Photographs by Jeff Hirsch
Our interview this week involved a thoughtful discussion with designer Katie Leede about the intersection between acting and designing. The former was something she wanted to do but, as she puts it, “didn’t have the talent for my talent”. The latter, however, was something that just seemed to come naturally in the way that acting did not. And yet, she says they still inform one another. Her interior design work involves improvisation, presentation and a degree of performance and, since she has not completely written off acting, her observations of how people live their lives over the course of her seventeen-year career is something she feels she could one day bring to a role: “My understanding of how I live my life is so much richer because I know so much about how other people live their lives.”
I think your style is really wonderful—it’s not so studied, that’s what I like about it.
I like things to look undecorated. I like things to be comfortable. When I’m working with people, I do like to mix in the things that they have. I don’t think I’m a very “ego” person at all—I like stories and for people to feel connected to their homes.
In here it was just a matter of things accumulated over time. Lampshades need replacing … it’s all fine though. And guess what? It gets inhabited and it gets used, like on Saturday night, Lucia (Katie’s daughter) is painting, her boyfriend is drawing at the table and I’m reading them a book on personality types. They’re like, “Oh my God, Saturday night and we’re hanging out with Mom!”
You seem to live a very charmed life—does it seem that way from your perspective?
Uh-huh. I’m very charmed. And I’m very grateful every day. I think the more grateful you are the more likely the charm will come to you. I have a real belief system about that. I feel very lucky. I get to travel a lot. We’re very adventurous. I think what we value is adventure and connection and beauty and a good life and being there through thick and thin with everybody.
Did you think you were going to become an interior designer when you were younger?
I started because I started getting hired. I had no [design] schooling—I wanted to be an actress. I just didn’t have the talent for my talent. I think I felt very raw when it came to auditioning and I felt like I was like judged—my self-judgement was very strong when I auditioned. I felt very self-conscious about my physical self—how I looked. Whereas with decorating, I grew up in great homes—it’s so natural for me. Even my astrological chart lines up where home is really important.
Did you completely give up on becoming an actor?
No. My ex-husband said, “You can’t be all things” and I actually don’t think that’s true. I’m on panels a lot and I have to bring in a lot of that [acting] training to the forefront. I think sometimes it would be fun, if I had time and I could figure it out, how to bring the beauty of the whole world to a TV show—a kind of high-low experience, like going to India and going to Paris and going into the markets to show people stalls and all the personal choices I would make.
I think acting, or at least performance, is a huge element of this job, don’t you?
Without a question. Through studying acting, you learn how to improvise; you learn how to be in the moment; you get to have a lot of self-knowledge. And it’s a ton of fun to do. There are so many things I wouldn’t give up from that experience.
I have several friends who are very famous actors and I love being around actors. I love their liveliness and sense of fun. If anything came up, I would love to give it another go—just for fun.
So you have more confidence now.
Absolutely—I don’t need approval now, the way I did. And I’m more comfortable being vulnerable.
Yes, you do just get rid of a lot of stuff as you get older.
I’ve [also] learned a lot through interior decorating, for example like now I’m pouring a cup of tea … I don’t know how I’m going to explain this … I’m going down a path and I’m not exactly sure what it is I want to say but the thought is that in acting what makes someone really fascinating to watch is that there is something that they want from any given situation but a really great actor will also be doing things, like pouring a cup of tea. It would be fun to go back and look and say, “So what is this person doing as they’re living their life? How are they living their life?” [Because of interior decorating] my understanding of how I live my life is so much richer because I know so much about how other people live their lives.
What did you find so interesting about the book you mentioned earlier on personality types?
I was just in L.A. for something called Legends of Design—it’s like the big designer week from both coasts … it’s a big hoopla, so I was having dinner one night with my friend John Danzer and another designer, Paul Wiseman and they were talking about personality types and I had studied the enneagram, which is an ancient system of understanding the nine personality types and Paul had also studied that in depth … it happened that we were all “sevens”.
What does that mean?
A seven is … The Enthusiast.
Ah, and I read you also got “The Most Spirited” award in high school.
So you knew that already—you didn’t need to read this book!
