Kathleen Navarra

Kathleen Navarra

Kathleen Navarra

JM: I would like to start the interview by thanking you for joining us. We’re here with Kathleen Navarra and Navarra Designs, and we’re very pleased that we have an interview with you. Can we start by talking about your early influences that led you to design and why you ended up in design?

KN: Well, it’s kind of a funny story. I was a teenager and my neighbor was a designer. She took me to a jobsite, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever, and I went home and said, “I’m going to be a designer!” My parents were a little curious, since I had never taken an art class or anything like that. I did crafty things, like building dollhouses, but I didn’t take any art classes in school. It really didn’t interest me. But I saw that jobsite when I was 16, and I said, “Wow, this is so cool.”


Napa exterior by Navarra Design. Photography by Gary Crawford.

JM: What do you think attracted you to what she was doing? Did it seem glamorous?

KN: No, it was a jobsite. I saw her create space and I thought, “Now, that’s really, really cool.” But I didn’t know anything about architecture and design; I just knew that she was an interior designer. My parents also didn’t know anything about that world. Literally, they were like, okay, all right. And I kind of let it go but thought, “Well, I’m going to go to design school in New York.” We lived in Florida, at the time. We moved from New York to Florida.

JM: That’s a big change. Why did you move?

KN: Well, my dad always loved it there, and he just always wanted to go to Florida.

JM: Were you born in New York?

KN: Yes. Now only my parents and my brothers are in Florida. Everybody else is still in and around New York, Long Island, all over. I told them that I wanted to go to design school when I graduated from high school. They said, “You’re not going back to New York!”

JM: Really? They didn’t want you to go back to New York? Why?

Panoramio, a site installation at the Pratt Institute by Matt Fenton

Panoramio, a site installation at the Pratt Institute by Matt Fenton

KN: My father said, “We took you out of New York. Why do you want to go back there?”

JM: Why didn’t he like New York?

KN: He just thought Florida was such a much better place to be, and New York, at that time, was a lot more dangerous.

JM: So they were concerned about danger, maybe the weather…

KN: New York was a dangerous place, and I kept telling him I wanted to go to Pratt, which was in Brooklyn, in a very bad neighborhood. I mean, literally, they have lockdown at 10:00, and I was intent on going there. My dad said, “You’re not going.” They were adamant. So I decided to go somewhere else, and I went to school in Manhattan.

JM: At the New York School of Design.

KN: New York School of Interior Design. Yes, and I loved it!

JM: That’s so great.

New York School of Interior Design in Manhattan

New York School of Interior Design in Manhattan

KN: It was just one of those things. My parents probably thought I was just going to go and either love it or hate it. And I loved it. I absolutely loved it. And it was a long road; it was a five year program. It was pretty intense.

JM: What was the curriculum like?

KN: Well, students had a choice. I did a lot of construction and I did a lot of architecture within the program. With the shorter programs, those courses weren’t offered; they just offered some interior design and decorating.

JM: So you spent time learning construction details?

KN: Yes. We did construction documents, and that part fascinated me. But no one ever suggested that I go to architecture school. Once I even had a counselor tell me that architecture was not for girls.

JM: Oh dear.

KN: My, how times have changed.

JM: Wow. So you inquired about it, and …

KN: She was an art teacher who was also a counselor, and she said, “Women don’t go into architecture.”

But architecture is for girls!

But architecture is for girls!

JM: What did you think when she said that to you?

KN: I thought, “O-kay…” She said, “She’s an interior designer-” (I was telling her about my neighbor), “Why don’t you pursue that?” I just didn’t know, and I knew that my neighbor was an interior designer, and that seemed good. So that’s what I did, and I loved it, I did, I just loved it. It was fascinating. It was great to be in New York, it was a very international school, with a lot of kids from Europe and Asia, so it was interesting. Grueling, but interesting. It was tough. New York is expensive and I worked two jobs.

JM: Two jobs while you were going to school.

KN: Yes.

JM: That’s a lot.

KN: It was New York. So I never got to live there and really enjoy it. It is just one of those places that is very difficult to live in if you’re not making money.

JM: It’s a struggle.

KN: Yes.

JM: Renting a closet somewhere for a “bedroom”.

KN: Yes. I slept in a something we called it “the coffin.” I slept in a trundle bed my first year, literally, a trundle bed on the floor in a one-bedroom apartment. I had a roommate, and that was all we could afford. But what did I know? I was 18 and 19, and I was excited to be on my own.

JM: It’s great that you followed your inner voice and not your parents’ voice.

KN: I know. They were thrilled. Once they saw that I was thriving and I really did have an interest in it, they relaxed. But they really just couldn’t believe it because I had showed no interest at all in art or anything. It would have been one thing if I was a kid that was always in art classes, but I wasn’t. I was building dollhouses.

JM: Actually building them is a little bit different than what most children do with dollhouses.

KN: Yes. And then I worked for designers through school.

JM: Did they have an internship program there and a close connection with the design community in New York?

KN: No, not really. The summer I started, a job posting went up on the board, which I applied for and got. Then the following semester, one of the women in my drafting class offered me a job based on my drafting skill. She had her own firm and she was just taking some courses to brush up on things. She asked me to help her with drafting projects for her business.

JM: Wow, that’s great.


Historic Piedmont Residence dining room by Navarra Designs. Photography by Matthew Millman

KN: I wound up working for both of them throughout my schooling. I was lucky because they were both very flexible about my hours. I worked for one a couple of days a week and the other three days a week. It was great!

JM: Are those firms still in business?

KN: One is. Now she’s in Connecticut, but she’s scaled back. She had her own family and her life changed greatly. I lost touch with the other woman. She had a family tragedy and she stopped communicating. She was so talented. I was lucky, they were both really wonderful women, wonderful mentors.

JM: What happened when you graduated?

