Walking down Pike Street in Covington, you could easily miss the unadorned, timeworn storefront which is the front entrance to BLDG, which for lack of a more comprehensive term, we’ll start off calling a design firm.
BLDG is in the heart of Covington’s revival momentum, both as a tenant and as a group that has helped with numerous projects around the city and into the rest of Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati.
Their modest surroundings — which, once you reach the creative spaces, project the same eclectic feel you would expect in a pop art museum — bely BLDG’s reputational reach.
For instance, they can be found in the May 2019 edition of Fast Company magazine, alongside names like Nike and DDB Group, as one of ten finalists in the “Advertising” category of the publication’s “World Changing Ideas for 2019” feature.
BLDG was recognized for both the strategy and the creative flair that went into its “Tobacco 21” campaign for the American Heart Association, which sought to deploy a similar-style approach that tobacco companies have traditionally found great success in using to lure in young people, only this time with an anti-tobacco message.
“We wanted to make it really pretty and really fancy to the constituency, which were the kids, and get them to buy in and like it,” says Jay Becker, BLDG’s president and co-founder. “I think that was what Fast Company saw in this, that it was so directed at the target audience in a manner that they were used to and formatted to.”
A poster for the Read Ready Covington program.
The semi-irony that caps the whole situation is that BLDG’s building (which could be called redundant terminology, as the company got its name when it started in 2012 by having its partners abbreviate in messaging that they would be meeting at the BLDG) dates back to 1871, and its original purpose was as a tobacco house, complete with skylights that are still intact on the top floor, where tobacco was dried.
These days, BLDG is home to an array of different kind of projects, from work for major corporate clients down to neighborhood initiatives. BLDG offers the self-description of “Design. Branding. Creative Refuge.”
But in visiting with them, you really get the idea it’s the dynamic between that last element and a propensity to ask a lot of probing questions up front that is making a difference.
“Before we ever go into design, there’s a lot of research and strategy done that really sets the designers up to be successful,” says Cate Becker, BLDG’s Chief Culture Officer and wife of Jay Becker. “That is two-thirds of the process of getting to the right solution.”
It also opens the door to increasing the scope of the entire process, so that function and image start to find a synergy in working to the same ends. That is really important when the client is a public entity hoping to get the most out of a project.
Working with the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, BLDG looked at the Five Points Alley project they had renovated in 2016 into a biergarten and community-gathering place. Jay Becker looked at the project and told them that they could double the number of people using the space the following year if they installed five murals around the site.
“They said, 'If this works, how can you help us get bigger, faster, better, stronger?' We went through a re-visioning, a re-story and re-brand for them,” Jay says. “And Kevin Wright, who used to run that group, said that 'the year before I had you guys involved, we raised $800,000 in funds. The year after we had you guys we raised $11.7 million.'”
BLDG went back to the site and later added an art installation on the back of the Race Refrigeration building. Working with artist Jonathan Willis on a project they called the Wall of Heroes, they posted portraits of 18 neighborhood people on the windows of the building, but also covered them with craft paper so that when the wind blows, a second exposure of portraits of their faces being distorted by a giant wind machine become visible.
BLDG has also done substantial work around Northern Kentucky in terms of public art. Jay Becker says they were involved in working with international street artists on at least 15 mural projects in the last year, many of them telling a story of the neighborhood they are located in.
When they got involved in creating the “Love the Cov” mural to decorate the Madison Avenue Kroger location in Covington that had just undergone a $800,000 renovation on the inside, dozens of stakeholders were consulted to get a sense of what they identified with in their neighborhood.
They developed a look that had the welcoming familiarity of Sesame Street to promote Covington’s “Read Ready Covington” project to promote literacy skills among kids approaching kindergarten age.
“The really interesting thing about Covington is there’s always been a very genuine culture here,” says Cate Becker. “It’s creative, open-minded, progressive, and maybe a little more open to being able to get away with (risks) that you can’t get away with over there (in Cincinnati.)”
BLDG didn’t mind taking those risks, and what started as a six-person firm is now up to 20 employees and looking for opportunities to continue to stir things up with its work.
Says Jay Becker: “Our in-house line was, ‘Pioneers take the arrows.’ We took a lot of arrows with things we did.”