LAST MONTH, I learned of the July 2, 2023, passing of Kenneth Walker, Founder of the New York-based WalkerGroup/Designs and its predecessor WalkerGroup/CNI. The industry icon’s loss was first publicized in VMSD, which seemed most appropriate. Retail designers practicing during the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s saw the firm’s work being featured in countless VMSD issues, often as cover stories.
A lifelong New York resident, Ken first studied art history and fine arts at Brown University before earning his master’s degree in architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design.
Always the visionary, and still in graduate school, Ken had the foresight to “negotiate” the procurement of some of his instructors’ and colleagues’ architectural sketches and renderings. Many of those figures were or would become the most renowned architecture and design professionals of our time.
Back then, these preliminary drawings had virtually no monetary value. Now, decades later, these hand drawings would be considered museum-quality artifacts. I’m quite certain visitors to Ken’s New York City residence have been in awe of these masterpieces of modernist architecture on display; I know I was.
Vision in Motion
Ken started his architectural firm from his living room couch, helping a family friend design a retail shop. By 1970, he founded WalkerGroup, blending his architectural training with an innate understanding of retail marketing and brand strategy to create one of the first and most influential retail planning and design firms on the east coast.
An instinctive marketer, Ken understood the essence of “setting the stage” for selling. In fact, he can be credited with penning the term “retail theater.” In concert with a multidisciplinary group of interior designers, architects and graphic designers, Ken created countless branded environments. Fueled by Ken’s unlimited imagination, he guided the creation of truly memorable retail spaces at the dawn of “the experience economy.”Advertisement
Ken’s innate understanding of holistic branding was embodied in one of his many mantras: “The entire space and everything in it must ‘speak in one voice,’” he would say. This predated “unified commerce,” a.k.a. omnichannel, by decades.
Perhaps one of Ken’s greatest gifts was his charisma. He had a kind of effortless magnetism that drew people to him and made them feel like kindred spirits almost immediately.
Ken lit up the room. He was the MC at client meetings and in the design studio. He earnestly engaged with others, making them feel valued in the process. And with it, he had great humor and a playful heart.
He was also an extremely passionate person; he was passionate about the firm’s drive for excellence, his close, almost family-like client relationships and his many hobbies, including automobiles and auto racing. His passions and enthusiasm were infectious to those around him.
The Next Act
I was first introduced to Ken in 1987 when he was selected as a guest jurist for the Minnesota Chapter of the American Institute of Architects’ interior design awards. And while the SteinDesign project entry only received an honorable mention, Ken shared his thoughts – the good, the bad and the very colorful. Afterward, we exchanged cards and pleasantries, but before parting, he asked me how I would feel about working in New York. Immediately, my heart began to race.
Over subsequent months, I made trips to WalkerGroup/CNI, bookended by Ken and some staff to our Minneapolis office. Ultimately, the pace of the New York lifestyle was not for me. However, I was extremely flattered, and we promised to stay connected.Advertisement
In 1987, Ken sold his firm to the London-based media giant, the WPP group, where he remained at the helm until starting his consultancy in 1993. The new endeavor included partners and long-time business associates Mel Jacobs, a past VP at Bloomingdale’s and Federated Stores and Verna Gibson, previously of The Limited. The new firm’s name was Retail Options Inc. (ROI) – how very Ken.
The new consultancy expanded business to Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore and London. During this period, Ken was restricted from working on retail interiors based on his buy-sell agreement with WPP Group.
As fortune would have it, Ken reached out to us, resulting in a collaboration that lasted nearly a decade. Ken’s synthesis of leadership, mentorship and friendship knew no bounds. On multiple occasions he positioned our boutique retail design firm in a manner that our being hired for the job was a fait accompli.
Celebrating The Planet’s Birthday
Without a doubt, my favorite Ken Walker story unfolded in the summer of 1998. During one of my New York visits, Ken said he had something “interesting” to share with me. We went to his spectacular Manhattan apartment, where I was instructed to wait in the library.
Sometime later, Ken reentered the room wearing a baseball cap featuring the inscription 01.01.00 in white-on-black. He looked at me with a sly grin and said, “Well, what do you think?”
I was at a complete loss! At first, I thought it was some kind of computer code, but nothing came to me. I was embarrassed as I so wanted to delight my friend and mentor. Finally, Ken burst out: “It’s the millennium. I’ve branded the new millennium!” And sure enough, Ken had the audacity and the imagination to undertake a branding gig of ginormous proportion.Advertisement
The celebrational, branded merch began appearing nationally on store shelves in early 1999. Everything from T-shirts, hats, mugs and even “01.01.00, The Novel of The Millenium,” written by R.J. Pineiro. The “Grisham-like” odyssey was a foretelling of a Y2K-like apocalypse. Only Kenneth Walker could imagine and realize such a project.
“His People” Mattered Most
I first learned of Ken’s passing from Pamela Stein Meyers (no relation). Besides being a friend and fellow Minneapolitan, Pamela was the Director of Public Relations and Corporate Communications for WalkerGroup/CNI from 1985 until 1992.
Days later, Pamela, her husband Tom and I reminisced over lunch about the Walker years and our dear colleague’s passing. Beyond our wonderful recollections, Pamela thought sharing some anonymous posts appearing on the “Walker Groupies” Facebook page would be a fitting tribute.
Among the numerous outpourings were: “Ken gave us all a home away from home,” “Ken was fun to work with and always a great cheerleader,” “Ahead of his time, a real visionary,” “He never took himself too seriously,” and, my personal favorite, “Ken changed hundreds of our lives with his leadership, mentorship and friendship.”
Besides Ken’s beloved wife, Mary, Ken’s “family” was spread out among his employees, loyal clients, and countless other people whose lives were enriched by knowing him. His passions, pursuit of excellence, and endless imagination created a life-force matched by few. Throughout my 40-year long design career, few, if any, individuals had a comparable impact. Ken will be dearly missed.
VMSD invites our readers to submit a quote about Kenneth Walker: If you have a quote to share about Kenneth, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll include them in this posting.
“Ken Walker was an astute leader who questioned traditional methods of retail design and created innovative ‘retailtainment’ environments. Beyond his creativity, he helped many professionals launch their careers by giving them the experience and freedom to develop new ideas and create their destiny in the design world. As a business partner, Ken always explored new ventures and methods to sustain our business. He was my hero!” — Anthony LoGrande
Embracing Whole-Brained Thinking in the Design Journey
Strategy needs creative, and creative needs strategy—yep, having both is really the only way of unifying all disciplines with a common vernacular with an eye toward building a strong creative vision that is foundational to the processes. Hear from Bevan Bloemendaal, former VP, Global Environments & Creative Services at Timberland, how to connect the dots between disciplines, claiming and creating a clear differentiation for the brand and ensuring that any asset (experience, product, ad, store, office, home, video, game) is created with intention.
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