Kathryn M. Ireland has been described as having the ability to create something out of nothing. This captures her very essence, from her accidental start in design to her undecorated aesthetic to her collaborative website, The Perfect Room. Raised in London and Scotland, she now divides her time between California and France, where she’s taken a farmhouse from two bedrooms to 12 to accommodate guests from around the world. Both her dinner table and her client roster are filled with A-listers — Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Drew Barrymore, Arianna Huffington, Chiwetel Ejiofor — who are drawn to her joie de vivre.
On Starting at the Top
I fell into decorating purely by mistake. I remember my mother once had a decorator do some curtains and said, “You can’t tell anyone!” Because in England, having a decorator was considered a bit nouveau riche. But here in America, thank God it isn’t — otherwise I wouldn’t be in business! I became a decorator because people liked my look. Steve Martin was getting divorced, came over for dinner, sat in my kitchen and said, “I love your house. Can I move in?” Having Steve Martin as one’s first client is pretty much starting at the top.
On Undecorated Style
Everyone goes to someone for something. My clients come to me for the undecorated look. It’s all about family, dogs and guests. If someone called me up and mentioned the word “foyer,” I’d cut in immediately and say I’m not the right person. I don’t do foyers. When I worked with Caroline Kennedy many years ago, I think I got the job because of my undecorated approach. When I walked into her Park Avenue apartment for the interview, there were building blocks out in the living room for Jack and the girls. I remember saying, “Oh my God, this is the perfect playroom!” Every other designer had said to get rid of the blocks. We all have a different point of view, and mine is living easily in your surroundings.
On Clever Built-Ins
There’s nothing nastier than going into a New York City apartment and finding some out-of-date running machine. Unless they’re using it for an after-dinner activity, it shouldn’t be there. Find somewhere else to put it. I don’t want to live looking at that stuff. You’ve got to have a lot of space to dedicate a whole room to a home gym, so maybe we think about it like an appliance garage for a kitchen. We make an equipment garage, with a cabinet where you can pull out your Peloton. I’m not a big believer in built-ins, but this is a time when we really need some good cabinetry.
We’ve been in our houses for so long, looking at spaces in a way we haven’t quite had time to before. Quite often, we just dash in and dash out. Now, we’ve had to use our brains, be creative and think like little kids playing make-believe. While sitting in the guesthouse one night, I started firing off emails to my brother, who’s my project manager, to add another cabinet to a room. My middle son and his girlfriend had been living there, and no wonder there were clothes all over — there was nowhere to put them! I think it’s a really good lesson to sit still in different rooms, really contemplate them and ask, What else could I do?
On the Perfect Room
I had this idea about five years ago for people to be able to buy rooms by their favorite designers. The whole idea was for designers who work so painstakingly hard to get a royalty off what they inspire. We sold a stunning kitchen by Martyn Lawrence Bullard. Jeffrey Alan Marks has a fabulous look and great products with all his different licensing deals. If there’s not a room you like, upload an image of what you want, and we’ll source it for you. It’s all about collaboration; I’m superwoman in many ways, but I can’t do six people’s jobs.
On Retreating Abroad
In traveling again, people are going to think about where they go and what they do and won’t be so flippant about things. It’s important to have time for yourself, and my time for myself is my retreat business. I’ve taken groups to Marrakesh and the Cotswolds, and next up is the Nile. I have a waiting list for my house in Southern France. People don’t just come to lie by the pool; it’s more about the camaraderie. It’s talking and figuring out life. When I look back — and we’ve all done a lot of reflecting this year — I ask myself what I like doing. I love renovating houses. I love leading retreats. I like writing books. I like being on TV. I like designing textiles. I’m getting rid of the things I don’t like.
On a Life of Ease
People have to ease up, do things more on the fly and forget about that perfect floral arrangement on the table. Real life isn’t the photo shoot. We don’t have to be camera-ready for everything. A lot of people think entertaining needs three days’ prep. As long as I know the number of guests by 5 o’clock, I’m good to go. I’m very spontaneous. We’re not making soufflés; we’re having a big salad and grilled fish. Keep it simple. I always liken decorating to cooking: One too many ingredients, and you’ve thrown the whole taste off.
On Retreating at Home
I’d much rather be cooking in the kitchen with my friends than sitting in a restaurant. My children won’t go out with me because I’m such a complainer; I only go to two restaurants. When I’m traveling, I love to try things out, because you’re on an adventure. But I don’t want to be trying things out in day-to-day life. I think retreating to our homes and sharing our homes is such an insight into who we all are. I’m trying to reduce my carbon footprint, so instead of getting a house in Santa Barbara or Ojai, I realized I could just go to my pool house, open my French doors, and look out at this beautiful swimming pool and the lush tropical foliage. Have your second house in your first house — just make it feel like it’s your getaway.