When we decided to launch a Wardrobe ICONS homeware section to sit alongside our favourite fashion and beauty pieces, we couldn’t have dreamt of a better expert to interview than Rita Konig, an icon herself in the world of interiors. As the daughter of design trailblazer Nina Campbell, Konig grew up surrounded by beautiful decoration. Now, two decades after founding her business, she continues to forge her own distinctive style and has a loyal clientele on both sides of the Atlantic.
From her columns for House & Garden and The New York Times Style Magazine to her home-decor Instagram videos, Rita communicates her style with ease. That style is undeniably English with wonderful quirks, lots of colour, and everyday luxuries and comfort.
When we catch up over a cup of tea and a phone call, Rita is with her husband, Philip, and young daughter, Margot, at their farmhouse in County Durham. While Margot is busy making potions, Rita chats to me like an authoritative friend. We both lament that our ideas of lockdown have changed – best-laid plans to tidy our homes from top to bottom while working and homeschooling have gone awry. However, we are grateful that, during these uncertain times, an attainable way to calm the mind and help keep us happily cocooned is to create an uplifting and cosy environment. And who better to lead the way than Rita?
Growing up immersed in beautiful interiors, did you always know that you would head into the same arena?
It never occurred to me back then because, at the time, it wasn’t a family business, it was my mother’s. I wanted to be an actress and a fashion designer, but I got bored of both by the end of school. I wasn’t flamboyant enough for the fashion thing. In a way, it was thanks to laziness that I landed up where I did!
Were you ever let loose on your own room as a child?
Yes! It was so much fun, but with a steady hand from my mother, of course. We were given choices. My sister wanted an ombre wall, so my mother sent in a specialist painter to paint this graded blue wall. And she had a beaded curtain at the door. My mother’s friends were stunned by something as hideous as a beaded curtain, but I suppose she was quite liberal and enjoyed our forays into design, whether they were good or bad.
Do you have a favourite room?
It’s definitely the drawing/living room because I like being with people and I’m lazy. I want to be sitting on a comfortable sofa having a drink. My design motivation has a lot to do with sitting and chatting. Is there somewhere for you to put your drink? Is there a lamp for you to see? It’s all about sitting in a comfortable chair, with your home enveloping you.
Your sitting room is hung floor to ceiling with paintings, drawings and photographs. What’s your advice for making an art wall work?
It’s about turning the dial. Start with three, then five. Find a theme. Black and white is good as the pieces will all go together; mine is floral. Watch out for grids – you want to make sure you don’t have too many streets and avenues, so shove something across to ruin those neat lines. Don’t have it straight-lined on the outside, either. Keep it muddled all the way around so you can easily add to it. And a professional picture hanger is money well spent.
How do you play with colour and texture?
So much of it is a feeling rather than a considered thought. I love to play with a colour pop. But my advice for anyone who is unsure of how to use colour in their home is to go in carefully and turn the dial up in increments. Start with white walls and bring in colour in small ways with a pink lamp or pink bed linen, and pink upholstery, too. Then add a Moroccan rug. You don’t need to paint a room to be colourful. It’s a bit like cooking – you add in flavours.
What is your current colour-combination obsession?
I’ve been drawn to earth tones. I work a lot with Gil Schafer, an American architect. When he decorates, he’s quite masculine and uses a wonderful Tuscan red, so I started using those tones as a base, mixed with a really clear pale blue, like men’s shirting. I like mixing earth tones with bright colours. The pink in my sitting room is a muddy pink with that shot of yellow on my dining-room chairs. It crisps it up.
So much of a home is about a feeling, rather than the paint colour
What small luxuries do you love?
There are those small luxuries, such as a tray with a glass of water by your bed. I did this amazing thing, which is really dull, but my coffee machine is always running out of water and the water-filter jug is far away, by the sink. I had the idea to fill two simple decanters with water. They now stand by the machine, ready to fill it up. It’s life-changing, like living with a butler. They look ready to serve, efficient and abundant. Having things to hand is luxurious.
Where do you like to source your favourite fabric, paint and wallpaper?
I like Edward Bulmer for paint, and Papers and Paints and Paint & Paper Library have beautiful colours, too. For fabrics, I love Turnell & Gigon, Tissus d’Hélène and Claremont Furnishing on Elystan Street, in London’s Chelsea.
What is your view of high-street versus antique homeware?
I use antiques much more because they’re better made, prettier and more charming. I find the prices on the high street quite expensive for what you’re getting, so I’d rather buy an old table from a dealer for £130. It’s recycling and doesn’t end up in landfill. The best places to go are Tetbury, the Lillie Road in Fulham, and The Decorative Antiques & Textiles Fair in Battersea. And I shop a lot on Instagram. I’ve got the account @rita_k_shopping that I don’t post on, but where I follow dealers. It was private pre-lockdown, but if these people disappear, it’s not much good to me, so I want to encourage people to shop from them, too.
Our mantra at Wardrobe ICONS is to buy better to build your perfect wardrobe. What interior and home pieces do you invest in?
