Kristin Kilmer of Kristin Kilmer Design, Inc. has been the interior designer of some of the most architecturally significant homes in Los Angeles, including John Lautner’s Wolff House and Stevens House, R.M. Schindler’s How House, and Ray Kappe’s Canna Road House. Kilmer combines the theories and practices of the mid-century masters with the current materials of today to create her “Eco Modern Luxury” approach to design. Her company uses the fundamental green values, demonstrating that design can be both sustainable and luxurious. Kilmer took a few moments out of her busy schedule to talk to Take Sunset about how she started working with mid-century masterpieces, how she gets into the mind of Schindler and Lautner, and what she’s doing in Grey’s Anatomy’s Sara Ramirez’s bathroom in Echo Park…
Take Sunset: How did you start working with architecturally significant homes in Los Angeles?
Kristin Kilmer: It was a bit of a fluke actually. I’d just returned from studying interior architecture at the Instituto Europea di Design in Madrid and was working at Design Within Reach, where I generated private clients while still being one of the top sales people. Michael LaFetra walked in on a Sunday afternoon and we immediately hit it off. He asked me to help him with his Ray Kappe house for the upcoming architectural tour. We had such a synergy that within a week, he asked me to design the Schindler How House as well. My last day of work, in walked Richard Baker, who owned a mid-century in Los Feliz, and he hired me as well. Talk about beginner’s luck!
Take Sunset: What are the biggest challenges when working on these homes?
Kilmer: Each one is really like a “Master Thesis” in the sense that it is important to really get inside the heads of the architects–to study and know their methodologies, history, ideology, and what made them innovative during their time period. Each one broke boundaries in architecture during their time and executed what their peers deemed impossible. Schindler built on concrete and invented a new way of framing, Launter defied gravity in ways never before thought possible… Moreover, it’s fundamental to respect the architectural integrity of the home and not just stick a Barcelona chair in the space and call it a day.
For the Schindler house, I kept everything on his 16” module while keeping his table low–just like he insisted upon during those days. I recreated a lot of his lines and architectural features as well. For example, he used a specific drip strip molding in between the windowpanes, which inspired the edge of the dining room tabletop. For the lighting downstairs, I maintained his lines as well, but asked myself, “what would he do if he were alive today?” From there, I created a more contemporary look with the lighting pieces.
For the Lautner Wolff House, I incorporated vintage, natural pieces that juxtaposed with the exterior, but also with all of the interior stone. I followed the curves and angles by adding mid-century curvilinear furniture, but I also updated the home with some contemporary sustainable pieces that integrated perfectly, such as swivel chairs incorporated with cork fabric. The sofa followed the exact same lines and the spiral staircase and a cantilevered bookshelf emphasized the steps that jetted out from the stone in the same fashion–a genius way of engineering. I really put a lot of thought into my designs. The planning and conceptual phase is fundamental. I always say, Good design takes time!
Take Sunset: What is the most memorable project that you’ve worked on?
Kilmer: I would have to say the Lautner Wolff house. I was given a lot of creative freedom on that project because I knew Michael LaFetra’s taste and style by that time. And let’s face it. It’s a Lautner!
Take Sunset: What projects are you working on right now?
Kilmer: I’m working with Sara Ramirez from Grey’s Anatomy. We are doing a really innovative spa bathroom with a Jacuzzi tub designed on a platform in such a way that it almost looks like an infinity pool overlooking the hills in Echo Park. She is really into sustainability, so we are also incorporating a grey water system and focusing a lot on creating the space as a very healthy sanctuary. It is my most challenging project to date because the interior architecture that I designed is so complex that every square inch has to be micro-managed. Sara is an absolute dream to work with, as is the contractor Larry Byrnes, so I’m excited for the outcome! Sara has lived in extremely modest conditions up to this point in her life, and this is her first present to herself!
I’m also just finishing up the first prefab, modular LivingHome to be ever be installed in Orange County in Newport Beach. I custom designed practically all of the furniture for that home to integrate more storage and functionality. I believe part of being sustainable is creating modular pieces, so their twin teenager’s beds have drawers that can be dismantled and flat packed for easy transport.
I’m also the designer of the Go Green Home in Playa del Rey. As of right now, it has one of the highest Leed Platinum ratings to date and features the first solar powered eco elevator that runs on less electricity that a hair dryer.
Take Sunset: Wow, that’s amazing! In general, what are you goals when you start a new project?
Kilmer: First and foremost, my principal goal is to bring out my client’s vision and creativity, and to make it a co-creative process. I really don’t like it when a designer comes in and bullies someone into their own vision without considering the client’s needs. I will, however, veto something if I know if won’t work proportionally or it’s too trendy and they will tire of it. Longevity is really important. When I was a younger designer, I wasn’t confident enough to stand up for my hesitancy. But whenever I didn’t, the client was unhappy with their decision in the long run, and they would ended up wasting money because we would have to re-do it to what I originally advised!
I’m a sustainable designer, so a major goal is to keep renewable resources and energy efficiency in mind. Most importantly, non-toxicity in the home is key. We can’t save the planet if we are sick from poisons and mold in the home. And I always try to maintain the architectural integrity of the home both in the interior and how it juxtaposes with the exterior environment.
Other goals are to keep the process as stress-free as possible for the client, keep production running smoothly, maintain clear communication, solve problems quickly, stay within budget, and show clients their numbers with detailed spreadsheets and invoices. It’s frustrating to me that in the design world the schools don’t teach students any business skills. Luckily, I was in a few other professions before design because without that background, I would be dead already! On a day-to-day basis, very little of what we actually do is design. The bottom line is that you are running a business and wearing many hats. That’s the first thing my interns and assistants learn, and they are shocked. But ultimately, they are really grateful for the experience because they learn to run a business, and not how to be just designers.
Take Sunset: What is your favorite neighborhood in LA and why?
Kilmer: My favorite neighborhood is Venice, over by the pier where it’s more private and away from the boardwalk. I live right on Ocean Front walk, so I can walk and ride my bike anywhere on the weekends. Venice has a great sense of community, and the west side is at the forefront of the sustainable community. I really admire the work of David Hertz, and a lot of his houses are right by my place.
Thank you so much for this fascinating interview, Kristin! We look forward to keeping an eye on all your upcoming projects. Check out more about Kristin Kilmer on her website: kristinkilmerdesign.com.