KN: I fell in love and I followed my heart to Pittsburgh. Actually, that was the best thing that ever happened to me; I had two of the best jobs.

JM: In Pittsburgh?

KN: I know, right?

JM: You don’t usually associate Pittsburgh with a mecca of design.

KN: Well, they have all those Carnegie Mellon grads.

JM: True story.

KN: There was this one place that I interviewed with before I moved, and I walked in, and thought, “This place is unreal!” It had really great, tall ceilings, brick walls, and they had all these sketches all over. I really wanted to work there. They didn’t have a job, but I met the principal. They were design fanatics, and he just loved me. He liked my experience, but there were no openings. P.S.: One year later, he called me and said, “I have an opening.” So I quit my job at a large firm and I went and worked for him. He gave me quite the chance. I really owe him a lot.

JM: Who was he?

Charles Luke Desmone

Charles Luke Desmone

KN: Charles Luke Desmone, of Charles Desmone and Associates Architects. He always hired young talent from Carnegie Mellon. I worked with some of the best people, just unbelievable minds. It was so exciting. And I was an interior designer, so they tortured me.

JM: They tortured you. What forms of torture did practice?

KN: They made me cry, often.

JM: Did they really?

KN: Yes.

JM: Why?

KN: Because, here they were in this hot little firm with all these architects and they couldn’t understand why he hired me.

JM: Wow.

KN: “Interior desecrator.”

JM: That’s what they called you?

KN: But now, they’re two of my best friends.

JM: The people who tortured you?

KN: Yes. Well, actually, Chip, the owner’s son, really was the one who doled most of the torture on me. The other guys were, actually, really helpful. I mean, they gave

Charles L. “Chip” Desmone

Charles L. “Chip” Desmone

me a hard time, but more jokingly. But Chip, he did torture me.

JM: And you held your own.

KN: At the end of the day, he made me a much better designer. They had me doing structural plans.

JM: Wow.

KN: I didn’t know anything about structural plans. Chip said, “If you want to do this, you have to learn.” And I said, “I want to do this.” He said, “Okay…” Of course I faced him. Our drafting tables were back to back, so I had to look at him all day. And I’d look up…

JM: You’d look at him and say, “I’m doing my structural plans, see? Here’s an I-beam, dammit.”

KN: Well, they gave me a chance, they really did. Chip’s father always said to him, “She won’t prove me wrong.” I had a lot of good experience by the time I got out of school, but then that job really set me in motion.

JM: How long did you work there?

KN: A little over a year, then I moved here. And by the time I got here, I had had such good experience. It was the end of 1990 and things were booming here. I had gone back to New York, and I had broken up with the boy.

JM: That happens.

KN: I wound up actually loving Pittsburgh, but I needed to get out of there. It was a bit of a struggle because I loved what I was doing, but I had no ties there at all. My boss wanted me to go to architecture school, but I decided to come here.

JM: Why San Francisco?

Pacific Heights living room by Navarra Designs. Photography by Matthew Millman

Pacific Heights living room by Navarra Designs. Photography by Matthew Millman

KN: Well, a lot of my New York friends were here.

JM: Really?

KN: They had moved here, and when I visited them, they would tell me that it was booming in SF, and that I should interview and get a job. New York was dead. So I did. I got a job and I moved a month later, and that was 20 years ago!

JM: Doesn’t time fly?

KN: Yes, it’s frightening to say that. It’s like, oh, I’m old enough to…

JM: It’s sobering, isn’t it? So it was kind of an economic decision to move here, but your friends were based here too.

KN: Yes – I had friends here, and I got a job.

JM: Where did you work?

KN: A small design firm, Charles Lester and Associates. The economy started to turn a year later and he started laying people off, so it was kind of a scary time.

JM: I remember those days.

KN: I was the last standing employee at that company. I lasted there for three years until I couldn’t take it anymore. And that’s when I started my own business.

JM: So was that 1993?

KN: Yes. I left. I took a big leap with one client.

JM: Wow.

KN: That was my first foray.

JM: Are you still in touch with that client?

KN: Yes I am, actually. I keep clients. A lot of my clients have been with me for a long time.

JM: Do you see yourself as having a trademark element or something that’s present in all of your designs that you developed?

KN: Color is one of our big things. People come to us for that reason. Many people are afraid of color, they’re afraid to use it. Generally, people need to be pushed to do it. But once they live with it, they can’t imagine living without it. That topic kind of segues into what Jeff and I are doing here. This April will be three years for our showroom!

Bath by Navarra Designs. Photography by Gary Crawford

Bath by Navarra Designs. Photography by Gary Crawford

JM: Congratulations.

KN: Thanks.

JM: It’s kind of a thrilling time to start a new business.

KN: Really. What have we done?!? Oh, but it’s been great. It’s been amazing. But to get back to color: We will always have color in here. You don’t really see a lot of color in retail shops. Having color here has been a real draw.

JM: Well, it is vibrating with color, but from my limited experience, they’re unusual colors. They’re not the colors that everybody is using, not necessarily the trendy colors.

KN: Yes.

JM: Why do you think you have a different take on color that’s more interesting?

KN: That’s a good question.

JM: Do you see that in yourself?

KN: We had an exhibition when I was in school, and this very famous designer requested an interview with me because of one of the projects I did. She said, “Your innate sense of color is remarkable. You were born with that.” I was 20 at the time, and it didn’t dawn on me that I saw things differently in that manner.

JM: Who was the designer?

KN: Barbara D’Arcy.

Barbara D’Arcy

Barbara D’Arcy

JM: Barbara D’Arcy.

KN: She was an old timer. I don’t even know if she’s still alive. She was old then, and I was blown away.

JM: But she noticed your sense of color, even when you were in school.

