ON THE EDGE OF EVENTS—FEATURING SOPHIA LIN KANNO—UPLEVELED CORPORATE CELEBRATIONS 

Sophia Lin Kanno moved from Atlanta to Chicago nearly four years ago. With her, she brought almost a decade of professional event design and catering experience. Now a Senior Event Producer at Kehoe Designs — Kanno imagineers creative corporate event ideas that inspire and engage her clients. “Whether it’s global brands, premier sports or couture living, I’m forever inspired by purposeful design,” she says. “Every event is a celebration.”

Kanno describes her corporate design aesthetic as edgy and modern. She adds a surprise twist of pulling in traditional details for an eclectic mix of elements. “I embrace being a partner to our corporate clients,” she says. Plus, I work with each client to understand their story and brand messaging.”

Transport yourself into three Chicago events that showcase Kanno’s professional design versatility — all focused on corporate celebrations. 

Creative Corporate Event Idea: ‘Alice at the Jazz Club’

Talk about a last-minute switch: A conservative corporate consulting company planning a large-scale event for 1,800 senior-level employees moved it cross-country six weeks prior to the gathering. “Originally slated for Miami, my client moved the event to Chicago because of the Zika outbreak,” Kanno says. The celebration took place in the iconic Navy Pier’s Aon Grand Ballroom, designed by architect Charles Sumner Frost and built in 1916. 

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While brainstorming with her client — who wanted to play off the vibe of Chicago’s jazz clubs — Kanno suggested a unique theme: Alice in Wonderland goes to an underground jazz club. “We wanted guests to feel like they were in an intimate, sultry club,” she says. With 80-foot-ceilings in the domed Aon Grand Ballroom, Kanno knew she had to play with scale and unexpected design elements to create that effect for this creative corporate event idea.

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Professional Lighting

When people think of Chicago jazz club palettes, Kanno says, they imagine purples, reds and blacks. That’s why she used a fresh collection of hues and patterns to bring modernity and fun to the celebration. “I chose the pink sides of the jewel tones,” she says. “That helped us turn up the heat on a traditional jazz club Chicago event.”  

BlackOak Technical Productions played with ruby-toned purples, violets, blues and pinks for a kaleidoscopic effect. “We did a lot of blending for a whimsical feeling,” Kanno says. “We layered big filigree patterns on the floor and ceiling that only added to the sultry jazz theme.” 

Celebrations and Food Displays

Kanno wanted it to be easy, fun and pleasurable for guests to enjoy their food at this Chicago event. “They didn’t want to wait in line,” she says. “Plus, there was limited space for the food displays, and we had to feed nearly 2,000 people.”

That’s why Kanno and the Kehoe Designs team dreamed up unique, easy-to-find food displays. For example, as part of the corporate design strategy they suspended huge lampshades with fork & knife graphics to help people find their way to the carving stations.

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Kanno played off the Pokémon phenomenon with the “Poke Mon” vertical shelving food station.“These food bowls were easy grab-and-go,” she says. Plus, the professional shelving provided room to print ingredients for people with dietary restrictions or those looking for vegan options. “Our discerning guests appreciated the ingredients signs,” she says. “In addition, this takes food service up a few notches.”

Under the “Super Bowls” signs, Kanno suspended upside-down tables and serving stations, some topped with a canopy of greenery. “This is the kind of topsy-turvy detail that modern Alice might encounter in a jazz club,” she says. “Another fun way to bring the ceiling down, and help guests find their way to the food without traditional tables.” 

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Unexpected Décor

Since Kanno imagined Alice in a nonconforming jazz club, she upped the corporate design ante with whimsical furniture, hanging elements and unique food carts.

For instance, Kanno designed a lounge area with white hand chairs, iridescent egg-shaped tables and plush purple benches as part of her creative corporate event idea. “That’s a great example of how we created something unexpected everywhere guests looked,” she says.

Kanno also brought in a cluster of oversized chandeliers. “We wanted an energetic focal point to anchor the center bar,” she says. “Then, we flanked the bar with two giant gold lattice walls for extra impact.”

