How I Made It: How a reluctant artist became a Westside design force
Kim Gordon is an artist and founder of Kim Gordon Designs, a Venice-based design and development firm specializing in custom homes tailored for open, functional living. In a sea of new development projects, Gordon has carved out a following for her stylish touch, which emphasizes spaciousness and natural light, often in settings with a smaller footprint. From custom-made features to handpicked antiques, she is relentless in looking for new design ideas or the perfect accent piece, a search that has taken her around the world. Before jumping into home design, Gordon was known for creating shell collages and elaborate shrines that were popular among celebrities and designers.
Gordon, born on New York’s Long Island, grew up in a New Jersey setting she describes as a suburban-country place. Her father was an engineer; her mother, a homemaker. It was from her father and his hands-on approach to problem-solving that Gordon developed her analytical side. “My dad was a bit of a MacGyver,” she said. “His determination and problem-solving, always how to fix things, is exactly why I’m here, and why I’m able to do the work I do today.”
Artist in waiting
Gordon describes herself as decidedly not artistic in her formative years. “I think I was always an artist at heart,” she said. “But I didn’t know how to draw or paint, so I always dismissed it.” Like her three younger siblings, one of whom grew up to become a rocket scientist, her “thing” was always how to fix things. “It’s funny that family thinks we’re so different, but we’re really not,” she said.
An awakening abroad
At age 18, Gordon was ready to find her place in the world, or, at the very least, experience it. She moved to San Juan, where she worked as a massage therapist while studying acupuncture. Living in a 16th-century building, with “plaster peeling from the walls” and “plants growing everywhere,” is what Gordon says gave her a “grunge aesthetic” and an appreciation for the natural patina of living spaces. “I’m really into spaces aging,” she said.
Puerto Rico is also where Gordon met one of her biggest influences: fashion designer and artist Mili Arango, who lived above her. Her trips to Arango’s residence became a daily occurrence and helped her creative side slowly blossom as they sat and chatted and glued things together. Gordon was constantly awed by the amazing things that filled the woman’s home. “Individual vignettes add up to the entire space. … I learned that from Mili,” she said.
An imperfect eagle’s nest
A chance encounter with rock icon Don Henley led to an epiphany for Gordon. While doing a project at the Capitol Records building in the late 1990s, about a decade after moving to L.A., she was introduced to the Eagles singer. Henley had just fired an artisan who was doing woodwork for him. She couldn’t believe Henley had fired the person; the woodwork was beautiful.
That day, Gordon went straight from work to buy an Eagles album and while listening to it realized the problem: It shouldn’t be perfect. The next day, she presented Henley with a piece that was blemished. “He said the most awful thing,” Gordon said. But she ended up getting the job and worked with Henley for about eight years. The initial exchange is one she’ll never forget. “In a sense, I was learning to understand how people see color.”
Gordon reached a personal and professional crossroads in the late 2000s. She had recently split from her partner of about a decade and was left to figure out how she was going to make a living. “I was a Venice artist, I didn’t really pay attention to money or business,” she said. “I didn’t even have a credit card.” Up until then, Gordon had done mostly interior, aesthetic work on homes. But she made the call to do her first new development project. It was a head-first kind of decision: “We bought two barns in Kentucky and had them shipped to California,” she said.
Inspired by the barns on Long Island, Gordon incorporated the salvaged wood into the project piece by piece to create accent walls, thick beams and other visual interest. For Gordon, it was a therapeutic distraction. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I can do this,’” she said. “It was awesome and exciting; I poured my energy into it.” Still, throughout the process Gordon grappled with fear. “I was so scared that someone wasn’t going to buy it,” she said. The home sold in less than a month for the asking price of $3 million, which surprised even Gordon. “Nobody thought we’d get that sort of money.”
A world of ideas
Gordon finds her greatest inspiration in travel. “Traveling opens you up,” she said. It’s through her travels, Gordon said, that her signature style has evolved.
On a trip to Mexico’s San Miguel de Allende, Gordon observed a type of steel-framed window that she calls a fantastic mix of old and new style. After consulting her business partner, Mauricio Suarez, the decision was made to seek out the local artisans making the windows to learn the technique. The windows are now a staple of her development projects. “There are a million designers; I think being curious and experiencing other cultures helps to stand out.”
Learning on the job
Gordon founded Kim Gordon Designs about six years ago and is admittedly “a little bit fried” from her dogged work schedule. She has learned a lot on the job, particularly since her first development on Nowita Place in Venice. “I was just so happy to be playing,” Gordon said of her first project. “Everyone takes care of themselves, and in the beginning, I didn’t know how to take care of myself or my company.”
Gordon, who employs three assistants and four workers, likens the experience to pulling her head out of the sand. She now pays closer attention to the finances and relies on her past experiences when deciding which houses to do, what moves to make and whom to do business with. “It’s business, but it’s also our life,” she said.
Her new jam
Gordon, whose most recent development sold in August for $7.6 million, is currently infatuated with the idea of a home as a sanctuary. She is incorporating her new passion through the designs of her latest project, a high-end residence in Pacific Palisades.
Gordon lives in Venice with her two sons, Miles and Dax. When she’s not driving around in search of new tile or poring over vintage magazines for ideas, she enjoys traveling, cycling, writing and getting out into nature with her kids and dog.
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