For Celerie Kemble, good design is all in the family. She learned nearly everything she knows about design from her mother, Mimi McMakin, who started the firm Kemble Interiors, of which mother and daughter are now co-owners. Kemble is known for her artful, whimsical, and historically respectful design work that, at every turn, emphasizes livability alongside beauty. Beyond her interior design commissions, Kemble also designs furniture, lighting and accessories, and she’s the author of two books including—most recently—Black and White (and a Bit in Between): Timeless Interiors, Dramatic Accents, and Stylish Collections. Here, we talked to her about the family connection, the tenets of good design, and beyond.
What are some of the distinguishing facts, features and tenets of Kemble Interiors?
We design homes for our clients that are personal, comfortable and unique to them. We have been in business for over 40 years and are a family company. My mom started the firm when I was in grade school. She worked with Polly Jessup, a contemporary—and big rival—of Sister Parish. Jessup has largely been forgotten by history, but designed many influential homes up and down the East Coast, from Newport to Palm Beach. Anyway, I got involved in the business three years after college. I was lucky to be brought up in Palm Beach, a place that’s full of big design statements. I had a big library, a visual index. My mom still runs the office in Palm Beach; I head up the New York office.
What are the top design elements that you consider from the start when embarking on an interior commission?
First, comfort: the flow of life in relation to the layout. Traffic patterns are critical: where it feels right to sit, where the vantage points are. When you walk into the room, where does your eye land? Is the light well managed? It has to be beautiful, yet livable. The worst is when things feel too far away, and when they don’t “work,” like when can’t you easily put a book down or your feet can’t go where they need to go. It’s also important to think: what is going to be exciting about the room…distinctive shapes, pattern or color? You have to pick what those things will be. You can’t put all the sopranos on stage; you need high notes and low notes. An example would be a mix of leggy, taller furniture pieces with some that are plush, thick and low. Balance and contrast are key.
What do you find the easier projects to tackle: an entire house, or a few key rooms (such as bedroom/bath combinations)? And which of the two types are you most commonly asked to do?
The bigger, the better—give us the whole house! We usually work on the entire project but we will do breakfast rooms…we work in phases with our clients. The big deal for me is about transformation—if I can transform something, I get excited. We don’t have hard and fast rules about what we will do. It just has to be exciting, and I have to feel like I’m capable of pleasing a client. With some people, you get 10 steps into the dance and you’re like, ‘I’m never going to make you happy.’ I usually speak up then and tell them that I don’t think that I "get" them. I blame myself. Then I squirt out of the room like a squid. I have three kids; you can’t pay me to be away from my children and then kick me. My 4-year-old is the only one who’s allowed to kick me.
Painting vs. wallpaper: What are some of the critical factors (pros/cons) you take into consideration when making the decision to go with one vs. the other? When you choose wallpaper, how do you use paint in other areas (ceilings, moldings/trim, doors—either white or in complementary colours to the paper?)
The quality of the wall is a big factor here. Wallpaper can hide all kinds of problems. I see more drywall than I can bear. I often wallpaper drywall in an attempt to conceal the blandness. In a home I use equal amounts of paint and wallpaper on walls, and I love to wallpaper a ceiling. Often, we paint window woodwork and doors in a standout color. By the way, I also love a painted floor. People forget the floor. Designers always talk about the ceiling being the fifth wall…but the floor is the sixth wall. Farrow & Ball has rocking floor paint. Go with a color you like, or you can never go wrong with a white or soft gray floor. Don’t think a floor is too precious to paint. Wood’s wood—unless you have beautiful wood, which most don’t.
Do you have “go-to” colours that define your design aesthetic?
No, I like them all. A personal favorite is a moss green. It’s so soothing, not a neutral but it has that feeling, reads as one. It’s safety, it’s nature, and it registers as familiar in our little animal brains. It gives the feeling of a big, true expanse.
Does the geographic region in which the residence is located influence your colour selection?
Yes, Florida light dwarfs certain colors. Up north, bright whites feel antiseptic in the winter.
When do you make the selection of paint colour during your design process?
It is one of the last things I do after I select rugs and fabric—because it’s a place where you have absolute control. You’re not making the pigments in the fabric; you have to pick those. With paint, you get to sample it on the wall, feel how the light affects it, how other colors in the room affect it. And you can change it up at will. It’s harder (and a lot more expensive) to do that with furniture. Paint is the most flexible element. We usually plan ahead a little bit, as in “this type of blue would be nice,” but then we pick the fabrics and, after that, we choose the exact blue.
How frequently do you recommend clients paint their interiors? Change the colour palette?
Almost always. We are very specific about color in relation to fabrics and from room to room. Repainting is easy enough, and it gives a home a super clean feel and should just happen when you want a transformation. By 10 years, you’re due. Paint starts to feel scuffed and old. When you re-paint, it feels like the best cleaning.
What are the two or three main considerations when making a space pet- and/or kid-friendly?
Storage, storage, storage; when you’re dealing with kids, you’ve got to know where their stuff will go. Think cabinets in bookcases, baskets that can move from room to room, trays to carry in and out of rooms. Next up, cleanability. A myth says to avoid white, but don’t avoid it; it can be bleached. Also, slipcovers are great. So are patterns, which can hide spills. Faux leather is particularly durable, when in doubt, try it. With children and pets, you’re dealing with paint, pigments, vomit, and pee. It’s a lot to handle.
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