Friday, April 15, 2011

Lulu deKwiatkowski

Lulu deKwiatkowski, founder and designer of Lulu DK textiles, is the daughter of Polish-born Henryk deKwiatkowski, who, as teenager, was held in a Siberian prison camp during the war. He escaped to re-invent himself as the well-known larger-than-life tycoon, art collector, polo player, breeder of thoroughbreds and all round bon-vivant. It’s quite a legacy and in part played in to his daughter, Lulu being anointed an ‘It’ girl in the late 1990s by Vanity Fair—around the same time, she points out, as she was shakily trying to be taken seriously as a fabric designer launching her own line. Well the ‘It’ girl thing faded but the business went from strength to strength and her boldly colored fabrics are now sold all over the world. And although she is clearly dedicated to the business, she reveals something more intimate in her recently-published book, “Lulu” (Ammo Books) part travelogue, part autobiography, the handwritten text illustrated by her collage work, which is a blend of wistful nostalgia and exuberant color.

So before we start—how do you pronounce your name?

“De” as in the day, “Fiat” as in the car, “cough” as in the cold and “ski” as in the sport.
Day-Fiat-Cough-Ski … but then everyone in our family pronounces it differently. My grandmother used to call us the “Kittykowskis”. Anything flies.
Lulu painted the puzzle-like decorative pattern on her foyer walls in a earth tones of ochre and beige.The Frank Gehry ‘Power Play’ club chair was a sidewalk find.
Vintage sconces hang above a custom Parsons table in the foyer. Metal Chippendale chairs are painted a bold tangerine color.
On the rear wall, Lulu’s red painting plays off the beige and ochre puzzle-pattern geometry of the wall design.
An oversized book by Helmut Newton is perched atop an eBay find in the corner of the foyer.
Lulu discovered the Frank Gehry ‘Power Play’ club chair on a nearby sidewalk and promptly carried it back to her apartment.
Do you speak any Polish?

No, I wish. When my father came here I think, first of all there was no one for him to speak to and after the war, a lot of people just wanted to escape the memory, escape the experience. He lost his whole family in the war.

Was he alive to see you start your own business?

Yes, he was alive. He wasn’t alive for my marriage or for walking down the aisle, or things like that, which is kind of hard. But my husband and I have been together for 18 years and our fathers passed away on exactly the same day. It’s an unusual feeling because you’re both mourning the same thing, so you’re there for each other, but you’re also absent.

Did he give you business advice?

Well my father was an amazing businessman but you know being a survivor his entire life, it’s a little tricky to know how to teach people what you do. He was always a one-man show his entire life. I think through osmosis, just by growing up and watching him, I absorbed a lot. That generation had a childhood that was so much struggle—incomparable to my generation or what I go through. I mean when September 11th happened my father was kind of … not so … I was like “I’m in New York. Aren’t you worried for me? And he was like, “I know you’re probably fine.’
A mid-century bench stands below bookcases filled with color-coordinated art and design books.
A view of living room from the Moroccan style archway. For additional seating Lulu carved out a niche at the far end of her living room by gutting a former maid’s room.
Now one of the things that sort of tags you and follows you about wherever you go, or at least when I read about you is that you “live a charmed life.”

Oh really? I’ve never heard that. Charmed? Well, I think I write that in my book … I mean I definitely have a blessed life, I feel completely gifted. I have a loving family and I love my husband. I feel blessed, I do. I am very aware of it. You can never pooh-pooh a charmed life.

It’s said with some envy, I think.

Well, it’s all relative. Both my parents have passed away—my mother just passed away recently … but I feel talented, I feel lucky, I feel loved. I feel like I had a very beautiful childhood. There were some highs and lows of course …

So I know you were also a former Vanity Fair  ‘It’ girl and it struck me that the whole ‘It’ girl concept is strange one. What lies behind the need to anoint someone an ‘It’ girl?

I don’t know. You have to ask them … your clan.
To open up the living space and make the ceilings look higher, Lulu raised all the doorways of her apartment which she says, ‘hadn’t been touched since 1932.’ During the initial renovation of the apt. Lulu opened up the living space by removing a wall that split the room in half.
A roving ottoman is covered in ‘Labrinyth’ fabric from Lulu DK.
A whimsical painting by Lulu adds a burst of color to the southern wall of the living room. The nearby table lamp is by Thomas O’Brien.
Lulu’s travels provide inspiration for her eclectic taste and help fuel her fabric designs.
A marble sculpture of a head belonged to Lulu’s grandmother.
What is an ‘It’ girl though? Why were you one?

