December 3, 2023Ask Kelly Wearstler the secret of her success, and the first thing she mentions is her “love and passion for my profession.”
To that you could add her almost superhuman drive and focus. In a recent Instagram post, Architectural Digest contributing editor Gay Gassmann wondered how Wearstler finds time to sleep. “The Grand Tourist” podcast host Dan Rubinstein is similarly impressed. “She’s one of the most dedicated, hardworking, go-getting designers. She makes others feel lazy,” says Rubinstein, who collaborated with Wearstler on her latest book from Rizzoli, Synchronicity.
A decade or so ago, Wearstler described her daily schedule to me. It involved getting up at 5:45 a.m., being at the gym by 6 a.m., driving her two elder sons to school and then heading to her office, where she worked until 6:30 p.m. before heading home to devote the evening to her family. Several years later, she’d introduced even more balance in her life — by going back to the gym for a second session during her lunch break.
Also key to her position at the pinnacle of the interior design world is her commitment to teamwork and collaboration. In her introduction to the book, she defines synchronicity as “An opportunity for each partner to take everything they’ve learned and create something beautiful together.”
Today, Wearstler heads up a staff of 50 but remains incredibly hands-on. “I know every doorknob, hinge and door slide that goes into a project,” she says.
Her practice encompasses not only interior design projects but also an online gallery where she presents pieces developed in tandem with artists and makers, collaborations with brands like Farrow & Ball and Ann Sacks and her own in-house furniture collection, also sold through her 1stDibs storefront. The last includes such classically minded contemporary designs as the metal-framed barrel-back Elliott chair, named for one of Wearstler’s sons, and the sculptural, pleasantly bulbous Colina credenza.
Wearstler is also incredibly active on Instagram, which has been a means not only to expand her community of fans but also to unearth new talents. Her curiosity appears to know no bounds, and one of the strengths of her work is the integration of striking contemporary pieces, some created by international up-and-comers like Misha Kahn, Hagit Pincovici and Studio Truly Truly.
Synchronicity showcases seven commissions, three of them hotels developed for Proper Hospitality, which is co-owned by her husband, Brad Korzen. In many ways, this trio of projects marks a new aesthetic direction for Wearstler, one that is more free-wheeling, bohemian and layered than the bolder, more geometric style displayed in her previous work.
The Santa Monica Proper has a beachy decor, with a palette of soft browns and rough textures, plus lobby columns clad in pewter-glazed ceramic tiles meant to evoke a dark oyster shell. One of its most successful spaces is the Grotto — a library decorated with marble coffee tables, concrete stools and Tobia Scarpa seating, as well as a selection of artworks that took three years to assemble.
It’s become a cliché for designers to claim their hospitality projects have the feel of homes, but the Grotto could certainly be mistaken for someone’s private study.
Housed in a Renaissance Revival–style former members club for the Hollywood elite, the brand’s Downtown L.A. outpost boasts a suite with a private pool enhanced by a custom ceramic wall commissioned from artist Ben Medansky. The hotel’s most memorable feature, however, is the riotous, hugely colorful mural in the lobby, hand-painted by Abel Macias and inspired by Mexican folklore.
For the Proper Austin, Wearstler took her stylistic lead from sources like the city’s traditional Craftsman houses, while also nodding to the local obsession with picnics by upholstering the lobby’s ceiling with a plaid fabric. The main feature of its Peacock restaurant is a striking wall covered in hundreds of tiles acquired from a Portuguese family’s collection.
Wearstler’s private commissions tend to be more graphic, sharper in style and less whimsical. The book includes three: a remodeled 1960s Austin residence; a newly built house in Los Angeles designed by architect Marwan Al Sayed, of Masastudio; and a 1940s home in Brentwood for a couple of keen contemporary-art collectors.
Each displays many of the things Wearstler does well, not the least of which is combining materials. When doing so, she tells Introspective her primary focus is “cultivating a rich interplay of tension and contrast. For instance, if a room has significant built-in millwork, we lean away from wooden furnishings.”
If there is one thing that particularly makes her work sing, it is her intriguing and original furniture selections, which bring together a mix of bespoke, contemporary and vintage pieces — many of them designs you’ve never seen before.
“Kelly looks for the odd and unusual and is not obsessed with pedigree,” Rubinstein says he learned while working on the book. “She’ll just pull from what inspires her and the people she meets along the way.”
Many of the vintage treasures she selects have fabulous, sculptural forms. Consider the Frans van Praet armchairs in the Brentwood living room or the Jonas Bohlin chair, paired with an Anish Kapoor wall sculpture in the Marwan Al Sayed house.
It’s almost a shame that the captions in Synchronicity are not more comprehensive, as there are a number of great items whose origins are not revealed.
What, for instance, is that cool angular wood chair in the Brentwood billiard room on page 24? Wearstler reveals here that it’s from the Matrix series designed by Adriano and Paolo Suman in the 1980s for Giorgetti. Or the two low-slung black and tan armchairs in the Santa Monica Proper’s Palma lounge on page 63? Those are by Dutch designer Roy de Scheemaker.
The final project in the book is the 1953 “surf shack” on Malibu’s Broad Beach that Wearstler and her family rented during the pandemic. It had previously remained unoccupied for nearly 30 years and still had its original elm-wood wall paneling, dark terrazzo flooring and Japanese-style sliding doors.
Prior to moving in, Wearstler took just a month and a half to fit it out, creating a relaxing vibe by hanging the art haphazardly and layering carpets on top of one another. The furnishings were a mix of pieces she had in storage and items from JF Chen in Los Angeles, including a 1950s lounge chair by Dan Johnson in jute and steel, a Control lamp by Mitchell Bobrick, a metal No. 2 chair from Comme des Garçons and a console table made from salvaged redwood blackened by a combination of natural alchemical patination and the traditional Japanese wood-charring technique shou sugi ban.
For Rubinstein, the Malibu home is the book’s standout project. “Kelly created this beautiful house from random stuff she had left over,” he says. “There are a lot of amazing things other people might overlook.”
Now that Synchronicity is in stores, Wearstler is turning her attention to transforming the Cal Neva Lodge, near Lake Tahoe, into another Proper hotel. Once owned by Frank Sinatra, it welcomed Judy Garland and Ella Fitzgerald among its guests, reportedly had underground tunnels used by mobsters and was where Marilyn Monroe stayed the week of her death.
“The opportunity to reimagine and revitalize this iconic resort with deep historic roots is an exciting venture,” she says. No doubt it will also be yet another occasion to express her love and passion for her profession and to push the limits of design further forward still.