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Kelly Wearstler on the most important interior design lesson she learned

America’s pre-eminent interior designer tells Elana Castle how she favors risk-taking over tried-and-tested methods, finds inspiration everywhere, and wants to leverage virtual reality to push the boundaries of design.

Kelly Wearstler is one of a tiny pantheon of truly global names in interior design. Since the 1990s, Wearstler has changed the design weather on a regular basis, building a design powerhouse that encompasses super-prime residential, hospitality, commercial, and product design. Gwen Stefani, Elton John and Cameron Diaz are just a few of her celebrity clients; she’s a published author many times over, and her mantlepiece includes accolades from Vogue Best Dressed to Time Magazine’s Design 100

Despite this business longevity, her relevance is undimmed; she’s perpetually nonconformist and seems to possess an uncanny ability to raise the bar with every new interior or initiative. How does she do it? Effect Magazine’s Elana Castle sat down with the legendary designer to find out.

How has your work evolved throughout your design career?

My style is always evolving and I continue to develop new passions and interests. I have always strived to educate myself and bring an exceptional lens to each project, and my style has been broadened with the discovery of new – and old – along the way. I am always keen to push the boundaries of design, by experimenting with textures, materials, and colors. This allows me to continue to test myself and discover new styles!

As one of the world’s most followed designers, do you feel pressure to do something wildly different with each new project?

Every project is truly unique and when I look back, I see each one as a capsule of time. For me, each space has its own story waiting to be told. When starting a new project, I always begin by considering the surrounding environment. Exploring the locale offers an opportunity to discover the adjacent culture, history, materials, and artisans, which can then be brought into the interior to create a truly authentic feel.

Austin Proper Hotel by Kelly Wearstler (photo: The Ingalls)

How do you achieve that magic mix of materials, furnishings, art and object to create such aspirational and liveable environments?

I always want to tell evocative stories, adventurous and full of soul, incorporating a mixology of materials and influences. A great way to start is by planning out the room’s balance and symmetry – how well the visual weight of the elements of the room are distributed and repeated.

I want to tell evocative stories, adventurous and full of soul, incorporating a mixology of materials and influences.

Kelly Wearstler

The balance and symmetry doesn’t have to mean that all the pieces have the exact same weight – asymmetry in a room can introduce visual interest and tension. For example, perhaps one coffee table in the room is square, while the other is rectangular. It all comes down to experimenting – placing one object next to another and exploring the interaction.

You are known for being inspired by many sources – graphic design, fashion, and nature among others. How do you sift through them to settle on one key concept?

For me, design inspiration can be found everywhere – in photography, art, architecture, travel, fashion, and nature. I’m always seeking contrast and mixology – looking to blend contemporary and classic, masculine and feminine, raw and refined. I see each new project as an invitation to embark on a fascinating and unique journey. I always start by drawing on the local history, surroundings, artisans and culture, pulling out key components to create a seamless conversation with the interior and exterior.

Your Malibu home is stunning. How does the process of designing for yourself versus a client differ?

I put the same amount of energy and attention into designing all of my spaces, as I want each one to be a unique environment. The Malibu residence was no different, just that my family was my client, which gave me a great opportunity to make spaces centered around spending quality time together. The view of the Pacific Ocean was the defining feature around which we designed the interiors. It is a truly special place; during high tide, the waves come crashing underneath the house – it feels like we are on a boat.

I am seeing more and more requests for interiors that incorporate natural elements. I think there is something so comforting about blurring the boundaries between the exterior and interior. I find designs that play upon the raw, natural beauty of an environment are the most beautiful and refreshing; this could translate in the way that a marble pattern echoes the movement of foliage outside a window, or mirroring a coastal view through salvaged driftwood and ceramics.

Your persona and fashion are very much part and parcel of your interiors. Is this increasingly important for designers in the visual maelstrom of the social media world?

Fashion plays an important role in sourcing inspiration for my interiors. I dress much the way I dress my interiors – it’s all about the mix. Social media is also integral to my process. It brings an incredible diversity to what could otherwise be a limited scope of influence. Digital media has made interesting new and vintage design pieces more and more accessible. I use social media to discover emerging talent and galleries from all over the world.

Your projects have a modern look but often incorporate custom and vintage pieces. What qualities do you look for when selecting furniture and accessories?

For me, design is all about storytelling; each piece has a unique and inspired narrative to tell. When selecting furniture and accessories, I always consider how they will interact with the existing pieces in the space. I love to see vintage and antique pieces next to contemporary designs by emerging talent – for example, I recently collaborated with Dutch art collective Rotganzen on a limited-edition Quelle Fête series. It’s important to create a relationship with old and new and adding to the individual story of each piece.

Global brand: Kelly Wearstler collaborated with Dutch art collective Rotganzen, creating the Dali-esque Quelle Fête series of mirrored art objects

You created an experience for Hummer. Do you see an appetite for more experiential design? How do you see it evolving as we explore more of the virtual (VR) world?

Yes, definitely. This is an incredible moment in design. I loved conceptualizing the virtual garage for the electric Hummer EV. Recently, I designed a virtual ultra-modern kitchen concept for JennAir’s limited-edition Smoke and Brass Range. I wanted to harness virtual design to rethink this space within the home. It allowed me the freedom to be really bold with material choices and how they were implemented in this space. There is certainly an appetite for more experiential design – and I think this is so exciting. I love to push the boundaries of design, and these technology developments open new doors to do just that.

What’s the most important interior design lesson you’ve learnt?

I would certainly say, don’t shy away from trying something new and making mistakes – you never know what might come of it! You could accidentally stumble upon an unexpected pairing, or you could learn and refine your personal style – either way, it’s a win-win. I’m always evolving, that is my goal. I am a very curious person and I want to continue to move forward and gain knowledge.

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