Every Kitchen Tells a Story : How Rock Star Rod Stewart and Model Kelly Emberg Remodeled the Most Used Room in the Mansion

<i> Barbara Thornburg is a free-lance writer who specializes in design</i>

WHEN MODEL and aspiring actress Kelly Emberg moved in with rock star Rod Stewart two and a half years ago, the kitchen of his large Holmby Hills Mediterranean villa was, she says, “horrible.” The tiles had been painted by the previous owners fire-engine red, the wallpaper depicted herbs in primary colors, the fluorescent lights, Emberg says, “made everyone look blue,” and “all the appliances were at least 20 years old. One by one, the range collapsed, the microwave gave out, the refrigerator door wouldn’t close.”

It was time to redo the kitchen. “I wanted it to be cozy,” Emberg says. “We really live in the kitchen.” What she was aiming for was a “warm, modern country feel” where she could spend a lot of time with the couple’s daughter, Ruby, now 2 years old. The style of the rest of the house is formal, she reveals, and “in spite of this large house, I love small, intimate rooms.”

Dec. 17, 1988, marked demolition day. The entire kitchen was gutted, and Emberg started on the remodel. (Stewart had little to do with the design process because, Emberg says, he was busy on tours. “He got involved financially, of course. He joked about having to go on tour to pay for it all.”)

Smallbone designer Stephen Gough, did the layout for the kitchen and suggested space-saving ideas. The honey-color Old Pine cabinetwork, table and chairs were handcrafted in the company’s factory in Devizes, England, near Stonehenge, of restored 100-year-old pine timber collected from churches and barns of the English countryside.


Emberg specified a peninsula-shape counter to divide the room and added a new center island where friends can sit while she cooks. A spice rack and drawers are located above the Gaggenau fryer and grill. A plate rack holds dishes in an open cabinet with hand-cut fishtail and cloverleaf friezes. Custom-designed panels mask the refrigerator, dishwasher and trash compactor.

For the kitchen table, Emberg wanted both chair and bench seating. The bench, with its built-in chicken coop underneath, is a copy of a style once popular in old English farm kitchens, in which poultry was kept close at hand.

Emberg worked with Dennis Caffrey, co-owner of Tile Guild Inc., a Country Floors custom-tile factory, on the layout and design of the counter, back-splash and floor tiles. For the tile panels next to the table, for instance, Emberg wanted shoulder-high sunflowers. Caffrey made full-size sketches, and after the go-ahead from Emberg, the tiles were hand-painted. Butterflies flutter around the sunflowers, and bunches of vegetables decorate the cooktop and the ceramic stove hood. Over the fryer is a painted rooster, hen and chicks.

The flooring Emberg chose from Country Floors was Saltillo (Mexican terra cotta) tiles with Mexican tile inserts. The kitchen wasn’t completed until June of this year, proving that even rock stars are not immune to the tribulations of kitchen renovation. At one point, to get away from the mess, Emberg and Stewart went on holiday to England but came home to find the stove hood framed incorrectly. “It had to be ripped out and redone,” Emberg recalls. Then, several flawed floor tiles had to be replaced.


Emberg cooks most meals herself. Dinners are usually distinctly English fare--roast leg of lamb, potatoes with gravy, mint sauce, Brussels sprouts, and apple pie and custard. The kitchen’s entertainment center, which replaced the former kitchen’s dumbwaiter, holds a television set, a video machine and a stereo system. And, not surprising in the kitchen of a rock star, four recessed, high-fidelity speakers are hidden in the ceiling. Says Emberg: “It makes cooking a lot more fun.”

Portrait by Randee St. Nicholas.