Designer Spotlight

Edgy as Ever, Kara Mann Is Now Also Feeling Elegant

Known for her rock ’n’ roll interiors, Mann is exploring her simpler side and taking on a slew of high-profile projects.

Working from studios in New York and her native Chicago, interior designer Kara Mann creates spaces both elegant and envelope pushing (portrait by Adam Heneghan). Top: A model room created for New York’s historic Chelsea Hotel, currently under renovation, features an eclectic mix of furnishings, all designed by Mann herself (photo by Douglas Friedman).

Her work has been called subversive by the New York Times, rock-chic by Traditional Home and edgy more times than she can count, but as New York– and Chicago-based designer Kara Mann enters her 13th year in business, she says, “I’m pulling back. I used to be more hard-edged and trying to prove a point. Now, I’m feeling elegant, pure and very simple.”

Does that mean good-bye to black walls, furniture with steel studs and Sputnik chandeliers? Probably not, although some of Mann’s recent projects, like a whitewashed Nantucket cottage and a softly colored penthouse on Chicago’s Gold Coast, have as much earthiness as edginess, with elements as classic as they are nonconforming. Rest assured, there will always be a touch of leopard in Mann’s interiors. “Leopard print is still my neutral,” she says.

You can’t take the rock and roll out of the girl, it would seem, and this Rolling Stones fan — a petite dynamo in skinny black pants and stiletto-heeled boots — has gotten where she is by staying true to her distinctive, unconventional style. Now, with two offices and 22 employees, Mann has a slew of high-profile hotel and residential commissions under her belt, plus a successful line of furniture for Baker’s Milling Road.

There’s not a boring spot in any Mann-designed room. She loves to take clean-lined pieces with timeless shapes and enliven them with saucy details, accessories and accent pieces, such as nine-inch-long fringe lining the bottom of a velvet armchair, elaborately carved wood specimen chairs, oversized photo murals and show-stopping chandeliers. The luster of gilding on a console or shimmer of silver on a mirror frame is never far way.

To make the space brighter and more open and to showcase a beautiful view of the yard, Mann added a second set of doors to the breakfast room of a historic farmhouse in New York’s Westchester County. Photo by Douglas Friedman

For the Westchester home’s living room, Mann found a vintage sofa on 1stdibs and recovered it in a modern toile. She designed the coffee table herself, then had a local vintage furniture dealer make it. The stool in the foreground is from Coup d’Etat. Photo by Douglas Friedman

Mann covered stools of her own design in a purple contemporary toile, placing one at the foot of each of the swan-neck twin beds in the Westchester home’s guest bedroom. On the wall hangs a work by American photographer Olivia Bee. Photo by Douglas Friedman

In the kitchen of a Nantucket cottage, Mann mixed high and low, sourcing the lighting from Ikea and the stools from Sawkille. The basket on the island is a vintage Japanese piece. Photo by Douglas Friedman

The high-low play continued in the Nantucket house’s rumpus room, where a Tobia Scarpa coffee table sits atop an Ikea rug. The ceiling light is from Schoolhouse Electric and the floor lamp is by Workstead, while the vintage chest is Louis Vuitton. Photo by Douglas Friedman

In a Michigan Avenue apartment in downtown Chicago, Mann created warmth by layering textures and using sumptuous materials like suede and cashmere. For the family room, Mann selected a Christian Astuguevieille bookcase, a David Iatesta tables and chairs by Michael Taylor. Photo by Nathan Kirkman

The Michigan Avenue living room centers on a Richard Shapiro / Studiolo sofa. The pair of chairs are by Mattaliano and the artwork by James Nare. Photo by Nathan Kirkman

The conservatory of a home in Lake Forest, Illinois, blends indoors and out. The chair and étagère are from Richard Shapiro / Studiolo, the table is Blackman Cruz, and the credenza and light fixture are Jean de Merry. Photo by Matthew Millman

Mann is a master of the mix. For a Connecticut Colonial, she confidently combined a caned sofa, mid-century leather Tobia Scarpa chairs from A. Tyner Antiques with Victorian wicker, a glass Holmegaard chandelier from Denmark and elements of chinoiserie. The Nantucket cottage, which she took down to the studs and lined with all-new shiplap paneling, was a “high-low project,” Mann says, where basic sofas ordered from a home-furnishings catalogue play nicely with elevated, unique accessories from a variety of 1stdibs dealers. She found a set of wicker furniture at Laurin Copen Antiques, in New York’s Hamptons; a circular English side table at Manhattan’s Biscaye Frères; and a hand-hooked rug at Los Angeles’s East Meets West Antiques. Some items — such as ship-shaped andirons from Nantucket House Antiques — came from the 1stdibs storefronts of galleries on the Massachusetts island itself. “1stdibs is a great resourcing tool for shopping locally,” Mann says, “which gives you the flavor of where you are.”

At present, Mann is working on a few colossal projects, including 1000 M, a new Helmut Jahn–designed residential tower in Chicago. There, she’s handling the lobby’s design, creating the layouts and selecting the finishes for the apartments and handling various other elements of the interior architecture. As for hotels, which she says she loves because “they’re glamorous and romantic,” she currently has two in the works: a 175-room Kimpton property in Dallas, to open in 2018, and the 177-room Talbott Hotel in Chicago, a redevelopment of a 1920s grande dame, due to open by this summer. “I’m keeping it classic but making it current,” Mann says.