KN: Yes she did. To me, color is the easy part. She said, “That’s innate. I’m telling you, that does not walk through the

Image from The Bloomingdale’s Book of Home Decorating by Barbara D’Arcy

Image from The Bloomingdale’s Book of Home Decorating by Barbara D’Arcy

door every day.” I don’t know where that comes from, but for me, fashion is a huge influence.

JM: Oh, really?

KN: Huge influence.

JM: I can tell!



KN: I’d much rather read… “Read…”(Uses hands to make quotations marks) I’d much rather look at fashion magazines.

JM: I’d rather look at Vogue.



KN: Me, too. I’d much rather look at Vogue.

JM: I read it for the articles!

KN: That’s right. (Laughs) They have articles. They try, actually.

JM: They do.

KN: They do. I’m kind of impressed. But I do read fashion magazines. That’s kind of my guilty pleasure when I travel—I buy every last fashion magazine. That’s where I source a lot of my color. They’re ahead of the design trend, and that does influence me. The interiors business is very driven by that because a lot of it comes from Europe. Fashion houses start a trend, and then a year later, you’ll start seeing that color creep in to interior design.

JM: Do you pay attention to those trends, the rise and falls of colors and their migration around the globe?

KN: No, it’s more like I get captivated by certain things. I’ll see a dress and say, “Isn’t that fantastic?” Then I realize I’m using that color all year, and then I get bored with it a year later, and then I’ll see it all over the design magazines again. So I don’t really do color forecasting – at least it’s not something I’m really conscious about, I just do it.

JM: Do you have some favorite designers?

KN: I probably have more favorite architects.

JM: Oh, really?

KN: Robert Stern and Michael Graves were probably my big influencers in school, which is interesting. I think that was largely because I loved the construction aspect of it. To me, they are two of the best interiors architects. A lot of architects aren’t good at interiors. Robert and Michael know how to do interiors. They know how to lead you through a space and transition through the space brilliantly. I used to attend every Michael Graves lecture I possibly could when I was in New York. I was completely gob- smacked. To me, he was the quintessential renaissance architect. He would even work with color! The man’s not afraid of anything.

JM: So he was an architect who used color.

Pacific Heights Living Room with bench by Kathleen Navarra. Photography by Matthew Millman

Pacific Heights Living Room with bench by Kathleen Navarra. Photography by Matthew Millman

KN: Yes. Luis Barragán was also one of my favorites. He used color. All my favorites are architects. I never really thought about that.

JM: Are a lot of the projects that you do in conjunction with an architect, or because you have that background, do you not rely on that as much?

KN: We don’t. I wouldn’t say it’s 50/50, since we do some projects with architects. But we tend to get a lot of kitchens and baths. We tend to do somewhat smaller projects, I think, and we do them ourselves.

JM: Do you do the plans yourselves?

KN: Yes, and we do all the construction drawings.

JM: Do you get the permits?

KN: Well, the contractor or the homeowner usually get the permit. If it’s a project that requires an engineer or an architect, we’ll get them on board. But for kitchens and baths, we usually don’t. We have this discussion constantly because working with more architects might bring larger scale projects. We do tend to get one-offs, although those often segue into other things. Sometimes a client will start construction and then decide to freshen up other rooms.

JM: Mission creep?

KN: Yes, absolutely. That has worked well for us. The fact that we do everything has gotten us through two downturns.

Piedmont living room by Navarra Designs. Photography by Matthew Millman

Piedmont living room by Navarra Designs. Photography by Matthew Millman

JM: You must have quite a bit of flexibility because I’m sure you have the capacity to do large projects.

KN: Yes, we do have that capacity, and we do take on large projects. We’re working on a couple right now, and that’s just the nature of what we do. People who have seen one of our kitchens often call us to do their kitchen. I enjoy it!

JM: One of the things that I love most about remodeling is creating a modern kitchen. It’s very satisfying.

KN: Yes. A lot of our clients cook, and I cook.

JM: Oh, really?

KN: It’s funny because I have a lot of clients ask if they should go to a kitchen designer. I tell them, “No, you don’t need a kitchen designer. I’m a kitchen designer.” It’s not all I do, but I do cook, and I think a lot of kitchen designers are people who don’t cook.

JM: Yes. People who don’t cook. There have been many kitchens that we have constructed that are not being used: State of the art, six-burner Wolf ranges…

KN: They’ve got it all.

JM: And it doesn’t get used.

KN: Yes. Most of our clients cook. It’s great, because we really have to plan everything down to the last detail. We have nice clients. We’re lucky. We have really nice clients.

Piedmont Kitchen by Kathleen Navarra Designs. Photography by Matthew Millman

Piedmont Kitchen by Kathleen Navarra Designs. Photography by Matthew Millman

JM: That’s great. May it ever be thus!

KN: Yes.

JM: Have you found a little bit of a downturn in your business in this economy?

KN: Yes. Things, we feel like things are picking up for sure, but it was a rough couple of years. Jeff and I opened our shop in April three years ago, and that fall, everything fell apart. However, right after we opened, in walked a woman who was our biggest client for the next year. She saw us setting up and she loved the aesthetic she came in and she hired us. Our shop has driven a lot of work our way.

JM: Is she a neighbor here, in this neighborhood?

KN: No, she’s one of those people that scours. She was potentially buying a house, and then, by the time they bought the house, we were open. She came in to talk to us about design services. We were thrilled! We’ve gotten some really good clients through our shop.

JM: How did you meet Jeff?

Jeff Holt and Kathleen Navarra at their showroom, JAK Home. Photography by Ed Ritger

Jeff Holt and Kathleen Navarra at their showroom, JAK Home. Photography by Ed Ritger

KN: Jeff and I know each other from the industry.

JM: Oh, really?

KN: Yes. He used to be on the other side, on the showroom side.

JM: What showroom?

