Design Trends

Does Mother Know Best?

Design Trends

Does Mother Know Best?

Four design doyennes and their creative offspring talk about the evolution of decorating, the ways in which they've inspired each other and the (occasional) aesthetic rebellions of the younger generation.

Old stereotypes die hard. Say “family business” and most people still think “father and son.” Yet several leading interior designers have followed their mothers into “the trade.” To us at Introspective, this is an intriguing development, especially since many of the designer offspring are men. We wondered: Is it nature or nurture that made these individuals pursue design as a profession? Has it changed significantly over a generation or two? Do professional children influence their mothers in their approach to design and style as much as their mothers influenced them?

For our informal survey, we interviewed London’s Rita Konig and her mother, the legendary interior designer Nina Campbell; Kendall Wilkinson and her mother, Alice Wiley, who both have their own decorating businesses in San Francisco; Gideon Mendelson and his now-retired mother and former business partner, Mimi, of the New York–based Mendelson Group; and, finally, Tommy Clements and his mom, Kathleen, the sole duo in our story who work together as business partners, in Los Angeles’s Clements Design. 


Nina Campbell & Rita Konig

 

Rita Konig came to interior decoration through her mother, Nina Campbell, who apprenticed with John Fowler before launching her own eponymous home shop and decor business in London. Photo courtesy of Rita Konig

Nina Campbell was just 19 when she started out in the mid-1960s as an apprentice to the late, great John Fowler at Colefax and Fowler, in London. Back then, “the business was extremely different, much more formal,” she says. “John was working for people who already had the house, who already had the furniture. You weren’t going out and shopping. You were only occasionally knocking down walls. It truly was interior decorating. . . . Today, you’re designing for people who are buying new houses all over the world, who have no furniture at all and need soup-to-nuts service.”

After being schooled by the master, the independent-minded Nina set out on her own and soon made waves by first designing the posh Berkeley Square nightclub Annabel’s for her friend the aristocratic entrepreneur Mark Birley. She and Birley then opened one of the first luxury-lifestyle shops on Pimlico Road, and she alone went on to establish her own eponymous line of fabrics and wallpapers, now produced by Osborne & Little. (It should be noted that such industry was unheard of among posh young women in London at the time.) To squeeze in as much time as she could with her eldest child, Rita, before the latter returned to boarding school after the Christmas holidays, Nina began taking her to Paris for the Maison & Objet fair.

Rita loved it. Today, she still recalls the marvel of shopping with her mother at the gourmet food shop Fauchon and “the magic of visiting D. Porthault, with all the prints, boxes and tissue paper and the ladies ironing in the shop.” These rarefied experiences, Rita believes, all contributed to her love of retail presentation and aided her when, just out of school, she ran her mother’s home decor shop in London’s Chelsea neighborhood.

“I loved selecting new things, updating the colors, making it younger,” Rita says. Yet she admits finding it a bit annoying that her mother got all the credit — a sign, she eventually realized, that, much like her mother, she needed to be her own brand. That is how she first started writing on decorating and design in 2000.

Reflecting on how she and her mother compare as tastemakers, Rita observes that their differences are more generational than stylistic. “Today, there are various degrees of interior design. Not everyone wants to buy into a decorator’s ‘look’ anymore. Maybe it’s the effect of Domino” — the much-loved American shelter magazine where she served as editor at large from 2005 to 2009, before it shuttered. “They want people who can facilitate what they want, who can shop for them.” And, of course, shopping is among the things Rita loves best. In fact, it’s why she launched her own retail line last year.

Nina, who calls her daughter “a terrific talent,” agrees that their styles are similar, although Rita is “slightly freer, especially with color.” To highlight this point, she recounts how a young Rita wanted her mother to paint the door of their new house pink rather than the chic Parisian dark green Nina had selected. Not wanting to offend her daughter’s budding aesthetic sense, Nina told her that as lovely as pink might be, that color paint was too expensive. Later, she learned this excuse had caused her child to worry terribly about the family’s finances. Today, Nina notes her daughter has a house with a bright yellow door.

