Decorating superhero Kathryn M. Ireland brings a flair for fabrics, a craving for comfort, and a dash of bohemian spirit to her projects. But her ultimate goal is keeping the peace in every client’s home.
As superpowers go, having a flawless eye for design may not sound as impressive as the ability to fly. But for a lot of us, it could be just as useful. Being able to walk into a room and immediately jettison the one wayward knick-knack is a game changer.
Raised in Britain, Los Angeles-based decorator Kathryn M. Ireland was a star of Bravo’s “Million Dollar Decorators,” and has used her exceptional taste to pull together interiors for Steve Martin, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and David Mamet. She’s been named one of the Top 100 Designers in the U.S. by House Beautiful, and recently launched The Perfect Room, an online design service employing the talents of a heroic host of designers. We asked her what gives a room its designer edge.
Q: What’s the tip-off that a professional designer
has put a room together?
A: The window dressings are a dead giveaway. Making curtains is a huge art. What kind of pleats are there, how much do they puddle on the ground? Are they premade panels? Are they properly lined? In colder climates, particularly in older homes, lining is important as a layer that keeps damp from penetrating the room. But even in California, I do a thin lining on my curtains, which gives them some weight.
Q: Is there a basic design formula that works for a room every time?
A: I always start with textiles and color — they are my big love, the focal point of a room, and the first thing I get a client to agree on. I always like to have a stripe, a floral, and a plaid — three fabrics that go well together.
Q: What is the one decorating accessory you can’t live without?
A: I might have to say pillows — scatter cushions, as they call them in England. They’re important first of all because of the comfort element — you need something for your back. And it’s a great opportunity to bring in texture and color, which ultimately give the room some soul.
Q: Can you pinpoint a couple of major mistakes homeowners typically make when putting together a room?
A: I always liken decorating to cooking. So often people throw one too many ingredients into the dish. They don’t know where to stop, so they keep going. I tell people when they’ve struck oil, there’s no need to dig deeper. People tend to think things get better the more they add. It’s like throwing Tabasco in a dish when it’s already done.
Q: What’s your secret to staying on budget?
A: I’ve learned over the years how to be savvy with where the money goes.
Curtains, for example, are such an investment. I’ll do a plain curtain and then do the lead edge in a wide tape or some kind of decorative or antique fabric. You don’t always have to put $300-a-yard fabric in a room; there are well-priced cotton-linen blends you can use on a big piece like a sofa, which gives you the budget to buy fabulous remnants to use on pillows, lampshades, and smaller chairs. I do it from my own point of view—I have kids and dogs and people spilling glasses of wine—so I use fabric that can stand up to it.
Q: Anything else you can scrimp on without looking cheap?
A: You can spend a fortune on rugs — they get very expensive the bigger they get. And rugs that are too small are the worst. I use wonderful wool sisal carpet that is as chic as anything, as long as you don’t have cats. And I have some wonderful rag rugs from Sweden.
Another thing I do is get textiles stretched and framed — they look fantastic, textiles as art. Frame some of the “abstract” art from when your kids were three; I promise, it can look like a Rothko. I just bought a book by Steve McCurry full of his wonderful photos from India, and I’ll frame some of them. Matting and framing are where the expense comes in.
Q: Can you describe the perfect client?
A: It’s someone who listens to you and doesn’t second-guess. Some clients want to be so involved…they don’t have confidence in you and keep asking questions. Most designers find that frustrating. We know what we’re doing and we know the scale we’re working with. A client might come to you and say they’ve found the perfect piece for a space — and then when it’s delivered the color will be off or the proportion will be wrong, and it ends up in storage. We do want client input — when I put together a presentation with several fabric choices, that’s when I want them to make decisions. Not in the middle of the process.
Having said that, if a client doesn’t like something, I’ll have decided in advance where it will go in my own house. It’s worth it to keep the peace during the project. I’ve had people divorce over their different design directions. You want everyone to stay married long enough to enjoy the house.
Q: You’ve said that “serious” is a word that doesn’t belong in decoration. How do you take the “serious” out of a typical mountain home?
A: You’ve got to go against the grain. Don’t go dark and somber. Think of the big old English stately homes that are a little shabby—which we love. You’ve got to have a home that can take the stress of living. Big chunky linens, wonderful plaids, and color are all key. Then add something a little quirky that brings a smile to people’s eyes. I’ve got a giant oversize fly that just sits on a wall.
Q: What’s your philosophy about color?
A: All rooms should have a bit of red somewhere. Karmically it’s one of the great colors. It’s very powerful, but I intersperse it with blues and greys and woods. The two colors I don’t decorate in are black and white. Your home is the best mirror of your life and who you are. Maybe some people are just flatlining.
Q: Do you have a trick for harmoniously placing disparate pieces such as good antiques, flea market finds, and Ikea lamps in a room?
A: They can all live happily side-by-side, but it has to do with your eye. That’s my art, which I’ve developed over the years. I’m looking around me right now, and I have an English Chesterfield in front of an African drum table with a Flemish armoire and Indian textiles on pillows. It doesn’t matter about the period or the country — good things can always live together harmoniously.
Q: And the Ikea lamp?
A: Make a new lampshade out of a piece of fabric. I can’t believe people keep the paper ones that come with the lamps.
Q: You walk into a client’s kitchen and find a maple drop-leaf Ethan Allen dining table, inherited from granny. It must stay. How do you make it work?
A: Strip it, refinish it, paint it. Done.