KN: Well, I, originally, met him at Kneedler-Fauchère a gazillion years ago. We became really good friends and he

The Kneedler- Fauchère Showroom in San Francisco in the 50s. Jeff and Kathleen were but a twinkle in their parents’ eyes…

The Kneedler- Fauchère Showroom in San Francisco in the 50s. Jeff and Kathleen were but a twinkle in their parents’ eyes…

came to work for me eight years ago.

JM: Did he come to work with you before this showroom was open?

KN: Yes, we’d been working together at Navarra Design for years. And he and I had always talked about having a shop, in what capacity we weren’t really sure, but we had always talked about doing something. When he came to work for me, we were just really, really busy and we just wanted to make sure that Navarra Design was running really well. He’s been the general manager and it’s been great. Then we moved into this space, and it was just one of those things. We kind of happened upon this space. We weren’t really ready to move. Our lease at our place in South Park lease was going to be up. Two of our girls walked by here, both independently, at two different times, and both mentioned it. We thought, “Wow, maybe we should go and look at it.” So we did. We came one day and we were peaking through the door. As I was leaning on the door it pushed open. This woman comes around the corner, and we said, “Sorry!” We told her our story, and she said, “Come in, come in. I own the building and I just happened to be in town so I came by to see what was happening.” Jeff and I started talking to her, and we fell in love with her. She was just the sweetest woman. And then the story – she started telling us the story of this building.

JM: What was the story of the building?

KN: The story is that Julia Morgan moved her wood carver, Jules Suppo, here from Switzerland.

JM: Hence the carvings on the exterior, which are still here.

KN: He did all the carvings for San Simeon, and he carved everything from this space.

Balcony, corbels, frieze at exterior of JAK Home, all carved by Jules Suppo. Photography by Sandy Wood.

Balcony, corbels, frieze at exterior of JAK Home, all carved by Jules Suppo. Photography by Sandy Wood.

JM: Really? Unbelievable!

KN: And he lived upstairs with his family.

JM: Wow.

KN: We said, “Okay, if this place doesn’t have good juju, we don’t know what does.”

JM: It is a really beautiful space. The ceilings are nice and high… Did Julia Morgan design this space, then?

KN: Yes.

JM: Did she design the whole building?

KN: Yes.

JM: So there’s a space upstairs?

KN: There’s an apartment, or two apartments – there’s one right above here, and then there’s a third floor, I think, that got added I don’t know when. We’ve never actually seen it, but it looks a little rigged.

JM: As many third floors in San Francisco do.

KN: And then, when the owner was renovating the building, she had to bring some things up to code, and she built out the basement, and there’s a Pilates studio down there.

JM: That’s also really good juju.

KN: Yes. We worked with her to clean up the backyard so now we have access to that, which is so nice when we have nice weather. It is nice to be able to go out there and sit.

JM: This space seems to work really well for you, with the main part of the showroom up front here, and then the offices in the back.

KN: It’s really good. When we first moved in, we had this all as our office because we hadn’t opened the shop yet. People kept stopping and saying, “Oh, what kind of shop are you going to be,” because it’s a retail space. And we were like maybe we should do this. We were kind of ruminating about different ideas and we were like, you know what? Let’s do it.

JM: You got some signs from the universe, then.

KN: Yeah, and we were like, let’s go. And we did it pretty quickly.

JM: How did you find your pieces that you have?

KN: Well, we work with some manufacturers, and we do a lot of found things that we reupholster. Take that chair: It’s an old chair, and that’s a Suzani we bought in Europe.

JM: Suzani, is that a type of tapestry?

KN: Yes. They are typically used as throws or rugs. They’re really popular right now. We got that one a year ago last September in Paris at a show, and even though it was a little sacrilegious, we cut it up and put it on the chair.

JM: And how about the artists on the wall? How do you find your artists?

KN: A lot of people come to us, which is kind of nice. We get a lot of solicitation, which is great.

JM: Really? That’s great.

KN: It is! For example, that artist has a shop just across the street.

JM: What’s her name?

KN: Leigh Wells.

JM: That’s an interesting combination. She’s starting with found objects and then making the modern.

KN: Yeah. She’s a very talented woman. She’s very talented.

JM: Did she solicit you or did you see her studio?

KN: Actually, she had some pieces up at another little shop down the street, and she came in here one day, talked to Jeff, and said, “I’d love for you to show my work!” We also work with Michael Thompson Gallery, showing pieces like that one over there (points to photograph by Larry Hatlett). They have art and framing and we often get pieces from them. And this is Brad Huntzinger, who works out of Berkeley. Do you know Ironies?

JM: Ironies?

KN: Ironies is his furniture company. They’re based in Berkeley and he paints, and we just bought this from him.

JM: Is that also one of his pieces in that Napa Dining Room?

KN: No, that’s not his. To segue into art, a lot of our clients have art collections which we can pull from as we’re working. Like this job here has –

JM: This one here?


Napa dining room by Navarra Designs. Photography by Gary Crwaford

KN: Yes. They have great art. They have a house in San Francisco, and we re-did this house in Napa for them. She invited us to come to the SF house to source artwork for the Napa home. This dining room is very ethereal because of the way the light comes into the room. This photograph evokes exactly how that room feels when you are looking at it. We had to put that painting in there. That room always feels that way because of the way the light filters in.

Napa living room by Kathleen Navarra Design. Photography by Gary Crawford

JM: This is beautiful. The way it’s framed with the wide opening and the stairs going up and the simple casing at the top… The whole thing looks like a painting. And I can’t say why it looks like that, but it just looks like something I would have seen in the impressionist show in San Francisco.

KN: We did subtle color in there, keeping it fairly neutral. The rug provided the color in there.

