Ken White Associates, Inc. records1943-2019
Ken White Associates, Inc., formed by industrial designer Ken White in 1947, was a design firm that developed plans and designs for thousands of independent and academic bookstores throughout the United States, as well as many other types of retail businesses. The company also played a leading role in introducing convenience stores and innovative food service options on college campuses. The records of the company include organizational files documenting the corporate organization; financial papers; project files; publications by White and his son, as well as the records of the partnerships and other companies White formed as he expanded his business and services. The collection also contains files on White's professional activities, including papers related to conferences, conventions, and trade shows, memberships in various organizations, and seminars and talks.
- Ken White Associates, Inc (Organization)
226 Linear Feet
Ken White Associates, Inc., formed by industrial designer Kenneth M. White (1923-2020) in 1947, was a design firm that developed plans and designs for thousands of independent and academic bookstores throughout the United States, as well as many other types of retail businesses. The company also played a leading role in introducing convenience stores and innovative dining options on college campuses.
Ken White was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1923 to Teresa Willis White (1902-1998) and Frances Edward White, Jr. (1899-1968). Frances White was a builder and engineer; Ken White worked with and studied under his father, developing an interest in design and architectural planning. In his teens, White moved to New York City, where he attended Brooklyn Technical High School, a prestigious high school that used a system of college-style majors. There he concentrated on math, science, and drafting courses that prepared students for college or a technical career in industry. After high school, White attended the University of Alabama on an athletics scholarship. Despite his interest in sports, White’s career focus was marine engineering, primarily ship design and repair. He was able to take work-study classes and began working at a shipyard as a “helper.” White later returned to New York, where he received a job working for Bethlehem Steel as a mechanic during World War II. He married Adele Nowak (1924-2016) in 1942, leased an apartment in New York, and started a family.
In 1943, White was drafted into the Army despite having a deferment to work at Bethlehem Steel. They sent him to the Navy; he was assigned to work on New York Harbor ships, installing machines and other equipment. After a few months, White was medically discharged due to previously undetected health issues.
After he was discharged, White found work in design drafting positions for various stores, including Lerner Shops. In 1945, Raymond Loewy Associates hired him as a store design planner. Seeing how grand the Loewy Associates offices were and admiring all of the “modern” projects Loewy’s firm had designed, White was inspired to begin his own design firm in 1947. He opened his first office in the prestigious location of 516 Fifth Avenue in New York City, calling his firm Ken White Associates. His new office was located between Loewy’s offices and the New York Public Library, where he often visited research stores, their needs, and the retail market.
Soon after he opened his first office, he took the advice of colleagues in the field and set up a booth at the first Store Modernization Show, held in New York in 1947. A proponent of store modernization, White was invited to be on one of the Show’s panels on the topic. He subsequently received numerous contracts for renovating old stores and designing modern new ones, launching his successful career in store design. Several of his projects won awards for their innovative designs.
White kept his office and apartment in New York City until it became prohibitively expensive. He moved both to New Jersey by 1958. At first, White’s office was a part of his home until he rented a building to set up his drafting office and his other small businesses. He purchased the office building in 1963, renovated it, calling it the St. Francis Company, and rented out the offices he was not using. During this time, his company was a family business, with White being the president and Adele the vice president, and later, the principal stockholders in the company. Ken and Adele White had nine children, nearly all of them worked for the family business at some point.
White designed department stores, small shops, hotels, restaurants, and bookstores of all kinds, eventually becoming the leading college bookstore designer in the country. Later, he also pioneered the design of convenience stores for college campuses, food courts, and market-style cafés for college food services. White designed the fixtures and furniture for his stores, offices, and lounges, with his designs carried by various furniture companies for many years. In order to have control over the design of the entire office space, White designed products and packaging for various office supplies manufacturing companies. Some of his office products were featured on Home Show, hosted by Arlene Francis and broadcast on NBS from 1954 to 1957. Francis admired White’s work so much that she hired him to design the library in her Manhattan apartment.
Along with his skill in industrial design, White was also an astute businessman. For a time, White attended the Harvard School of Business and became adept at analyzing the retail market. More importantly, he could perceive developing trends in every area of his business and could anticipate consumer needs. White continued adding to the services his business could provide to clients, eventually becoming a full-service company. The company could now prepare market and site analyses for clients, provide design services as well as architectural plans and construction reference sets, prepare marketing and merchandising plans, graphics and graphic manuals, packaging, sales analyses, as well as other services a client might require.
While looking for better and more efficient ways to conduct his business and expand his services, White formed a partnership in 1974 called The Collaborative Consultants. Through this partnership, White began an ambitious expansion program of KWA, Inc., which was considered the corporate, or umbrella, organization. White opened additional offices in Washington, D.C.; Palo Alto, California; Atlanta, Georgia; New York, New York; and Chicago, Illinois, each office having its own specialized market. The partnership was fairly successful for a number of years, but White had closed most offices by 1979. In the 1980s, KWA, Inc. began designing bookstores and retail businesses in other countries, including Canada, Korea, Japan, and Brazil, among others, and in 1986 changed the corporate name to Ken White Associates, Inc. Design International.
White tried different ways of conducting and expanding his business and controlling his costs and supplies throughout his career. In 1966 he started a purchasing business called The Angelus Company to purchase apparel and other non-book merchandise for college stores. He also started a blueprint shop, Hillsdale Blueprint, and the Topit Company, which imported fine giftware from Italy during these years. These small companies lasted for several years, but the majority closed in the mid-1970s.
