ITâ€™S ALL IN THE EYE
David Kensington, one of the West Coastâ€™s most sought-after designers, shares insights and inspirations with Gentry Home.
David Kensington designed the interiors of his own Healdsburg ranch to be a relaxed take on a traditional country-style home with a 21st-century aesthetic. His custom-designed furnishingsâ€”rugs, upholstery, locally sourced artworks, and the mix of European and American antiquesâ€”create a modern country compound.
avid Kensington spent 20 years cultivating his interests in design, architecture, and art prior to establishing his own firm in 2005. From his offices in historic Jackson Square, David and his team work closely with clients to create first-class refined environments by juxtaposing modern and traditional interiors to fit the lifestyle of the individual or family.
Gentry: What inspired you to become an interior designer? David Kensington: My inspiration goes back to my childhood when my crazy parents introduced me to the idea of fine living. My grandparents had wealth through their lumber and printing companies, which allowed my family to purchase very fine homes, remodel, and restore them. My mother preferred modern and
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my father, traditional design. During the restoration of a 25,000 sq. ft. mansion on Lake of Isles, Minneapolis, I was old enough to stay by Billy Baldwinâ€™s (my motherâ€™s designer) side as he created paneling, hand-painted wallpapers, and pewter ceilings. I remember how taken I was by how beautiful everything looked when finished and how it all sparkled. The idea of my becoming a designer was part of growing up in that environment. G: Did you study architecture or interior design? DK: Not at first. My father wanted me to become a dentist, so I went to the University of Minnesota Dental School. I was dating a young woman in the architecture department and admired the scale models she was working on, while all I had were old cadavers. I eventually threw out my medical books and announced to my family that I was going to architecture school at UC Berkeley.
Kensington’s own study in San Francisco (far left) features custom chairs in flamed Honduran mahogany and upholstered in mohair by Ayung Jin. A refined Russian burl wood guardian table with bronze mounts contrasts with rugged zebra ottomans. For the interior of Kensington's guest house barn in Healdsburg (center) he drew on his passion for aviation in the the 1940s. The found decorations such as an airplane model, vintage French pedal car and Union Jack flags adorn the great room and play rooms. The color palette was inspired by the Spanish moss hanging from the ancient oaks on the property. Kensington’s San Francisco dining (above) features a white painting by Eric Maxwell Johnson and a table set with china from Hermes and glasses by Baccarat with an Italian Art Deco vase.
G: What were your major influences? DK: Traveling throughout Europe with my parents and seeing many museums, styles of architecture, and elegant homes was a great influence. I was exposed to fine works of art and antiques right from the start. I developed a good eye. During college I continued my travels, especially with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which further exposed me to great collections and collectors. G: How did your independent career as a designer begin? DK: Around 2000, I did an internship at Gensler, a modern, global design firm in San Francisco. I was put into a cubicle, like dozens of other designers in the firm, designing parking garages. Needless to say, it was very boring. But the firm began to realize that I knew a lot more about architecture and design than most. I was included in an interiors design competition for W Hotels in
Chicago. I won the competition but the client could not afford to build what I designed. That didn’t matter to me—I won. I realized, as did everyone else, that my focus excelled at interior architecture and design (not garages). I was then introduced to Paul Wiseman, who hired me. It was for a $10-an-hour position to organize the materials library. All this schooling and that’s what I was offered! I jumped at the chance and never looked back. With Paul Wiseman’s firm I moved from the materials library to junior designer to senior designer. I then worked with Suzanne Tucker for about a year. G: And your first project was . . . ? DK: I bought a house on Buena Vista Park built in the ’50s. Andy Skurman and I worked together on remodeling the house, combining art deco and modern. Before long, I received a call from
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This spectacular villa, inspired by Anrea Palladio’s 16th c. Villa Rotonda in Northern Italy, sits among mature oak, redwood and fruit trees. Kensington worked with architect Sandy Walker of Walker Moody Architects, landscape designer Stephen Suzman of Suzman Cole, and Lencioni Construction to create this extraordinary 25,0000-square-foot home complete with a central rotunda and spiral staircase reaching all three floors.
It’s not about me being comfortable but about being in sync with the creative process and the client’s understanding of that process. A project falls into place when you and your client are speaking the same creative language. When you know what the other person is thinking about the design to the point of almost ﬁnishing each other’s sentences, then all falls into place.
