Monday, April 26
Profile: Malcolm James Kutner
It would be untruthful for me to suggest that I had not counted on meeting a few exceptional individuals at the Design Leadership Summit in Venice. Given the impressive roster, that most certainly would have been an impossible feat.
What I failed to consider were the friendships that would form over the course of three days. Take equal parts magical city and stellar company, and no doubt you have solid grounds upon which to build camaraderie. Toss in equal parts intellect, wit and passion and you have Malcolm James Kutner.
By happenstance Malcolm ended up at my table on the first day of the conference. When we should have been engaged in ‘serious’ conversation during breakout sessions, we were busy talking and laughing about life and design.
As I would soon learn, Malcolm is also a native Houstonian, and is as much an academic as he is an aesthete. An English and Humanities major from Kenyon College in Ohio and a Thomas J. Watson Fellow, Malcolm has rightfully blazed his own trail in the world of interior design.
After a two-month visit to England that ended in a 12-year stay, courses in landscape design, the founding of Landscape Design Group in London, and the restoration of two historical houses, one in London and one in Key West, he has more than earned his stripes.
Now living in New York City, with clients around the world, he still holds fast to his Southern upbringing, a deep respect for nature and a love of the written word. All traits that continue to endear him to an impressive clientele.
While some designers sketch ideas upon first meeting clients, Malcolm both draws and writes a short story in order to get a grip on the ‘characters’ and to get his ‘own ego’ out of the way. “My job is simply to edit, curate and focus. The lens must always be focused on my clients.” With such humility and dedication, it is easy to see why he has garnered loyal devotees from coast to coast—present company included.
How would you describe your personal style?
I was just reviewing some professional portrait shots of me and I am tempted to say: A sharp suit, good shoes, and a crooked tie. No, seriously now. I am a big believer that personal style comes from a point of view, a perspective, a mentality. With that in mind, I suppose I would need to answer that my personal style is a sort of edited, cleaned up classicism punctuated with a playful modern edge. It is like equal parts selective history, insistent presence, and optimistic future, underscored always with a nod to the natural.
What is your most prized possession?
I don’t know that I feel comfortable laying claim to the “possession” of anything. So I think I have to say that my most prized possession is my own history. It’s the only thing that is all mine, and it’s what allows me to prize my relationships with an infinite variety of other people, places, and things in the here and now. So actually, that's my answer: the here and now.
What is the one thing in life you cannot live without?
Quiet time with myself, preferably in Nature, but I’ll take it alone in my apartment, beach house, or hotel room, too.
Who are your style icons?
I have always been a bit weary of icons and idols, maybe because I am fearful of being too impressionable. But there is definitely a stable of stylish people that I repeatedly refer to for inspiration and sometimes guidance.
The list changes all the time depending on what I am thinking about or designing, and these names appear for different style sub-categories and in no particular order, but for now they include:
William Pahlmann, Emile Jacques Ruhlman, Elsie MacNeill (she being the Contessa Gozzi of Fortuny), Cole Porter, Peggy Guggenheim, Babe Paley, Madeline Castaing, Van Day Truex, Frances Elkins, Syrie Maugham, Rose Tarlow, Cary Grant, Axel Vervoordt, Billy Haines, John F. Staub, Andrew Palladio, Le Notre and Sir John Soane.
But let me also say that probably the most consistent, constant, and accessible style icons to me: Lloyd Clark Byrd and Marilyn Tillery Kutner, my grandmothers.
Who would you most like to collaborate with on a project?
There are too many to name. I think collaboration is crucial. We’re all doing it all the time, and we need more of it. I get to collaborate with the most amazing architects, contractors, engineers, lighting designers, landscape designers, artisans, craftspeople, and on and on. It is one of my key statements—there is no good design without creative synergy. The more the better.
The key for me is never thinking that my work is about me in the final analysis. I am a channel, a participant, between a client and a place, between the place and Nature, bringing people and their environments into harmonious, natural, and essential relationships with each other.
There has to be a lot of collaboration to make that happen. My dream is to have a design version of Warhol’s Factory. Having said all that - sure, I have design crushes on lots of people, but that wasn’t your question!
What books are currently on your bedside table?
I love to read and I love this question! There is a permanent collection and a rotating one (granted this requires some floor space under the bed).
I am preparing for a three week trip trip Asia, so the rotating collection features a bit about that: Beyond the Sky and Earth: A Journey Into Bhutan by Jamie Zeppa; Angkor and Cambodia’s Wondrous Temples by Dawn Rooney; The Blessings of Bhutan by Russ and Blyth Carpenter; Bangkok Day by Day by Frommer’s; Gone Tomorrow by P.F. Kluge (my writing professor at Kenyon!); Cradle to Cradle by McDonough and Braungart; Eros the Bittersweet by Ann Carson; Jane Goodall’s Hope for Animals, and The Art of Embroidery by Ianto Synge.
And the permanent collection, those that are always there and with which I often travel, comprises: Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letter’s to a Young Poet, inscribed and given to me by a best friend in college on my 19th birthday; The Dhamapada, Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield, Rose Tarlow’s The Private House, and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. And my own book, a notebook with jottings and sketches, reflections and perceptions. You can see why I recently bought a Kindle!
What is your favorite luxury in life?
Good hotels. And I mean, really good hotels. Of which I have found very, very few in my travels. It is a dream of mine to do a really good boutique hotel. I think that has to be part of the syllabus for the next phase of my design career.
What is your idea of earthly happiness?
Enjoyment without attachment. All of the people I love in one place at one time. Note the inner conflict!
Past or present who has most influenced your direction in life?
I think that absolutely has to be my mother, Liza Byrd Kutner. Hats off, Mom!
What inspires your creativity and designs?
Nature. I could say any number of other things and they would be true: sun rising or setting over water or mountains, the first ski run of the morning or the last beach swim of the afternoon, Turkish mosaics and Venetian fabrics, Buddhist temples at Borobodur and Catholic churches in Chartres, rice paddies in Bali and salt ponds in the Yucatan, great ballgowns and good jewelry, art, music, food. But it always goes back to Nature for me. The good news is I never have to look far to get inspired. My problem is not so much finding inspiration, but finding enough ways to put the all inspiration to use!
Profile by Ronda Carman
Photo (1) Alexandra Rowley; Photo (2) Chris Baker; Photo (3) Chris Baker; Photo (4) Barry FItzgerald; Photo (5) Jan Baldwin; Photo (6) Barry Fitzgerald; Photo (7) Malcolm James Kutner