‘It’s Penn State’: Happy Valley is the right answer for Kappel family

A few hours after the last of a handful of college campus visits in 2019, Penn State School of Visual Arts alumnus Brian Kappel was with his wife Michele and their daughter Emma in a Detroit, Michigan, airport when he decided to ask her the question he had been purposely avoiding.

“Okay, so if right now you would say yes to anywhere, where is it?” he asked.

It’s an innocent question for most parents in similar situations, but for a proud Penn Stater with generational family ties to the University, and a dad who starts football Saturdays by blasting “Fight On, State,” it’s anything but simple.

Brian graduated in 1998, his dad Bill in 1970, his mom Carol the same year and his sister Suzanne in 1995. There are other ties as well, like his aunt who earned a master’s degree at Penn State, but Emma was a question mark.

“She had the best poker face I’ve ever seen,” Brian said. “We took her all over the place and really gave her carte blanche to find ‘her town.’”

As the three toured schools across the country, the reality of Emma choosing another school was setting in and while, of course, she would have had full support from her mom and dad, Happy Valley was on their minds.

“It’s Penn State,” Emma told her dad in Detroit.

The Kappels celebrated in the terminal and in the fall of 2019, Emma became a third-generation Penn Stater and followed in her dad’s footsteps by choosing a major in the College of Arts and Architecture.

Brian graduated in 1998 with a bachelor of arts degree and spent the first six years of his career as a designer for Nike before starting his design firm Space Monkey Designs in 2015, where he has created various customized spaces, including a cutaway set for ESPN’s “Monday Night Countdown,” VIP event space for ESPN, set design for the Dew Tour and the College Football Playoff suites.

As a mixed-media artist, his first solo gallery opening was in 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona, where he showcased an exhibit of robots called “Artificial Agents,” followed by “Cereal Killers,” a show that put a unique spin on breakfast cereal box art.

Most recently, Brian helped design Nike’s Pegasus 40 Penn State running shoe, but for Penn Staters perhaps his most recognizable design is in the Paterno Library Starbucks, where he created and installed the 40-foot long “Moby Dick”-themed mural, a clever interpretation of the popular coffee chain’s nod to the Herman Melville classic.

While completing the piece at his studio in Portland, Oregon, Brian was planning a visit with Emma to Penn State to tour the arts facilities, but after a serendipitous phone call from the Starbucks marketing team, the visit also included installation of the mural.

“When I visited Penn State, the difference was the energy that was on campus,” Emma said. “Everyone has such a passion for Penn State, and there was just something that I got walking around campus that was unlike anything I felt anywhere else.”

Emma came to campus in the fall of 2019 and just as she was getting her footing in a place that was more than 2,000 miles from home, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Penn State to shut down in the spring of 2020.

Like everyone else, she was forced to adapt to education via Zoom and while the challenges were abundant, the photography major persevered and developed what she called “Porchtraits,” a project where she maintained social distance by photographing families on their porches.

The project put her on the map as a rising star in Arts and Architecture and ultimately led to her becoming a photography intern for the Blue Band and the Penn State football team for the 2022 season, a proud moment for her family.

“At Penn State, she was able to grow as an artist and a photographer and capture powerful moments,” Brian Kappel said. “She has an uncanny ability to capture the quiet in the chaos.”

Emma graduated in the spring of 2023 with a bachelor of design in professional photography. Although transitioning into the professional realm can be tough, she has a special connection to a successful College of Arts and Architecture alumnus.

“My dad has always been my mentor. We are very similar artistically and emotionally, so we have a very symbiotic relationship,” Emma said. “If I’m working on a project and I can’t quite figure out how to connect things, he is the first person I call.”

Those calls are happening more often as Emma’s photography business, Stay Subtle, which specializes in portrait and event photography, is gaining traction.

The result of her hard work and skill is a growing professional relationship between the father and daughter that has led to marketing opportunities with brands such as Gameday Boots, an official licensee of collegiate-branded western boots, rainboots and accessories based in Austin, Texas.

“Emma has been able to visually craft a vibe and look for the brand, which is spot on and seems to be resonating really well,” Brian said.

Brian just began design work on the 2024 College Football Playoff team and VIP suites, as well as the pre-game lounge. Emma will join him on the project and the two said they hope Penn State football will join them in January as well.

“Penn State is in our blood, and when you see the logo or someone wearing the hat, it’s community. It always has been and always will be,” Brian said. “To share this love of Penn State and to be a part of the community with Emma is the essence of ‘We Are.’”

The College of Arts and Architecture is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2023-24. This story is part of a series highlighting people, places and events in the college’s six-decade history.