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)."

By Bob Vila | Updated Oct 17, 2019 12:52 PM

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Celerie Kemble

Photo: Don Freeman

[Editors Note: We caught up with designer Celerie Kemble the week of Christmas at her family home in Palm Beach. Bob, too, was in Florida and, being long-time family friends of Celerie’s father and mother, designer Mimi Maddock McMakin, he was anxious to chat with the young, formidable designer about everything from working with clients to working with colors. The conversation also included kids’ rooms, showhouses and Ms. Kemble’s brand new book, Black and White (and a bit in between). And so begins. . . a conversation with designer Celerie Kemble.]

Bob Vila: Was your mom a big influence on you becoming a designer?

Celerie Kemble: Well, I think being lucky enough to grow up in a very personal and beautiful house made me aware, from an early age, of the kind of pleasure a well-designed home brings and how much it adds to a family’s sense of connectedness and identity. Even in high school and college, I realized how much I was drawn to design and how much work and thought went into creating something as special as the house I grew up in.

Bob Vila: What do you think you learned from your mom?

Celerie Kemble:  I learned to respect craftsmanship and artistry, and that without great risk it’s hard to see a home become distinctive and special. She set a very high bar and I’m continually challenged to make everything that I do really dynamic. Through her I also learned how to look at a space or an empty room and envision it as a reflection of the homeowners.

Bob Vila: Is the hardest part of your job working with the client? Trying to figure out what’s right for them?

Celerie Kemble: I think the hardest part is always explaining that, no matter what funds they have on hand or what their plan is, there is a lot of compromise involved—compromise because of the construction of the house, the architecture, the cost, and the internal family dynamics. You rarely design for one person. So it’s not hard taking on someone’s priorities and trying to work with their best interest in mind. What’s hard is doing that at the same time you’re educating them about the compromises and challenges that may need to be made along the way. It’s all about navigating compromise.

Bob Vila: I love that. . . ‘navigating compromise.’  So if that’s the most challenging aspect, what’s the most enjoyable?

Celerie Kemble: There is a certain sort of intimacy and trust that is required between a designer and client, and I think the enjoyable part, at least for me, is getting to know someone well enough to help realize their dreams. To be able to use the tools of my trade—color, fabric, pattern, furniture, and construction—to really change the entire disposition of an interior space.

Bob Vila: Let’s talk color. When I was contracting in the seventies, I was always asked about using color, even though I didn’t do interiors. I remember a lady in New York that sold rugs who said that the carpet was the soul of the room. But if you don’t have a carpet, how do you begin the process of choosing color?

Celerie Kemble: I actually think your carpet lady wasn’t far off. For me, the soul of the room is in the fabrics or in the wallpaper, and I usually try to find one element that has at least 70% of the colors that I intend to incorporate into the room. It could be a piece of pottery, a beautiful dish, a painting, or a scrap of fabric or wallpaper; something that I can use in the room that links the majority of other disparate elements together. And, once you have that one thing—for your lady friend the carpet; for me the wallpaper or upholstery—then you have something to help keep everything cohesive.

Bob Vila: What about mixing all those things? Are there any rules that you can offer about the best ways to mix colors and materials successfully?

Celerie Kemble: I think that it’s important to know your base non-color so that your whites or your creams are pretty consistent throughout the space, and people forget that. They concentrate on a color, and they miss that the most cohesive element might be having all of your whites (for trim and molding) be the same. The next thing is to look at the value of each color. I don’t believe you have to limit the number of colors or that there are bad color combinations, but you do need to consider the hues, tones, and shades of the colors.

Bob Vila: You don’t think there is any such thing as a wrong color combination?

Celerie Kemble: Well, I think all colors could be made to work together, but what people need to do is be sure to vary the intensity and value. If you have five strong, bold colors in one room, it’s just going to feel blocky, heavy, and dark. You need some colors that have a slight amount of opacity, transparency, a lightness, a feathering.

Bob Vila: Interesting.

Celerie Kemble: If somebody were to take all of their pigments directly out of the tube and paint with every single color, it would look sort of childlike and heavy handed. But if you cut some of the colors—you know, water them down—the mix becomes more interesting. So, I think it’s about moderating the intensity of whatever colors you are using together so that there is some variety; something light, something heavy, something in the middle—two or three balancing parts. People always talk about color, but I think it’s more about balancing values and intensities to create variety in a room.

Bob Vila: Any thoughts on good color choices for specific rooms, like kitchens or bathrooms, for example?

Celerie Kemble: Well, I think kitchens and bathrooms is where white is just a good standby because those are your operating rooms. You want to be able to ensure cleanliness and keep them bright. Kitchens and bathrooms are places where you might only want one or two colors. Most people feel much more clarity and space when it’s simplified and the natural default goes to white.

Bob Vila: What about the size of the space, does that have any impact on the color choice?

Celerie Kemble: Size wouldn’t have impact on color for me unless I was planning to go really bold, and then the bigger it is the less likely I want to do something intense.  For me, it would seem a little over-served.

Bob Vila: Any advice on paint finishes?  When it is best to go with a flat or a gloss, an eggshell or super glossy finish?

Celerie Kemble: I’ve been using a lot of the super glosses, like Fine Paints of Europe oil paints, because they really mimic the effect of lacquer.  I tend to use those in the stronger colors because you can really see the deep well of color through the layers of gloss. I’ve been using those super glosses in libraries, entry halls, and dining rooms.  Lately, almost every project I work on has at least one room where we’ve really gone for the gloss. And, I am also putting it up on the ceiling in some rooms to create a little bit of sparkle and reflected light.  Generally though, the paler the paint the more matt I want the finish.

Bob Vila: Do you find that if you are going with those super gloss paints you sometimes have trouble with the quality of the sheetrock whether it’s the walls or the ceiling?

Celerie Kemble: Always. I mean every blemish shows, and that’s why it’s really important to have an excellent skim coat. But, I’ve also learned that, even though contractors are really eager to use spray guns to achieve an auto-like finish, the solvent they add to the paint grays the shine. Even if it is applied with a really fine roller, if you get close enough you can still see the marks. So, I’ve resorted to having gloss finishes hand applied.

Bob Vila: When you say “hand applied” are you talking about a brush on?

Celerie Kemble: Brushing it, yes. It’s expensive—and the paints themselves are expensive—but the effect when you use the really good stuff makes the walls look like they are wet forever.  I mean they become almost ceramic.

Bob Vila: It sounds gorgeous. Let’s talk about the influence of growing up in Florida on your color palette since you now call New York home?

Celerie Kemble: Well, I crave levity and cheer and in almost every design I work on I am much more concerned about things that will feel delightful rather than impressive. The feeling that when you enter a room you’ve had your thirst quenched as opposed to just making a statement.

Bob Vila: Yes, I follow that. And, do you still apply that kind of sensibility even if you’re working in a really formal Georgian interior?

Celerie Kemble: I do. I think that color really has no provenance. So, you have the right to use it as long as you are using the right materials. It can make a place feel really fresh to have unexpected color.

Celerie Kemble Black And White Book Cover
Bob 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.