Eleanor Kahn graduated from Iowa State University in 2008 with a bachelor's degree in architecture design and performing arts. Since then, Khan has gone on to work on over 60 different set designs, in addition to installations, painting and photography.
When she was a recent high school graduate, Kahn applied to Iowa State to be a double major in biology and geology. She switched her major to architecture before she began her freshman year. After switching her major, she signed up for a Freshman Honors Program scenic design project with Rob Sunderman, associate professor of theatre.
Prior to switching her major to architecture, Khan’s interests were mostly related to music.
“I played the trumpet, I played in an orchestra in Dubuque, I was in everything band-related that you could imagine and everything vocal-related that you could imagine in high school,” Kahn said.
Khan also did band for a year at Iowa State, toured with the ISU Wind Ensemble around Europe for a summer and was in Iowa State Singers for four years.
Khan began to realize architecture was not what she wanted her career to be and wanted to explore other paths. A professor suggested to her that scenic design might be something that she would excel at, and Kahn decided to pursue a major in performing arts as well for her fourth and fifth year. After graduating from Iowa State, Khan moved to Boston to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree in set design at Boston University.
“I don’t think sleep was ever really a part of [my time at Iowa State],” Kahn said.
She moved to Chicago in 2012 to start her freelancing career. In 2018, she decided to quit her day job and freelance full time.
“It was a big scary step, but I had already spent five years building a freelance career, and it was growing,” Kahn said. “[That] is why I decided to step away from my day job: because I was having bigger projects come my way”.
In 2019, the League of Chicago Theatres worked with the City of Chicago and invited Khan to apply for a public art commission. Her proposal “Color Play” was selected to be the installment in Millennium Park.
The inspiration for her installment was doors and what role they play in theatre. Khan wanted to embody theatre without making an actual set.
In October, Kahn was also named Iowa State University’s Theatre Alumni of the Year. This was very significant to Kahn because her close friend from Iowa State Singers was named Iowa State University’s Music Alumni of the Year.
Shortly after accepting this award, Khan was offered a job working as a prop designer on the set of Dolly Parton's “Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol” for its opening in Boston.
The show takes place in Great Depression-era Tennessee, and it tells the story of the Christmas classic "A Christmas Carol" by the townspeople. The set was a general store, which Kahn was responsible for “stocking” with props.
“That show was really great because I had worked with the set designer several times; we really trusted each other, and I was well-supported financially,” Kahn said.
Freelancing is something really important to Kahn and what she wants her career to be. She is her own favorite boss and does not want to give that up, but it doesn’t come easy all the time. Many freelance artists are taken advantage of in the early stages of their careers.
“I feel like I have survived in spite of a lot of things rather than I was supported,” Kahn said.
Khan advises aspiring artists and freelancers to go with their gut. She said she wouldn’t advise freelancers to take jobs that underpay or exploit them. Saying yes to everything isn’t something she would necessarily suggest.
“I feel like if you're constantly working hard and to the best of your abilities, then you will get something positive out of your experiences,” Kahn said.
For the future, Khan doesn’t know where her career will take her next, but she strives to improve organically rather than set deadlines for goals.
“I want my career to grow horizontally, as in to expand out to multiple types of ways I'm working,” Kahn said. “I’m not just looking to climb the ladder to Broadway; that's never been my goal.”