Josh Kassing joined Mary Cook Associates in 2017 as creative director and advanced to vice president, design development in 2019, becoming the youngest VP in MCA’s 35-year history. His role as the “big idea” person was formalized in 2020 when he became the first head of MCA’s Concept Studio, which he helped envision and develop over the past 18 months as an organizational structure to bridge business development and design strategy at the beginning of a project.
Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up, where did you go to school?
I was born and raised in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. I attended Iowa State University where I received a Bachelor of Architecture and Master of Fine Arts in interior design and served as a studio instructor for the College of Design. During this time, I also worked in the hospitality industry, doing everything from hosting and serving to managing restaurants with over 50 staff members, which honed my skills in customer service, communication, multitasking and leadership. People say only list things on your resume relevant to your current career, but being able to effectively communicate, take care of customers and manage a team in the hospitality world translated into hard skills in the corporate world.
How did you get your start in the industry?
While I was working on my master’s at Iowa State, I aspired to teach. So much so that I walked into the dean’s office and asked what it would take, even though I wasn’t technically eligible, as I already had another assistantship. They indulged my request, and the rest was history. Near graduation, I required my first-year students to attend a career fair to gain firsthand knowledge about what it means to be an architect, interior designer or landscape architect. For the career fair, I set up a table where I was checking in my students, and it just so happened to be next to the booth for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. I was shooting the breeze with the SOM team, and the next thing I knew, I was headed to Chicago to check out their offices. On my drive home their HR team called and offered me a position. After a weekend of thinking about the trajectory of my career, I ended up moving to Chicago diving head first into practice instead of continuing to teach at ISU.
SOM is a particularly architecture-focused practice, and although the work was incredible, I discovered quickly that my strengths were truly on the interiors side. I wanted to combine my background in hospitality with my design sensibilities, and I saw that opportunity at the Gettys Group, which is a design firm that focuses on hospitality. After working on a number of hospitality projects globally, I then moved from Gettys to Mary Cook Associates, where I was brought on as creative director. This was an opportunity for me to combine my passions and skills in an effort bridge business development, marketing, and design in a leadership role. Two years later I became the youngest Vice President in MCA’s 35-year history, and have held the role ever since.
Did you have a mentor who helped you get on your feet, or is there someone you turn to now for support?
Traditional one-on-one mentorship is one of the biggest voids in the design industry today, which is why I’m so passionate about mentoring and counseling young designers. Throughout my education and career, my best “mentor” has really been my network. Each person has their strengths, so it’s been important to not only build and maintain quality connections but also be able to recognize who to go to for different situations.
For example, Mary Cook identified early on that my skillset could be a great alignment with the business development efforts of the firm, and as a result, has taken me under her wing to expose what it means to develop effective business relationships. This is a critical step at this point in my career, as I’m building relationships with clients and serving in a leadership role for the firm. So I absolutely look to her as a mentor there. I’ve had professors who taught me incredible strategy on how to think about design at a conceptual level, and colleagues who’ve taught me how to take that concept and translate it to reality. If you seek out people for their strengths, they will collectively guide you forward. It’s difficult to attribute my trajectory to any one person because so many have played a part in crafting who I am as a professional today.
What does an average day at work look like?
My day-to-day tends to be all over the place, but it typically falls into three buckets. One is design, which can be anything from design concepting to design leadership to communicating those concepts to our clients. The second part is business development and marketing, including speaking engagements and panels, interacting with press, and photoshoots of completed projects. The third I would say is leadership, which covers everything from big idea discussions with Mary Cook about the firm’s direction and what we should be striving towards, to professional development with staff.
Mary Cook Associates has designed notable local projects including, most recently, the sales models and sales gallery at Tribune Tower Residences and the amenities for the recently completed Highpoint at 8000 North apartments in Skokie, but most of our work is not in Chicago. I’ve spent a lot of my time on the road, especially pre-COVID. My daily routine is rarely confined to an office. It’s very much outward-facing, developing relationships on a national level.
What do you like most about your job?
What I really love is that there is no “right” way to develop a career in interior design. At Mary Cook Associates, I’ve been able to craft a path that allowed me to discover new strengths. The most surprising thing for me has been the business development and marketing side. A week into my job, Mary told me that I was the perfect business development person, and my initial reaction was, “I went to design school for eight years, are you sure I should be handling sales?” But it’s something I’ve really enjoyed. I can draw on my communication and customer service experience and pair it with a solid design background. A larger company would not have been flexible enough for me to carve out my own role in such a manner.
Interior design is also a combination of art and science – I love how it’s not a pure art form and it’s not pure science. It’s something in between, and it allows us to have both tangible and intangible outcomes, like when you walk into a well-designed space for the first time and everything is correct. It just “hums,” as Mary Cook would say.
My favorite part of the design process is the story. A “look” is one thing, but a look doesn’t go far enough in interior design. There needs to be a story that is developed and communicated in a way that makes sense. Working with our team to bring those storylines to life has been incredibly rewarding.
Looking to the future, what do you hope to achieve/work on that you have not already?
As a company, we’ve spent a great deal of time transitioning from mainly model homes to a national, full-service interior design firm. Those efforts have now presented opportunities for continued growth that I’m excited to explore. We’ve recently entered the student housing market, for example, which is a product type gaining incredible traction, and with a passion for teaching, resonates with me at a personal level. Growing that portion of the business is something I’d like to continue develop and as part of that exercise, shift some perceptions around what student housing should or shouldn’t be moving forward. At a much different scale, I would love to someday design a line of furniture. It’s something I’ve never done before, but I think it could be a compelling exercise. I love designing product just as much as I love designing space, so shifting to a different scale is something I would consider.
How do you spend your time away from the office?
Outside of work, I enjoy cooking, running, playing piano and renovating homes. My fiancé and I rescued two chihuahuas, Paris and Marsha, and they have a very special place in our lives now. I’m a social person by nature, so I spend a lot of time at bars and restaurants with friends. You’re only as good as your relationships, and my friends and family are simply the best. Wherever they’re at, you’ll find me.