Design Q&A with Catherine Kwong

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Inspired by Virginia Woolf's classic Mrs. Dalloway, and with a nod to upholstered furniture master George Smith's British heritage, Catherine Kwong takes over the showroom's north window. Kwong spun her design from the novel's iconic opening sentence: "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

Kwong, who trained at Parsons School of Design in New York, started her career designing luxury interiors for Studio Sofield and flagship stores for Ralph Lauren before returning to San Francisco and opening her own studio in 2011. She specializes in high-end projects with an emphasis on modern architecture and custom detailing, and her work has been featured in Architectural Digest, Town & Country, and House Beautiful, among others. Fresh, tailored, elegant and unexpected are some of the adjectives that describe her work.

What inspired you to choose the novel/book you have selected for this year’s LCDQ Legends of La Cienega event?
I have selected Mrs. Dalloway as my novel. My design was inspired by Virginia Woolf's iconic opening sentence: "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” A nod to George Smith’s storied British heritage, the selection of Mrs. Dalloway proved to be a rich source of inspiration. Set against the rigid formality of post-war England, the novel underscores a fascinating juxtaposition: the characters speak and act with an utmost sense of propriety, but Virginia Woolf delves deeper and paints the characters’ private thoughts in bold, blooming, colorful brushstrokes. The novel provided a lot of material to work with, and the creative process was really fun.

What novel to movie adaptation got the production design/set design right?
One of my favorite movies is “Great Expectations,” the Alfonso Cuaron version starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow. I thought it was such a fresh interpretation of the novel, and it is just visually stunning. Each location, whether it be the dilapidated mansion on the Gulf Coast or the tony social clubs and galleries of Manhattan, really created a beautiful sense of place for its scene. Francesco Clemente, who is one of my absolute favorite artists, drew and painted all of the artwork shown in the movie, and the art almost becomes a central character of the movie.

Designers love to feature fashion, art and design books in their finished rooms. What are some of the best hardcover novels to display?
Oh, I think that’s sort of personal to the client who lives in the house! I tend to style with big art and fashion books, but I really try to tailor books to what the client actually likes and wants to read. Rooms are meant to be used, and to encourage interaction and enjoyment. So I like to find books that my clients would enjoy, and I’ll also sometimes throw in a few quirky vintage books, as well.

Everyone loves a great deal. Tell us a quick story about the best bargain you’ve ever found at a vintage store or flea market.
I just got back from a trip to Louisville, Kentucky. There are lots of great antique shops there, including a big one, called Joe Ley, which is a treasure trove of antiques, housed in a big 1890’s schoolhouse. I picked up some really great door hardware there: really cool vintage hinges, knobs and plate sets. I don’t even have a project in mind for them yet, but they were all so unique and beautiful; I couldn’t leave them behind!

Excluding fresh flowers in abundance, what is your favorite styling trick?
I think it’s important that interiors be welcoming. So after we’re done installing a room with all of the furniture and accessories and artwork, I like to take a step back and imagine how the room will be used. That usually informs my styling; whether it's adding a throw blanket to a make a reading chair more cozy and inviting, or placing candlesticks on a dining table to make a dining room more elegant for entertaining.

Sometimes even the clients with the biggest budgets fall in love with an affordable item from a popular catalog or online store - what is one of your best affordable finds?
Schoolhouse Electric is a good source for affordable, high-quality lighting. One of my favorites is this porcelain “Alabax” ceiling light fixture in gray. The design is simple but handsome, and these fixtures are great for rooms where you don’t have a lot of ceiling height to work with.

For more about Kwong, click here.

It's that time of year again — it's time for the La Cienaga Design Quarter's annual "Legends of La Cienaga" event, when top designers are invited to create window displays in the showroom windows lining Los Angeles's La Cienaga Boulevard, and I take the opportunity to ask them questions. This year's theme is "Novel Interiors". The windows can be seen from May 7 through 9, and we'll be posting pictures of them here on Apartment Therapy soon after.

(Image credits: Catherine Kwong)