The designer takes pride in running her projects well. “Design is twenty percent of the job,” she says. “The rest is management.” Still, it’s a lot for one person to pull off. “That’s why I have all these talented people here to help me,” she says, gesturing down the length of the Soho loft that is her studio, where the computers of her staff of young creatives, techies and draftspeople hum with activity.

Mann opened her Manhattan office in 2011, to supplement the original one in her hometown of Chicago. Now she jets back and forth between the two cities every other week, staying in one of her three residences: a “tree level” co-op apartment in a 1920s building on Chicago’s Gold Coast, a West Village apartment in a converted school building and a vintage 1790 Cape house in Connecticut’s Litchfield County that she bought two years ago. That’s where she indulges her personal collecting habit, which includes rugs (“I’ve been through an Oushak phase, I’ve done Khotans, I love Chinese Deco”) and, lately, contemporary art and photography.

“I’m pulling back. I used to be more hard-edged and trying to prove a point. Now I’m feeling elegant, pure and very simple.”

In the bedroom of a pared-down, neutrally hued Napa Valley home, Mann placed a 1970s bench, reupholstered in suede, at the foot of a custom bed and hung two of Ingo Maurer’s Birdie fixtures above it. A sitting area is outfitted with a Roman Thomas sofa and a chair by Century Furniture. Photo by Matthew Millman

Brass floor lamps by Richard Shapiro / Studiolo and a pair of Ochre sofas covered in a Holland & Sherry fabric flank the fireplace in the Napa Valley living room. The custom selenite-topped tables are by Blackman Cruz. Photo by Matthew Millman

An alfresco living and dining room in Napa continues the home’s look and feel beyond its walls, extending the color palette, beadboard paneling and stylishly simple furnishings into the great outdoors. Photo by Matthew Millman

In Chicago, Mann gave the Rockit Bar & Grill a complete makeover for its 10th anniversary, creating a cut-against-the-grain look. She designed the lilac marble bar and the stools herself. Photo by Adam Heneghan

In spring 2015, Mann created a residential-feeling pop-up shop for goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand. She found the vintage Lucite dining table at Jayson Home, while the Le Bambole sofa by Mario Bellini for B&B Italia and the lounge chair attributed to Flemming Lassen came from Wright Now. Photo by Tony Soluri

In the goop pop-up, a pair of Ward Bennett Scissor chairs from Modern Drama flank a one-of-a-kind prototype of Jonathan Nesci‘s gold-plated H1 side table, with Dave Zarick’s Untitled 3 hanging over the fireplace behind. To the right rear sits a vintage white cantilever chair from Jayson Home, while the low seat at the far left is a Stag T stool by Rick Owens. Photo by Tony Soluri

Another view of the Chelsea Hotel model room includes more furnishings custom designed by Mann, who drew inspiration from the building’s exterior architecture and its storied artistic past when creating her interiors. Photo by Douglas Friedman

That collecting bug was how it all began, in New Orleans antiques shops, when Mann was an art student at Tulane. “I would always poke around vintage stores,” she recalls, “but I didn’t know it could be a career” — until, that is, she got out of school and her dad’s friend, who worked in advertising, suggested she look for work as a stylist. Mann cold-called a few photographers and went on to freelance for several years back in Chicago. Then, she says, “it dawned on me that I wanted not just to style the interiors but to create the whole thing.” So she went for some “very practical” training in interior design at Chicago’s Harrington Institute. After stints working at both commercial and residential firms, she started her own business in 2005.

Two years ago, Mann landed the gig to update the Milling Road line for iconic American furniture company Baker, with a mandate to “make it more relevant, casual and approachable, with a great price point,” she says. She kicked her operation into even higher gear, designing 54 pieces of furniture and 30 fabrics in a year. “When I think of Baker, I think of caning and chinoiserie and burled woods. I took those classic elements and applied the ideas in a more modern way, using black and white to make things really graphic and blowing up the scale of patterns to make them fresh.” The line debuted in January 2016 and has been one of the most successful launches in the company’s 127-year history.

With all this on her plate, Kara Mann is never bored, just as her spaces are never boring. Remarkably, she doesn’t seem unduly stressed either. Having a country getaway helps. She goes to Connecticut as often as she can, taking long hikes with her two dogs, Bob and Shorty, toy Australian shepherds who have silky black and white coats and ice-blue eyes. “They’re definitely curated,” Mann says. “I’m not gonna lie.” She adores dogs and jokes that her next career will be owning a dog sanctuary. But not just any dog sanctuary. “All the dogs will have really awesome spaces.”

Kara Mann’s Quick Picks on 1stdibs

“I love the simplicity, in both shape and materiality, of this table. It is substantial yet subtle.”

“I have been obsessed with this fixture since I first laid eyes on it. I would love to design a dining room around it.”

“The simple lines and clarity of this sofa, as well as its neutrality, appeal to me greatly. It could be paired with traditional or modern pieces.”

“James de Wulf has taken the game of Ping-Pong and, by rendering this table in concrete, elevated it from simple fun to fashionable.”

“I have always loved the work of Giò Ponti. These tables are timeless.”

“Simple, cool, fun. These stools — which Pierre Jeanneret created for the Corbusier-designer College of Architecture, in Chandigarh, India — have it all, including a cool pedigree.”

“This table-and-chair set is a beautiful look at craftsmanship at its best. And while it was designed in the early 1920, it feels completely current.”

“The patina of this vase is so elegant and understated.”

“I have been following Christophe Côme for years. His pieces are boldly unique and fabulously modern, with an overtly artistic edge.”

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