Thirteen years after The New Yorker dubbed her ‘the presiding grande dame of West Coast interior design’, Kelly Wearstler’s ascent shows no signs of slowing. While continuing to surprise and delight with boldly textured, patterned and coloured interiors, she has also dived headfirst into the world of furniture design, built a global lifestyle brand and amassed almost two million Instagram followers, all the while championing kindred spirits across creative disciplines. For her guest-editor takeover of Wallpaper’s October 2022 issue, the doyenne of American design invites us into her Beverly Hills home, ponders the future of technology and craft, and shines the spotlight on five of her favourite contemporary creatives (whom we’ll also be featuring in a series of profiles over the coming days).
Kelly Wearstler: the guest-editor interview
For every successful business named after its founder, there comes a period of tension when the company blossoms beyond the persona and becomes, well, a brand. Kelly Wearstler has navigated the potentially awkward evolution effortlessly; in the 27 years since she entered the interior design world, her company has grown exponentially. She has remained integral to the nuts-and-bolts decision-making across the business, keeping her hands on every project, while turning her independently-owned company into a household name – a rarity for the industry. She manages to make the whole enterprise feel personal, as though she might ring you up after you purchase a chair from her website to discuss your choice of finish, yet exudes the confidence of someone helming a global design empire.
When we speak over Zoom (at 8am on a Saturday morning no less; evidently, she rarely switches off), she is at home, at Hillcrest, a 12,000 sq ft, six-bedroom property in Beverly Hills, where the shoot for this article took place. She purchased the property in 2006 from the prestigious Broccoli family, the producers of the James Bond films, and her Oscar-worthy renovation lets the house’s historic bones breathe while dressing it with a contemporary air. She lives there with her husband, two sons and two dogs. While Wearstler is known for her abundant use of juicy, expressive colours (such as zesty Citrona and minty Palm, two of the shades from her recent Farrow & Ball partnership), her home is outfitted in a soothing palette, which acts as a calming backdrop for her impressive personal art collection, including works by Victor Vasarely, Misha Kahn and Hector Leonardi. And although deliciously serene, politely tasteful is not her jam: she prefers design to be ‘provocative’ (indeed, in early September she launched her hand-carved marble ‘Butt stool’, which appears to reveal the cheeks of the sitter at its rear).
Wearstler took naturally to the invitation to be guest editor of Wallpaper*. Over the years, she has honed an editor’s eye, taking inspiration from architecture, design, art, fashion, nature, and more, then filtering, filing, saving, recalling from her extensive research. ‘Being super organised, I categorise all my inspiration, and I do have a great memory,’ she admits. ‘I take a ton of photos and videos on my phone. I have an amazing archive library with vintage out-of-print books that I reference. And there’s all the digital inspiration that’s out there. When I see something that moves me and excites me, I keep it at the top of my creative mind.’
As guest editor, Wearstler was keen to consider two forces shaping the world of design today – technology and craft – as well as what happens when these two overlap. Shining light on her favourite contemporary creatives across art, music, fashion and digital design was also front of mind. She approached the task with the same vigour and agility as she applies to the vast breadth of her day-to-day work, which covers interior and product design, creative direction and more.
‘It’s about having a clear vision and open communication,’ she says of the red thread that ties together the variety of her own projects. ‘I don’t like repeating things we’ve done. I like to evolve and push forward. I’m always about learning and taking it to the next level, being super curious, reinventing, and doing things that are unique, more out of the box, less traditional.’
Fellow creatives and cross-pollination
Collaboration is central to Wearstler’s creative process. She often brings in emerging and established artists, ceramicists and furniture makers to create unique pieces for projects and, in addition, she encourages her team of around 50 employees to collaborate across departments. ‘There’s so much crossover and cross-pollination in the studio,’ she says, being sure to champion her team at every opportunity during our conversation.
In 2021, she launched the gallery, a shoppable curated area on her website that promotes artists she admires, such as California-based ceramicist Morgan Peck and New York- and Milan-based lighting and furniture designer Hagit Pincovici. ‘I realised I have this platform I can use as a megaphone to help spread the word on this incredible talent,’ she says (with almost 2m Instagram followers, she is perfectly placed to do so).
