Unfiltered with PI.KL Co-Founders Kuo Pao Lian and Pavlina Ilieva

Written by Chris Richards on October 22, 2019

Photo above by Evan Woodward

“Unfiltered” is a series of conversations where we dig into the real stories happening behind-the-scenes, that you might otherwise only hear on a bar stool. Expect interviews from people who are changing the landscape of our history books and shaping our future. You can read our first interview with David Waxman, Co-Founder/Managing Partner of MMPartners.

In this second interview, we’re speaking with Kuo Pao Lian and Pavlina Ilieva Co-Founders of PI.KL Studio, a Baltimore based architectural design, build and development studio. After launching our Baltimore office in 2015, this team jumped high onto the “must know” list, as their projects and visual aesthetic was immediately recognizable and unforgettable. Getting to know them a bit more, it’s easy to see why.

Photo by Dave Cooper, @davecooperphoto on Instagram

Q: Tell us about both of your backgrounds, how you met, and how you ultimately became business partners to create PI.KL

Pavlina and I met in college. We were both attending Texas Tech University, College of Architecture. I (Kuo Pao) came from a family of Texas Tech alum so it was inevitable that I would find myself there. Pavlina landed from Bulgaria on a scholarship to study at Tech.  We were first introduced to each other by one of our professors that we both admired. I think from there, I sort of stalked her in the computer lab days on end until I had the courage to finally ask her out on a date. The rest is history. I graduated a year ahead so after trying to search for a job in the economic recession of 2004, I finally accepted a position with RTKL in Baltimore.  Pavlina would follow shortly after finishing her thesis and joined Hord Coplan Macht. We both worked at our respective firms till around 2007 when we got an opportunity to link up with former college friends in San Diego to work for Sebastian Mariscal Studio. Working 60-70 hour weeks, our 2 years there felt like 4 but we learned so much about the design, build and development part of the profession and how a small boutique design firm works.

In 2009, the studio was starting to get a bit slow and we had accomplished what we sought out to do, so we headed back to Baltimore and started PI.KL bringing what we have learned from working for larger corporate architectural firms, to the smaller boutique firm. 10 years later, here we are!

Q: For those who don’t know, PI.KL is actually both of your initials. Is it pronounced pickle or P-I-K-L?

Yes, “PI” stands for Pavlina Ilieva and “KL” is Kuo Pao Lian.  You can pronounce it both ways. When we were selecting names, I think we went through the gamut of different possibilities but ultimately kept coming back to making it simple and not taking ourselves too seriously.  Once we realized that our initials inadvertently pronounced pickle, we thought it was a bit playful so we just accepted it. Coming from Bulgaria, all things pickled are huge and I like pickled foods as well, so why not!

Photo by Steven Norris

Q: PI.KL is based out of Baltimore, were their specific factors that contributed to making the decision to set up base there? What is the best part about being in Baltimore for the firm now?

Basing the office in Baltimore basically originated with the relationships we had built while we worked here from 2004-2007.  We not only worked at the architectural firms, but we both taught at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and we engaged in numerous extra-curricular projects and events that allowed us to build a great pool of connections that we kept strong while we were in San Diego.  After we decided to move on from Sebastian’s studio, we initially thought of sticking around or going north to San Francisco or Seattle, but Baltimore just kept calling for us. We already had some potential clients that we were starting to talk to, Pavlina had been discussing a teaching position with Morgan State’s School of Architecture + Planning and MICA needed teachers as well, so we came back and dove right in.  

Hard to pick just one thing that makes being in Baltimore great for the firm.  But if I had to start with one of the important factors, it would be the amazing people here!  We’ve been so lucky to have worked with clients, partners, consultants, community, and city agencies that are passionate, thoughtful, and who truly want to see this city become a contemporary metropolitan city.  Despite all the setbacks, the development opportunities and entrepreneurial mentality are quite strong here so that keeps things constantly growing and evolving, it keeps work flowing into the office.

The next generation of developers here are eager to make a mark in Baltimore and they want to break the norm of the cookie cutter architecture and developments that we have seen here for so long.  They are savvy and they too know what other contemporary metropolitan cities are doing, and we seek to align ourselves with those like-minded individuals with the common goal.

And with this new age of local small and large businesses showing no fear in taking their passion and concepts to test, even for the first time in an atmosphere of this city that wants more and more, you have a perfect storm of people needing designers that can bring them to that place and think outside the box. 

Photo by Steven Norris

Q: You define yourselves as an architectural design / build / development / studio. Do you find it difficult to uphold all of these titles or do they tend to somewhat fall together in your experience?