JM: It is quite colorful. Well, to talk more about some of the compositions in your other rooms: I love this room and the way that the elements are all so disparate – the gargoyle and the blue lamps and this very ethereal etching and this beautiful light fixture. How did you create that? Is it hard to pull that all together, or was it very obvious to you?

Pacific Heights Dining Room by Kathleen Navarra Design. Photography by Gary Crawford.

Pacific Heights Dining Room by Kathleen Navarra Design. Photography by Gary Crawford.

KN: Things morph. It’s funny because we wind up starting with something like the lamps and then we kind of work around and through that. Our client had these (the etchings), and I always thought they would go in there because this room was just kind of neutral. We wanted these (the lamps) to be a hot color.

JM: How did you find those lamps?

KN: Antique shop.

JM: At an antique shop!

KN: Yes. It was kind of one of those things. Sometimes you set out to look for something, and other times, you’re just doing drive-bys and you’re like, “Oh my God, there it is!” That’s what happened with these.

JM: And were you looking for something in that kind of aqua tone or –


Pacific Heights Dining Room by Kathleen Navarra Design. Photography by Matthem Millman.

KN: We wanted that color because as you saw in this other picture over here – that’s her living room – the room between here and this room has a very traditional damask pattern of gray and this color (aqua). We wanted to carry that color through. This room had its punches of color, which you don’t necessarily see in the photos.

JM: Is there a piano on the other side of this room?

KN: Yes.

JM: And the piano has an amazing painting above it that looks so great with the piano. And I’m also sure it looks really good across from this.

KN: Yes. The birch is by Daniel Tousignant. I can’t remember who this artist is (pointing to abstract painting above fireplace), but Daniel is a local guy, and this painting was just so stark and so beautiful. Again, in this room everything was very neutral, and then we have these pops of color. This was actually a really bright purple (pointing to upholstery on the double benches), and then we have these orange and yellow throw pillows on the piano side.

JM: And there was a striped bench at the piano.

KN: Yes. Exactly. That was the one under the piano.

JM: Right.

KN: So again, there’s that little pop of color. When you come up the stairs, there’s that really traditional damask, but it looks really modern. We put a mirrored chest below it. We like to mix things; we like to mix it up when we can get our clients to do it.

JM: Do you have some clients that are hesitant to do a mix?

KN: Yes.

JM: I think there’s a lot in the media right now about mixing old with new and juxtaposition of disparate elements. I see that a lot in design magazines.

KN: Yes, that is true. I don’t think it always works.

Pacific Heights Living room by Navarra Designs, photography by Matthew Millman.

Pacific Heights Living room by Navarra Designs, photography by Matthew Millman.

JM: Talented designers do it right.

KN: I think people are afraid of that because they don’t necessarily like it. Or maybe when I say “Antique,” or “Something vintage,” they think, “English” or “French Country.” Which of course is not what I mean at all. They’re just a little afraid because they’re not exposed to it. So it does depend on the client. We have a lot of young clients, and I think most of them are first time design users.

JM: What’s it like to work with that clientele, as opposed to a very experienced client, someone who’s done a lot of remodeling?

KN: There’s the time factor and the education factor. Experienced people are more trusting, maybe because they’ve already been through the process, so they’re a little more trusting of their knowledge, which makes them more comfortable. I’ll say, “Let’s make that cabinet red,” and they can say, “I’ve done painted cabinets before, so… I can go for that.” Someone who’s using us for the first time would respond less enthusiastically. But we do have a lot of first time designer users, and a lot of people with kids and dogs.

JM: And you have dogs in the office, so obviously you’re a good ally there.

KN: Yes. We have a lot of great clientele, and we do some really beautiful high end work. But for the most part, our clients live in their houses. We don’t do super precious design. Our design is livable, very livable. There are rooms, I think there’s one in Hillsborough…

JM: Is this the Hillsborough?

KN: No, that was the showcase house.

JM: This is a showcase house? Oh, I could not get over this room, and these wall coverings.

KN: I love that paper.

Pacific Heights Living room by Navarra Designs, photography by Matthew Millman.

Pacific Heights Living room by Navarra Designs, photography by Matthew Millman.

JM: This wallpaper is remarkable! Tell us a little bit about that.

KN: That was the existing ceiling in there.

JM: Even the paint?

KN: Yes – it got cleaned, so it became a little bit brighter. And my jumping off point, there’s a little bit of this color (points to blue patent leather ottoman) in the ceiling.

JM: Oh, really? Oh, wow.

KN: You didn’t really notice it, of course, until you brought it down. And I kind of wanted the walls to be a little bit more modern looking, but with some color to it.

JM: Was this mirror or was this molding there?

KN: Yes, all the molding existed. It was a small room, but it was an incredible room.

JM: That’s a small room? It looks huge.

KN: Yes, well, compared to the other rooms in the house, I guess. I mean, it wasn’t tiny, but it wasn’t huge. It probably looks a little bit bigger than it was, but it opened on to the living room this way, and then it had eight-foot wide hallways, which was fantastic. And then there was that weird, weird bathroom, which was really difficult to photograph.

Pacific Heights bathroom by Navarra designs. Photography by Matthew Millman.

Pacific Heights bathroom by Navarra designs. Photography by Matthew Millman.

JM: So this is a bathroom that’s off of this room.

KN: Exactly. So this little piece is around that corner. That area had a dropped ceiling. Regarding this wallpaper (pointing to walls above vanity): I just wanted that room to have some movement. It was the oddest space. This little hallway here had 12 foot ceilings, and there was just a narrow hall going back to the toilet room, and then this other room was around that corner. It was just weird. The bathroom has a dropped ceiling. The connections between the rooms were really odd, so we really needed to do something interesting, almost to confuse people.

JM: You did mirrors…

KN: I did a mirror, I did wainscoting with the wallpaper below, and all of this was mirrored, the walls from here up to the ceiling. So it created this wild illusion. There was this snowy owl painting hung on the mirror, it was just wild. People walked in and they felt as if they were in a funhouse.