 

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NINA’S DINING ROOM: “You can’t beat a red-lacquer dining room,” says Rita of this space designed by her mother. “It is a very laborious skill to get this done right: Red is a hard color to perfect, and the gloss is painstaking work, but it is achieved to perfection here. Lucky client!” Photo by Simon Brown

RITA’S DINING ROOM: “I love the slightly wonky Swedish-Russian chandelier and the fresh picture above the fireplace,” Nina says of this dining room designed by her daughter. “I see there’s plenty of room for more to happen here . . . space for new artworks and new things to come.” Photo by Bill Batten

NINA’S LIVING ROOM: “This is the sitting room in my mother’s London house,” says Rita. “I love how she did the sash windows and door opening out onto her courtyard. I am always searching for this image to reference it with clients.” Photo by Simon Brown

RITA’S LIVING ROOM: “This is a beautifully proportioned space,” says Nina. “I like the contemporary rug on the floor, the inclusion of the big comfy chairs to the side and the two little lamps on the fireplace. Presumably, Rita was greeted by the client’s furniture, and she’s made it cozier. It’s an unusual sitting plan, which is alway really nice to see, someone working on something that’s not the norm. It could have been a classic room, but she kind of changed it up.” Photo by Adam Freidberg

NINA’S BEDROOM: “This bedroom is so tranquil, and you just know that bed is going to be beyond comfortable,” says Rita. “One of the things that I have learned about from my mother is the luxury of soft bed linens and cloud-like pillows.” Photo by Simon Brown

RITA’S BEDROOM: “Simple, calm, gray — I imagine it’s waiting for more furniture or more stuff,” Nina says of this bedroom designed by Rita. “It’s a very good shell, a calm shell in which to put whatever one feels like.” Photo by Bill Batten

NINA’S SITTING ROOM: “I love how thorough my mother is — she has an exceptional eye for detail,” Rita says. “This room is so bright and summery, you can imagine that it would be able to see off even the grayest of London days.” Photo by Simon Brown

RITA’S SITTING ROOM: “I see more Rita here. She’s got that purple sofa and acid-green chair coming in,” Nina notes. “I think that’s great. It doesn’t look decorated as such. And, obviously, any room is improved by books. It feels comfortable, lived in — the books aren’t too tidy. Its very classic, but there are some quirky pieces, too. I think that’s what Rita does very well.” Photo by Bill Batten

 


Mimi and Gideon Mendelson

 

When New York–based Gideon Mendelson launched his own design studio, after working with Steven Gambrel, he tapped his mother, Mimi, to join him. Although she’d been easing into retiring from her own interiors business, she jumped at the opportunity. Photo courtesy of Mendelson Group

Mimi and Gideon Mendelson partnered up seven years after he graduated from Columbia University with a degree in architecture. He’d minored in film studies at college and after graduating had a brief stint at the talent agency William Morris before working at Steven Gambrel’s design studio. If it took him a few years to home in on interior design as the right profession, the same could be said for his mother. But when she realized her calling, in 1974, she was already a mother and a working stockbroker, which made her a trailblazer back then. Ever the professional, she went back to school to get a degree in interior design before opening her own design studio in tony Scarsdale, New York.

When her son joined the business, he was already well-versed in the basics. So, from the start, they did most things together, including project management and accounting. But he also played the role of apprentice. “I took over the technical drawing — we were still using ink and Mylar,” he says, “and I did all the schlepping!”

Growing up, Gideon remembers evenings spent watching TV with his mother while leafing through Architectural Digest and House Beautiful during commercial breaks. Together they’d comment on the balance of the furnishings, the palettes and the layering of patterns in the rooms.

Were these shared pastimes what turned her son into a designer? Mimi isn’t so sure. “Children show you who they are. When he was a toddler, he would comment on the architecture in the neighborhood. ‘Nice shutters,’ he would say, or ‘Big window!’ ”

Yet her son feels that his early life with his parents — “doing a lot of drawing and talking about color, form and proportion; traveling and visiting museums; and meeting lots of people” — had an important influence on his career choice.It has been his architectural training, however, that has determined the way he approaches projects. “I start my work thinking about function and circulation rather than rugs or fabrics,” he says. That said, his years working with his mother have dramatically altered his process: “When I started, I was very concerned about how everything looked. Now I’m more concerned about how it feels. I’m more focused on telling stories and creating atmospheres for living.” This concern for “mood and drama” also derives, he thinks, from his college film studies.

Mimi, in turn, has been greatly influenced by her son in regard to the evolution of her taste. “His academic experience certainly enlightened me, and his love of mid-century design proved contagious,” she says, adding, “I’m much happier with gray than I used to be.”

 

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Does Mother Know Best?