In addition, the Kehoe Designs corporate design team built a series of different food carts at the Chicago event. “One looked like an off-kilter flower cart,” Kanno says. “The petals carried lots of food, and we could serve 85 people at a time as we wheeled the cart through the crowd. This is a great example of how we made food display and service better through design.” 

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Custom Graphics

To encourage some jazzy moves, the Kehoe Designs team created a custom vinyl dance floor. “We included many nods to jazz abstract piano keys and a broken brass trumpet,” Kanno says. “Taking an abstract approach made the image dynamically modern.”

Creating a dance floor in the middle of the ballroom space gave guests a central area to gather. “The mingling and dancing brought that whole portion of the Chicago event celebration to life,” she says.

Kehoe Designs, celebration, corporate design, pink lighting, lighting design, buffet stations, food decor, food design, large corporate event, event design, corporate styling, Navy Pier, BlackOak Technical Productions, event production, trends, graphics, dance floorPhoto Credits: Design, Décor, Photos: Kehoe Designs, Sophia Lin Kanno | Technical Production: BlackOak Technical Productions, Adam McCarthy |  Planning: Juice Studios | Plantscapes: Floral Exhibits | Catering: Paramount Events | Venue: Navy Pier

Creative Corporate Event Idea: A Train Trip to Italy

A restaurant group wanted to unveil a new menu at one of its popular chain of Italian restaurants. Team Kehoe Designs took its social media influencers and professional bloggers on an unforgettable dinner train ride. All aboard!! “We wanted to elevate that food experience into a celebration,” Kanno says. “The guests shared their journey about the celebration across their media platforms.”

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‘A Different Place and Time’

For this intriguing dinner theater event, the team created two different scenes. First, as guests entered the Chicago event, they stepped into an Italian train station. Then, they boarded a dinner train. “A chef and service staff acted out a scripted experience and served the guests a meal,” Kanno says. “During that 90 minutes, we turned the train station set into a beautiful Tuscan garden. Therefore, we transported guests to a different place and time through strategic corporate design.”  

In addition, the Chicago event venue, Moonlight Studios, lent an industrial feel. Plus, it’s located next to a metro train line. “The building’s brick walls, the sound of actual trains going by, and a fog machine that we used next to the train made the experience even more real,” she says. 

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Chicago events, event, Chicago event design, Olive Garden, experiential activation, branding, experience, decor, greenery, Moonlight Studios, production, visionary, train experience, Italian coffee, bistro, unique ideas, branded eventPhoto Credits: Design, Décor, Photos: Kehoe Designs, Sophia Lin Kanno | Technical Production: Sound Investment | Creative Agency: Mosaic | Plantscapes: Floral Exhibits | Catering: Olive Garden | Venue: Moonlight Studios

A Floral Explosion

Kanno used a muted color palette as guests entered the Chicago event. The lush green bushes and trees echoed that monochromatic palette. “We did that intentionally so that the Tuscan garden’s splash of colors would make an impact,” Kanno says. “Of course, we used color pops in our oversized train center banners and green garbage cans.”

The garden’s focal point? A floral cart stacked high with potted blooms in a rainbow of vibrant purples, pinks, corals and yellows. “This splash of color really contrasted guests’ experience as they boarded and deboarded the train,” Kanno says. 

In addition, the perfect floral choices continued throughout the space to enhance the creative corporate celebration theme: Loose, organic florals atop bistro tables and dessert carts bursting with Italian coffee, gelato and doughnuts. Tall potted lemon trees. “We wired real lemons into the trees to create the illusion of something real,” Kanno says. “The long green boxwood wall brought everything together.”  

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Deliberate Décor

To create a truly immersive celebration experience, Kanno and the Kehoe Designs team carefully chose furniture and décor to reflect a train trip in Italy. “We didn’t want to go overboard, since we changed the ‘event set,’ while guests dined,” she says.

For the train station, the corporate design team used wooden benches, vintage luggage, wooden boxes and for color pops, a red bicycle and greenery. “We used tall street lamps, a train center clock and a light-up railroad crossing sign for a vintage ambiance,” says Kanno, who also chose professional gobo lighting to create the effect of cobblestones on the floor. The venue’s antiqued brick walls and industrial steel touches added more character.

