Kathryn Scott

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Designer Kathryn Scott’s stunning brownstone in Brooklyn Heights rather silenced us with its perfection, combining Asian influences with antiques from Kathryn’s family and art by both her and her artist husband, Wenda Gu.

They are both organized and thorough to a point that fascinated us. Kathryn physically learned how to do various skills such as carpentry when the house was being renovated (one floor also serves as an office space) and, a linguist, she made sure she knew enough Chinese to get Chinese craftsmen to perfect her designs for various projects in China, where they also own property.

L to R.: A massive dining room table made out of a single slab of Cyprus wood was a gift from Kathryn’s mother.; Ficus trees flourish in the sun-filled dining room.
The black walnut cabinets in the dining room and the kitchen were designed by Kathryn. The cabinets hold three generations of family china.
Clockwise from above: Original moulding dominates the dining room ceiling; Close up views of the kitchen with its unpolished brass fixtures and custom cabinets.
L to R.: A slate wall serves double duty as a kitchen island and a chalkboard for Kathryn’s daughter, Simone. The hanging ceiling fixtures are from Charles Edwards.; Simone’s chair.
L to R.: Top to bottom: A collection of copper pots hangs above the range in the open plan kitchen; A light fixture from Dennis and Leen available through Holly Hunt hangs above the dining room table.; Top to bottom: Split down the middle; Stunning custom cabinets fill the open kitchen.

I have to start off with a question about part of your website, a Before and After of a room – a young man in finance, I think … and it struck me that the messy Before photograph that looks like a college dorm was far more honest, if you like, than the After, and I wanted to ask you to what extent interior design is an exercise in image-making and manipulation?

Well, I think it’s unfair to say it’s manipulation, then that’s saying all organization is manipulation. Being organized doesn’t mean that you’re not showing your true self. It just means that you have dealt with things that you didn’t always deal with.

But you hired someone to do it for you.

Okay—but I hired them to do my stockbrokering because I can’t do it. You can’t do everything. You hire someone to do something that you don’t feel you can do as well on your own – I mean that’s what all professions are based on.

The backyard garden is filled with a variety of plantings as well as a fish pond and a sculptural Tai lake stone.

It’s a very interesting process though, isn’t it with image-making because to what extent are you revealing something and to what extent are you concealing something? We’ve looked at hundreds of places and often we come away thinking that we only saw what that person wished to show us.

Well, I could bring you down to the basement and show all kinds of things that would reveal – all kinds of things about my family and my history – you could find it all down there … but just because I own doesn’t mean it all has to be out on the counter top.

It’s just that image is such a huge part of our culture – and I have to admit, looking at the Before and After pictures, that if I had gone to the finance guy’s dorm-room apartment, I probably would have had second thoughts about investing my money with him and so would other people.

They would think: is his mind chaotic?

L to R.: Tucked into an alcove at the top of the main staircase is a sculpture from New Guinea.; An ink rubbing by Wendu hangs at the bottom of the bedroom staircase.
A canopy bed inherited from Kathryn’s grandmother dominates the apricot- colored master bedroom. The floorboards were salvaged form a Pennsylvania farmhouse.
L to R.: A mirror from Treillage hangs above the marble fireplace mantel. In the corner, a small sample chest was given to Kathryn by her stepmother and father when she was 15 years old.; Nature on display.
Clockwise from above: Flanking a pine armoire is a pair of chairs by Kathryn’s husband, artist Wenda Gu. The chairs, which were displayed at the Lyons Biennale, are wired with a video that displays images of clouds on the seat; A repainted Navy trunk that belonged to Kathryn’s grandfather sits in the corner of the master bedroom.
In the oversized master bath a gargoyle, originally a building ornament, now serves as the tub spout. The fixtures are from Urban Archeology.
Hanging on the wall above the gargoyle is a Gauguin print found in a thrift shop.

You started out as a painter, right? What made you move on to interior design? What was your transition point?

The transition point was when I separated from my first husband and all of sudden was faced with having to support myself, by myself. I didn’t start with my own business, I started working for others. I worked for small offices and then I worked for a Russian firm that actually sent me with a connection to actually do a dacha for the president of Tatarstan.

Oh what was that like?!

A wonderful experience! I really loved it for a multitude of reasons, obviously the travel, but the other thing is that my great-grandparents were from Russia and I had these real sense of going home, which was totally amazing. The dacha was in the countryside and the countryside looked exactly like the countryside around our family’s summer house in Wisconsin where my grandparents settled! And the project was like a dream come true – because I was pretty much given full range to do whatever I wanted. The job lasted a little over a year and I was there physically for just over seven months.