I don’t think it’s difficult at all.  I think we need all of them on a day to day basis, but we are a design studio first.  The rest of the experiences bring a richer perspective and foresight. Our studio is small, but made of amazing designers that are not only technically savvy but also have high-caliber design sensibility that we need to see more of here in Baltimore.  We are licensed general contractors so we retain the liabilities and the knowledge of construction and we see ourselves building at least one or two projects a year. And we also lead our own development with our own capital because we just want to keep the framework diverse in our business and put what we learned from Sebastian’s studio to practice.  But going back to what we are first, designers. If we don’t build, then how do we develop drawings that deliver good buildings? If we don’t develop, how do we design for developers and business owners without understanding the financial and legal implications of projects? The titles definitely fall together, it makes us better designers.

(Left to right) Chris Richards, Kuo Pao Lian and Antoinette Johnson

Chris Richards and Pavlina Ilieva

Q: What values do you look for in partners for projects and how do you leverage these collaborations? What made you interested in collaborating with Cohere?

We look for partners who A) put design first B) take on every project uniquely and do not just replicate past models or standards C) believe in collaboration and communication as key factors in developing a project.  We were interested in Cohere because they retained A, B, & C. (plus Chris Richards sought us out, and the rest was history. Pretty hard to say no to him!)

Q: What is your approach when it comes to choosing projects? Does PI.KL have a set of core values you use to decide which projects are the right fit?

Similar to what we look for in partners, we look for projects and clients who want good design and are dedicated to bringing contemporary design to the forefront here in Baltimore and outside.  We believe that good design = good business no matter what branch of the economy our clients operate in. Communication, collaboration, and trust are key. If they don’t trust us or if we are not able to establish a clear process with them, then it just makes everything harder.  

R. House Food Hall – Remington, Baltimore. Photo by Steven Norris

Q: What’s the biggest challenge or set of challenges you typically face with projects these days, and how have you been able to overcome them? Any advice for other firms?

Some of the biggest challenges we are currently finding is the cost of construction.  It’s been increasing so much in the past two years, sometimes by 25-35%, it’s getting harder to keep design and thoughtful scope into projects in an already limited market.  But as I say this, this problem also reveals that Baltimore is booming. Contractors are busy and that’s great. So with this atmosphere, we simply adapt. Our design process then seeks to find creative ways to attain those design goals of the projects and find economical solutions to get there and make design a vehicle in this type of market. 

I don’t know if we would bring advice to other firms, really.  They are all so different, hard to say what they are thinking and what is important to them. We just focus on what we do and how we do things, but I think as long as we all deliver on the same  goal of challenging the norm and pushing Baltimore to become a thriving contemporary metropolitan city, then we are all on the right track.

Q: What do you think PI.KL is bringing to the table that other architectural design companies are not? What’s the message to developers, restaurateurs, or designers that you’d want to express?

Again, other design companies do what they do.  I think they have a pretty set framework of what they are and they stick to it.  We have always wanted a studio that allowed a sense of freedom to explore, experiment, and engage projects uniquely.  Each client is special to us and so important to our growth that when they come to us, they should be reassured that we are invested in providing a great service, that we will fight for design, and we always have the economics in mind.  We are humbled to have people come to us with their projects and we know how important they are to them. They should feel comfort that no matter how large or small, we hold each project very dear to us and we want nothing more than to make them happy and to stand back and be proud of the process and the outcome.  

DE.CO, food hall in downtown Wilmington, DE. Photo by Steven Norris

Q: What is your perspective on preserving the authenticity of the cities you work in? Is this something that you consider when starting to develop ideas for new projects?

We take this as a given.  Cities have history and we should preserve certain relics and allow them to live on.  But we must do this with the future in mind. Preservation for preservation’s sake needs to be carefully approached with the understanding that to become a contemporary metropolitan city, we must respect historic structures and spaces, but reimagine them to evolve with new uses and new architectural sensibilities.

We should embrace new technologies and new infrastructural systems that reflect contemporary urban lifestyle.  Afterall, authenticity involves not pretending you are something that you are not.

And Baltimore is no longer the city it was in  the 70’s when some folks moved here or the 1800’s when many of the buildings were built. We need not say ‘no’ to development just because we fear that we will lose something, we should engage and seek ways to make development happen thoughtfully and embrace change so we have a chance to compete on the national stage.  We must not ignore precedents and know that we are not the first and we surely don’t want to be the last.

Rendering by PI.KL Studio

Q: What projects, visionaries, or brands are you excited by these days? I know you were in Europe for a bit!

We were just in Copenhagen and we can’t say enough about how much we loved not only the architecture, but how the city embraced the bike as their main form of transportation and has dedicated so much towards that cause and also their commitment to inclusive housing.  There is a clear goal to develop a city for the citizens and seek longevity and true sustainability towards cities of the future. A similar model and related systems are possible and can happen here in Baltimore. We just need to keep pushing the envelope and showing that we can do it too and it just takes trust and vision.  

Rendering by PI.KL Studio

Q: If you could go back to earlier in your career and give yourself advice, what would you say?

We have learned from experiences both good and bad, I don’t think I would change anything.  Our path was and is our path, we accept what we went through and look forward to what is in store for us!

You can find Kuo Pao and PI.KL on Instagram and learn more about them on their website.