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The Power of Spaces: How Kelley Bishop Is Transforming Design in Athens.

Rigmarole Stories

Posted by Ryan Woods - 23 January, 2020

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Autumn descends unheralded on the South, turning down the heat and dappling the leaves with color overnight. On a machine gray afternoon, a damp chill haunts the air outside Steel+Plank, where proprietor Kelley Bishop maintains a thriving design studio.

Inside, the mood turns meditative and tranquil. Bishop’s aesthetic favors a modern, minimal profile, yet exudes a natural warmth that comes from her use of sustainable materials. Her furniture moulds interior landscapes without disrupting attention. On the tables and walls, the craft of local artisans -- ceramics, blankets, paintings, candles, and soaps -- breathes life and color into the surroundings. This curated space offers an inviting retreat from the drizzly gusts now swirling along the perimeter of the Leathers Building.

A visit to Steel+Plank illustrates an enduring truth almost too obvious to state: environments shape how we feel. Walk into a neglected building with broken windows and spray-painted graffiti, and we’re unsettled, even if no one else is around. An unkempt, windowless office with books and papers in shifting piles reads differently than a bright, tidy space with clean surfaces. Architects and designers aren’t just tasked with constructing functional buildings for us to work in; they engineer spaces that shape how we live.

Few understand this art of living space as intimately as Kelley Bishop. The Mississippi-born architect ranges widely in her projects, from landscaping a riparian habitat for grizzly bears in Montana to fitting out restaurants in Atlanta. In addition to administering Studio BNA with her co-principal and partner, Brett, she’s licensed as a contractor and maintains a fabrication workshop where she designs the Steel+Plank line. What unites this varied portfolio is careful research, spare contours, sustainability, and a deep awareness of site.

Bishop followed a circuitous path to Athens. After graduating from Auburn, she worked several years in Atlanta firms. Her time there coincided with a dramatic transformation of Georgia’s metropolis. A city that arose from the ashes and branded itself with the motto “Resurgens” is one resistant to the pangs of nostalgia, to be sure. But when Atlanta succeeded in its bid to host the Olympics in 1996, it embarked on an unprecedented campaign of creative destruction. Replacing older housing stock with glass and steel high-rises, reclaiming parkland, and redeveloping venerable neighborhoods -- few parts of the city escaped alteration. In many ways, it’s an upheaval that endures, with the development of the historic Beltline and the reinvention of City Hall East as Ponce City Market. It was an exciting time to be an architect. Bishop learned a lot about the business during her tenure there, honing her own aesthetic sensibilities in this crucible of change.

After striking out on her own, gradually cultivating a nationwide roster of clients, her next move was a merger. Rekindling a romance with Brett Nave, whom she had briefly dated when they were both students at Auburn, they formed Studio BNA Architects together. They settled the firm along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. In the ensuing years, they would develop the principles that continue to define their practice: “simple lines, composition, balance, and material integrity.” Sustainable design and energy-efficiency became signature elements of their projects.

Their work won national admiration, but failed to send down deep roots into Mississippi soil. The number of prospective clients along the Gulf Coast who shared their architectural vision and ideals remained slight. All their contracts were coming from elsewhere. Relocation became imminent. But where?

Surveying the options, Athens became an increasingly attractive new site for Studio BNA Architects. Kelley was familiar with the Classic City from visits with her brother, who earned his doctorate from the University of Georgia. Athens was close to Atlanta, but far from its snarled traffic and intense competition. Rents were more reasonable, and living standards remained high. The horizons for a firm like theirs seemed endless. In fact, only one other design firm operated in the same market as Studio BNA. Atlanta-based practices were doing most of the construction around town.

It was a move that might have ruptured their nascent firm, but in the end, every single member agreed to move. By 2013, Kelley and Brett had taken up residence in the Leathers Building. Athens had a burgeoning new architecture business with an exciting vision for design.

Bishop readily acknowledges that it’s taken time to win contracts here. Athens hosts a flagship university and a remarkable music scene, but it remains a small town at heart. Building a loyal clientele means cultivating relationships with the city’s businesses and entrepreneurs. Studio BNA took on a long-term project rehabilitating Habersham Mills in Demorest, and worked on a growing list of Atlanta restaurants. But it took time to establish its identity in this tight-knit community.

Eventually, contracts in Athens did materialize. First, there was 570 Thomas Street. Then there was Rock Box, a recording studio. The Mathis Aparments represent a large-scale redevelopment with the potential to transform that corridor of town. More exciting design is in negotiation for downtown building, the details of which can’t yet be disclosed to the general public. But take it from this journalist: they’re exciting new spaces.  

What makes Studio BNA distinctive, in part, is Kelley’s versatility in design. Like any architect, she can draft blueprints and render plans in CAD. She can also manage construction. And she’s always maintained a fabrication workshop to craft furniture to populate spaces the firm is building. It’s a value-added proposition for full-service projects. It also functions as a side business, helping to diversify the company’s portfolio.

In the early years, furniture design was an in-house specialty. But when an adjacent studio space became available in the Leathers Building, Kelley saw an opportunity to position her work as its own brand outside the orbit of Studio BNA. Steel+Plank was born two years ago, and has built a thriving presence in Athens.

To develop Steel+Plank’s profile, Bishop has relied on artistic collaboration and community events.

She’s sought out local artisans like Chona Reyes Leathers, a ceramicist whose minimal approach and attention to detail reflects her own aesthetic commitments. Willaby, an Athens-based designer of sustainable, luxe baby blankets, bedding, and towels, now displays in Bishop’s space. A growing roster of other female makers features in Steel+Plank also exhibit there. Bishop makes this arrangement symbiotic: their wares complement her furniture, and the opportunity to show their work in Kelley’s studio connects these creatives with new audiences. It’s a win-win situation where the designer and artists benefit.  

The same can be said for her monthly Gatherings. Space without community is like art without an audience. What Bishop is offering is not merely furniture design, but a way of life based on simple, balanced principles. To appreciate the scope of this vision, one must experience it. A featured expert might give a talk, a theme (like hosting for the holidays) might guide activities, or the event might feel like a gallery opening for a new featured artist. Whatever form these Gatherings assume, the goals are the same: to create social events around art and design.

It’s been a journey for Kelley Bishop to secure her current position nurturing a growing list of projects for Studio BNA and Steel+Plank. Her path has uniquely equipped her to transform places and build community. Now that she and Brett have firmly planted their practice in Athens, look for the city to feel different as they reshape it, project by project.    

Topics: stories, design, rigmarole


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