MIMI’S LIVING ROOM: “My approach might be somewhat less ornamental and simpler,” Gideon notes of Mimi’s scheme for this living room. “But I have always appreciated my mother’s use of color and pattern. She creates a cozy space.” Photo by Annie Schlecter

GIDEON’S LIVING ROOM: “What I love about this room,” Mimi says of her son’s design, “is the way Gideon has elevated an otherwise calm space by introducing a bold, large-scale, patterned rug, creating energy and visual interest.” Photo by Eric Piasecki

MIMI’S BEDROOM: “My mother’s rooms always take me somewhere else,” says Gideon. “Something I’ve learned from her is that interior design is really storytelling. Am I in the Loire Valley or New York City?” Photo by Annie Schlecter

GIDEON’S BEDROOM: “While his palette is different from my own, I am continually impressed by the sophistication Gideon achieves with such soft tones,” Mimi says admiringly. “His rooms are never without some chromatic surprise.” Photo by Eric Piasecki

MIMI’S OFFICE AND LIVING ROOM: “Serious, green-hued libraries are commonplace, but my mother has certainly created a sophisticated space,” Gideon says. “Upon further investigation, one can see how playful the room is. The textiles, the lighting choices and the accessories, juxtaposed with the opulence of the gold leafing, demonstrate her sense of humor.” Photos by Annie Schlecter

GIDEON’S OFFICE: “I have a deep interest in the sculptural quality of objects, and I think I have passed that on to Gideon,” Mimi says. “In this uncluttered study, he has used fascinating forms in the furniture, the lighting and the art objects. Each demands attention, and Gideon has provided the space for the viewer to see them separately and as a part of the whole.” Photo by Eric Piasecki

MIMI’S DINING ROOM: “My studies in architecture and film have had some influence on my mother,” says Gideon. “For example, the wood paneling she used to define a small dining space within a kitchen and the application of red decorative tape on the upholstered walls of a large dining room accentuate the architecture in each area.” Photos by Annie Schlecter

GIDEON’S DINING ROOM: “This is part of a country kitchen, and the elements of country life are all here: the distressed trestle table, the sheer linen café curtains and the clever deli signs hung on the walls,” says Mimi. “But Gideon’s eclectic aesthetic is what makes this composition unique. His introduction of the mid-century-style chairs and contemporary light fixture challenges expectations. I expect good conversation at this table.” Photo by Eric Piasecki

 


Alice Wiley & Kendall Wilkinson

 

San Francisco’s Kendall Wilkinson, left, followed her mother, Alice Wiley, into the world of interiors, and, today, each continues to learn much from the other. Photo by Peter Hall

Alice Wiley is another mother who credits her child, Kendall Wilkinson, with updating her style. Calling her daughter “an icon,” Alice says, “Watching Kendall’s work evolve has helped me to integrate my ‘old’ tastes for the warmth of color and lovely wood with the new. Just the other day, a manager in a showroom I frequent suggested a piece of furniture for a client, and I responded, ‘It’s not contemporary enough.’ He was astounded. As design is ever changing, so am I.”

In 1965, when Alice launched her design business, she didn’t have what her daughter calls “the luxury” of professional training; she had to depend solely on “her amazing eye for color and scale,” Kendall says. When Kendall later decided to follow in her mother’s footsteps, Alice insisted that she get a design degree. She wanted her daughter to have the confidence of that training and the skills it hones, so that the younger woman would be able to offer a wider suite of services, including interior architecture. It was sage counsel: Today, Kendall’s studio is known not only for being aesthetically adventurous and full service but also for taking on a wide range of residential and commercial projects.

Calling herself “blessed” when discussing her mother, Kendall acknowledges that her own work has “evolved into a more modern aesthetic,” a development she attributes partly to “generational differences and partly to the changing design landscape in San Francisco. When I started out, my clients used to be mainly confined to two affluent zip codes; now they’re throughout the city and Silicon Valley and beyond.”

 

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ALICE’S LIVING ROOM: “I like my mother’s juxtaposition of antiques with more contemporary upholstered furniture,” Kendall says of Alice’s living room scheme. “I may not have done the armless sofa myself, but I love the idea of it. And the painted console against the green wall with the beautiful painting in the background adds just enough of a pop of color so that the room doesn’t feel too monochromatic.” Photo by David Duncan Livingston

KENDALL’S LIVING ROOM: “The space feels serene and has a quieting effect,” Alice notes of this living room designed by her daughter. “Everything flows well together. I am more traditional and would have had some warmer colors and a very subtle print, as well as an antique and a wonderful large painting. I prefer a mixture of surfaces.” Photo by Kathryn MacDonald

ALICE’S DINING ROOM AND HALL: Kendall says she finds both of these spaces designed by her mother “peaceful, inviting and of perfect scale. Although the home’s dining area is more modern and classic and the stairway more traditional, each space has both of those sensibilities.” Photos by David Duncan Livingston

KENDALL’S DINING ROOM: “Kendall embraced the vista here beautifully,” remarks Alice, “and I love the glass combined with the Lucite table. It makes a clean palette for a meal and view. I would like to see some contrast — perhaps a warm wood for the chairs, with a fabric. That said, what she did really works with the floor.” Photo by David Duncan Livingston