But it’s fun to think where you go when your personality type is stressed.
And where you do you go when you’re stressed?
I get very persnickety, really like focused on the task. If you don’t do it one hundred percent, the whole world is going to fall apart. You lose perspective and a sense of joy. And sevens love to have a good time—we’re the cheerleaders.
So you like to have fun.
I really like to have fun. Who doesn’t?
That sort of comes through in your work in a way.
Does it? [sounds very surprised]
It’s relaxed, I guess, it never goes in and out of style.
That’s the thing. I’m not shiny. I’m not “on trend”. I do not resist trends. I love being inspired by people. I’m totally enamored of a lot of people’s work that is vibrant and bold and shiny and chic … I love all of that but I have a tendency to balance it with really wanting things to feel a certain way, which is like homey.
Do you think the desire to impress is more masculine than feminine? It’s close to the desire to intimidate.
[Whispers] It is. It’s very New York. And listen, I love it when I go to those places, don’t get me wrong. I’m impressed! It’s artful.
Do you get clients who want to impress?
I think we all struggle with that [desire] a little bit. It’s just a question of degree.
You must know that your lifestyle is immensely enviable to most people.
I don’t. You’re so kind … I mean it’s weird. I think I’m a very accessible person. I know what it is to envy—I have it too but again I think that we live in a creative universe and how do you make a comfortable lifestyle? I mean you can get a lot of stuff on Chairish or you can paint your own painting.
It’s true—this style isn’t necessarily one that requires a lot of money to re-create.
That’s right. It’s about style. But I’ve spent a lot of money! Although now I’m really into sample sales. I just started going because I don’t go shopping for myself a lot but I’m telling you … it’s incredible, eighty-five percent off! I got two pairs of boots for $150 each, originally $900! I’ll show them to you!
You said you when you’re stressed you get hung up on details but this is very detail-oriented business, so how do cope with that?
Well I’ve got a lot of planets in Virgo, so that’s good. [Starts to laugh] I sound like a total astrology freak … I’m not this thing, like woo-hoo-hoo … but it is something that I really enjoy. But the details … that’s where my eye goes. I have a very keen eye.
And the boring details? The accounts and the paper chase.
I don’t do that. I have an accountant and three fabulous interns. They want experience. My son said, “Mom, I think I’m wanting to intern for you after I get back from hiking six weeks on the Pacific Trail this summer.” And I’m like, “Well, I hope you’re going to bring your game because you’re not coming in late … it’s not like a casual thing. It’s serious.” I mean we’re all just like this all day … I rarely stop for lunch unless someone comes in and we have a working lunch.
So how long have you lived in New York?
It’s now eight years. I lived in Texas until I was fifteen and then I went to Andover and my family moved to Denver. I went to Dartmouth and then I lived in New York for about seven years after that. [Katie has also lived in L.A.]
That’s when you were doing acting—when you were at Dartmouth?
And hat making.
Tell us about the hat making.
Oh God, I’ll show you some crazy pictures. I was in Twelfth Night at Dartmouth and I worked in the costume department and so I was quite eccentric at that time. I don’t consider myself eccentric anymore actually. What made me eccentric was that I was so awkward. I think it’s taken me a long time to process how much energy I have. I had not mastered my energy and I wasn’t able to take in the largesse of energy I’ve been blessed with. It took me a long time. I couldn’t be in a confined space … I would go to Harry’s Bar and knock over chairs … I was not in control of my body. I was like a skittish horse.
Don’t you get exhausted?
Not very often. I have a belief that it’s divine energy that I’m just pulling from … I don’t want to come off as like, super … airy-fairy. I’m a very practical person but this is like, how the love that I feel every day and the experience I have.
And the hat making?
So right after college we had an amazing house up in Maine and I ended up spending a year there in Seal Harbor—it is like a ghost town in the winter and I needed something to do, so I started making these hats. [She shows us pictures of very extravagant hats] These are my crazy hats. They were not even wearable! But people did end up wearing them at dinner parties and things. I bought all the materials in the Garment District. Bergdorf Goodman was interested but they said I’d have to tone it down and I said, “I don’t know how to do that.”