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Q&A: Kelly Wearstler on her latest 'Rhapsody'

Kelly Wearstler is always up for a challenge. After establishing herself as one of the nation’s leading interior designers, she followed up her high-voltage interiors, furniture and home accessories with a signature clothing collection.

“Designing ready-to-wear clothing was the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted,” Wearstler said. “Learning fashion is like speaking another language.”

Now comes “Rhapsody,” Wearstler’s fourth book, to be published Oct. 23 by Rizzoli. In it she demonstrates how fashion and home décor merge in her ever-evolving sensibility. (Anyone who’s ever seen Wearstler turning heads as a judge on “Top Design” or shopping in green leather boots at Cost Plus World Market for the L.A. Times will agree she’s fluent in many forms of visual communication.)

Wearstler was an early proponent of Midcentury Modern, decking out the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills in that style long before “Mad Men” hit the small screen. Her subsequent designs for hotels and homes epitomized the Hollywood Regency look that influenced pre-recession interiors for years. By the time Regency peaked, Wearstler had moved on, embracing the organic modernism of California studio artisans, such as ceramist Stan Bitters, and creating 1970s-inspired rooms that glimmered with metal and glass.

As “Rhapsody” chronicles, her current work references classical architecture, and she updates the notion of mixing modern art in traditional interiors by covering entire walls (and ceilings) in papers influenced by abstract art. Her flagship clothing and home store on Melrose Avenue, opened late last year, is a sleek atelier where Art Deco meets 1970s Minimalism and the 1980s Italian style known as Memphis. “Rhapsody” shows how some of Wearstler’s rooms are jaw-dropping kaleidoscopic confections while others have a classical elegance. The designer talked about the mix for this edited Q&A:

What do you hope readers will learn from your new book?

“Rhapsody” is about a bunch of things — different periods, scales and textures — coming together to create a beautiful space. I want to inspire people to take risks and to create an environment that feels spirited. Mixing antiques, vintage and contemporary design pieces and art is honoring our past and embracing the future. You end up with a much more soulful interior.

Where do you go for inspiration?

Inspiration is everywhere; you just have to look around you. I find it taking my little boys to LACMA and MOCA, going shopping for vintage clothes and furniture in Los Angeles and just spending time at the beach in Malibu, which clears my head. I always tell everyone you have to educate your eyes. The more you see, the more you know what is special. So I look for the anomalies, the unusual things that I have not seen a million times before. I like things that have a voice, that say something. That lights my fire and keeps me going. You have to look for something unique. If you don’t take risks, you can’t evolve, whether it’s what you eat or how you dress or how you decorate your home.

Can you tell us what raises your designer antennae these days?

In Paris, I just saw some unusual pieces by Louis Durot, who does furniture that is made from foam and is beautiful organic sculpture. There was a huge wall hanging that looks like a giant wad of chewing gum stuck on the wall. I love the work of Mathieu Mategot, who did a lot of pieces with perforated metal, and other French industrial designers as well as Italian designs from the 1960s. I love Ettore Sottsass — he was a genius — and the 1980s Memphis movement in Italy.

Some of the rooms in “Rhapsody” feature Memphis pieces — a colorful and geometric postmodern style from the 1980s that never really caught on in a big way and that designers have been trying to revive. How did you discover it, and what's the appeal?

I never was exposed to Memphis until I started traveling to Europe. It was so unlike anything I knew, and it may not appeal to everyone, but I love how much structure and personality it has. I grew up in a country house filled with knickknacks in Myrtle Beach, S.C. I hated all that floral Laura Ashley stuff. I guess I always was looking for something new. I had this crazy modern wallpaper that was completely different from everything else in the house. My mother let my sister and I pick out what we wanted in our room. I would not let my boys do that.

You have a thing for materials. What are your favorites?

I love metals — the color and finishes and patinas of brass and copper. And I have even been playing with pewter recently. Stone and minerals are fascinating to me. On walls and floors, all marble is beautiful, and the patterns in onyx can be so dramatic. For wood, ceruse oak is both raw and refined. It’s a beautiful, hearty wood that ages well, and when it’s ebonized with lime emphasizing the grain of the wood like in French midcentury furniture, it also gives you black-and-white pattern that’s almost like a zebra print.

How has fashion design influenced your interiors?

They fuel each other. Having access to fashion fabrics — high-tech materials that look like something you might see in scuba gear — and trimmings has given me new ideas for window coverings. I’ve used spikes and studs made for biker jackets to decorate furniture. And I take fashion techniques, like ruched fabric, into upholstery and make amazing leather chairs, which takes a lot of leather (and you don’t want to eat anything with crumbs on them). It also works the other way around too: Looking at an antique or a piece of furniture I designed will give me ideas for the shape of a dress or a jewelry design.

What’s overdone in design?

Furniture and accessories that are too large. In Europe, things are more delicate and refined-looking. Here, our plates are like 16 inches in diameter. We eat more food, so the furniture has to get bigger. Everything is getting so whack.

Some of your rooms have wallpaper that look like giant scribbles. Seriously, how do you live with that?

Not everyone can. You have to be able to look at the big picture; sometimes a crazy pattern just becomes a texture. You may not be able to have it in a bedroom but it might be just right somewhere else, like a vestibule or a powder room.

What would you need on a deserted island?

I’d have to have my family, and we'd build a treehouse so we can look out for a boat to rescue us. Then I would want my camera, pencil and paper and a juicer. And I definitely would need a parasol, so I wouldn’t shrivel up into a raisin.

We welcome story suggestions at home@latimes.com. For easy way to follow the L.A. scene, bookmark L.A. at Home and join us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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