Alumni Spotlight

Kai Olsen '96,'03

As a principal and practice leader of HOK Philadelphia, a global design, architecture, engineering and planning firm, Kai Olsen ’96 ’03 leads projects for high profile clients including LG, Nasdaq, Philadelphia Stock Exchange and University of Pennsylvania.

Olsen’s initial interest in design started at the age of thirteen while working for his family’s custom millwork business. His first project was a pro-bono endeavor designing, milling and installing 250 pew racks for a local church over the course of a summer under the guidance of his father.

Generations of Olsen’s family have run the millwork business, so it was only a matter of time before he would be involved in his own woodworking project. “This summer job was the first time I was designing and fabricating a product,” Olsen said. “I loved seeing the evolution of a pile of wood becoming a functional object that had a purpose.”

Olsen’s background in fabricating and appreciation for the design process led to his decision to apply to a design-focused college. From the first time he visited Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science (PCT&S) campus, Olsen remembers having a good feeling about the school. “I appreciated the time faculty spent discussing what a career in design may look like for me.”

Olsen applied to the Interior Design program at PCT&S where he began his studies learning the world of design through the college’s collective approach. He recalls back in the 90s, faculty focused on collaboration with other design majors and he spent a lot of time taking core design classes with Textile Design and Fashion Design students. “Back then the curriculum followed more of a school-wide approach to design thinking as The College of Architecture and the Built Environment didn’t exist yet,” Olsen said.

About three years into Olsen’s studies, the architecture program was gaining momentum and it allowed him to explore more than just interiors. He decided to extend his studies to incorporate three additional architecture studios to diversify his degree. Olsen’s passion for the field translated into his success at PCT&S, including the fact that his work was selected to be part of the University’s accreditation application.

Following graduation, Olsen took a job at a Kling (eventually acquired by Jacobs Engineering), a large, Philadelphia based architecture and interiors practice where he started as an entry-level designer, and over the course of 20 years, became the national design director for interiors.

About seven years into his career, the economy took a downturn due to the dot-com bubble, and Olsen decided to return to his alma mater, which had since changed names to Philadelphia University, to continue his pursuit of a degree in architecture. Unlike the school-wide universal approach he was used to following in the design curriculum for his interior’s degree, the school had since moved toward a holistic approach of teaching for the built environment.

“I have spent the majority of my career working on interiors, but have always been interested how the site and exterior inform the interior, and vice versa,” Olsen said.  As a result of pursuing two degrees, Olsen attained a more wide range view of the built environment.

Olsen graduated with his architecture degree in 2003, and after two decades with Kling, took a job with HOK. Olsen has been part of the birth of the Philadelphia HOK office and the process of building a rapport in the city amongst the other well-known firms.

“It’s been great to have opportunities to work with forward thinking clients with large budgets and for a company that has a strong legacy of design and collaboration,” Olsen said.

In the last year and a half working for HOK, Olsen describes his project with Nasdaq & the Philadelphia Stock Exchange to be one of his most exciting projects in years. The new space will accommodate over 400 people. “It was HOK’s first big commission that was awarded on its own in Philly, and it’s a high profile win.”

Olsen explains that it has been exciting to work with Nasdaq because of their sophisticated design taste and vision. “We’ve had great synergy with a lot of clients in the area so far and it’s been great to listen to this particular client’s ideas, validate them, and use my expertise to take the vision to the next level. It’s always great when you feel there is a natural relationship with a client when working on a big project,” Olsen said.

Olsen’s expertise in the industry has mutually benefited PhilaU as he has been a very active alumnus supporter of PhilaU through many different channels, including serving on the College of Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) Advancement Council. The council is comprised of a distinguished group of national and international leaders in the architectural, design, engineering, and construction professions. It serves in an advisory capacity to the college’s dean with a purpose to provide an external perspective, advise on existing academic programs and creation of new programs and advocate for the college.

“I really enjoy being part of the Council and appreciate the university wanting to get feedback and real-world perspective from council members that they can use it to shape the programs’ curriculums and ultimately the schools direction,” Olsen said.

In addition, Olsen has recently hosted a Dinner with the Rams at HOK’s office. Along with other alumni working at HOK including Kevin Hollenbeck ’07, Devyn O’Neill ’10 and Nicole Criscenzo ’16, they shared a compelling presentation of current projects the firm is working to complete. The alums discussed with the students how architects and interior designers at HOK work to collaborate to produce state-of-the-art buildings that are both functional and beautiful.

Outside of his busy work schedule and alumni commitments to PhilaU, Olsen spends time with his wife, Megan, who works as both an illustrator and librarian. The two love to travel and see new architecture and design, with Copenhagen being one of their favorite place to visit. Olsen’s family is originally from Denmark, and each trip back to the country reignites his creative inspiration. Last spring, the Olsens spent 2 weeks traveling through Denmark, stopping in several cities famous for their art and design offerings. He notes the work of modern Danish architect Arne Jacobsen as one of his favorite to observe up close. Olsen also admires the work of Leonard Rickhard, a Norwegian painter he discovered at a recent exhibit at an art museum in the city of Aarhus.  

 In reflection of where his life is today and how he got here, Olsen believes that patience is important to practice. “I think the profession is perceived as a hectic and intense with long hours comprised of  constantly switching gears,” Olsen explained. “And at times, it is. But being patient and capitalizing on each project’s unique set of challenges will ultimately make you a better designer and advocate of the built environment. I’ve learned to just always keep learning, work hard, respect the collaborative process, and in time, the recognition will come.”