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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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