Talking with Celerie Kemble

Designer Celerie Kemble chats with Bob about color, showhouses, kids and her new book, "Black & White (and a Bit in Between)."

Celerie Kemble Black And White Book CoverBob Vila: Let’s talk about kid’s rooms. You’ve got three now, are any of them sharing a room or how does that work?

Celerie Kemble: Oh, I have all three of them in the same room.

Bob Vila: Fabulous.

Celerie Kemble: I like them growing up thinking they are all part of the same posse. And, living in New York where we are so tight on space, I would rather have the kids condensed and have more space for living. Their bedrooms are for sleeping and getting dressed in the morning.

Bob Vila: Did you put neutrals in their room, too?

Celerie Kemble: Actually, my children’s bedroom is a bright Granny Smith apple green with faux leather upholstered walls and a navy rug. Everything in the room is navy, apple green, or white, and—with their toys and books adding more primary colors—it all kind of plays off that strong color sense. I avoided the pastels because they are going to have to live with it for the next five years or so, and I wanted it to be exciting and stimulating.

Bob Vila: Interesting.

Celerie Kemble: The most important thing when decorating for children is utility and durability. I look for materials like faux leathers, or true whites and things that can be slip-covered, laundered and bleached.

Bob Vila: And what about wall finishes? Would you go with the semi-glosses or eggshells?

Celerie Kemble: Probably an eggshell on the walls with semi-gloss on the trim for kids room. Or, I would do vinyl wallpaper which I know some people think sounds bad, but there are some really beautiful ones in the marketplace now.

Bob Vila: And, they are washable, and durable, and all of that.

Celerie Kemble: Exactly, just pretty much wipe them down.

Bob Vila: Let’s talk about your new book, “Black and White (and a bit in between)”. Why do you feel that the combination of black and white gives you so much opportunity in terms of decorating?

Celerie Kemble: It was fun thinking about why the pairing of black and white remains such a classic. No one seems to tire of it. It’s a color scheme that is easily adaptable; you can add to or subtract from it over time and still keep everything cohesive. It’s readily available in the marketplace, from major retailers like Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn and Ethan Allen to boutique and custom shops. And, if you’ve got a black and white thing going on, whatever isn’t black and white really gets highlighted—gilt finishes, antique mirrors, wood tones, and pops of colors. And, I think that black and white can be a refreshing alternative to a world that’s so product-filled and frenetic.  Black and white just offers a bit more breathing space and more decorative freedom. 

Bob Vila: My absolute favorite design element of our house here in Florida is the black and white marble floor in the lounge, which you know is the heart of this house.

Celerie Kemble: And, it plays well with everything, right?  I am not advising people to go out and do their whole house in black and white, but it’s an interesting paradigm to take into account and consider as an option for one or two rooms.

Celerie Kemble

Bob Vila: What was it like to design the Kips Bay Show House? Is there more pressure working on a showhouse than one for a client?

Celerie Kemble: It’s a totally different kind of pressure because at the end of the day I am the one writing the check and cashing in every favor, begging and borrowing and doing everything to complete the project in a timeline of six weeks.

Bob Vila: That must be intense.

Celerie Kemble: It’s insane, and the idea that people are just going to be scrutinizing it adds even more pressure. There’s also having to work with what’s available, including donations, within that timeline—so it’s sort of like cooking with what’s in your refrigerator.

Bob Vila: Right.

Celerie Kemble: There’s also the pressure of wanting to show great creativity because this is the one chance where you can test the limits of your design. A lot of different priorities get shelved into one little room, and with thirty designers traipsing in and out, all of them pulling their hair out and crying daily, you can imagine the tension. For Kips Bay, I was able to work with a material that I’ve never been able to install in any of my client’s houses—eglomise, a reverse painting on glass with precious metals, that I used as the entire ceiling in a library. 

Bob Vila: Wow!

Celerie Kemble:  We installed roughly  17″ x 17″ squares to create a mirrored ceiling that revealed a shimmering background of sky, water and trees painted in 24 karat palladium leaf.  It was an extraordinary effort to paint it and get it up, but the whole room shimmered because of the light reflected from a large floor-to-ceiling window. The ceiling changed the room from being a dark library to a room bathed in sunlight reflecting off water. 

Bob Vila: Now, you are evoking a Palazzo on the Grand Canal in the middle of the day and having the sunlight and the water kind of enter the room.

Celerie Kemble:  Exactly, it was that type of spectacular effect. I got to work with Miriam Ellner who I think is probably the premier verre eglomise artist in America.  And, you know if it wasn’t for the show house I wouldn’t have been able to pull together such a big commission or push the limits of such a level.  Miriam and I had an awesome time working together, and I’ve now been able to include her on several projects with my clients because they’ve seen what can happen if you really get artistic with mirror.

Bob Vila:  I’m assuming the ceiling remains when the show house closes.

Celerie Kemble: No, we had to take it down.

Bob Vila: Oh, you did.  Were you at least able to salvage it?

Celerie Kemble: No, there was nothing that could be salvaged. It was kind of jackhammered into a gazillion little pieces.  We all kept shards for souvenirs.

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