At the peak of her career, and with a reputation that places her at the very top of the interior design firmament in California, Kendall Wilkinson has earned her stripes. The product of a strong and supportive matriarchal background, this single mother of two adored sons exudes a fascinating mélange of honesty, vigor, stamina, vitality and grit, all of which confirm the potency of her brand and the creative exceptionalism of her design. As she wrestles with the demands of career ambition, yet-to-be aspirations, the rigors of managing a team of 20, and a client portfolio that is the stuff of other designers’ dreams, this immensely personable design maven now confronts a future where the potential for escalating success must be tempered by the demands of motherhood, unrelenting client needs and the transition from design prodigy to household fame.
On the early years
We lived in San Francisco and Mill Valley. I was schooled in Marin before heading to UC, San Diego where I minored in music and majored in communications, with an emphasis on film. I moved to Los Angeles directly after graduation, commencing as a page at CBS. I worked on The Price Is Right, the $25,000 Pyramid and was in front of and behind the camera on The Young and the Restless. A move into media sales was followed by a five-year stint as a production assistant on L.A. Law and a number of Movies of the Week. My game plan was to be a movie producer, but a serious auto accident forced a change.
On the first indication of an interest in design
I had a discussion with my mother and a family friend who were decorators. Both were single moms who raised their kids from the fruits of interior design — and had fun doing it. So, I thought, “Well, I’ll just do that.” I attended the Academy of Art while working for my mother who taught me the basics of scale and color. But you have to be born with good skills in interior design—and I was. I was always an artist. I sculpted and I was always painting. I also sang in a bunch of different rock and roll bands. I just knew I had an artistic sensibility and a creative bent, as did all the women in my extended family.
After I left the Academy of Art, I moved to Paris for about a year and traveled around Europe. I fell in love with Paris and with Italy where I studied architecture and became enamored with the museums, the cathedrals and design in general. That was my inspiration for becoming a designer. It opened my eyes. I saw for the first time how it all worked together — how the architecture, furniture, lighting all played together—very European—very holistic.
On what drives her
My grandmother was an antiques dealer and a painter, and she also dabbled in interior design in Chicago. So, there is a strong thread of maternal drive in my background. On a scale of 1 to 10, on the “driven” scale, I’m definitely a 10. But I’m not driven solely by the money—more by great design, and by an aspiration that my clients will love and appreciate my work.
I am still very ambitious. And I would like my work to become iconic. I have a fabric line and a furniture line and I’ve already started on a book. I have a million ideas. But there’s only one of me. I don’t have a spouse, partner or second-in-command, and that makes a difference.
On Kendall Wilkinson Design—the company
I started out on my own in 1992. I had a good business mind, and from my production experience in LA, I knew how to commit ideas to the drawing board, a requisite for interior design. Our current design business, with its staff of 20, is heavily rooted in high-end residential home projects, but we’re quickly expanding into commercial offices for the tech and finance communities, cafes and restaurants, such as Bellota, medical offices and wineries. And we’re about to branch out into our first hotel assignment because the hotel developer wants to bring a cohesive, residential feel to the space.
I have my Signature line of furniture which sells in high-end retail stores. We have an online catalog that features my designs and selections, and we also sell on popular online sites such as 1st Dibs and Chairish. The fabric line we sell through Fabricut is also highly popular.
Our output and clientele can only be described as eclectic—modern apartments in the city, traditional family homes in Hillsborough, tech offices in the Peninsula, classic estates in Beverly Hills, cottages in Carmel-by-the-Sea, ski lodges in Jackson Hole, pied-à-terre’s, family cabins, Tahoe weekenders—and clients that include tech super stars, art collecting professionals and single entrepreneurs.
The 2007 Decorators’ Showcase house where Wilkinson designed a turquoise and orange master bedroom
On Kendall Wilkinson “design” and how it’s derived
My design work is as varied as my clients because I really do create their homes with my understanding of scale and style. I gather a lot of information about my clients, and I know how they want to live, what’s important to them. That’s because I’m a good listener, very intuitive, and really can help people better understand what they need or want—even when they themselves don’t yet know.
My look is very inviting, and it’s also very cohesive. That goes back to my mantra about scale and proportion. I also believe that “order equals calm”—meaning that everything has a place and that there should never be too much going on. The design has to be edited, and also very aesthetically pleasing, but there has to be something very functional about every single piece in the room.
What does my own home look like? It’s a beautiful Edwardian, traditional in architectural style, that has huge stately rooms. There’s an architect in Paris named Joseph Dirand, and I incorporated some of his elements—dark floors, everything white, and sparse, but inviting warm furniture that has a lot of texture to it.
On the daily challenges
Educating clients about quality is a continuing challenge. Between the internet and having to make design judgements without the training or the “right eye”, clients are becoming confused. That Gregorius Pineo knock-off may be cheap, and look good on the website, but in my experience, the delivered product is inevitably incomplete or disappointing.
I often have to explain, especially with the young tech folks, why putting “all retail” in your house isn’t going to get you the look you should have. It’s going to look like a showroom. I’m not saying that we should keep interior design as a wholesale business, very exclusive and only available by hiring a designer. That goes against my ingrained belief that people should live (whether they can afford a top-rated designer) in a space that makes them feel good about themselves, rejuvenated, and brings positive energy to their lives.
On the projects of which she’s particularly proud
A Silicon Valley project, a total labor of love, stands out—seven years in the making, art collector clients, 5,000 square-feet guest house, indoor pool, organic garden, extensive travel, design fairs to acquire unique items. That project was special because the client couple were learning along the way, so I had to educate them. It was an easy back-and-forth, and I learned with them as we progressed. When they realized they wanted to be art collectors, I taught them what direction to take in both the art and furniture worlds. I advised them on the best sources and how to articulate and describe what they wanted.
There was the 2007 Decorators’ Showcase house where I designed a turquoise and orange master bedroom that cemented my reputation. People really took notice after that—the notorious turquoise bedroom!
On the people who have influenced her life
My mother is incredibly talented, has remarkable class, and has been highly influential in creating who I am today. I also worked for Lonnie and Dave Hinckley who were like second parents and who helped my creativity blossom. When I was learning the antiques business, Dave took me to France, showed me the ropes and helped me understand what to buy and what not to buy. I’ve been influenced by Parrish-Hadley because of their yin and yang as designers. My Decorators’ Showcase room—the turquoise room, was based partially on an old Albert Hadley room. And Barbara Barry is someone I emulate. The whole 30s, 40s were her kind of schtick. I love that period, and I definitely love her design. But I don’t aspire to be as “commercial” as her line has become.
Designers Deconstructed is an in-depth interview series featuring interior design luminaries who are redefining the business.The interviews are conducted by Alf Nucifora, Chairman of The Luxury Marketing Council of San Francisco and brought to you in partnership with San Francisco Design Center.