Simone’s bedroom. A sculpture by Wenda surrounds a pair of old Chinese cabinet doors refitted into a storage area.
A Ming dynasty opium lounger is now Simone’s bed. The desk is from John Rosselli and was used as a coffee table.

Dolls purchased in Shanghai by Kathryn’s great-uncle during WWII were a gift to Kathryn’s father. They were recently restored at The Doll Hospital.
L to R.: Stone carvings form China sit atop the marble fireplace mantel in Simone’s bedroom.; A ‘Granddaughter’s clock’ belonged to Kathryn’s mother.
Children’s New Year’s hats from Xian line the wall of Simone’s bedroom.

How would you characterize your style now?

I see it as kind of transitional. I like historical things because it brings in memories and associations of who you are what you like.

Can you tell us about the Asian influences on your work, like here in this room?

Well, there’s an accumulation of family history here. For example this rug was in my grandmother’s house … my grandmother was Swedish and my grandfather was Russian … the [Asian influence] kind of came later, obviously because of Wenda. [Wenda Gu is Kathryn’s husband, a well-known Chinese artist] And then on the other side, my father’s mother collected Americana antiques, so that was a very strong influence on my childhood. She used to tell me where every piece was from … when I was growing up I didn’t realize how connected I would be to place. I immediately took to an interest in antiques, and so I just think of her when I look at antiques.

The top floor of Kathryn and Wenda’s townhouse, originally a separate apartment, now serves as Kathryn and Wenda’s guest quarters.

I’m interested that you’re married to an artist, and we’ve done quite a few artists’ houses and they’re usually very different from designers’ houses – on the whole artists’ houses have this more haphazard look. I’m curious as to how it works for you both.

You know that’s interesting because that may also be a sign of our personalities. Both my husband and I are very organized, neat people by nature. Even when I first met him and he was living in his studio, it was still neat. But there is patina, there is beauty in the kind of chaos that you’re talking about … it ends up being a kind of balance.

Wenda at work in the second floor office. The cast aluminum wall sculpture hanging above the marble mantel came from the exterior of a now defunct CBS building.
Unmatched Windsor chairs surround a large worktable with a bronze inset made in China.
The office kitchen originally served as the kitchen to Kathryn and Wenda’s second floor apartment.
Hanging on the wall above the marble mantel is a work by Wenda made of human hair. A Dutch Kas from 1780 stands nearby.
Peeking into Wenda’s office.

So you don’t argue about what goes where?

No. Sometimes he gets involved too. When we bought the country house for example, he went to China and he came back and said, ‘I bought a bunch of furniture,’ I said ‘Oh? What did you buy?’ … He said, ‘I don’t know … I don’t remember.’ [Laughs] But I like an element of surprise … I mean you have that when you deal with a client.

You don’t know how it’s going to be initially, I guess …

I prefer not to because I want them to be represented. The worst thing was when I had a client and we had gotten all the furniture done and we were looking to accessorize all these empty shelves and I said, ‘Tell me what interests you? What do you like?’ She could not come up with a thing. No matter what I brought in, it was not going to represent her at all.

L to R.: A view into the living room. The ceiling fixtures are from Holly Hunt.; Two large ficus trees add balance to the dining room.
Clockwise from top left: Wenda created a fish tank out of an oversized glass vessel from the flower district; Wenda planting fresh flowers in the front window of the house.
A side console designed by Kathryn is topped with antique library lamps.
A side chair from Holly Hunt sits next to a mahogany secretary that belonged to Kathryn’s grandmother.
Clockwise from top left: A small side table made from a tree root was purchased at the 22nd Street flea market; A painting by Wenda leans against the living room wall.
The statue in the living room was purchased from Christie’s.

But do you think people like that, they do have interests, they just haven’t discovered them exactly?

The only thing I can say about this particular person is that her hobbies seemed to be decorating her house and finding fashionable clothing and it was all style-oriented – truthfully she seemed to be somebody who should have somehow gotten involved in the profession because she was so interested in not only what was happening in her own house, but what was happening in all of her friends’ houses – and that was kind of a negative thing in all honesty because it made her always doubt what she was doing. She always thought maybe her friends were on to something better than what she had – she clearly had a natural, intuitive sense of style but she didn’t trust herself.

Yes, that trust is absolutely key.

They either have to trust themselves or they have to trust me – if they don’t trust either one, it’s a problem! [Laughs]

by Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge • photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch

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