When you first meet Kiley Darden, it’s hard not to like him. He has an air of midwestern modesty that makes you immediately comfortable. And even though he just recently moved to Nashville, you get the feeling that this is home to him.
Darden moved to Nashville last year with his family to start a new adventure. As a vice president and associate principal for NSPJ Architects – a well-known architecture firm in Kansas City, he easily could have found a new professional home in Nashville. However, rather than parting ways with NSPJ, the partners and Darden saw this as an opportunity to have him open an expansion office in Nashville.
And when you see Darden’s work, who could blame them. His residential design is classic in every sense. Regardless of the style, his work is reminiscent of timeless designs from centuries past.
But where does this artistry come from?
When you know, you know
It’s always fascinating to learn the origin of someone’s story – the events in their lives that led them to become who they are today. With Darden, it’s difficult to pinpoint a single moment that steered his course to residential architecture because, for as long as he can remember, this is what he’s always wanted to do.
“I don’t even remember my earliest memory,” said Darden. “It was just something that I did. I was interested in houses, and drawing and building houses from a very young age. As a kid, I was designing and building out of cardboard little houses for our pets.”
Fortunately, his mother saw this spark in him and encouraged him to continue. When he started drawing on the walls of his bedroom, she brought home rolls of butchers’ paper, lined his walls, and told him to keep going. And when he asked for a drafting table, that became his next Christmas gift.
When Darden was in middle school, his older brother was living in Kansas City. One particular visit, his brother drove him and the family through Mission Hills, Kansas (an affluent and historical suburb of Kansas City). On that drive, Darden had a premonition – although he wouldn’t recognize until years later.
“I want to work here one day,” said Darden. “I love this place. I want to design houses here.”
That day, that was it. He said it and forgot it. It wasn’t until Darden was an architect working on a project in Mission Hills that he even remembered the conversation, when he was in fact doing exactly what he had said he wanted to do. He didn’t pursue it – other than becoming an architect. It just happened naturally.
When you know, you know.
A Third-Generation Tanner
Darden’s career path almost seems serendipitous. After a couple short stints at other firms, he was recruited to NSPJ by a former classmate who knew about his passion for custom residential. It just so happened that custom homes are and have always been a large part of NSPJ’s 59 years of success.
As Darden puts it, he made his passion for residential architecture very clear upfront and that he did not want to make commercial design his focus. They respected that and brought him on to help with the custom homes segment of business. He quickly fell under the tutelage of Howard Nearing – the founder of NSPJ – working on the same projects he had dreamed about as a young adult.
For Darden, there could be no better mentor. With decades of experience, Nearing had worked on some of the most well-known architectural gems in the Kansas City metro. In his early years before founding the firm that would become NSPJ, he was on the team that brought the J.C. Nichols Country Club Plaza to life, one of the first outdoor shopping malls in America.
Nearing started his career being mentored by Edward Tanner; and therefore, many consider Darden to be a third-generation Tanner architect. And while Tanner might not be a household name in Nashville, Tanner was one of the most influential architects in Kansas City during the first half of the Twentieth Century leaving his mark all over the city with the work he did for famed developer J.C. Nichols.
To bring Darden’s story full circle, when asked to name one of his fondest projects, he’ll bring you back to Mission Hills and Edward Tanner, and the young man who dreamed of working on those houses.
“There’s a property in Mission Hills,” said Darden. “It’s an amazing country estate home with English roots – it was an honor and thrill to work on it.”
The house was on the historic registry and sat on the largest acreage in Mission Hills, which made the rehab and addition a sensitive project. It’s also thought that Tanner worked on it a life time ago. Beyond that the reason it stands out in Darden’s memory is for years he would drive by it as he went to other projects, thinking – man, that’s a beautiful place.
The property itself reminded Darden of country homes he’d seen in Europe. The driveway winds back and you can hardly see the home because it’s up in the trees. When Darden was called in to work on this project, it was truly a dream come true.
It’s that reverence for historical work and thoughtful design that makes all the difference. When you hear Darden speak about his work and his mentors, you just know you’re talking to the real deal when it comes to architecture.
Next Stop, Nashville
Fast forward to today, we’re not in Kansas City. We’re not in Mission Hills. And we’re not surrounded by the work of Darden’s mentors. So, what’s next?
Darden is excited about the opportunities that Nashville has available. And while he still loves Kansas City, he knows there is something special about this area of the country. Steeped in rich Southern history and tradition, he hopes to honor the style that is quintessentially Nashville, while bringing his own Kansas City influence. Beyond the architecture (and the music), there’s a creative energy in Nashville that inspires him and he’s eager to join that creative force.
The vision for NSPJ’s presence in Nashville is to grow a talented team under Darden’s leadership that will continue to specialize in custom homes. However, quality over quantity is always top of mind for him and the firm. He prefers to keep his team small enough to maintain personal connections with clients and produce the highest quality work.
Throughout his 20 years with the firm, he believes that their boutique-style approach to design is what provides the best customer service and design for their clients.
“When you’re working on someone’s home, there has to be a certain level of personal relationship,” said Darden. “It’s a personal experience for the client, I respect that and love the process of working with them to find their best possible solution. Beyond the function, the finished product should excite them!”
For that same reason, every residential project that comes through NSPJ is truly custom. The design has to work for the personality of the client and the culture of the community in which it lays. There are no “off the shelf” designs that they use. Howard Nearing started the firm with a design-first approach, and that hands-on, creative philosophy continues today through Kiley Darden; as with all the other architects at NSPJ Architects.