his recent ‘coming out’ essay, “My compartmentalisation muscle and my disassociation muscle were the strongest muscles I had,” so masking trauma, particularly for people in the queer community, is something that we are used to.

For me, like Billy, HIV was no different. I was diagnosed in the first term of my third year at Architecture School; I kept quiet about my diagnosis, and “powered through.” I made it my mission to get through my final year. This attitude (and silence) continued thereafter, and it wasn’t until four months ago did I fully stop to reflect on the magnitude that my diagnosis has had on my life. I realised that just “powering through” was useful at the time, but that it wasn’t sustainable. I realised that I didn’t want to conform to this homophobic belief inside me that this should be a secret anymore. Acknowledging and accepting the truth was what brings me to where I am today. Being open, accepting, and unapologetic for who I am. Bringing it back to design, I think if I can embody this newfound ethic in my work, truth and honesty will be the foundation for amazing work to come.

How can architecture and design advance wellness, equity, and inclusion?

Thinking about the primitive needs of human beings is a great starting point. Nodding design to natural light and circadian rhythms, encouraging physical movement in our design, allowing nature in, and creating spaces where people can connect and interact, casually or planned. These elements also should be orchestrated inclusively, and it is our role as designers to question the norms of society. We are storytellers and the more breadth of experiences and personalities that the design team has to draw from, the richer the result will be.

Architecture and design, like any other art form, comes from a conglomeration of ideas from before, and this by its definition is diverse. This diversity of thought can help with inclusion as well, as it promotes more opinions and the ability to think outside of the status quo. Specifically, if I think to my schooling, a migration towards gender neutral toilets and less authoritarian approach to design (i.e. Montessori vs. conventional classroom) could have opened up more inclusive conversations earlier on, which ultimately could have helped with my journey.

What role does architecture and design play in shaping the minds of the future generations?

Designing experiences for a diverse range of people and personalities gives people the opportunity to live, work, and interact together in a way that shapes their outlook on the world. As designers, we are in a privileged position to represent others and have an impact on the spaces they inhabit. Remembering that you are part of something bigger and that all of us have a role in making a difference is so rewarding.

Who, or what, has influenced you most in this profession?

In hospitality design, it’s making people feel good, emotive provocation though design, and making people feel something in a space. My experience in the theatre and design has helped me understand the end user. I’ve also been influenced by inspired by Alison and Peter Smithson (also Newcastle graduates), who were revolutionary in the way they looked at the end user, and design features they implemented to foster interactions between occupants of their buildings.

Where do you find your inspiration?

Being in a space where people can come together, share stories, connect, and do something together is how I get my energy. Over the last year, lockdowns have made this challenging, but I’ve used the time to cycle into nature and try and to become a little more introspective. Inspiration comes the best for me when I’m in a good mental place, so it’s been a great learning experience to work hard on being still and appreciating the little things that have been taken away from us that normally make us happy.

The most important thing I've learned as a designer is...

One small change from our end can really affect the long-term user of a space, so it’s so important to keep the focus on the end user’s needs at all times. This includes thinking about the usability of a space, but also inclusivity for all.

What excites you most about the future?

The world is changing and the future holds the potential to create inspiring design that changes mindsets. We can create spaces and settings that educate people. By understanding our clients and their future needs, we can spread awareness through our work. By using inclusive design concepts and sustainable materials, we can contribute to a movement of change. Having empathy as a designer is key; I think a good designer has the ability to view the world though other people’s lenses.

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