We thought Calvin Klein’s New York headquarters—origin of the most sublimely simple, strikingly modern fashion and decor out there—might be a touch intimidating. After all, you can’t achieve perfection without being hyperfocused on detail. But sitting down with Amy Mellen, the creative director of Calvin Klein Home, we found a totally gracious, down-to-earth soul who comes off as more artist than executive. She made a few disclaimers about her office, but there was nothing in sight that wasn’t brimming over with beautiful design. Even the technology was hidden!
Amy showed us around and, while painting and knitting (for real!), let us in on her creative process and the ideas that fuel the famed look of Calvin Klein Home.
How did Calvin Klein Home begin?
“It started 20 years ago. Calvin Klein had walked by Portico, which was a beautiful home store in SoHo, and said, ‘Whoever is designing that store, I want them to design my home line.’ The woman behind it was Pamela Schumacher, who had an interesting background, having studied philosophy. He courted her, and she came on board. The original line was all textiles based on really old French etchings and drawings that they collected.”
Did you start at the company while Calvin Klein was still there?
“Yes—I’ve been here for 15 years, and he left 10 years ago. I don’t think he expected the company to be frozen in time after he left. He himself was always experimenting and evolving, always trying new things.”
What was your first job at the company?
“I was hired here to do the textiles for the bedding. On my first week, my boss showed me a box of white linen and asked which was my favorite. I was like, Oh my god… they’re all exactly alike! I’m going to get fired. I chose one and thank God that was the one she liked too. When I became the creative director, there was almost a sadness for me—I just couldn’t be as hands-on as I wanted to be. Before, I would paint all the beds myself. That was a hard transition.”
How would you define the role of creative director?
“Over the years, I’ve realized being a creative director is just this amazing position for people who have ideas. You come up with ideas, and then work to translate them with the other creative people on your team. It really is a group effort. And I try not to take credit for people’s own ideas—although, at the same time, if something doesn’t sell, that falls to me. So you’re also working like an editor. That’s a fine line.”
You have a team of six designers. How would you describe the working environment?
“It’s like a Montessori classroom. Everyone is doing their own creative thing—all the designers went to art school, and it’s still got that feeling. One designer knits fabric samples during her subway commute, another started making all these gelatin prints. The other day, someone was doing this embroidering project, and I was thinking, Hmmm, this looks kind of weird. I didn’t want to kill her buzz, though. Three days later, she had scanned it into the computer, and it was so beautiful. It’s about allowing people to have freedom and not stifling them. Though when I do put down limits, I’m not always subtle. I’ve been known to say something looks like a Kleenex box.”
Everyone is doing their own creative thing—all the designers went to art school, and it’s still got that feeling.
How do you find the artisans you work with outside of your team, like the glassblowers and weavers?
“All kinds of ways. I troll through Etsy and might call someone who seems really cool. Or while traveling—I stopped into a candle shop in London to get out of the rain, and I found amazing ceramics by this Scottish artist. He collects driftwood on the beach and makes such beautiful patterns—we started working with him on our own designs.”
Calvin Klein is synonymous with a muted palette. How would you describe your own relationship to color? Where do you look for inspiration?
“Personally, I don’t have a drop of color in my apartment. And my house in Wassaic, NY, doesn’t really either. It’s a sea of neutrals. In our products, we don’t do multicolors. We might do a spectrum of blues and some grays, but we’d never add in purples or oranges. And the color we do use is a dirtier, muddier version. Even with ceramics, it’s always more tonal. To begin, though, I always look to nature for color. Just take a flower or butterfly wings. You could never dream up these colors, but there they are, flying around in the wild.”
Just take a flower or butterfly wings. You could never dream up these colors, but there they are, flying around in the wild.
What’s one real challenge of your job?
“Other than selling our line in our own flagship on Madison Avenue, we sell through other retailers, so we have to work within price parameters and think about distribution. That can be tricky—you really have to know who your customer is and stay focused on that. When we’re designing bedding, for example, we’ll think: Is a man or a woman going to sleep here? Is it for a couple? And we talk about them and how they live.”
What about the four other creative directors at CK—how are the lines divided up, and do you collaborate at all?
“It’s almost like I have these four brothers—there are creative directors for women’s runway, men’s runway, jeans and underwear, and accessories. We do our individual thing, but I do think there’s a collective consciousness that happens. And occasionally I’ll riff on what Francisco [Costa, who handles women’s runway] is doing. When he was showing a lot of fringe, I put some subtle fringe on pillows. I found an amazing Japanese weaver, Hiroko, for him. He was going to use her fabric for a look, but the order got caught in transit and didn’t make it to the runway, so Francisco gave it to me, and now I have this beautiful bolt to use.”