ALICE’S BEDROOM: “I love the brightness of this space,” says Kendall. “My mother’s choices — such as using over-scale stripes with a more feminine fabric for the headboard and settee — lend a fresh dynamic.” Photo by David Duncan Livingston

KENDALL’S BEDROOM: “Absolutely lovely! I would love to sleep there,” Alice says of Kendall’s bedroom. “The colors are soft and inviting — I would not change anything.” Photo by Matthew Millman


Kathleen & Tommy Clements

 

Son-and-mother team Tommy and Kathleen Clements run their interior design studio from Los Angeles. Photo by Sam Frost

When Tommy Clements was growing up, he remembers watching his mother renovate or furnish new houses for the family again and again, as they moved every few years. That was because his dad — and namesake — is an NFL coach (currently for the Green Bay Packers). “I was keenly aware that each home had a very distinct feeling when it was complete, and I tried to understand why,” he says. “I think this is when I started to absorb the importance of scale, layout and palette, as well as to appreciate how the architecture of a house informs how its rooms are composed.”

All this decorating  prompted his mother to open Sister Agnes, a small antiques shop in New Orleans, in the late 1990s, when her husband was with the Saints and her son was already a teenager. It was only then, Kathleen Clements says, that she “made a full-time commitment to design.”

As close as mother and son are, Tommy says they have very different design approaches, which he attributes to temperament. “I can really get obsessed with the minutiae and all of the small design details, which of course are hugely important,” he says. “My mom is a bit more macro, more visceral. No matter how perfectly planned and thought out every detail is, there still has to be something unexplainable, even magical, to give a home its character and soul. My mom is super-conscious of that feeling, and she forces me to . . . consider the big picture” — a role most mothers could relate too.

As for Kathleen, focusing on the differences between her and her son doesn’t interest her much. “From the moment Tommy and I began working together, we have always collaborated. We have a very similar sense of style, but each of us expresses our style in a unique way. . . . That’s not to say we don’t disagree, but generally the disagreements ramp up the creativity.” What are the they about? Kathleen is too diplomatic a mother to say, which may be exactly why she and her son work together so well.

 

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KATHLEEN AND TOMMY’S COLLABORATIONS: “When so many strong, important pieces are put into a space together, you run the risk of having it feel imposing,” Kathleen says, speaking of a home in Los Angeles’s Trousdale neighborhood that the Clementses designed for Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi. “But Tommy is always able to make things feel very effortless and casual. He is super-conscious of how the tactile qualities of rugs, textiles and furniture can always be used to make a space feel inviting.” Photos in this slide show by Sam Frost, unless otherwise noted

KATHLEEN AND TOMMY’S COLLABORATIONS: Left: Speaking of her own Los Angeles home, Kathleen says, “I relied a lot on Tommy throughout the design process because I wanted to make sure I had an outside perspective. I think it’s true that designers can get too inside their heads when they do their own homes.” Right: “Tommy designed this very simple fireplace from a pure white Bianco P marble slab that almost disappeared into the surrounding walls,” Kathleen says admiringly about a project the duo tackled for clients in L.A.’s Brentwood neighborhood. “It completely changed the vibe of the room and allowed us to put the furniture and art front and center.” (Photo by Matthieu Mendieta)

KATHLEEN AND TOMMY’S COLLABORATIONS: Left: “My mom and I first discovered Cristof Yvoré at an opening at Kohn Gallery years ago, and he has been one of our favorite artists ever since,” Tommy says, discussing this vignette in the duo’s offices. “It makes me happy that I get to look at this painting every day when I sit at my desk.” Right: “Nothing makes us happier than packed bookshelves,” Tommy says of this spot in DeGeneres and de Rossi’s Trousdale home, whose architecture is by mid-century great Hal Levitt. “Ellen and Portia’s collection of books is unparalleled. My mom and I installed this entire library in a day and a half because we were under such a tight deadline to complete the house.”

KATHLEEN AND TOMMY’S COLLABORATIONS: Left: Speaking about the Trousdale home, Tommy says, “The Jean Royère sconce was one of the first things we found for this house. My mom had the idea of pairing it with these sixties wooden stump chairs, which was brilliant, because it completely grounded the fixture and turned this nondescript wall in the house into a visually interesting moment.” Right: “My mom has an innate sense for accessorizing,” Tommy continues, still speaking of the Trousdale home. “She is always able to strike a perfect balance, to make a space feel complete but not distracting, and to allow the most important pieces to command the room.”

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