I feel more charmed than “It”.

Actually I realize I’m talking about your ‘It’ girl-ness in the past tense!

[Laughs]  Yeah, right … it’s not happening now! I can’t remember the last time I went out with more than three people. I think I was more embarrassed about it than anything but at the same time I was launching my company and it was very beneficial, so as much as I’m kind of shy when it comes to press and the public eye, I knew that I had to do it because I had invested so much energy into [my business].

What was hard about starting the business?

Everything is hard about starting a business. It takes a lot of sleepless nights.
A second archway delineates a smaller seating area filled with pillows from a trip to Egypt.
An abstract painting by Lulu’s brother, Stephan de Kwiatkowski hangs on the left wall. The red side table is an eBay find.
Looking across the living towards the kitchen and larger seating niche. The striped rug is by Soledad Twombly. A colorful throw is topped with a pair of chocolate-and-white pillows fashioned out of Lulu’s ‘Chant’ fabric.
So why textiles?

Well I went to Parsons for a fine arts degree and I graduated in interior design and I didn’t know if I wanted to be a fine artist … that seemed a little too broad for me and I didn’t want to be an interior designer, because that seemed a little too confined for me, so when I was living in Paris, I saw my brother-in-law’s cousin painting a room in these fabulous designs and I thought, that’s what I want to do: trompe l’oeil. And then I came back to New York and started doing my own freehand drawings on walls. Some interior designers said this is amazing, you should make these into fabrics.

When was that?

1998. The interior design world at the time was a little archaic and there were not so many young people. I launched the business in 1999. And then the Internet boom happened and there were a lot of young people were making a lot of money and buying houses and they wanted younger, fresher things so the company launched at a really great time. But now everyone and their mother has a fabric line!

We interviewed Jack Lenor Larsen, the famous textile designer and his approach to textiles was almost religious. He had a reverence for fabric.

It is an ancient form. One of the oldest ways of understanding a culture is through the fabric. I have the same fascination and have traveled all over the world looking at embroideries and prints, everything.
Family photos and design patterns created on the computer cover a kitchen wall.
Looking across the kitchen.
Lulu gave the underwater color portrait to her husband Alfredo Gilardini as a birthday gift.
Family photos and paint jars fill a kitchen corner. ??
So you’re moving to LA—why?

No, no I moved to LA three years ago. I’m just selling the [NY] apartment. I’ve had this apartment for literally 15 years. It literally hasn’t changed in 15 years. When I see it photographed, I always think it looks a little bit dated! But I said yes to you because I’m actually moving out next month.

Why did you pick LA?

Oh … it’s just that when we walk outside there’s grass. We’ll probably [in time] move to Italy. My husband is from Rome. My husband wants my … I mean our … children to be fully Italian.

You’re cool with that?

Oh, you know, when you have a family … three young boys running around, I’m kind of, Oh, I’ll do anything. I don’t care. I really don’t [laughs] My sister lives in Italy, in Rome. She has eight children.
More views of the living room from the second bedroom.
A day bed covered in Lulu’s new nursery collection for Matouk stands in front of a wall of custom built-ins.
In the twins’ corner bedroom, built-in shelving surrounds one window and French doors open out to a large second floor terrace.
Baby cribs for Lulu’s twins partially block a painting by John Newsom in the second bedroom.
Looking across the French day bed outfitted in Lulu DK Matouk Baby.
Oh my God! All hers? I mean in this day and age, unless you’re a Mormon …

Or Opus Dei – and she’s neither [laughs]. Yes, they’re all hers ... she’s just fertile. The first three are triplets.

Now that you have kids [two-and-half year old twins and a two-month old], what trips do you have planned?

No trips.

At the end of an interview we usually ask people what they do when they’re not working but I expect you just fall asleep.

Yeah … I sleep more now than I’ve ever slept. I practically go to bed with them. I have a pile of books next to my bed and a friend said, “Oh you’re an avid reader!” Next year I will be.

• Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
• Photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch