With her extraordinary eye for style and can-do approach to decorating, Celerie Kemble has solidified her position as one of today’s design luminaries. Whether it’s furniture crafted from the most exquisite wood or a home that manages to look sophisticated yet feel unbelievably comfortable, Celerie never skips a beat.
We recently had the chance to speak with Celerie, and she was everything we imagined and more: candid, charming, unabashedly honest, and downright funny. Here she discusses the realities of being a decorator, what it meant to finish her ultimate project of a lifetime, her vices, and everything in between.
What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned as a decorator?
“To keep moving forward and to let your taste keep driving you toward what you want—instead of starting again and again, and rethinking. People often keep trying to start from scratch and make it perfect. The people who respect their initial choices even if they’re not 100% and build on them get to a much more personal and interesting space.”
What’s been most challenging for you as a decorator as the home industry has evolved?
“A lot of people don’t wait for the right thing to come along or the well-crafted piece to be finished. With furniture, it’s going to last a really long time, and if you make decisions based on things you can get immediately you end up with this very quick-to-expire aesthetic.”
What’s the hardest thing about being a designer today?
“Figuring out the right level of collaboration and where to really come in and say to a client, ‘You’ve got to believe in me,’ and when to encourage them to believe in themselves and what they’re looking for. It’s navigating that balance because people are a lot more engaged now than, say, 50 years ago. Many of them would write a check and say, ‘Finish this house for me.’”
What excites you about a new project?
“For me, it’s deciphering what I think is missing in the marketplace or what feels new and unexpected. With my clients’ homes it’s always how can I make this theirs in a new voice and how do I make it very particular and very personal.”
A space with everything custom-made in the room would look like a model apartment; if I did everything antiques, it would feel imposing. You have to thread things together.
What’s the greatest decorating advice you ever received?
“From my mom: If it’s not comfortable it doesn’t count. She doesn’t mean for one piece of furniture. She means if a room doesn’t feel comfortable it might as well not be there.”
What’s the secret to your casual-elegant style?
“Having the right balance of things that are old and show their age with things that feel new and push an envelope. It’s about not being all modern or all traditional or all new; it’s that ratio of old to new. A space with everything custom-made in the room would look like a model apartment; if I did everything antiques, it would feel imposing. You have to thread things together.”
How do you like to entertain?
“I like to entertain in a thoughtful way but absolutely casually. I’m not presenting my best self; I’m presenting my true self. It’s serve-yourself wine; it’s not too many glasses, reuse your fork, help me carry something in and out the kitchen. It’s your job to cut the cheese. I think the point of having a dinner party is treating your friends like family and bringing them in your home.”
When are you most creative?
“When I’m well rested and I’ve had a lot of caffeine. I’ve just been experimenting with the whole Bulletproof coffee thing, and there is something to it.”
What keeps you inspired?
“My clients and the women I work with. If I have 10 different projects going at once, that’s 10 different directives. And if I’m working with my 7 or 8 girls in my office, they all have their creative input and energy. How can I not be inspired by that much to draw from and push me?”
Do you have a daily uniform?
“It’s more like a weekly uniform. It could be for a week I’m wearing a YSL little French military cropped jacket, so everything goes with that. And that tends to be the same pair of jeans that goes on the back of the chair. But always comfy shoes. I can’t think or be friendly if I’m wearing high heels for more than two hours. I carry a backpack because heels are always in there and the flats are on my feet.”
A daily ritual?
“I take a bath every day with my kids in the evening. It’s our ‘Now everybody can go away and nobody’s going to bother us and we’re locked away in our little bathroom together and it’s just us.’ This intimacy is what defines family.”
How do you make time for yourself
“I think time for myself is in pursuing the life I want. But really, a nap to me is the most exciting. When I need a nap and I get it I’m the happiest cat in the world.”
Any guilty pleasures or favorite vices?
“I mean… [laughs] You name it! But I love my wine. I love my cheese. I love my pasta.”
“I just discovered it. Casa Dragones tequila with a slice of grapefruit rind and a dash of celery bitters.”
Favorite things about Palm Beach and New York?
“I mean nothing is more exciting to me than when I look forward to going home to Palm Beach and I’m walking on the bike path on the lake at sunset along the Intercoastal. In New York, I’m a foodie, so it’s the restaurants—knowing that I can never plumb the depths of what’s out there food-wise. My go-to is Bar Pitti in the West Village, which has been my favorite for 15 years. [laughs]”
Least favorite things?
“Palm Beach is pretty insular, and I miss the constant influx of people, ideas, and energy of New York. But in New York I find it much harder to be happy at any given moment, because there’s this sense that other stuff should be happening or what is happening in that moment really blows. The pressure of New York is something I actually don’t navigate very well.”
Great design is…
“A space that inspires your life and that makes you feel happy about where you are.”
Where’s the most memorable place you’ve designed a home?
“Well, I just completed my fantasy project, which was in the Dominican Republic. I worked on a series of houses and a small beach club called Playa Grande Beach Club. I did that with a team of builders and restoration specialists, and I don’t know if there will be another project like that in my lifetime. That was my ultimate dream, and I think now my dream would be to continue with it and keep adding on to it.”
Do you have a design muse?
“That would be Polly Jessup and Sister Parish and really good old Colefax and Fowler—so the grand-house traditionalists who were in Bermuda, Newport, and Palm Beach. Those were sort of there in my memory of what felt grand but comfortable.”
Absolute favorite interior?
“My mother’s house in Palm Beach, which is an old church built in the late 18o0s. It’s shingled on the interiors, and the whole house is made of porches and gazebos. My mother has just made it magical.”
Five people you’d love to dine with?
“If I’m included in the five, my great-grandparents. I didn’t know them and would love to see who they are, hear their voices, and to see my living relatives and my kids in them.”
What’s the best part about working with family?
“It gives you a way to continue to get to know them for your whole life.”
What’s something you collect?
“I collect wonky weird outdoor garden elements, I love vintage wicker furniture, and I have a collection of crepe-paper party hats.”
Your decorating rule of thumb?
“Things don’t need to match; they need to play well together.”
Any words of wisdom for aspiring designers?
“They need to realize that it’s a service business. There is nothing more important than making people happy and figuring out what they want. It’s not about your vision; it’s about fulfilling other people’s needs.”
A little-known fact about you as a designer?
“I’m probably the least control-freaky person I’ve ever met. Most people think of designers as control freaks, but I’m more about responding to weird situations and flexibility. I guess answers always come to me out of the aberrant.”
What’s your next big design adventure?
“It’s always new products. I’m designing curtain hardware next, and it’s really exciting to focus in on some tiny piece of the house. And I’m working on new lines of furniture that are much less expensive and also candles with a company. I’m having fun doing lines that are all about impulse and whim.”
Let your taste keep driving you toward what you want—instead of starting again and again, and rethinking. The people who respect their initial choices even if they’re not 100% and build on them get to a much more personal and interesting space.