“When guests came off the train, they emerged into an amazing garden,” Kanno says. She kept the lights, as they lent themselves to an outdoor cafe feel for the dessert reception. “The lemon trees and organic floral on the marble-topped, wrought-iron tables transformed the space into a Tuscan garden,” she says. “We also placed dessert carts in the space, which was a nice way for guests to complete their short, immersive Italian journey, all while at a Chicago event.”

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Creative Corporate Event Idea: A Taste of Chicago

One of Kanno’s corporate financial company clients invites 4,000 international and U.S.-based professional guests to an annual Chicago event in McCormack Place. To create a professional food and beverage experience, she designed several activations embracing Chicago’s personality. “We wanted to produce a corporate design that defined food and beverage destinations,” she says, “without making it feel cookie-cutter in a convention space.”

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A Sense of Place

For the event’s central coffee bar, Kanno’s corporate design tapped into quintessential Chicago: walking into a “gentlemen’s library.” Guests mingled, read, charged their phones and enjoyed a cup of coffee. “That’s why we made an electric blue wall holding library books a focal point,” she says. “We wanted to be non-traditional with that back piece.” Kanno intentionally placed the coffee bar right on the other side of the library wall. She flanked the large vintage-looking menu with shelves of books and professional accessories, in keeping with her creative corporate event idea.

“The coffee house was our ‘icon activation,’” she says. “It was so dynamic and unexpected in the middle of the conference.” In keeping with the creative corporate event idea of traditional Chi-town food experiences, Kanno also designed a Bull & Bear Pub and Beer Garden areas with a distinct look, ample seating and visible overhead seating. For example, in the Beer Garden, guests sat in electric blue industrial metal chairs at long wooden tables on a wide swath of astroturf-like carpet.

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A Residential Feel 

This financial company’s guests included a professional group of advisors handling multimillion-dollar investments. Hence why Kanno thoughtfully went with an upscale, residential feel in her creative corporate event idea.

For instance, as part of her corporate design, she created comfy, intimate seating areas of energizing-yellow armchairs arranged in squares. Living greenery in the center of the chairs added privacy and the outdoors. For the eating and working areas, Kanno used both wooden-and-black marble-topped tables with a selection of seating options: mod white chairs, Mid-Century modern chairs, high silver stools and gold fanfare backed chairs with plush cushions.

Then, to add dimension at this Chicago event, Kanno flanked the Coffee House’s main wall with gold Art Deco screens. She also added honeycomb wooden shelving within the seating and table areas. “We created an abstract map of Chicago behind the yellow armchairs,” she says. “We reinterpreted traditional pipe and drape with this decorative piece.”

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Branding Colors

Since the professional client’s core brand color is a rich electric blue, Kanno purposely incorporated the color in her corporate design. For example, the library wall’s architectural build and moldings spoke to the theme’s turn-of-the-century feel. “Yet, that vibrant blue is subtle branding, without losing the sense of Chicago,” she says. “The blue also lends an unexpected, ultra modern vibe.” 

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Quick Q’s: Sophia Lin Kanno

What excites you about event trends in 2020?

SLK: That we’re embracing bolder colors, such as yellow. It’s very gender-neutral and works in fashion and event styling. Yellow is a signature color for me it’s bright and unexpected. Also love how the old world and vintage collide with the new world. A corporate design example is when you see edgy, modern suspended chandeliers over vintage lounges.

What color and texture combos are you kicking it with right now?

SLK: Love the juxtaposition of natural materials with metallic pieces. Imagine marble combined with brushed brass. You can take it a step further — if the marble is hot pink with a black vein through it. In addition, I love mixing textures and patterns. If you start with a neutral marble, pair it with a stripe or even an oversized floral or palm print. Bigger is better. People shy away from those combos, but I’m all in.

What’s something you always say to your clients?

SLK: I always assure my clients that we’ll make their creative corporate event ideas work. My goal is to have my clients trust that we’re leading them down the right path with their corporate design and overall experience. We want their guests to be impacted by the celebration, so that it’s the talk of the town after they leave. 

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Sophia Lin Kanno
Senior Event Producer
Kehoe Designs
Get Social, Follow Sophia: @thespicygrasshopper 
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