JM: Which showcase house is that?

KN: On Scott Street. I think we did this almost three years ago. In April, it will be three years ago. It was great. It just wanted it to be really sophisticated and it felt very swanky.

JM: That is very swanky. I love it.

KN: Many men said, “I want to smoke in here!” We said, “That’s exactly what we wanted, but you’re not allowed!”

JM: Well, and how about this ottoman, I like the definition between this, it looks almost like –

KN: It’s patent leather.

JM: It’s patent leather and shiny, very modern.

KN: That’s what we do, humor with a twist.

JM: When was that furniture made?

KN: We found this company when Jeff and I were at a trade show, where there were a lot of French pieces. They had an ottoman similar to this. When we were bidding on the showcase home, I told Jeff that we had to have to have that ottoman and do something really modern with it. We ordered it and then we never heard from the company – they wouldn’t call us back. Nothing.

JM: You ordered it, including giving a down payment?

KN: No. They just said, “Send us 50 percent when we send you the confirmation.” Then they just wouldn’t call us back, and it was bizarre. I wound up designing another ottoman because they would never call us back, which is now in our shop. We’ve sold several of them. Then, a week before the showcase house opened, I was here late one night, and Fed-ex showed up at 7:30 at night, with a big box. It was the ottoman, not upholstered! I was so excited because it really was the quintessential example of Navarra design: A very traditional piece with a modern twist.

JM: It’s awesome. Are you doing the showcase house this year?

KN: Yes.

JM: You are? Are we allowed to say that on the interview?

KN: Yes.

JM: Which room are you doing?

KN: The living room.

JM: Great!

KN: Yes, it’s very exciting. Well, we thought about going for the kitchen – you know, you guys did the cabinets at the Sea Cliff kitchen.

Seacliff kitchen by Navarra Designs. Photography by Gary Crawford.

Seacliff kitchen by Navarra Designs. Photography by Gary Crawford.

JM: And did we do the metalwork on this piece (pointing to pantry)?

KN: No, that’s John Haines. He’s up in Sonoma.

JM: How did you come up with the inspiration for seaweed? It’s a beautiful sculpture.

KN: That whole kitchen was based on being at the water. That’s their pantry. We did the floors in a limestone slabs cut into planks to resemble a boardwalk. That sandy color and the light blue were both very ocean-like. We were saying to ourselves, “What else, what else, what else?” I came up with the seaweed theme, so that’s what we did. We just drew it, and he made it.

JM: It’s a beautiful, artisanal piece of work.

KN: Yes, and it was a really simple frame. It was really only attached at the bottom, so the leaves were all kind of free-form. They stuck out from the glass.

JM: Did they wave a little bit since they’re not attached?

KN: Just a tiny bit. He welded some of them together so that they wouldn’t strike the glass.

JM: Does this piece still exist in that house?

Seacliff kitchen by Navarra Designs. Photography by Gary Crawford.

Seacliff kitchen by Navarra Designs. Photography by Gary Crawford.

KN: We don’t know. She was our client for many years, and we had done many projects for her. Then she said, “Guess what? I’m going to buy a new house and it’s going to be the next showcase house!” We had done so many showcase houses, and they’re exhausting and they’re really expensive. But this turned out great. We had a great budget, and the kitchen was fantastic. We still get jobs from this kitchen, and that was eight years ago!

JM: Well, I also wanted to talk about this composition. I just love the way that this painting looks with this lamp and –

KN: I know. Sometimes, I just fall in love with a piece, like that piece. We have been told that there’s humor in our work, and I thought that piece was hysterical.

JM: Which one, the armoire?

KN: Yes. It’s very serious, yet it’s funny.

JM: Is it an armoire?

Pacific Heights living room by Navarra Designs. Photography by Matthew Millman

Pacific Heights living room by Navarra Designs. Photography by Matthew Millman

KN: It’s a liquor cabinet!

JM: It’s a liquor cabinet. That is hysterical!

KN: This guy is holding wine.

JM: He’s drinking, yes, but he does look very serious. This painting has a medieval quality to it.

KN: Yes. It was stunning, the piece was stunning. It was a show stopper.

JM: Where did you find it?

KN: At a local antique place. The proprietor probably still has it. People loved it, yet he couldn’t sell it to save his life. We thought we almost sold it a couple of times during the showcase house because people were very enthralled with it. It’s so interesting and these have handles, I think it used to be a tray.

JM: So you can take the door off and use it as a tray?

KN: No, but the door opens, it was hinged. This is all parchment. It was really beautiful. I had seen it in the showroom, and then when we were bidding on this room I thought, “That piece has to be in this room.” But it was low, it wasn’t very tall at all, so that’s why we wanted something above it.

JM: How did you find this lamp?

KN: We saw it somewhere. It’s one of those things where we find one piece, and that informs what the next piece is going to be. This was short, so we needed to do something that had some height and then we found this painting, which we loved.

JM: Is this also a local artist?

KN: Yes, he’s the same artist who did the birch trees that you love, Daniel Tousignant. We actually have a couple of his other paintings. He is so good, so talented. He does miniatures, too. One piece informs another. It’s never just the whole shebang, there’s always one piece that starts it off. This liquor cabinet did create some challenges because it was low and the ceilings were high. We also had this curtain that was draped from one side to the other in one asymmetrical swoop. We created this incredible drama in the room. And then, I put this low piece –

JM: It really grabs your attention.

KN: In fact, we just got a job from this.

JM: From this showcase house?

KN: Yes.

JM: Did someone see it on your website?

KN: No, she was there and she took copious notes and she called us toward the end of November. She was interviewing people that she had liked in that house. People hold on to those books, which is great. We’re a testament to the fact that it works. When we do something people respond to, people do take notice. People may not necessarily have a project at the time. This woman called us because she’s selling her house and buying another place.

