Kathleen Whitaker

Los Angeles based designer Kathleen Whitaker has been making me dream for years with her uniquely architectural take on classic fine jewelry. Each piece she creates appears to be shaped into some divinely perfect form, and her mix of stones + metal is always unusual but never forced. In short, everything she makes ends up on one wish list or another.  Below, a few facts about her day for you to consider…

Q / How do you usually start your day? Any routine that gets you up?
A / I am a morning person. My energy is in the morning, and so is my dog’s. I take June for an early walk with a coffee from Blue Bottle in hand.

Q / Do you have a daily uniform or is there anything you carry with you every day? If so, why is it important to you?
A / Agnes Baddoo’s Sac 2 large leather tote holds everything. It travels with me almost always.

Q / Is there a time of day that you feel most productive? Anything specific that helps keep you focused?
A / There is at least one day a week that I do not work with anyone or schedule appointments. Those days are the most successful for tackling longer, focused projects, design sessions, or communications which required uninterrupted quiet.

Q / How do you try to balance your time?
A / After a long stretch of consistent work obligations (all work, no play), a big trip that completely breaks me out of routine very often helps to bring things back into balance.

Q / How do you keep yourself organized with all the projects you have going on?
A / Lists! In my phone, calendar, notebooks.

Q / What is something you are good at? Something you struggle with?
A / I excel at cynicism. I struggle with cynicism.

Q / What do you enjoy most about your career?
A / I like discovering beautiful source materials (like a raw gemstone). And I enjoy immensely composing and designing something first in my head and then in three dimensions. I like working with a disparate group of technicians, each performing a separate function — stone cutter, caster, fabricator, stone setter — to bring one design to fruition.

Q / What are the most challenging things about your work?
A / I like making beautiful things. I don’t really like selling them. The commercial end of design — social marketing, networking, publicizing, promoting — is shifting terrain, suited to fast fashion. I’d just as soon make things and give them as gifts.

Q / Something that’s very important to you in you work?
A / Differentiation. Innovation. Simplicity.

Q / Where do you go to be quiet and think?
A / The ideal, actually, would be finding a place to be quiet and NOT think! Following choreography is a great way to not think. If you’re thinking about anything else, you’re lost.

Q / How does your home and environment influence the kind and quality of work you produce?
A / I’m influenced greatly by my surroundings. I seek and thrive in serene, beautiful environments. Both the studio in downtown Los Angeles and our home in Echo Park offer beautiful light and views and quiet.

Q / Where did you grow up and what led you to your current home? How would you say these places shaped your perception of work?
A / I grew up in New York City. Growing up, I spent half the summer at the beach and half the summer on a mountain-lake house in the Adirondacks. I went to school in New Orleans and have had two short stints living in London. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for the past 14 years. As I’ve moved around and to several different careers — my definition of work has greatly evolved. There are a few key components you need in life and mostly the rest is what you make it.

Q / How did the idea come about to start your own company?
A / It wasn’t my idea and thus begins the long journey of the Accidental Business Owner. At the time I starting making jewelry, I was dating a very talent, award-winning web designer who grew tired of observing me receive compliments on my jewelry with no impetus to sell it. Concurrently, through friends I met a very young Whitney Cummings at a party who put me in touch with Marlien Rentmeester from the west coast Conde Nast office. Marlien couldn’t do a profile on me until I had a site where the goods could be purchase. So voila, the web-designing boyfriend created a beautiful one, the jewelry landed in the magazine and a business was born. That was in 2004.

Q / What is the inspiration for the brand?
A / The hallmarks of the brand are reflective of the jewelry itself — simple and understated and classic. I think it has resonated with an audience mostly for its dexterity to adapt to the taste and the style of the wearer — old, young, man, woman.

Q / Can you go a bit into your design process?
A / Yes, I start with sketches – usually sparked by shape. For the pieces in the newly-launched Stone Collection, the designs start with gemstones. Proportion and form are always center stage.