The sofa and armchairs, those pieces you sit on, have to be really comfortable. They’re investments – you’ll leave them to your kids. Christopher Howe, Robert Kime or a Howard and Sons sofa. They are worth buying at auction or at Claire Langley Antiques.
So many of us are using the lockdown at home to tackle a good clear-out. Are you doing the same?
I want to go through all my cupboards, Margot’s baby clothes, sort through the books that are worth keeping. Sort through my linen cupboard… However, I don’t know about you, but I never have enough time in lockdown. I feel like I’m a combination of a 1950s housewife, cooking and cleaning all the time, a teacher and a 21st-century working woman. It’s exhausting!
How did you start on your career path?
I worked first for the [fashion and art] journalist Meredith Etherington-Smith, doing her research. But when she went to Christie’s, I hated it because it was like being back at boarding school. So, not really knowing what else to do, I went to work for my mother and ended up running her shop.
How did your first break into designing homes come about?
Bizarrely, someone rang up and asked if I would decorate his house. I tried to tell him to use the design department, but I’d been recommended by a female friend of his. Of course, it was a disaster! Mum gave me two terrible bits of advice – to use cheaper builders and a young, novice architect. The advice I’d give someone starting out is that you need all the help you can get. We were two green people, [architect] George Clarke and I, and when builders let you down, it’s a complete nightmare. The next house I did, I made them agree to use Cherrywood Builders; they’re expensive, but you only cry once – when you see the estimate!
How would you sum up your interiors aesthetic?
It is classic English, with mongrel influences barging in. I’m also influenced by my time living in the States, travel, my mother, by being a magpie, and by wanting to be modern and to create and not just re-create.
What is your starting point when decorating a room in your own home?
It’s always the same with a house – you need to know how it works. Is the kitchen in the right place? How are you going to live in this house? You start to put your arms around it, and it starts to belong to you, rather than to the people you’ve just bought it from.
The idea of moving rooms round and not always using spaces for what they were originally intended is quite groundbreaking.
Yes, the kitchen is not my favourite room, but getting that in the right place is key. In London, for example, I think of friends and family in these bay-fronted terraced houses in Kensington or Fulham, where they have an amazing extension at the back of the house that is still the kitchen, because it started out as the kitchen. For me, I’d be putting the kitchen in the relatively small sitting room at the front of the house, the dining room in the middle and making that new enormous room that opens on to the garden my drawing room.
My design motivation has a lot to do with sitting and chatting. It’s all about sitting in a comfortable chair, with your home enveloping you
What can people do who don’t have the confidence in their vision and decision-making? Choosing the right fabric or wallpaper can be quite overwhelming.
I think making a decision from the tiniest swatch of fabric can be really tricky. Instead, buy a metre of fabric and pin it up right by the door frame so you get a sense of it. And go slowly – start and add, but keep going, don’t stop; an unfinished room always looks awful. Sometimes, it doesn’t have to be the thing you love the most that you choose. Sometimes, you just need a table, because you need somewhere to put the lamp. And the fact that there’s a table with a lamp on it is what makes the room better, not that the table is the best thing you’ve ever seen. It’s creating a scene, because if everything is amazing, it becomes quite noisy – like a room with lots of fabulous people. Too much!
You recently completed designing the boutique Hotel 850 SVB, in West Hollywood. What challenges did this throw up?
Luckily, Jeff Klein, who also owns the Sunset Tower, is someone who understands the value of an interior designer. He knows what works and what doesn’t, but ultimately, he wanted to help realise my vision rather than say that everything had to be in vomit- and fire-resistant beige. So, while we did have to accommodate the potential vomit and fire, we did make it feel like a private house rather than a faceless hotel. We did wallpaper in the bathrooms, pretty brass taps, and lamps that glow, rather than those hard, chrome hotel bathrooms. And although the bedrooms don’t have acres of fabulous art, we used seagrass on the wall, which gave a texture. We tried to make each one feel like a guest room in a house.
Tell me about how you developed your workshops, which are now online?
Often, people can’t afford a decorator, or they might have the budget but want to do it themselves and need some guidance. We started the workshops with 10 people in my house and me doing a PowerPoint presentation. Decorating a house is a big thing to take on. People assume they should know how to do it. Then I started doing consulting – half a day on a one-to-one basis, discussing whatever design problems people had. Sometimes, there’s a design roadblock and people need help to go through their plans. And then Create Academy were interested in bringing the course online. It’s very interesting as you can reach so many more people; all the classes are downloadable and they take you through every step of my design process.
With everyone spending their days at home in lockdown, what advice would you give for making life easier?
The thing I really love is when things have their place. You know where your wallet is, the car keys, screwdrivers; always having hand cream in the kitchen drawer and lightbulbs under the stairs in plastic clip boxes. It’s an amazing feeling, a sense of order. It’s something I learnt from the Americans – they do that really well. So much of a home is about a feeling, rather than the paint colour.
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