What attracts her to these creatives? ‘That they have a unique point of view, and that [I feel] like, “Holy shit, that’s so fucking cool”. It’s all about falling in love, you know, that first time you see someone and your heart stops. That emotional, profound feeling,’ she enthuses. ‘And that the artist brings something creatively unique, whether it’s the design itself, or the materiality.’
She met Argentinian digital artist Andrés Reisinger via social media (which she often uses to discover fellow creatives), calling him ‘a true pioneer in the digital space’; admires the brushwork and love of colour of young American multidisciplinary artist Honor Titus, who will open a solo show at Timothy Taylor in London in November; finds a common love of LA in the bold, abstract artwork of fellow Californian Mary Weatherford (‘I can sit with her paintings for hours’); invited R&B singer Brent Faiyaz, ‘a curious soul who loves design’, to her studio two days after they began messaging on Instagram; and for years she has been buying the sculptural clothes of fashion designer Dion Lee, which she says ‘really challenges preconceptions of gender’.
Diving right into the metaverse
Wearstler also has a growing fascination with the ‘wild west’ of the metaverse. ‘What is exciting about designing for Web 3.0 is that creativity is the leader,’ she says. ‘There are no limitations, there are no engineering issues, you can be as free-spirited as you want.’ Plus, she points out, ‘Virtual spaces are inherently more accessible’. In April 2021, she unveiled a virtual garage for Hummer’s new EV. It signalled new territory for the designer, a challenge she relished. When marketing agency Ranaverse first approached her with the brief, ‘I didn’t have anyone in my studio who knew how to do it at the time, but we just jumped in and figured it out,’ she says with her characteristic assuredness. To create the subterranean futuristic environment, her team designed all the wireframes in-house, building them out with sketches, then brought it all to life via 3D-video.
Wearstler is especially interested in exploring the capabilities held within the metaverse that can then be realised IRL. ‘We designed some furniture for the garage, which we then put in our collection.’ Similarly, she created a digital environment to showcase her first collection with American lighting manufacturer Tech Lighting. Lighting design holds challenges that digital tools can help navigate: choreographing the warmth, colour and projection of light from a minuscule LED chip requires not just a designer’s eye but also a technical hand. Her in-house team of four lighting experts do a lot of 3D-printing to look at profiles. ‘When things are so minimal and streamlined, and the light source is so small, it’s almost like designing a watch, everything has to come together so precisely,’ she says. ‘There are so many nuances on the inside you don’t even see.’
On the back of these projects, Wearstler has hired several digital designers to work in her West Hollywood studio. So, does she believe in the future of the metaverse? ‘I think it showcases creativity with no boundaries. I am a believer in it, full speed ahead.’ In 2018, Wearstler discovered the playful furniture of Dutch designer Dirk van der Kooij, who often works with recycled and salvaged materials, while she was midway through projects in two LEED-certified buildings in LA and San Francisco. ‘I saw this light fixture that I thought was a speaker. It had two dials on the side, which you could adjust to make the light source really warm or cool. Then I discovered that it was all extruded from recycled plastic.’ Going forwards, she is representing van der Kooij in North America.
This summer, Wearstler launched her ninth collection with The Rug Company, a collaboration that has lasted 14 years and counting: a painterly collection, titled Surreal Shifts, of carpets woven in fine Tibetan wool and silk by The Rug Company’s craftspeople. But just as she likes to interrogate and re-examine established ways of doing things, Wearstler is upending traditional notions of craft. Her new textile collection for the two-century-old upholsterer Lee Jofa, with which she has collaborated since 2006, is fabricated in Italy, Belgium, Turkey and the US, with each mill selected for its specialist technique, such as jacquard or printing.
Textile design traditionally involves hand-painting to create a pattern. But for her new Lee Jofa collection, ‘we did something different,’ she says triumphantly. ‘One textile was designed in a digital program, another in an architectural program, and we 3D-printed the pattern to test what it looked like in relief before commissioning a fabric sample,’ she says. ‘Instead of hand-painting, we are starting with digital and then those 3D-inspired designs are fabricated into the textiles. It’s a really interesting reversal.’
