My Essentials: Kelly Ludwig

Designer, photographer, and curator Kelly Ludwig.

Kelly Ludwig moved to Los Angeles after graduating college, but she found it expensive and insular. 

“I realized fairly quickly I’m a Midwest person.” 

At 25, she moved back to Kansas City to start her own design studio. The city she found was an artistic eye-of-the-storm, photogenic and food rich, and allowed her to carve her space in the design world. At Merkle, she was creative director for projects with organizations including the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and NBC Universal. For six years, she taught young designers at the Kansas City Art Institute. She’s active as a freelancer today.

Kansas City is also Ludwig’s home base for her most unique passion: road trips to discover vernacular art, or artist-built environments—which she describes as unique artscapes built by self-taught artists out of passion, not obligation. Her collection of photography on the subject spans decades and is one of the largest in the country. She shares her photographs on her website and with the Kohler Foundation’s SPACES, which helps preserve sites like these.

“It’s just super easy to live here,” Ludwig says of Kansas City. “There’s a great creative community here, there’s great music. There’s great food. We’ve made our own fun because there’s not a natural wonder other than the Flint Hills—so we make our own fun, and that seems to be food and art.”

Kelly’s essentials...

Photo Op: Kaw Point is at the confluence of the Kansas River and Missouri River. It was the campsite for Lewis and Clark in June of 1804. Not only are there hiking and biking trails, but you also often find kayakers out for an evening paddle. You can get a beautiful shot of the rivers with the Kansas City skyline in the background.

Shopping Small: I really like Made Mobb, a local streetwear brand. Local entrepreneurs Vu Radley, Mark Launiu, and Jesse Phouangphet have been making their mark, collaborating with the Chiefs, KC Current, and UMKC among others. The KC clothes and hats are typically spot-on typographically, which makes my designer heart swoon.

Best Bite: Oh, that Crispy Rice at Waldo Thai is crazy good. I went, pre-Covid, with friends, and I keep going back for more. Plus, the craft cocktails are delish. The staff is knowledgeable and funny.

Guilty Pleasure: This is going to sound ridiculous, and it is, but demolition derbies at the local county fairs are so damn much fun. Can you imagine a sport where you get disqualified after your second engine fire? That means you can have a first engine fire and keep going! Great photo ops abound. The derbies are in the evening, so the light is great as the sun is setting. Then you have the lights of the fair to shoot, and oh, the people. . .

Live Music: Knuckleheads is crazy. It’s over on the east side, the East Bottoms. So imagine this outdoor stage, and you have a train that runs literally right next to it. So when someone’s up there playing, the train comes by and, of course, blows the horn—it almost shocks the musicians into realizing they’re in someplace unique. It’s not just another stop on the tour. 

Road Tripping: It is just a smidge over four hours, but I would have to say Lucas, Kansas. The drive through the Flint Hills to this small town of 400 is well worth it. It is a creative mecca and home to the Garden of Eden, the oldest intact folk-art site in America; Bowl Plaza, a world-renowned public toilet and mosaic masterpiece; and Erika Nelson’s World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things. Whew.