The Women Behind Frank Architecture Design Buildings From the Inside Out

The Calgary-based firm conceptualizes interiors and exteriors in unison
Kelly Morrison, Kate Allen and Kristen Lien at Major Tom cocktail lounge, one of their recent projects (photo: Allison Seto)

Fifteen years ago, Kate Allen, Kristen Lien and Kelly Morrison met as master’s students at the University of Calgary’s School of Archi­tecture, Planning and Landscape, and they quickly recognized that they shared a creative approach. “We felt that the interior architecture of a building was just as important as the exterior and form,” Lien says.

They affirmed their compatibility in early collabor­ations—including work on the home of Victor Choy, co-owner of Calgary’s Concorde Group hospitality company and a client to this day. Their connection was so easy that in 2011, they founded Frank Archi­tecture & Interiors. Today, the partners oversee an office of 25 interior-­design and architecture experts, many of whom work across both disciplines.

Typically, Lien explains, architects design from the outside in, considering first the effect a building has from the street view. The Frank team takes a more holistic approach, conceptualizing both the interior and exterior in unison. “Everything from the lights to the furniture to the flooring pattern is usually custom,” she says. “I would call it a really considered architectural interior.”

Frank predominantly works with hospitality clients and has completed more than 200 projects across Canada. It is well established with clients in Alberta, and over the past five years, the partners have branched out beyond the province, picking up contracts south of the border, in Montana, and further north, in Labrador.

The firm has a reputation for creating spaces that tell a story and are full of details that reveal themselves upon repeat recent visits. At the National on 17th Avenue, a railway­-inspired bar in Calgary that opened in 2011, the menu boards are modelled after vintage railway­-schedule signs. There are regional touches, like East Coast wainscotting and West Coast timber. The communal seating is designed to encourage guests to strike up conversations with each other as if they were sitting together on a train.

More recently, Frank reim­agined the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel’s historic Rundle Bar as an opulent, 1920s-­inspired space, transform­ing the grand double­-volume arches into bottle­- and book-­filled shelving units—one of which swings open to reveal a hidden intimate dining space.

Frank also masterminded some of Calgary’s cool­est new spots, including Japanese restaurant Lonely Mouth—a lantern­-lit space featuring wood­ dowel screens and lush earth-­toned upholstery—and Major Tom, a Truman Capote-­inspired cocktail lounge that is located on the 40th floor of a former bank and has panoramic mountain views and a striking charcoal ­and ­amber colour palette.

Lien says the firm doesn’t have an overarching aesthetic: “We strive to make each project unique and start from scratch conceptually.” But each founder does bring her own complementary skills to the enterprise. “Kate is extremely creative—she has a painting background and an amazing eye for design,” Lien says. “Kelly is really great with client relationships.” Lien’s own strengths are in manage­ment and overseeing the firm’s finances.

A firm that’s headed up entirely by women is unusual in the architecture world. While women make up 50 per cent of all architecture ­school gradu­ates in Canada, they hold approximately 30 per cent of the jobs. There are long­-standing gender barriers in the field, including salary gaps between men and women, pervasive stereotyping by clients and the profession’s lengthy internship processes, which are incompatible with maternity leaves.

Allen, Lien and Morrison—all working mothers—run their business with a more progressive view. They prioritize creating development opportunities for younger team members and they build flexibility into their schedule. They want to show it’s possible to have a successful work­-life balance in the field.

Frank’s full-­service take on architecture and design gives it a competitive advantage. Once people try its model, they seem to have a hard time going back to the church­-and-­state approach of separate firms, says Lien. “Our clients come back to us when they realize that we’re able to do it all and do it all really well.”

Five things they love

The Frank trio’s essential sources of inspiration

Ace Hotel in Toronto

“The building, by Shim-Sutcliffe Architects, has stunning details, like a lobby that appears to float above the lower-level restaurant,” says Lien of the newly opened hotel.

A photo of Ace Hotel in Toronto
(photo: William Jess Laird)

Kinto Travel Tumbler

“We’re always on the go at Frank,” says Lien. “So we love our coffee in a good travel mug.”

A photo of a Kinto travel mug
(photo: Eight Ounce Coffee)

The Monocle Guide to Better Living

Lien says this book covers it all: “It has everything from essays on what makes a great city to tips on how to find furniture that will last a lifetime.”

A photo of the book, The Monocle Guide to Better Living
(photo: Monocle/ Gestalten)

Sonos Move speaker

The trio loves to listen to CBC’s The National.

A photo of a Sonos speaker
(photo: Sonos)

Art by Mark Dicey

Calgary artist Mark Dicey’s abstract paintings are bold, vibrant and timeless, says Lien. “They inject colour and life into any space.” His work appears in a number of Frank interior projects.

A photo of a painting by Mark Dicey
(photo: Norberg Hall)

This article appears in print in the fall 2022 issue of Canadian Business magazine. Buy the issue for $7.99 or better yet, subscribe to the quarterly print magazine for just $20.