Despite these setbacks, White continued to dabble in small businesses throughout the 1970s. In 1975 he opened a small specialty store chain that sold apparel and other merchandise for college stores. He set up stores in several locations – two in Texas, one in West Virginia, and later, a store in Florida. A year later, he established a small college bookstore costume jewelry business for his daughter, Elizabeth, to operate, which lasted for about a year. In 1978, he opened a new purchasing company called The Idea Center, which purchased supplies in bulk for his various projects. One of his more successful ventures, The Idea Center, remained in business until the early 1990s.
In 1988, White again tried to expand his service offerings by selling Ken White Associates, Inc. to Retail Planning Associates, Inc. (RPA), a large retail consulting and design firm based in Columbus, Ohio. The new affiliation, headed by Ken White himself, was titled Ken White/RPA. The new business partnership lasted until 1990, when White decided to leave the affiliation and conduct business under the name of his former company, Ken White Associates, Inc.
In addition to designing and overseeing the construction of his various projects, White kept up a busy schedule of lectures and talks, seminars, attendance at conferences and conventions, and display booths at numerous tradeshows every year, often accompanied by his son, Frank. He maintained memberships in many professional organizations and was elected a lifetime member of the Institute of Store Planners, a respected organization in the field. White also wrote and published several books, many of them co-authored by Frank, and began his own company, St. Francis Press, in order to have better control over the publication process for his books.
In the 1980s, White’s son, Frank, began to take on a larger role in the family business and eventually became his father’s most trusted business partner. Frank White assisted with or was the manager for many of the company’s projects. He also accompanied his father on business trips, acted as a co-speaker at discussions and speaking events, and helped him teach various seminars. In the early 1990s, KWA, Inc. opened an office in Columbus, Ohio, which Frank managed. Frank White eventually took over the business, becoming president and owner of the company in 1992. The company’s headquarters subsequently moved to his Ohio office.
After turning over the company to his son Frank in 1992, White did not immediately retire. He continued to work with his son on several major projects around the country and only slowed down enough to retire in 2010. He and his wife moved to Ohio in 2014 to be near his son, and later, after Adele’s passing in 2016, White moved to Arizona to be near one of his other sons, Andrew, the pastor of a non-denominational church in Chandler, Arizona. Ken White died on May 3, 2020, at his home in Arizona.
This collection is organized into four series:
Series I. Organizational files, are divided into eleven subseries, which consist mainly of the financial and office records of the various companies. The subseries are listed by company name and within the subseries, are organized by document type
Series II. Project files, are arranged alphabetically by client name, then by individual project if there were more than one, and within the subseries by type of file or item. It should be noted that all of these were filed by the client name, even if they were done by a variant of the Ken White Associates, Inc. company which was not noted. It was often difficult to tell which company name the project was done under.
Series III. Publishing and publications, is divided into two subseries, the books and files associated with the publisher, McGraw Hill, and those associated with St. Francis Press.
Series IV. Other professional activities, is arranged, for the most part, chronologically by the name of the organization or by type of file.
Scope and Content
The records of Ken White Associates, Inc. (KWA, Inc.) give a fairly complete history of the company, from its founding by Kenneth M. White in 1947 in New York to its final years. There are four subseries.
The first series, Organizational files, include the financial records, correspondence, marketing, publicity, travel, and other files that document the corporate organization of KWA, Inc. and its various name changes and partnerships. The records also document the other companies White formed from 1947 to 2005 as he strove to control his costs and supplies. The financial and other office records contain information on the employees of the various companies, clients and projects, vendors, sub-contractors, expenses, and other information about the running of the businesses. Additionally, some biographical information is included in these files.
The second series, Project files, contain the records created by KWA, Inc. as the company designed and completed various bookstores, campus convenience stores, and other projects. The files may contain correspondence relating to the project, preliminary studies, reports and analyses, KWA, Inc.‘s proposals and acceptances, bidding and specification materials, drawings, elevations, plans for all stages of the project, photographs, publicity, and other related information. These records are fairly complete for the years from 1969 to 2006. Unfortunately, only newspaper and magazine clippings exist for the years from 1947 to 1968. However, these clippings give some idea of all of the projects the company undertook during these years. These records also show how often White formed a long-standing relationship with his clients, many of whom initially hired him to design their bookstore and then rehired him years later to renovate it or design a new one. KWA, Inc. often worked on several different undertakings for other clients, including major institutions.
The third series, Publishing and publications, covers the years from 1978 to 2005, and contains books written by Ken White, some of which were co-authored by his son. The book files, which include the manuscripts, proofs, dummy books, correspondence, and publicity about the many books White wrote, are also in this group. Some of these books were never published. These files also document White’s dealings with the publisher of his first book, MacGraw Hill, and his decision to begin his own publishing company, St. Francis Press (sometimes called St. Francis Publications) in 1979, as well as the problems he had in finding a reliable company to print his books. These files also cover his experiments with publishing-on-demand companies and e-books. White also set up a website for his publishing company to advertise and sell his books, which is documented in these records.
The last series, Other professional activities, documents the professional memberships he maintained, as well as all of the conventions, conferences, and tradeshows he attended. It also contains files on the seminars and talks he gave, often accompanied by his son, Frank. This series covers the period from 1957 to 2005.
Location of Copies
View selected items online in the Hagley Digital Archives.
No restrictions on access; this collection is open for research.
Literary rights retained by donor.
Language of Materials
Ken White Associates, Inc. photographs (Accession 2020.206), Audiovisual Collections and Digital Initiatives Department, Hagley Museum and Library.
Support for the processing of this collection was provided by a grant from the National Historical Publications & Records Commission.
- Ken White Associates, Inc (Organization)
Finding Aid & Administrative Information
- Ken White Associates, Inc. records
- Gail Stanislow
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