You went to art school yourself. What did you study there?
“I went to Syracuse, where you take everything at first—ceramics, silk-screening, wax relief for bronze casting… I could paint, so I went into textiles. Back then, we painted everything because there weren’t computers. But after graduating, I was too afraid to become an artist. I was too scared I wouldn’t be able to feed myself!”
How do you find time to look around and get inspired?
“I walk home from the office and try to go different routes—along Third Avenue or down the High Line. A lot of the color inspiration comes from looking outside. This morning, I was lying in bed and looking out on a huge building outside, where they’d painted the wall this strange pink. There’s a sugar maple in front of it, and between that pink color, the changing leaves, and the morning sky, it was just so pretty. I’m so calm in the mornings, it’s probably easier to focus on a moment like that.”
What’s one thing you love to collect?
“Right now, rocks! I was just on Block Island, which was like rock-collecting heaven. I was walking on the beach with a friend and said, ‘Look at all these free rocks!’”
Would you say you’re really on the “right-brained,” creative side of the spectrum?
“Yes! Francisco Costa and I were actually just talking with our new CEO about this. We were discussing traveling, and Francisco and I were saying we could only ever sit by the window on a plane. We have to look at what we’re flying over, take pictures, see the changing light. And our CEO was saying that he won’t fly unless he’s sitting on the aisle. He has to know what’s going on inside the plane. That seems like a good definition of a creative mind versus a business mind.”
Where do you travel for inspiration?
“I base a lot of work trips around a flea market I really want to check out. And you have to hit them really early in the morning, and we’ll buy things for materials, ceramics, bedding. The world has become so global, it’s hard to find those things that are only available in one place, but that’s what I’m after. Japan is wonderful for that. This year we’ll go to India and Burma. When we went to Thailand, I worked with the government with this list of artisans. The people were so lovely. We went to one potter’s house, and he loaned us his car to go to other places.”
What’s next on your travel list?
“I’m interested in Eastern Europe, I’d love to see Latvia. I’m trying to take my own personal trip to Patagonia. That wouldn’t be a design inspiration trip, but I could be wrong. When I went to Iceland or Marfa, TX, I found the landscape itself so inspiring—it wasn’t about shopping. Sometimes the experience is more about the scenery and connecting with people.”
Do you have an alternative career fantasy?
“I have always loved painting, but I’ve never dedicated enough time to know if I’m good enough. I definitely have this desire to constantly create. Another pipe dream would be going to help people who are making these absolutely beautiful crafts but are in places—like Cambodia—where it is just so hard to make a living. There are a lot of organizations already doing that. I just think that’s an incredible thing to do.”
What did you create growing up?
“I started off drawing inside my closet so that my parents couldn’t see what I was doing. My grandparents lived in St. Croix, and when we visited I took seashells, glued them to wood, and hung them around the walls. I would make pottery and cook it in the backyard. I was just obsessed with making things. ”
What were you like in high school?
“I was smart, but I didn’t understand math. Our high school had a vocational school within it—you could study to be an auto mechanic, a beautician, an electrical engineer, or a commercial artist. I decided to go into commercial art—it was a bold move, none of my friends went the vocational route, but I really flourished. It was in the basement of the school with all these burnout kids who were really talented. We studied travel posters and album covers—all stuff that’s completely archaic now! I had an incredible teacher who helped me put together a portfolio. It was because of him that I was able to go to art school. The arts are struggling so much in schools these days, and I think it’s so important to encourage them.”
Did you always intend to end up in New York?
“Yes. I grew up in Ohio and knew I didn’t want to stay there. Before my last year of art school, my parents told me they wouldn’t be paying my bills after college. So I spent the summer knitting all these thick Icelandic sweaters while watching David Letterman. I sold them all, and that paid for my trip to New York. I love the energy and creativity and wackiness of New York. I’m away in the country every weekend but always grateful to return. I just jump right in.”
What do you do during your weekends to hit refresh?
“My house in upstate New York has eight acres, and I’m outside the entire time. Gardening, fixing the stone wall, cooking, having dinner parties. Last year I built a studio in the garage. It’s starting to feel comfortable, but I haven’t figured out what to do there. I have a potter’s wheel, a sewing machine, a desk, too much fabric, little paintings I’ve done over the years. Not a lot of books. We’ll see what I get up to in there.”