From perfectly imperfect crooked paintings and vintage rugs piled in old vans to Dateline trailer cameos and expertly curated tchotchkes, Kate Lester gets real about design.
What makes Kate Lester Interiors unique?
What makes our firm unique is that we don’t take ourselves or the designs too seriously. As we always say at the office, we’re not curing cancer; we’re doing interior design, so let’s have some fun. Let’s bring in some personality. Let’s not overthink it. Let’s get down to what brings joy, what makes people happy, and what tells a story. I think that’s the basis of everything we do. It’s having a good time and understanding the personalities and homes we’re creating and want to make the special for each and every one of our clients.
Where do you source inspiration?
I’m inspired by everything. I was inspired this morning by the crooked oil paintings on the yellow wall in my hotel. I was inspired in that moment by the perfect imperfection of that. When I saw those paintings hanging totally crooked on the wall I actually didn’t want to fix them because it just felt right and interesting. It’s the little things. I’m always inspired by film and television. The other day I was watching Dateline with my husband and I made him pause the scene where they were taking someone’s body out because I liked the paneling in their trailer and I took a picture of it. It’s all about keeping your eyes open for whatever inspires you. I love weird things, and I’m always wondering how can I make these weird things not so weird so someone will let me do them in their home. What’s different? What’s unique? What’s not everywhere already? That’s what I’m always looking for when it comes to inspiration.
How do you approach a new project?
When we’re approaching potential new projects, we always want to find people who respect and trust the process—who understand that when you step aside and let a creative person and a team do their thing, you’re going to get the best results. Sometimes people want to be really involved and they have ideas, but I think a lot of times designers are afraid to say, ‘I get it all. We’re going to think about all of it. We’re going to take it all into consideration, but we’re going to create the best design for you because if you knew the best design, you wouldn’t need us.’ I want to say that in the most kind way that I can—always. People do tell us we have a lot of rules and I’m OK with that because having rules and procedures and a set process creates the best results. Hopefully people see that as well.
What’s your client process?
I always like to say this is not a collaboration because it’s not. Our clients come to us because they trust the process. To me it’s so important. When you go to your doctor, you don’t really question if you need the surgery. And when you go to your hairdresser, hopefully you’re not annoying and you don’t question them either. Something we talk a lot about early on is saying that we want to learn all about our clients. We want to spend time deep diving—how did you meet, what do you love to do, where do you travel? Tell me everything about how you plan to live in these spaces, then I need you to go away because I’m going to create the best design and the best space for you if you’ll just step aside and get out of your own way. And really that’s when the magic happens. When people understand that you’ve done your due diligence, you’ve learned all about them, you know where you’re going, and you’re going to create an amazing design for them that’s unique to their family.
Rug sourcing—especially with vintage rugs—can be a wild ride. What’s the most unique rugs scenario you’ve experienced?
Rug shopping is daunting for so many people. What size do I get? What colors? Should I go boring because it’s a big investment? A lot of times people make the mistake of buying a boring rug because it’s a big investment and they don’t want to get tired of it and they don’t want to get sick of the color or the pattern. And that’s probably the exact opposite of what people should be doing. Invest in something interesting and fun and something that’s going to anchor your space. A lot of times people will say, ‘I’m going to go neutral because I’m going to find a great art piece or I’m going to do this.’ No, you’re not. Just get a good rug to start with. That will inspire you to finish your space based off the palette you’ve created. I want people to start to think about having fun and infusing color and pattern and interest from the get-go. And make sure all your furniture legs are on your rug—it’s very important to buy the right size.
When you’re a designer and you’re constantly looking for the perfect vintage rug, a lot of times you’re exploring avenues that maybe the regular person—or the smart person—wouldn’t. I’ve climbed in the back of someone’s van and dug through a bunch of different carpets. I’ve purchased rugs before and unrolled them and found a dead rat inside, which was not really pleasant, but it was gorgeous rug and I had it cleaned and it was fine. Sometimes we’ll have a rug that we love for a space and our client will call us a week later and say, ‘It smells like a dead body in here.’ And we’re like I’m super sorry, we’ll have it cleaned again. You know these rugs are 100 years old or sometimes 70 or 80 years old, so there’s a lot of patience and history and interesting elements that have to go into the process when you’re sourcing true vintage rugs. You also have to transport them—a lot of times from Turkey. That’s doesn’t always mean air freight. It can sometimes mean shipping containers, which means cockroaches. It’s really always an adventure. And I feel like having had that adventure for all of us, I’ll just save you the trouble and give you nice, clean, new, fresh wonderful rugs.