Wearstler in the hallway of her Beverly Hills residence, furnished with a 1980s French mirror and a vintage Scandinavian rug. She wears a suit by Tako Mekvabidze, shoes by Giuseppe Zanotti, a Prada bag and rings by Lillian Shalom. Portrait: Amanda Hakan
Although she is fascinated by new frontiers in digital realms, her work always carries something of the human hand. She became ‘smitten’ with the work of Montana-based sculptor YehRim Lee, who builds her paint-dripped ceramic furniture by hand, after placing one of Lee’s pieces in a project in LA. ‘She has a unique voice and sensibility,’ Wearstler says. ‘Plus, she’s really open and I love that can-do energy.’ Wearstler will unveil a collaboration with Lee later in 2022.
Spaces and storytelling
Storytelling often inspires Wearstler’s collaborations. A case in point is the Downtown LA Proper Hotel (part of Proper Hotels, the luxury lifestyle hotel group where she has been the interior designer since 2017. It is managed by Proper Hospitality, which was co-founded by Brian De Lowe, Alex Samek and Brad Korzen. Korzen, Wearstler’s real estate developer husband, was formerly CEO of the Viceroy Hotels group and impressively grew the brand from a single hotel to 4,500 employees). The Downtown LA Proper Hotel was originally built as a hotel in the 1920s, but most recently was a YWCA. The developers tasked Wearstler with finding an inventive way to nod to the history of the 18ft-high ceilings of one of the suites, which was a basketball court in its former incarnation. This led her to the ‘dripping’ disco ball sculptures by Dutch art collective Rotganzen, in particular one that was oozing through a basketball hoop. ‘I love the playfulness and sense of humour, they really blend the line between art and design objects,’ she says. She snapped one up for her own collection, before commissioning the collective to create 150 custom pieces, editioned and signed, for a collaboration that currently features in her online gallery.
The tiled back wall of The Peacock, the Mediterranean restaurant at the Austin Proper Hotel, tells a story about the menu before you even taste the food. Wearstler sourced its constituent tiles in Portugal, after visiting a family-run company that had been in business for 80 years. ‘I got a blend of beautiful deadstock tiles: there’s maybe four of one pattern and ten of another. I probably used 200 different tiles. It’s like a patchwork that feels very bohemian, very Austin. It really plays to the location and the story of that community.’
You know you’re sitting in a Wearstler-designed hotel when you think you’re reclining in your most stylish friend’s living room. ‘I look at hotel design and residential design through the same lens,’ she says of her propensity to create inviting, considered spaces, layered with texture and points of interest, much like a home assembled over years. ‘A hotel can be the epicentre of where locals hang out,’ she points out, as is the case with the Santa Monica Proper (‘a sexy project’), where she often holds meetings or relaxes. The hotel, which opened in 2019, inspired her latest ‘family’ of furniture, Morro, which hints at 1970s ‘monolithic’ French and Italian furniture. ‘The collection was super spontaneous. We needed a table of specific proportions for the Santa Monica Proper; it needed to be round, to feel organic and textural and very bulbous, like a shell. It looked so good when we had it fabricated that we did a side table, then something else, and something else.’
Sometimes projects evolve naturally in this way, which she calls ‘riding the wave’ – indeed, her entry to retail happened in this spirit in 2007, when she received a call from Jim Gold, the president of Bergdorf Goodman. She had recently renovated the restaurant BG, and he invited her to open a ‘shop in shop’: ‘I had no products at the time, but I just said yes and figured out the details after!’ she says.
Despite the conflation of unrelenting international crises, Wearstler remains optimistic. ‘Design is a force of good and a force of pleasure. In our world, there are so many challenges, and design can present incredible solutions to very real problems… making our lives easier, educating us along the way. Innovative design really enriches our lives; it can boost morale, spark conversations, and overall lead to good progress. It connects people.’ §
Kelly Wearstler: a design portfolio
An eclectic mix of graphic backdrops, unique artworks and vintage finds, Kelly Wearstler’s interiors – from scene-stealing hospitality projects to cutting-edge digital sets – take you by surprise, transporting you into a new dimension where warmth and textures are always the first port of call. Here’s a selection.
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