Q / Do you keep any collections? If so, how do they influence you creatively?
A / I have a collection of ashtrays that are small mementos from my grandmother’s travels. They’re mostly from Europe and the typography and imagery on these small objects nod to a different time and place. One friend recognized an astray from a now-shuttered restaurant in Georgetown. As the story goes his parents were such frequent patrons of the restaurant, they dropped his brother and sister there to be watched by the maître d’ while they went on to the hospital where my friend was delivered. This one little antique ashtray sparked a memory decades old. For me this collection of objects reminds me of my grandmother and the adventures life offers.

Q / How would you define beauty and what part does it play in your work?
A / I was recently traveling in Tucson, Arizona (for the annual gemshow the city holds) and I saw a big billboard (maybe for a BBQ joint) that said in large swirling script “Ugly but Honest.” I think authenticity and confidence are beautiful. Though not always pretty.

Q / Do you use the internet on vacation or do you prefer to completely disconnect?
A / I like to work. I enjoy checking in. And most of my vacations are to urban locales, so being connected is paramount for maps, locations, restaurant reservations…the tourist necessities!

Q / Is there anything in particular that you do to take care of yourself and relax?
A / It is not infrequent that you can find me dining alone at LA’s fine restos — taking myself on a solo date, also known in urban slang as “MasterDating”. A mini vacation I enjoy immensely.

Q / Was there any particular person who helped shape your career in formative way?
A / No, though I wish I had a mentor. I’ve gotten great advice from friends and family and certainly watch the careers and choices of designers I admire but my journey for better or worse has been a solo one. I guess with the exception of the aforementioned web-designer-boyfriend who’s web site set me on this path to begin with!

Q / How did your parents feel about your career path? Does anyone in your family work in the same industry? Did their perceptions about your career change over time?
A / There is a disproportionate number of lawyers, CPAs, and brokers in my family. Some have a nascent interest in art and design but it is only a spectator sport. Which is liberating for me in one sense but isolating in another. For a long time I had a career in financial services, which offered the kind of grounding and security that I was encouraged to pursue. A long, organic path took me back to art which is what I studied as an undergraduate.

Q / In what capacity do you work with other people?
A / I have the best studio manager, Katharine Everett, who has worked with me for three years. She has the perfect mix of the best attributes. She is reliable, patient, analytical, adept, curious, kind, adaptable, and very smart. Exactly the person this business needs! A dream.

Q / How does your work affect the rest of your life? Personally? Financially? Time-wise?
A / Whether it is healthy or not work, it gives me a sense of purpose and fulfillment and it’s a career that has introduced me to some life-changing, wonderful people and inspiring locales. Which is the point. Those are the most meaningful things in life, so I am driven more and more to that end result.

Q / What has been your proudest career moment thus far?
A / I can’t say yet. It’s on the horizon. Keep your eyes peeled!

Q / What are you looking forward to this year?
A / What has emerged over the last year are three parallel collections: the Classic Collection (geometric classic forms in all gold or all silver), the Rock Collection (rings and bangles carved from solid gemstones) and the Stone Collection (a integration of gemstones with the gold forms). It feels expansive without losing continuity. I’ve also sourced a selection of objects which I will be offering alongside the jewelry both online and in our retail showroom. I think it is important for a designer to evolve and grow without losing a cohesive point of view. I hope I’ve done that and continue to!

Q / Lastly, a few of your favorite people, places, and things that we should discover too?
1. Cafe Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie, New York
2. Yaeca Home Store and Yaeca Apartment Store, Tokyo
3. Dosa 818, Los Angeles
4. The Waverly Inn, New York
5. Wine Stand Waltz, Tokyo
6. Septime La Cave, Paris
7. Breakfast at the Wolseley, London
8. Egg, London
9. March, San Francisco
10. Napoleon House, New Orleans
11. Deetjen’s, Big Sur

Interview
Catherine Litke

Photography
Courtesy of Kathleen Whitaker

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