Do rugs inform or support a room’s palette?
Using a rug as a base to your palette really gives you a stepping stone—a jumping off point—to create a more interesting space from the get-go and that’s what I want—what I hope people take from the Harman and Harman Natural collections. Like don’t be boring.
What importance does a rug’s texture play?
Texture is important when you’re looking for rugs because you want them to feel comfortable underfoot. When you’re shopping for rugs, I always tell our clients and friends to take their shoe off, to take their foot and put it on the sample or a little part of the rug. Make sure it feels good to you. We tried to get the Harman rugs so close to a texture of a true wool-blend vintage. It was really important to me that the pile wasn’t too high—that they were still plush, but also felt organic and true to the original concept. A lot of times, people want a rug to feel so plush, but then that really comes around and bites you at the end because they’re not as durable. Things get stuck in a higher pile. I think a lower pile rug is really important. I also think a great size rug can absorb so much echo in a space. You should always be listening when creating a space and hearing how the sound is traveling. A lot of times in these great rooms where everything is open and it’s a great concept of an open floor plan, it sometimes sounds like you’re in a warehouse. So you want to make sure that when you’re sourcing your rugs, you go big enough to absorb some of that sound and bring in some texture and softness. Not only will the room feel more welcoming, but it will absorb a little bit of echo as well.
What is the relationship between rugs and accessories?
People think home accessories are an option. You do need tchotchkes; you just need the right tchotchkes. Accessories really tie everything together. Art and accessories to a space are the finishing touches like jewelry or purses or shoes to your outfit. Do you go out without shoes? Then don’t not put art in your house, right? You need to finish your space. And I would say that 90% of people think their space is finished because they have furniture in it and it’s not. You won’t finish it later—finish it now. If you have a rug that you’ve started to build off of, it makes things so much easier when you’re shopping for accessories, like art or pottery or even trays or frames. It enables you to keep your blinders on and go straight for the things that will work with the rug you have and stay away from anything that’s distracting that you love. Just because you love it doesn’t mean you need to buy it.
When is the time to adhere to traditional design “rules” and when is the time to rebel?
It’s really important to adhere to traditional design rules whenever I think it is. And then when I don’t think it is, it’s not important. Because more is more, unless it’s too much. And less is more until I want more. So I think there are no rules. Sometimes you should have balance and scale—until it’s not right. I hate to say that because it’s not really giving any direction for someone who wants to do this on their own, but I think rules are made to be broken. I’d much rather someone walk into a space that I’ve designed and had something to say about it—good or bad—than left and completely forgotten about the space because it was so boring. Love it or hate it, that’s OK. At least they’re talking about it.
What does holistic design mean to you? And how do you implement it in your projects?
We call it the vibes. Good design should affect all five of your senses. When you walk into a space, we always say at our Kate Lester Home stores, ‘Does it look good? Does it sound good? Does it smell good? Do you feel good when you come into the space?’ We always think of things like warmth and comfort. I had a client recently say to me, ‘I just love this room; it’s so cozy.’ And it’s a massive room, but it felt cozy to her. It’s not about it physically being cozy. It’s about the way it feels and if it feels like home. What are those things that invoke that sense of home to you or to your clients? That’s what you have to find out. Is it a fireplace? Is it a comfortable sofa? Is it a soft plush rug underneath your foot? You need to find out what those things mean to you and build your space around them so you get that feeling every time you open your front door.
I love natural light. I think natural light is anyone woman’s best accessory—anyone’s best accessory. Especially if you’re over 40—not that I am, but I’ve heard. If you have the opportunity to increase the amount of natural light in your home, it will change your life. If you’re doing a remodel, please add more windows. Please make them bigger. Don’t let your builder tell you they only have one size. They’re lying. When you’re designing, remember that natural light can change the game for you. A dark rug is not going to make your pace feel dark if you have enough natural light and you have the juxtaposition and the contrast. The bright whites are there to balance the dark blacks. People really need to take advantage of lighting their spaces properly with natural light with ambient light. That will enable you to use more color and texture and do it in a way that still feels fresh.
