Kelly Robinson is leading a double life. As a yoga instructor, she hosts a studio with weekly classes on the upper floor of her home in Mitte—a cozy two-story with odd angles, jutting out from a larger apartment building, accessible through a leafy courtyard.
Originally from the United States, she had designed the office spaces for Airbnb and Couchsurfing before moving to Berlin. Kelly has always been a keen traveller and this nomadic lifestyle lends itself to her attitude to workspaces. With a focus on unity and flexibility in her work as well as her life, Kelly can often be found in Factory Berlin’s co-working space. The new start-up campus is also the home of her first Berlin design project, the SoundCloud headquarters.
While at SoundCloud, her role was described as “Vibe Manager”. With no formal training in design, architecture or interiors, her unique approach is an autodidactic product of an unusual career path that began at sea, combined with the resonance of yogic philosophy. It has proven compelling: the gorgeous SoundCloud offices opened about a year ago to an array of accolades from the press. Her next project—designing the offices of meditation start-up Headspace in Los Angeles—draws the connections between her skill set even tighter.
Can you tell me about the path that you took to get where you are now? It sounds like an interesting story.
I’m from the northern suburbs of Chicago, and I went to university in Arizona where I studied economics and communications. My senior year, I studied abroad in Australia. I fell in love with travelling and the idea of creating a lifestyle based on travel.
I came back to the States, finished my degree, tried to do corporate America for about four months, and then quit—because I just couldn’t be myself in that environment. So I packed up and moved to Florida to work on a yacht. For nine months I worked on a billionaire’s private yacht. That’s where I really started to understand the importance of space and how to set space intentionally—to the standards of a billionaire. I learned that there was no room for inefficiency in design, that everything has a place. It was that experience combined with travelling that taught me how people all over the world utilize spaces of all kinds.
After nine months on the yacht, I got overwhelmed by the wealth and waste, so I quit and went to India for two months to study yoga. It was the total opposite end of the spectrum, seeing extreme poverty for the first time. What shocked me was how happy the people of India were in comparison to the guests onboard the yacht, despite the huge difference in material wealth. I learned that something deeper, more internal was going on when it came to happiness. So, fresh from these two very different experiences, I ended up in San Francisco, working for Airbnb when they were ten people in the founders’ apartment.
It sounds like you’ve got a pretty holistic approach with what you do with space. Can you talk about your philosophy of vibe through design?
I believe vibe is a real and measurable thing. The thoughts that we think are a vibration. The words that we speak are a vibration. The music within a space, the ambient sound, even the furniture inside a space carries a vibration. Where was it made? How? Which materials? By whose hands? How easily people can travel through a space? This is all part of the picture. So when I think about the vibe in an office, or really any space, I consider that it’s ultimately a container which holds the company. How can I create an environment that vibrates on a really high level? So there’s no room for fear or unproductive conversation, complaining, whining, indecision—these lower level, toxic vibrations don’t serve to help the company evolve. But when you create a space that’s clean from a vibrational perspective, the conversation gets elevated. And the feelings and thoughts in individuals get elevated. That’s the big picture of what I try to do through design, through food, through my presence (laughs). I try to live that as much as I can.
Tell me about the thought process that led you to this philosophy of vibe?
My understanding that creating a really positive environment is possible came from my mother. The yacht taught me a lot about teamwork and that every single person is important, no matter what role they play. The boat couldn’t function without the work of every crew member, regardless of whether they were doing laundry or driving. That made me question, “Why do some people at companies get nicer spaces than others? Why do some teams get access to better equipment?” I was trying to create this oneness within space design.
I also studied feng shui, which to me is ultimately about balancing a space. Not having too many overpowering elements—I’m always making sure there’s a balance of elements and yin and yang qualities within a space. Probably the biggest thing I’m a freak about with feng shui is clutter. As a society, I believe we have way too much stuff, and we don’t care enough about the stuff that we have. And I think in a company setting, it really does create a chaotic vibe that’s confusing and cluttered. It’s different than creative chaos. It’s not about perfect order. It’s about mindfulness. I often see people not caring about their stuff and they start treating things poorly or without awareness—I try to get people out of that as much as I can.
And travel, to be honest. Really seeing a lot of the world and a lot of the people of the world, and seeing how we’re all different but really we’re all the same.