JM: Does this wallpaper still exist in this house, do you know?

KN: Yes.

JM: It does? And did they keep any of your pieces?

KN: No. They didn’t even keep the draperies. The draperies were so wild.

JM: They didn’t keep the ottoman?

KN: No, but we sold that.

JM: You sold that right away, probably.

KN: We sold that ten times over. Everyone loves that.

JM: It’s so fun.

KN: One of my friend’s husband said, “Kathleen, you always do something incredibly memorable in your rooms. There’s always something that’s a little off.” I guess he’s right.

JM: Back to color, I thought this was an unusual color combination. I don’t know if you agree. I love it, but I don’t, necessarily, always see this kind of kumquat with olive, and yellow…

Hillsborough entry by Navarra Designs. Photography by Gary Crawford.

Hillsborough entry by Navarra Designs. Photography by Gary Crawford.

KN: Yes.

JM: It’s really beautiful.

KN: The owner of that house said she surprised herself because she never thought she’d be living in an orange living room. It’s such a beautiful room. This house was very beige when they bought it. All beige, white and black, and that was not her. She already had these (points to panels).

JM: What are these?

KN: They’re framed panels, and they’re French.

JM: Are they tapestries?

KN: No, they’re paintings.

JM: Are they antique paintings?

KN: Yes. These people have some incredible pieces. There really wasn’t any place else in the house for them, and there were actually four of them. I said, “Let’s have those be our jumping off point. Let’s put them in the entry.” They set the tone for the house, and that’s also where we pulled the color from. She was very, very adventurous.

JM: But even though this is kind of adventurous, it’s still muted. It doesn’t hit you over the head.

KN: No, that’s an accent wall and you don’t feel like it’s too much at all. Everything, it all flows.

JM: Is that something you strive for, to try to get things in a room to flow, and then to flow through a house, both physically and visually?

Hillsborough dining room by Navarra Designs. Photography by Gary Crawford.

Hillsborough dining room by Navarra Designs. Photography by Gary Crawford.

KN: Yes.

JM: What happens to inhabitants when you don’t do that?

KN: I’m usually not there.

JM: You won’t visit those houses.

KN: People often start by having us decorate one room and then we move into other rooms. How do you do that? Easily. There can be a common thread, even if the next room is a totally different color. We always pull something from the room next to it. So you may not realize that there is that transition happening, but it is happening. Like with that entry color, that’s where we jumped off with that color.

JM: The kind of kumquat.

KN: Yes, we did a much more saturated tone in the living area.

Hillsborough living room by Navarra Designs. Photography by Gary Crawford.

Hillsborough living room by Navarra Designs. Photography by Gary Crawford.

JM: Oh, really?

KN: Yes. So there is this flow that happens, and then in the dining room, the walls are in that color (points to winged chair). So there is a flow that gets created.

JM: And is that something that was discussed during your training?

KN: Not so much. The woman that I worked for in New York (she really just did decorating) – that woman could do traditional work like nobody’s business. I think more than anything, she taught me about creating flow. I learned a lot from her. She used a lot of color. Her interiors were really traditional, very beautiful, and everything flowed beautifully.

JM: What do you mean by traditional?

Manhattan Living room by Mark Hampton, circa 1980. Photography by Thomas Loof

Manhattan Living room by Mark Hampton, circa 1980. Photography by Thomas Loof

KN: Major florals, lots of antiques, chintz. I could do traditional work with my eyes closed in my sleep. To me, it’s so easy.

JM: Is traditional work less compelling to you?

KN: Not necessarily because I think traditional fabrics can be very colorful. I love pattern. We use a lot of pattern in our work. Even in a more clean contemporary space, we still have pattern, and lots of texture. We don’t just do clean, flat fabrics But there’s always a lot of texture. There’s a job that we’re going to get photographed soon, which has a lot of seemingly simple fabrics, not a lot of pattern, per se, but lots of texture and pops of color. But what was your question?

JM: Well, I hear people talking about “flow” a lot. Is it the kind of thing that if you do it too intentionally it gets too jarring or noticeable?

KN: I think people want that flow. There is a sense of being more comfortable when something flows. People complain about showcase houses because they don’t necessarily flow. Imagine that in your own house. The two rooms that don’t count are kids’ rooms and power rooms. There, you can do whatever you want. I’m doing two little girls’ rooms right now and we’re doing a hot pink wall, bright orange in the cabinets, and their parents like granite and beige. So this was a stretch. But they’re kids’ rooms. They don’t have to be like the rest of the house.

Children’s bathroom by Navarra Designs. Photography by Gary Crawford.

Children’s bathroom by Navarra Designs. Photography by Gary Crawford.

JM: How old are those kids?

KN: I think they’re 6 and 8.

JM: So pretty young. Did you go to the Elle Decor showcase house at all?

KN: I’ve only seen pictures of it.

JM: You saw the girl’s room there.

KN: Oh, Grant’s?

JM: Yes. It had a lot of color. Some of the work that has stood out the most to me at the various showcase homes has been the girls’ rooms. There seems to be something about the inner girl which really inspires a lot of flamboyance.

KN: You can have fun.

JM: Really throw in color.

KN: Well, I did that one kid’s room that got me a lot of work, actually.

JM: There’s a kid’s room on your website.

KN: We do a lot of kids’ rooms. At one showcase house that I did, Paul Vincent Wiseman said to me, “Well, tell me…” I said, “Kids need inspiration.” I grew up in a room with a red carpet and a yellow and white lacquer dresser. Some people believe that those rooms need to be quiet and calm, but I think kids need inspiration. That room had a green wall, striped wallpaper going horizontally around the room, blue and white drapes, and hot pink and green toile. And it was, it was fun, it was a really fun room.