What in the interior design space currently excites you?
I love that the interior design community is slowly but surely becoming less stuffy. I feel like when I first got into the interior design community, I felt lost because I thought I would have to wear a crisp white shirt and a black pencil skirt and that my hair would have to be very fresh, very hair sprayed. Growing up as a beach girl with a couple tattoos who uses foul language on the regular, I just didn’t see a place for me in this industry. I love that slowly but surely people like me have carved their niches into the market and that you can create space that are luxury, but also livable. I want nice things. I deserve nice things, but I also want to live my life. I want to surf and snowboard. I want to lay on the carpet with my family and play boardgames. And I think creating space that are going to be used and loved and cherished as a backdrops to people’s memories is so important to me. Living and being able to create those kind of spaces for our clients is important and having fun while we do it. That’s everything.
What trends are you leaning into for 2022?
I love conscious consumerism. By no means am I a hippie—I do sometimes drink out of plastic water bottles. I’m sorry. But I do think that everyone really should be more conscious about what you’re consuming. I know that as I’ve gotten older, it’s about more higher quality pieces and less stuff to fill the space. I’m thinking long and hard about each piece I’m buying. If I had learned that sooner with my wardrobe and with my furnishings, I probably would be in a better space and have a capsule collection. But I’m working on it.
People should be thoughtful about what they’re buying and invest in the quality pieces. If you know that you want a really great sofa to last, you can always reupholster it 10 times if it has good bones. Investing in a beautiful rug or a beautiful piece of upholstery and knowing that it can live with you for years to come is important to me. If I can spread that message—giving new life to old paintings with a new frame or finding interesting accessories and showcasing them in a different way. It’s about saving the planet, but it’s also about giving personality to your space. We don’t all need to look like we bought page 10 from a catalog in our homes.
What impact do you hope to leave on the industry?
I hope that I leave some sort of mark in a sense of people being who they are and not having to fit into a box and not having to fit into a pencil skirt or a starched white shirt. I think really coming into your own—whether it be in your personality, whether it be in your sexuality, whether it be in your life in general—but I hope and encourage people to just be you and be authentic to you. Once you do that, your style, your taste, your design sensibilities—they all come so much easier. Be real, be honest, and be true. Everything else will follow.
In The Hot Seat
The interior designer gets real about life’s little things.
The three design principles to live by…
Curate don’t decorate. Scale and balance are life. Measure twice cut once.
The candle I’m burning…
No. 5 by Kate Lester Home. It’s my favorite. It’s full of hints of santal and ginger.
The cocktail I’m shaking…
silver tequila and soda with lime. Always.
The artist I’m coveting…
Jean-Michel Basquiat. His work is so angular and striking. Full of life and emotion, depth, and color. Very nontraditional and that has always inspired me.
The up-and-coming designer I’m watching…
Brendan Ravenhill. He’s an L.A.-based lighting designer, and I’m obsessed with his clean, classic take on the structure of contemporary light fixtures.
The stalwart I’m enamored with…
Paul Arden. He’s a wayward, brutally honest creative genius. I reread his book once a year to remind myself why I got into this line of work and as a reminder of why I need to keep going.
The brand I love…
Levi’s. Thank you, Levi’s, for being a brand synonymous with durability and versatility and for making a classic straight leg jean so I can always wear that and never have to stress about trends. I am all about classic comforts.
The store I can’t get enough of…
Anine Bing. She just gets me.
The book I’m reading…
Mary Jane: A Novel by Jessica Anya Blau
The wellness tip I’m following…
This sounds gross, but I drink 10 drops of chlorophyll in a small glass of water every morning mixed with a vitamin C powder. It has changed my life.
The music I’m playing…
The Red album (Taylor’s version, obviously) on repeat. Also, the new John Mayer because he is a musical angel.
The tea I’m drinking…
Tea-quila. I am a loyalist to coffee.
The city I’m jetting to…
Cabo. Cabo is my happy place because my family thrives in the midst of salt water and sunshine.
The vintage piece I’m coveting…
I have my eye on a vintage tiger cuff bracelet from Gucci. First, I need to sell my kidney on the internet.
The finishing touch…
Another quick look to check the details are just perfect. The details are the difference between good and great, and only the greats are remembered.