When you talk about your experience on the boat and this idea of oneness, that seems to relate to Eastern philosophy. Was that informed by your time in India?
For sure. Yoga means union, unity, oneness. You begin to see that actually we’re all made up of the same energy: plants, animals, people. Even though we forget often, ultimately I know that we’re all connected. It’s a collective situation that’s happening here.
Can you talk about some of the specific ways you would implement these ideas?
I think it’s really important that everybody has access to the same quality of space in a work environment. At SoundCloud, for example, the place with the best views, up on the fourth floor, we created a common lounge area where anyone can sit at any point. There’s this fireplace/den room—also on the fourth floor—with access to the best two terraces. Those needed to be for everyone. You couldn’t put a row of eight desks there, it’s not fair. It’s the same thing that I’m doing with Headspace. Right when I walked in, it was like, boom, this one part of this building is the best, so that becomes the heart, the communal space for interns and founders alike.
What I’m trying really hard to implement in future projects is even a step further than that. It’s more around sharing desks rather than every single person needing their own permanent desk. The less territorial we are, the more efficient, sustainable and collaborative a space is. Forty per cent of office spaces worldwide are vacant because people are on holiday, or sick, or at external meetings, or travelling for work, or working from another office, or working from home. So, I’m trying to design more of a mobile office. Maybe a team of twenty has a neighborhood of fifteen desks, for example. I’m trying really hard to work with that, but it’s difficult. The commercial side is convincing, though.
From watching a talk you gave, it sounds as though you have specific goals in mind. For instance, you talked about engendering affection for the space and how that would in turn actually help the working environment.
One thing I think is really important, and I think a lot of companies get this wrong, is that space needs to be really intentionally designed. There are too many spaces where space is fair game for eating, or speaking loudly, or doing focused work, and it becomes confusing. I think it’s really important to create certain areas that are for certain types of working behaviors.
There is more at play than just the pure design of the space—that’s only one of the three elements. Another element is the management—how the space is run, what does the team look like and how are they trained? Who will actually be making the space run and keep it alive? This has a huge impact on the vibe of the space. You can walk into an impeccably designed space, but if the first interaction you have with a human who works there is negative, you feel awkward or unwelcome.
And thirdly, the way people interact with the space and treat the space has a huge impact on the vibe. How much do people care about it? Do they love it? How much are they educated as to what is expected from them in regards to how they treat it? It’s the big picture. If you think about the planet, the design is there. Nature is just unbelievable. The governing, management and educational side definitely needs to do some work. If both of those two things were there, it would make it easier for people to know how to treat it better. It’s the same with an office.
All three of these pieces—the design, the management, and the connection between the space and those who live in it—are really important in any environment. Whether it’s a yacht, or an office, or a community, or a city or the planet.
Yoga is interesting because it’s this parallel thing that exists alongside what you’re known for. Philosophically, I see how it relates, but in practice they seem pretty far apart.
Totally. That’s something I’ve been working on, trying to figure out where they’re going to intersect. And that’s why I think my current project, Headspace, is a really interesting company. It’s integrating the meditation space into tech. But to answer your question, I honestly feel like I kind of have two separate sides of myself. I feel like I have this business sense and this desire to be in a bit of a corporate setting, and to strive and to challenge myself. I love building a space and seeing it stand and people interacting in it. Then the other side is more this mothering need that I have to take care of people and help them on a deeper and more personal level. That happens through teaching yoga.
Underneath it all, more than anything else, I’m a yoga teacher. When I go into the corporate world, I notice where the sense of oneness and connection is missing from an environment. Ultimately there are two sides to this design work—one is knowing how to design an environment that people will love and thrive in. The other is managing all the people who need to come together to bring it into reality. When things get heated and people get tense, I try really hard to pull things back to a place of connection. This I couldn’t do without my yoga roots. So while yes, the purely corporate world is very different, ultimately it’s my yoga practice that allows me to succeed at it.
Find out more about Kelly’s understanding of space and its importance on how we work, on her website.
This portrait is produced together with USM for the series “Personalities by USM.” See a different angle to this story with a focus on Kelly’s interior here. Want to meet more of Berlin’s creative inhabitants? Head over to our Berlin section.