Cath Kidston is the Color Queen
Kidston—reigning monarch of British pattern and charm— flings open the doors to her own country home and shares its design lessons galore
For riding out COVID-19’s storm, what place could be better than a literal paradise? “Paradise” was the moniker of British designer Cath Kidston’s 17th-century home in Gloucester, England, when she spotted it in a real estate ad in Country Life. Edging the Cotswolds valley, the rambling estate is now a vision of Kidston’s quirky, colorful aesthetic—where plush, red Moroccan rugs adorn the parquet floors, and the art ranges from a Damien Hirst original to a poster she found online for $25.
Done right, such eccentricity sells—just ask Kidston. The art school grad launched her eponymous “glorified junk shop” in 1993, though in retrospect, that may have been underselling it a bit. Her namesake brand went on to open 220 retail storefronts from Qatar to Tokyo (all recently shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic, though online shopping remains), has designed plucky collections for everyone from Ikea to Uniqlo, and was sold to Baring Private Equity Asia for $250 million in 2014.
Kidston recently authored A Place Called Home (Pavilion, 2020) about the country house she shares with her husband, record producer Hugh Padgham, and chatted all things decorating with Colorado Homes & Lifestyles from her fireside perch across the pond.
YOUR HOME IS CERTAINLY WORTHY OF A BOOK. WHAT ARE A FEW OF YOUR FAVORITE THINGS IN IT?
I’m sitting at the moment in my sitting room, looking at the old-stone, arched fireplace we inherited with the place. Above it is a bronze branch sculpture done by a local sculptor, Daniel Chadwick. When I come home, and I’ve been here the last few months now, it’s the warmth of the place that I love more than a particular thing. Really, it’s a very friendly house and a cozy place to be.
HOW DO YOU CREATE SUCH A WARM, WELCOMING HOME?
It’s so much about planning and being true to yourself, isn’t it? We arrived here when I was in my 50s, and we’d gathered a lot of stuff along the way—in a big, old barn full of stuff we collected. It’s important to mix everything up, so it can change and grow. A lot of it is in planning and organizing and actually making clear decisions about things like colors, and layering up with what one’s got and making quite difficult decisions about what you’re not going to use versus what you are.
ANY TIPS ON LAYERING THE WAY BRITS DO? I THINK IT CAN SCARE AMERICANS A BIT.
It’s so much trial and error. Don’t plan too much, and you’ll get those happy accidents. Sometimes I’ll change the pillows in a room and try different things out; things are always a work in progress at home. If you think your sitting room needs another color but don’t know what it is, try bringing hardback books with colorful bindings and putting them on a chair to see what the color looks like, and then live with it a bit. I think great decorating usually has a little element of surprise somewhere, without it being unsettling: a pop of color, a bit of scale. Start with a quite simple framework, get the bones ready, get simple key things in place, and then you can play.
“Don’t plan too much, and you’ll get those HAPPY ACCIDENTS.” — Cath Kidston
IF YOU’RE NERVOUS TO USE COLOR, WHERE SHOULD YOU START?
It’s usually easier to play with things like pillows, small accessories or rugs than to have to repaint a whole room or change soft furnishings. With core things, you take less risk. Then you can layer on pieces like a great patterned lampshade, because smaller accents can really help. Sometimes patterns look quite good; I’m looking at my sofa, and all the colors work together despite different patterns. The key is to keep it tonal to start with, or have just one statement piece that feels less threatening than mixing them all up. Bookshelves are wonderful, too—they bring color to a room and prevent it from being too stiff in a very safe, warm way. A little order would be helpful, like putting all the design books and gardening books together; I’m looking at my bookshelf, and I can’t find anything! As soon as we moved in, I put all my books on the shelf immediately and now I can’t find anything. Then there’s flowers and plants. There’s nothing like a great big bowl of flowers to make a room have fun and a color. It’s a great way to get things going.
ANY TRICKS TO DESIGNING A HOME YOU’LL SHARE WITH A SPOUSE, WHO MAY HAVE DIFFERENT TASTES?
My husband is very tolerant of me. I let him have a really big TV somewhere! It’s always really hard with design, and TV is the hardest thing; I’d rather watch on my laptop. But we’ve been very spoiled; I’ve always managed to give him a study where he has all his bits and a big TV and comfortable seating, which is the secret weapon.
I’M TOLD THE BRITISH EMBRACE IMPERFECTIONS MORE THAN AMERICANS. THOUGHTS?
I’m a little bit American in that case. I had a grandmother who loved decorating and had a beautiful house; she was always wanting to make it perfect, and she never gave up. She always went to Palm Beach, and she probably was slightly not typical English in that respect. I’ve spent a few months here because of the current situation, and I look at everything and I think, ‘Oh my goodness, I’d like to start again!’ If we don’t think like that, we never make an effort. A feeling of complacency is not very helpful creatively. Having weathered, slightly antique furniture or pieces with an organic, soft feel to them is nice. We have Norfolk rush-matting carpet. I do like having my pictures straight, I prefer that. And I probably played around with every tabletop eight times. ‘Do I like it like that?’ That’s the fun of playing house, isn’t it?
WHAT ARE YOUR RULES OF DECORATING?
I think because I have quite a busy head and I’m quite an active person, I have to plan and be able to visualize the end room before I start ordering things. I’m doing a house up in London at the moment, and all these things like Pinterest are amazing to help me visualize the end result and then look backwards. It’s quite difficult and takes a little bit of doing to photograph my possessions and drop them into boards of what’s going to go where, but being organized is how I start off. It helps to set the mood in my mind and then know how to start building from that.
“When I come home, and I’ve been here the last few months now, it’s the WARMTH OF THE PLACE that I love more than a particular thing.” — Cath Kidston
WHERE DID YOUR LOVE OF COLOR AND PATTERN ORIGINATE?
I think it must be from my childhood. I lived in an oldschool English country house that was full of chintz and color, and I just remember we had a big hall with orangey-red walls, which was quite fashionable in the ’60s, and a dining room with pale-blue and lemon-yellow curtains. My dad was really into color and decorating more than my mum. I’ve always been drawn to flowers, colors and all of that kind of thing. I like slightly calmer colors now, with accents of brighter colors. I’m wary of doing very strong colors all over the place. Our hallway is quite a large area, so I painted it white with a bit of black mixed in so it wasn’t pure white. I didn’t have the courage to go for another color; with white, any rooms off it would feel good. I admire people who can do bright colors all over, but I prefer to save it for smaller rooms, like cloak rooms, where you can be braver. At the end of the day our homes are the way we live, aren’t they? A house should reflect the people in it and be true to them. To have the courage of the things you like surrounding you. It’s not always easy, but in authentic houses that’s what is so lovely.