Where are they now: Kurt Kerns
Story by Suzanne Gibson | Feb 24, 2016
Two solid careers, music and architecture, merge with some incredible results.
Owner of a successful architectural firm and former acclaimed musician might seem like polar opposite professions, but to Kurt Kerns, the two are perfectly aligned with his highly intense passions.
V Three Studios, a St. Louis-based architecture firm he started in 2010, speaks to his inner entertainer side with long-term clients, such as Learfield and CBS, both of which take his group coast-to-coast building media and communications facilities. As a former song writer, drummer, guitar and bass player, he spent nearly 10 years during the 90s with a popular St. Louis-based group called Gravity Kills.
“After graduating from Kansas State, I worked in architecture during the day and in the evenings and on weekends continued to write and record music with Doug Firley (JCHS 1987), Matt Dudenhoeffer (JCHS 1986) and Jeff Scheel (JCHS 1982),” Kerns says. “Eventually our band, Gravity Kills, was signed with TVT records in the States and then with Virgin Records worldwide. Our combined record sales sold more than a million copies. We had songs premiere in five motion pictures, performed in sixteen different countries and were featured on MTV. We had a great run and had more fun than should be legally allowed.”
It was the birth of their oldest daughter, however, that helped him and the former Bonnie Blume, his high school sweetheart turned wife, decide it was time to set aside the drumsticks.
“I was given an opportunity to come on board with the Lawrence Group as a principal in charge of media and communications,” Kerns says. “It allowed me to combine architecture and my love of music to build the World Famous KROQ in Los Angeles. I didn’t want to miss the first year of my daughter’s life [traveling with the band]. It was a perfect situation, and I have not looked back.”
In addition to his current day media and communication clients, others include Washington University, Webster University, Southern Illinois University, St. Louis Art Museum and the newly completed National Blues Museum.
“This past December we celebrated our five-year anniversary with a private party for our friends and clients at the National Blues Museum,” Kerns says. “It is a great honor to help tell this amazing story of blues music, truly an American art form, and combine my two loves – music and architecture.” Early musical roots took hold during high school when he drummed for a local band, The Trend. As a young, energetic group, they played mostly local parties and dances and were three-time winners of the Battle of the Bands at the Cole County Fair.
“It seems funny now how big of a deal that was for me then [winning the fair award], given all the success of Gravity Kills,” he says. “But learning that kind of tunnel vision allowed me to make it in the music industry. That kind of focus, combined with my natural artistic abilities, is also what led me to become an architect and own a firm that is centered around designing media, education and brewing facilities.”
Although music and art came more naturally for Kerns, regular studies presented some challenges. “I had a hard time in early grade school and later discovered that I was dyslexic,” Kerns says. “It was suggested I take a less rigorous English course, but my mom, being an educator, refused and I read all the course material the evening before class. That extra effort taught me something about working harder and the need for extra preparation. I also had a hard time staying focused. I am pretty sure I have some form of undiagnosed ADD, but I don’t really care as it has served me well in life.
“I am completely against medicating bright kids who are excited about life,” he says. “Almost every business leader I know has had similar experiences. In the end I was a solid B student. I had a college professor once tell me that A students become teachers and B students end up working for C students because they have all of the social skills. Although this has turned out to be partly true [in my life], it shows there is more to education than just grades and test scores.”
Kerns’ list of role models, not in short supply, include: his father, Larry, a well-known dentist practicing in Jefferson City for more than 40 years and “never said a bad thing about anyone, ever;” his mother, Judy, an amazing artist, great mentor and cultivator of his artistic side; Charles Jackson, architect who designed his father’s dental office and their family home; Clyde Lear, business owner and lifetime family friend who had hired Kerns to build facilities in seven states; Art Firley, philanthropist and father of one of his best friends and bandmate, Doug Firley; Jim Widner, first boss and owner of Pro Music Shop; Bill Smith, drafting teacher at JCHS who taught him how to work incredibly hard but have an equal amount of fun.
“I give my mother a lot of credit. She was an art teacher in Kansas City before moving to Jefferson City and always had a sketchbook and pencil in front of me from an early age. During my sophomore year of high school, I was awarded the Art Club’s sketch day blue ribbon and Best of Show. My dad was so proud that he framed my pen and ink drawing and hung it in his dental office. It was there until he retired in 2009.”
Today, Kerns lives in a house located in Richmond Heights, a suburb of St. Louis, with Bonnie (also an architect and artist) and their three daughters. The couple originally purchased the home 20 years ago. “We have renovated every square inch. We took a two-bedroom, one-bath house and converted it into a five-bedroom, four-bathroom house. It is the maximum height, width and depth that zoning ordinances allow. Two architects can be dangerous.”
Although he lost both parents and then his sister unexpectedly a few years back, other family remains in Jefferson City including Bonnie’s parents, Joyce and Mark Blume, and he also has business partners here as well.
“The crazy part is most of my clients are childhood friends. We come back for most holidays to spend time with extended family, but I also make it back on a regular basis for business. Currently, I am working with my good friend, Johnny Graham, on his new facility for Revel Catering and Events. We’re also building a new brewery and tasting room for Thirsty Planet in Austin, Texas, where I am a part owner. More than half of the ownership is from Jefferson City including Brian Smittle (JCHS 1987), brewmaster and primary owner; Brian’s parents and sister, the Lear family; and Patrick Gates (JCHS 1988 and vice president for Apple, Inc.) to name a few.”
According to Kerns, most people look at his life and call it: “Exhausting. My guys tell me that I am the biggest distraction in the office. I talk a lot, and like to pick up a guitar when the mood strikes. I also have a drum kit in my office. My work is my fun and my fun is my work. Great design, music, beer. What could be more fun to work on? I believe if you do what you love, the money will come. I take what I do extremely seriously. I just don’t take myself that seriously.”
So how would Kerns like to be remembered? “Ultimately I hope that people say I somehow made their life better through laughter, their career, their business, their connection to music, their love of quality beer or whatever it may be.”
East Elementary School
Thomas Jefferson Middle School
Simonsen Ninth Grade Center
Jefferson City High School: 1987 graduate
Kansas State University: 1992 graduate,
Bachelor of Architecture
Larry Russell (Doc) Kerns, DDS