Paul Wiseman’s office asking me to take over a project. I happily accepted the challenge to remodel one of the most prestigious penthouses in San Francisco in a building designed by C.A. Meussdorffer in 1924. I then established my own firm, David Kensington, in 2005. G: What’s your perfect project and how does it all fall into place? DK: Does anything ever really fall into place? It’s not about me being comfortable but about being in sync with the creative process and the client’s understanding of that process. A project falls into place when you and your client are speaking the same creative language. When you know what the other person is thinking about the design to the point of almost finishing each other’s sentences, then all falls into place. That was the case with Mr. Abdullah and his projects. I strive for similar relationships with other clients, all of whom are powerful executives with families for whom I am creating a dream house. The big dream homes for these clients expresses who they are, what they have accomplished, and how they want to be perceived. For my perfect project, I make this dream come true. G: Describe a project that made a dream come true. DK: The Atherton Villa for the Abdullah family is a dream come true. This 25,000-square-foot villa was under construction for five years. The client wanted to live with Greek- and Romaninspired architecture. He was particularly interested in Andrea Palladio’s interpretation of those styles, most specifically Villa Rotonda, a Renaissance villa in northern Italy. Equally inspired by Palladio’s Villa Rotonda, I worked on all aspects of the project’s design in conjunction with Sandy Walker of Walker and Moody Architects, with Lencioni Construction, as well as with Suzman Cole landscape architects, whose lush landscaping is situated
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among mature oak and fruit trees, accented by new gardens. The essence of a true Italian villa is seen throughout the construction. I gathered and directed the many artisans involved, with particular attention to craftsmanship, symmetry, and clarity of design. The neutral color palette of the villa provides a backdrop for the client’s art collection. An eclectic mix of 17th- and 18th-century French and Italian antiques is paired with contemporary pieces I designed. I think this Atherton Villa is a masterpiece of quality—quality of architecture, construction, and design, and it accommodates the lifestyle of the 21st-century family living within it. G: Describe your ideal client? DK: Money is no object! Then, let’s have fun and together create the most interesting house possible. Or, different houses. Several of my clients have multiple homes with different designs. An ideal client can change his concept from traditional to modern, depending on the venue, and isn’t stuck on one style but can move fluidly through concepts of city, country, mountain, and beach. G: Comfort or Styled—what comes first? DK: Stylish Comfort G: What about today’s lack of interest in fine antiques? Antiques have been sought after for decades because of their beauty, exquisite design, and craftsmanship. Today, many great dealers are closing shop because they can barely give them away. DK: I know fine antiques will be back. They have to. It’s a cycle. Just because someone has money does not mean they have taste. People should agree to be educated in the areas they are not familiar with—architecture, design, art, antiques. They should hire someone to advise them. Otherwise, they end up in a soulless environment. If an object does not have a soul—why bother?
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G: What is you favorite part of a project? DK: Everyone thinks it’s shopping, but I love the actual design process. Organizing the many elements of a project and then processing and scheduling everything are my favorite parts of a project—engaging with builders, architects and suppliers, knowing the thickness of floors and depth of walls, paints, fabrics, textures, materials—all of which has to be coordinated. G: What is the first thing you do when you start a project? DK: A project starts with listening to the client and learning what is important to him. I almost always say: Let me explain what I think will make this a great house and let’s see where we agree. G: What do you consider your major strength? DK: My eye—I trust it. I trust my gut. I have been educating these eyes since I was a child. I have been all over the world, seen and studied much, so I trust my eye. G: Do you have a weakness? DK: I am not good at staging. I’m a big-picture designer. My staff has to put all the little things into place. G: What would you do if you retired tomorrow? DK: I would move to Santa Barbara and the Big Island of Hawaii. I would travel, travel, and travel. I would also continue to design.
PHOTO: JACK HUTCHESON
G: So basically what you are doing now. DK: Yes! G: How do you want to be remembered? DK: Being acerbic, bullheaded, and controlling (he says with a broad smile). Also, for bringing people together and working as a team. Knowing how to get a project done. And, I would like people to remember that the project would not have gotten done without me. N
AND NOW FOR A FEW OF DAVID’S FAVORITES FAVORITE PAINTING Graphic Block Paintings by Mark Rothko ANTIQUE FURNITURE Coffer on stand by Andre Charles Boule BACKGROUND COLOR Dove Grey LOCAL DESIGN SOURCES Claudio Mariani Antiques, Dolby Chadwick Gallery FABRIC Fortuny INTERNATIONAL ANTIQUE SOURCE Benjamin Steinitz Antiques, Paris HOTELS/VILLAS THAT INSPIRED YOU Vaux-le-Vicomte, Villa d’Este, Italy
Kensington added an antique Sultanbad carpet and book-matched flamed mahogany paneling in the study of this Atherton Villa. He selected Lucien Rollin armchairs, Italian Calcutta Viola marble plinths, and vintage Italian rock crystal table lamps with lacquered parchment shades.
COUNTRIES THAT INSPIRE YOU France and Italy MOST IMPORTANT DESIGN ELEMENT IN A ROOM Scale and proportion ARCHITECTS AND DESIGNERS FOR INSPIRATION Axel Vervoordt, Christian Liaigre, John Saladino, and Sir Edwin Lutyens PERIOD IN HISTORY Late 18th-century and early 19th-century
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