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Building Community: Hudson Kruse Design

originally published in Award Magazine

The fall of 1999 brought interior designer Trevor Kruse the opportunity to work on the (then) Ritz Carlton condominium project in Toronto.

That project came with a catch, though. “They asked me to set up a company and they would bring the project with them,” Kruse recalls of the chance to do space planning for suites in the top 40 floors of what is now the Trump Tower.

The project proved less than straightforward in other ways too. Kruse found himself bounced on and off the project as project ownership and other circumstances changed.

Finally, “unbeknownst to me, Ed Zeidler, of Zeidler Architects, was singing my praises, and they brought me back to the project,” Kruse says. “The level of support they gave me surprised me.”

Kruse’s “incidental” creation, Hudson Kruse Design, proved a more stable entity despite the owner’s initial ambivalence. “I never really wanted my own company, but when this opportunity came along, I decided to start the company. It was a happy accident,” Kruse admits.

Hudson Kruse Design (Hudson being Kruse’s mother’s maiden name), by its principal’s estimate, devotes 70 per cent of its efforts to taking condominium projects to market. The remainder is spent on private residential projects, “going from paper to the moment when clients move into their houses,” Kruse says.

This residential focus grew out of Kruse’s upbringing in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, a town of 15,000. “I was artistic growing up, but I was able to start taking drafting classes in grade five,” he recalls as he reels off other courses taken and skills acquired at a young age, including his Grade 12 interior design class. “I knew from the age of ten that I wanted to develop places for people to live.”

“I knew I could get a leg up on what I wanted to do in university by taking these courses.”

“My family was building a new house when I was in Grade 10,” Kruse continues. “I did the drawings, and my father and I visited the site every day to check the process.”

“What I did in school was complemented by what I did day by day in the real world. I know that is a very rare opportunity.”

Swift Current itself may be to thank for this unusual amount of early development. “Not many people there go away to school, so high schools offer vocational training,” Kruse explains.

When his guidance counsellor told Kruse about the two interior design degree programs available in Canada at the time, he chose Ryerson University, where he completed a Bachelor of Applied Arts in Interior Design (BAAID) in 1986.

Kruse didn’t need to look far for inspiration when choosing the subject of his fourth-year project. “I did the (then empty) Sears Warehouse, right across the street from the Ryerson School of Interior Design,” he recalls. “I designed it about four years before it was converted, almost exactly as I designed it – not that they ever saw what I had done in school.”

“And when I started my company, the developer asked me to finish common areas of the project, which were in my thesis.”

Kruse isn’t done with school. “I hope to be accepted at the University of Minnesota to do my Masters degree,” he says, adding he’ll do most of the course through the University of Toronto (where his partner of 28 years serves as Dean of Students at Innis College) and spend one semester in Minnesota to do his thesis project.

Hudson Kruse Design has since built strong relationships with other developers, an accomplishment Kruse attributes to his extracurricular activities. “I was always a diligent participator. I joined committees and clubs. I volunteered for all kinds of things,” he explains. “When I moved here from Saskatchewan, I didn’t know anybody. This was my process of creating a strong network.

“After I graduated, I volunteered for the Association of Registered Interior Designers of Ontario (ARIDO). I’ve worked with them in every capacity (including President).”

Kruse also counts the two jobs he held prior to starting Hudson Kruse Design as important stepping stones. He spent 11 years at Linda Boorman Interiors Ltd., where he rose to senior designer, followed by a three-year stint at Gluckstein Design.

He credits each employer for helping him develop as a designer, particularly at Gluckstein’s larger firm. “There were more people I could compete with as colleagues, who forced me to up my game as a designer,” he says.

After three years with Gluckstein, other opportunities appeared and headhunters called. “I left Brian’s office to sort through my options and settled on starting Hudson Kruse Design when the Ritz opportunity arrived later that year,” Kruse recalls.

