We don’t much like the suburbs, but the lovely old trees and the gracious 1920s villas along Katie Ridder’s street exuded an atmosphere of stability and affluence, which is somehow different from wealth. It was kind of comforting. Katie, who is married to the architect, Peter Pennoyer, began her working life at House & Garden, and later became the decorating editor at House Beautiful. She now works on the other side of the camera, so to speak, as a successful and well-established interior designer, something she says that in her “kind of meandering way” she always wanted to be.
You started out working at shelter magazines so we wanted to talk to you about them. That scene has changed so much. What do you make of the way everything has gravitated online? Do you miss the abundance of actual shelter magazines?
Well, it’s very different. Ten years ago with something like Elle Décor, I remember thinking, I can’t wait for the magazine to come out. It will be so fresh and no one will have seen it. But now with everything on the internet, the news dissipates just like that. It’s not so fresh anymore.
Do you think the impact of those magazines has also dissipated?
I think it is still important to be in a magazine because potential clients deem it to be so. And so it is. And I don’t look at the online magazines … it’s saturated. There’s so much. I think they go like three hundred pages or something. It’s just forever, forever, forever. But I love Instagram. There are decorators that I follow and cooks … I just have a great interest.
Don’t you think one of the reasons it’s still important and prestigious to be in those magazines is because there are gatekeepers, the prominent editors who select the content? If you’re given their blessing, then you’re considered a good designer.
We all care what they think.
What did you actually do—what was your first magazine job?
I was at House & Garden and at first I was delivering the laundry … and doing things like that! I was there from ’84 to ’88. Anna [Wintour] came in ’87 and changed the name to HG. All the editors were changing their image: shortening their hems and wearing high heels. Nobody had the guts to wear sunglasses in the office but everything changed, just like that, overnight! It was really interesting. Everyone was intimidated when she came but she was very nice to me—she really liked young people.
Do you miss working in that environment?
It was very glamorous, especially coming from California to the Condé Nast building. Alexander Liberman (the editorial director) would come in to look at the cover tries and ask me which one I thought was the best and I would always get it wrong. But it was a very different environment because when I was working for a magazine, everything happened for me. Everyone wanted to be in the magazine. Now the tables have turned where I’ve got to make everything happen for my clients.
Why did you change over?
In my kind of meandering way I’ve always wanted to be a decorator, right from when I was little. I did a lot of craft things. It was the inevitable ending point. When I was at House & Garden, I was going to see rooms that had been professionally designed by people like Jed Johnson or Mark Hampton … you know all the big biggies in the design world. That was something that was invaluable … invaluable to me because I didn’t go to design school, which was a shame.
Do you think it makes a difference?
I think it does. I mean the design schools … I’m a member of the Decorators Club and we judge all the students’ work. A lot of the design schools don’t teach residential work for the real world. You need to get that from working in an office, so in that way, you don’t need it. But in terms of drawing and CAD drawing, the women in my office, they do that for me.
None of the designers we interview can do CAD. But if the younger people you hire can do CAD, what else do they know how to do?
Well, they’ve got that under their belt. And they’ve all worked elsewhere, and for big names. There is one [employee] who worked for Gerry Bland and she has a real appreciation for brown furniture, which is very unusual for someone young.
Ah … brown furniture. It always comes up. Do your clients veto brown furniture?
No! No … no … no! Not at all. The young people, I think, who look at the magazines and see everything shiny and highly designed, don’t appreciate just how beautiful a mahogany pedestal table is.
But you come from California, which I don’t associate with brown furniture. What kind of furniture did you grow up with?
My parents had mostly inherited furniture—so there was lot of brown furniture. And then there was a lot of chintz. It wasn’t high style at all.
What makes a good room?
Scale … pattern … and the unexpected. I’m always on the lookout and I buy a lot at auction. At the Christie’s Interior Sale, you’ve got the sales that are rejects from people who’ve gotten divorced and decorators who’ve been fired—and there always very good deals! You know what I got a few weeks ago? I got a 14-foot long beautiful 19th century mahogany three-pedestal table for $2500—at Christie’s! And I bid $19 000!
Wow! I don’t have the nerves for auctions. I can’t bear them. What are your tips for getting a good deal at an auction?
First of all you’ve got to see everything. Don’t trust the catalogs. Everything always looks different. And leave absentee bids so there’s no time wasted; there’s no excitement at being at the auction. I discuss the price with my clients, including the Christie’s mark up and my mark up and then we cap it at that net price. Then you put in a bid the day before. I typically double the high estimate and I’d say I win 75% of the time. A lot of the auction houses, especially Doyle, under-estimate [in order] to create excitement.
And you once had a store, didn’t you? What was it like running a store?
Um … we got held up once. I was not there though. Someone in my office chased him down.
You mean there was design thief who wanted to shoplift … what? Chintz?
All the time there were people coming in grabbing things, small things and not even such small things. They would send me to the back, saying that “I’m here to pick up something for Mr. so-and-so.” They would leave and two minutes later I would notice a huge urn was missing. And I would get a lot of visitors, people who would come and just sit and chat. I quite liked that. I felt part of the neighborhood. But I didn’t like the hours, the bookkeeping, the buying, the packing … it was just kind of boring after a few years. And I was making $30 000 a year.
I have written here, “Yorkshire pudding” because I read somewhere that your husband [Peter Pennoyer] cooks it. I’ve never come across any Americans who like, let alone make, Yorkshire pudding.
Ah. We have a friend, someone who Peter went to college with—his name is Bill Irvine—and he loves roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. And so Bill comes once a month for dinner and we always have roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
Are you both cooks?
I’m a baker. I bake very good chocolate cake.