JM: Was he convinced?

KN: Oh, yeah, he loved it. Of course I was totally doe-eyed. I was thrilled.

JM: Of course! Tell me about these light fixtures here, which are similar to other cage light fixtures.

KN: Those are by Tracey Kessler.

JM: Tracey Kessler is the designer?

KN: She designed it. Do you know her? She’s a local designer. She won an international design award for that.

JM: For this light fixture?

KN: Yes, several years ago now. People love it. It’s a show stopper. We had it in the front window for a while, and we sold it.

JM: Is that her work, too?

KN: No, that’s, actually a jet engine.

JM: Oh, that is so awesome. Who made that?

KN: Jeff and I found that in the Midwest at the Atlanta Gift Show last year. We do all our buying together. This guy had this great stuff. There was a whole vintage section.

JM: Had he already made it into a lamp?

KN: It was just like that. And he does all these great found item pieces of furniture. Those up there are old French baskets made by another source we met there, which are now all over. They’re in Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn.

JM: I’m seeing this trend a lot now.

KN: I know.

JM: I describe it as being kind of warehousey and rustic, but still, very contemporary, with a lot of exposed light bulbs. When did you first notice this kind of an aesthetic?

KN: Well, Will Wick started doing a lot of that Restoration Hardware look years ago. And Tracey did this many years ago.

JM: Five or ten?


KN: No, no, maybe four. Then literally, just like last year, we started seeing a lot of that, especially the cage part. Jeff and I go to the trade shows and a lot of the companies are doing even little handheld ones or single ones and things that clip on with those old cages. Everything is very industrial.

JM: Why do you think this has so much cachet right now?

KN: I think it partially has to do with recycling. It’s all that old stuff finding new uses and making the look more modern and that (points to Tracey Kessler’s light fixture), certainly, looks modern. I love it.

JM: It’s very compelling and it’s just interesting to observe that more and more. I wonder how long that’s going to last. Which leads me to one of my other questions. So you have an office in New York?

KN: We don’t have a manned office. Before Jeff and I started this store, we were going back and forth and lot, doing a lot of work there. Then we kind of finished up, opened this, and stopped thinking about New York. It was just too much going back and forth. But we did pick up one job last year. When we start thinking about it, jobs start coming.

JM: Do you notice that there are different design fetishes on the East Coast and the West Coast? Are you seeing a lot of that in New York, too?

KN: Yes. There’s a lot more traditional, supertraditional, work there, (think Connecticut, for example), and we’ve done our fair share of that. In that respect, it’s different. New York just has that a huge outlet of traditional work. But again, there’s also contemporary work. We have a lot of clients that have lived here and moved back there, and that’s how we’ve done a lot of work there. The clients that we’re working with now love that Pacific Heights, clean, gray, look. That’s how we got hired; she saw that house when they had just moved there.

JM: The one with the kitchen?

KN: The one with gargoyles. So we’re taking a very traditional Connecticut house, with fairly clean lines, and we’re painting out some of the moldings and just making it a little more modern.

JM: How do you find time to do everything that you have to do, like the shopping? Skip sleep, no eating?

KN: Well, Jeff runs the store, Jeff does all of this. All of this is him. Jeff can take three things and make it into the most amazing composition ever. It’s unreal. He’s great because he loves to move things around. I like putting them in the right place and just leaving them there. But he’s so – he’s super creative. We buy together, but he does all of this. It’s kind of morphed into taking over the shop, with the colors, all the fabrics, finding things… We’re learning. I think we’ve both worked retail, but we’ve never had our own shop, obviously. And it’s very different, it’s a different mindset.

JM: Is it a steep learning curve?

KN: Well, we’re finding what sells and what doesn’t, and what people are looking for. We want to be different. We don’t want to be Crate & Barrel; we don’t want to be Pottery Barn. We’re, definitely higher priced. People come in all the time and think things are expensive, but to us, as designers, we’ll say, “God, that’s so cheap!” Coming from the design side, it’s a whole different ballgame. It’s a very different mindset from the retail market. They only have Restoration Hardware or Room and Board to compare us to. But we want to have something more special than that. That’s why we’ve forayed into more found pieces. We sell those pieces much more quickly. This is from Olean, which is from Ironies, the company I mentioned. But we sell more of our found items and accessories. One of the reasons Jeff and I started talking about this, is that as designers, we have a hard time finding our accessories. We would want accessories for a client; and we’d want to go and grab a whole bunch of stuff and go look at it in the room. We can’t really do that at the design center so much.

JM: So you mean stuff like the vase or the lamps.

Anni chandelier available at JAK Home. Photography by Oly Studio.

Anni chandelier available at JAK Home. Photography by Oly Studio.

KN: Yes. That was a very valuable outcome, just being able to take little things off the shelves and go. We don’t want to go to the design center and order a lamp that takes 12 weeks. At that point in the project, people want things. We’re discovering that accessories sell, so we’re going to try to do more along those lines than furniture. We’ll have smaller pieces.

JM: Is that the one that was in Designer Showcase?

KN: Yes. We took the marble top off and obviously took the sink out of it and just put a wood top on it.

JM: It’s very handsome.

KN: Thanks. I’m supposed to be designing a line of furniture, but I’m lazy or too discombobulated.

JM: Sorry, I don’t think those are the right adjectives to describe you in any way, shape or form.

KN: Well, that is something that we’re working on.

JM: Something for the future, a line of furniture.

Meri side table available at JAK Home. Photography by Oly Studio.

Meri side table available at JAK Home. Photography by Oly Studio.

KN: Yes.

JM: Well, I think that we’ll, probably, just end the interview on that note. It’s been a pleasure talking to you and very inspirational.

KN: Yeah. Come see us at showcase.

JM: Oh, we will.