Boorman’s and Gluckstein’s management techniques also stayed with their former employee. “They showed me that you have to give a certain amount of autonomy to your staff, to let them make decisions, to have relationships with their clients, and if a mistake is made, you stand behind your employee. The firm comes up with solutions.”

“I have a strong team,” he continues. “Most of them manage their own projects. I’ve been developing the team so they can handle their own projects.”

“Part of my strategy is for them to develop stronger relationships with clients so clients don’t always have to contact me,” he continues. “I’m hands-on when clients want me to be hands-on, but I try to give my team a lot of freedom. Everybody is responsible for every part of their projects. I don’t want them to feel they have to turn to me for approval.”

It’s a practical idea. Citing the roughly 60 projects the firm, whose staff numbers fluctuate between 8 and 12, currently has on the go, Kruse states the obvious: “There isn’t enough of me to go around.”

This approach serves as part of a foundation for continuous development, along with the fact that the firm often handles multiple projects for individual developers. “These developers help us work with great architects,” he says. “Each project helps us improve. And with each project, clients give us more leeway to create better solutions.”

Everybody except Kruse’s administrative assistant is a trained designer or architect. “I have somebody from almost every design school in the greater Toronto area, like Humber College, Sheridan College, Ryerson University, the University of Toronto. I’m trying to keep it balanced.”

This mix supports one of Kruse’s design aims. “When you look at our portfolio, our projects don’t look the same,” he says. “My goal is not to have a specific vocabulary. Our clients don’t come to us to get the look of a Hudson Kruse solution. We change our vocabulary to suit the project.”

Of all the work Kruse does, he admits to a soft spot for space planning. “If I could just lock myself in a room and space plan by hand, I would be very happy,” he says, adding that his reputation encourages other designers to seek his help on their space planning challenges.

Given the spaces he’s called home, which include a converted church rectory and his current digs, a converted warehouse across the street from his West Toronto office, it’s easy to spot Kruse’s appreciation for conversions. “Toronto has great building stock that can be successfully converted into homes,” he says.

His adopted hometown keeps him engaged in other ways. “When I travel, I look for ‘real’ neighbourhoods,” Kruse says. “I want to immerse myself in the real city. In Toronto, there’s lots of opportunity to do just that.”

Among the awards his firm has piled up, one that’s closer to his heart than most is the National Post Design Exchange Award earned for a 2005 conceptual project proposing infill housing in Toronto’s back alleys. “It was a fun project,” he says of the idea that has since garnered other awards. “I continue to work on it as a concept that may or may not ever happen.”

“One of the great things about this project is it fulfills Toronto’s official plan to intensify. It protects neighbourhoods without dropping condo towers on every corner.”

In 2007, the Chicago-based International Interior Design Association (IIDA) recognized Kruse’s work for the design community by making him the first Canadian winner of the IIDA Leadership award. “It allowed me to step up and participate on an international level,” Kruse says.

Kruse’s interest in his current role on several design school advisory councils dates back to his Ryerson days. “A core group of us in my class were really involved,” he recalls. “We spent lots of time questioning our education and what we were getting from it.”

So he relishes the chance to influence design school programs. “I want to ensure current and future grads know how important it is to interact with professionals,” Kruse says. “It’s key to weave professionals in and outside the curriculum so students develop a network with future employers and colleagues while they’re at school.”

“Lately I’ve seen more insular experiences at schools. Students aren’t as engaged with the profession. They focus solely on output and marks, rather than integrating that learning experience with their careers.”

What Kruse called extracurricular in school he wants to make “intracurricular” for today’s students, starting with those at his firm. “When I bring in summer interns, they aren’t made to feel like students. They participate,” he says. “I want them to have a fantastic experience.”

A common thread in these activities demonstrate an element of Kruse’s personality that he confesses may sound trite. “Community-building – that’s what every part of my life is about. I don’t separate work, life, volunteering. To me it’s one life, and I live it all the same.”

For a PDF of the article, click Building_Community.