Catching Up With Kelly Wearstler

"I don’t even know if this is West Coast,” says Kelly Wearstler, waving out toward her West Hollywood studio. For the designer who has become synonymous with the decadent and colorful, amped-up interiors that vividly represent California and the stylistic revival of Hollywood Regency, this is perhaps the boldest statement she could make. And yet, given how visibly defining her work has been in the emergence of Los Angeles’ maximalist style—a rebuttal to “shabbychic” and stark minimalism, two polar opposite trends of the ’90s—it’s easy to see how someone, Wearstler included, might shun the pigeonhole of regional references. She regards her style simply as her own.

For more than a decade Wearstler has been a head-turning figure in the design world, not only through her work on hotels and residences, but also her multiple books, lavish pictorials that remain fixtures on marble coffee tables as much as style bibles for the trade’s aspiring neophytes. In 2007 the interior designer made her way into even more American homes as a judge on Bravo’s reality series, the competition-based Top Design. And with a newly published retrospective tome, Rhapsody (Rizzoli, $55), and a brand-new hotel project on the horizon, it’s clear there’s no such thing as “enough” for the doyenne of maximalism.

Before hearing her soft Southern drawl when she speaks, it may come as a surprise to many that Wearstler spent most of her formative years on the East Coast (perhaps another reason she demurs from associating her own deeply instilled aesthetic with any particular Californian movement), first in South Carolina, and later in Boston, where she attended the Massachusetts College of Art.

The style of her childhood home, she remembers, couldn’t have been more divergent from her own tastes. “It was country-style—so different,” she says. “Stuff was everywhere. The powder room off the living room was filled with tins and baskets and all this stuff. It was crazy.” Fortunately for Wearstler, her mother, who also worked in interior design, gave her and her sister creative freedom over their own rooms. “We could pick our own wallpaper, and we could paint it any color we wanted to. I always gravitated towards color—something that was cool, colorful, a little more modern. That’s always been my vibe.”

But it was also her mother’s penchant for flea markets and vintage auctions that informed much of Wearstler’s love of classical furniture pieces—chairs, especially—no doubt a valuable primer for the characteristic neoclassical elements of Hollywood Regency decor. In art school she familiarized herself with figureheads of European design like Giò Ponti, the Italian neoclassicist Piero Fornasetti, the French firm Maison Jansen, and British designer David Hicks. Her fluency in the various languages and cultures of the design world was honed through stints with Boston-based multidisciplinary architecture and design firm Cambridge Seven, and later at Milton Glaser’s design studio in New York, yet there was no single designer who influenced her personal aesthetic more than the others. “It’s about being aware and knowing the importance of everything,” she says.

It was the late ’90s, after she headed westward to pursue set decoration, when Wearstler found her calling—not on film sets, but real-life projects. The irony of course being that many Los Angeles dwellings, with their oversize statures and celebrity inhabitants, are prone to resemble something straight out of a movie. Her first project, the home of real estate developer Brad Korzen, was perhaps the most pivotal of her career and her life (even if not the most publicly exposed). When he later purchased the ’40s–era Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills, Korzen enlisted Wearstler to oversee the redesign. The hotel, a luxe, high-wattage homage to the midcentury, reopened in 1999. A few years later, the pair married.

Wearstler and Korzen’s designer/hotelier partnership has since continued with Maison 140, also in Beverly Hills; the Viceroy hotels in Santa Monica, Palm Springs, Miami, and Anguilla; and the Tides in South Beach, each a large-scale medium for the designer to showcase what was fast becoming her hallmark: bursting colors, metallic accents, sculptural—even sexy—forms and lines, and ornate, over-the-top renderings of neoclassical objects. Indeed, if hotels were Hollywood archetypes, then a Wearstler hotel would be the bombshell.

There are differences among the properties, of course, most notably in the Anguilla Viceroy, a stripped-down, modernist oceanfront property that Wearstler describes as “very raw and cool-looking.”

“I look at the person staying in the hotel, or the person living in the house. And then I look at things like the typography, the architecture, everything from what’s outside the window—because whatever’s on the inside is interacting with it,” she says. Currently, Wearstler is working on a hotel for a new brand in San Francisco. It’s both an opportunity for her to bring her trademark flair to a new market, and a chance to exercise her fluency outside her mostly L.A.-based comfort zone. “Northern California is so different from L.A.,” she says. “It’s the epicenter of where technology is, so that’s going to be a huge inspiration for the hotel. It’s a new brand, so it’s going to have its own heart and soul.”

Less public, though no less spectacular, many of Wearstler’s home projects get their share of exposure in her best-selling books such as Modern Glamour and Domicilium Decoratus. These days Wearstler’s inimitable stamp can be seen not only on a fashionable room and the objects that fill it (she has rug, fine china, and fabric collections all in the works), but on the stylish woman inhabiting that room, too.

In 2011, she launched a line of upscale L.A.-chic womenswear and accessories, a pursuit that’s equal parts labor and love, she says. “I’ve always loved fashion, and it was always such an inspiration for my interiors,” she adds. “I think the most important thing is, it has its voice and it feels like the work that goes on here in the studio.”

It’s another creative departure that she describes as “learning another language.” By this point, ‘multilingual’ doesn’t begin to describe Wearstler. An artist to the core, there’s no knowing where her creative tendencies may lead. “I just knew that I loved being creative,” smiles Wearstler. “Art class was the only class that flew by. Everything else was torturous.”

(Design Bureau, Inspiring Interiors Issue, June 2013)

Museum Hack's Tasting-Menu Approach to the Art Museum Tour

Gingham Fashion Has a Summer Moment