Five Questions

FIVE QUESTIONS: Elastic Aesthetics with Emily Kates

by Jennifer Massoni Pardini

Designer Emily Kates (Photo by VIVIAN JOHNSON)

Emily Kates is accustomed to reinvention. After eight “invaluable” years working with interior designer Kendall Wilkinson in San Francisco, the designer had her first son and sensed it was time to drive her own brand, launching Emily Kates Design, based in San Carlos. While the Portola Valley native’s personal aesthetic gravitates toward “clean-lined architecture” and “thoughtful infusions of color, contrast and texture,” Kates also describes her creative process as elastic, able to bend and stretch to her clients’ visions.

The Peninsula has all sorts of places filled with treasures for styling and accessorizing finished spaces. Emily Kates

More than a year into a pandemic that has inspired many of us to revamp our home offices and distance learning set-ups, prioritize handwashing and add new furry friends, Kates says she has put that elasticity to the test, while again having an eye on her next professional endeavor — a downtown San Carlos home for her design studio, now with a retail component and set to open in June. “My goal is to engage lesser-known independent artists, focusing on entrepreneurial minority businesses, women-owned businesses and ethically sourced products,” she says. In the meantime, Kates is dishing on all things design in 2021.

For a Hillsborough client, Emily Kates designed a living room with side chairs by Bernhardt, customized in a Duralee fabric, Williams Sonoma Home carpet and Made Goods mirror. Photo by VIVIAN JOHNSON.
1 Now that we are one year into the pandemic, what are your clients looking for? Have their needs evolved past that initial pivot to sheltering/working/schooling in place?

The evolution of my clients’ needs has permeated my design approach in some cool ways, which I see really sticking. I’m helping more clients incorporate veggie and herb gardens into their outdoor designs. I’m designing mudrooms with kid-friendly handwashing stations, complete with pull-out step stools built into the base cabinets. Stylish pet showers and cozy sleeping spaces for dogs are finding their way to the top of design wish lists.

But perhaps most importantly, I’ve innovated on ways to foster more independence in kids in the home so that parents can find some relief from being human pinballs all day, ricocheting between tasks. I’m engineering kitchen cabinets with easy-open snack drawers at kid height. I’m adding step stools by sinks so that kids can wash and dry fruit without help. And, as it’s not realistic for many younger kids to sit in private spaces for distance learning, I am outfitting kitchen islands with ample charging stations and deep drawers for both school supplies and games/art/puzzles so kids can toggle between school and leisure more seamlessly and more independently.

2 Since you were accustomed to working from home — while raising two young boys — was your own home already prepared to meet so many needs at once? Or did you still make some pro tip adjustments?

I had already adopted low-height kiddie snack stations a long time ago out of necessity for my sanity, but I did implement a few new systems, like access to independent hand and fruit washing. I also converted an entire coat closet into an art hub where the kids can access any and every supply they need. I am no longer asked for “more paper” every five minutes.

3 Has working virtually with clients, architects or other designers been a benefit to your process overall?

Designing entire homes through digital platforms has necessitated some great presentation techniques. The architecture firms I work with have harnessed the magic of 3D modeling, and we’re working together to render whole residences inside and out in such detail that clients can actually experience them through virtual reality! We’ve perfected the art of screen-share and host-switching with programs that allow the team and client to jump in and iterate together with digital sketching and annotating over the drawings.

The normally tactile experience of material selection has been replaced with presenting high-quality concept images and using lots of descriptive words. It’s given way to a new level of creativity, which I think has been quite effective. I suspect we’ll see a lot of this continue even once we are able to gather freely because it’s efficient and saves travel time.

4 As a designer, what are a few of your favorite places on the Peninsula to source for your clients? Any hidden gems you are willing to share with the rest of us?

The Peninsula has all sorts of places filled with treasures for styling and accessorizing finished spaces, or for photo shoots. I love Ladera Garden and Gifts for the pottery, gorgeous botanicals and their lovely home goods and gift items. Dolma Tibetan in Palo Alto carries beautiful textiles, floor pillows and throws. The colors and textures are incredible — so rich and tactile! Nordic Nest in San Carlos is a favorite of mine for kitchen accessories, kids’ decor, and unique candles and hostess gifts.

5 While this may not feel like a typical spring, style nevertheless keeps evolving. Is there a common theme on your radar?

While cool grays and whites had a serious moment, I’m anticipating a return to warmer neutrals, punchy saturated colors, more black and bolder patterns. And I love it! I see a departure from the white-marble farmhouse aesthetic toward more colorful stone, honey and amber-toned woods, organic ceramics, fluting, ribbing. I think we’ll see less restrained patterns inspired by Indigenous traditions and natural geometry. Think arches, swirls, asymmetry and lots of texture.

For another Hillsborough client, Kates designed a game room with a sofa by RH, accent wallpaper by Cole and Sons and a waterfall bone-inlay table by Anthropologie. Photo by VIVIAN JOHNSON.
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