Designer Karen Walker shares her number one rule for tackling a design renovation

Matt Wineera, AREINZ
Matt Wineera, AREINZ
Published on September 30, 2018

“I’ve only stayed in one hotel where everything was perfect, with nothing I would change, and that was the Upper House hotel in Hong Kong,” says Karen Walker.

It’s a big statement, and will likely have a few stylish travellers rushing to book rooms there, but when it comes to design, Walker knows her stuff.

As well as the clothing, eyewear, accessories and jewellery she’s best known for, over the years Walker has worked on designing paint colours, makeup, fragrance, homeware, umbrellas, pet attire, notebooks and even cookies (peanut butter and dark chocolate, with The Caker) – as well as the Karen Walker label’s branding and store fitouts and the interiors of her own homes.

Karen Walker says designing should be a joyful experience. Photo: Jason Dorday/Stuff

And the spaces where she lives have always been pivotal.

“I always get asked where my love of design comes from and I think anybody who loves design, is a consumer of good design or is a maker of good design, has a starting point, where that first got triggered,” she says. “For me, an important part of my love of design came from the home that I lived in until I was 21.”

Designed in 1959 by architect George Sargent, Walker says “living for the first 21 years of my life in a home that questioned line and strove for the best solutions possible did set the landscape for me, that everything has the opportunity to be designed and questioned and fully interrogated.

One of Karen Walker’s favourite things: Royal Doulton Olio teapot. Photo: Stuff

“I only sold that home last year, it was really wrenching for me to remove it from my life. As much as I loved the structure, I just didn’t really want to move back to Remuera, sorry.”

The first house she bought was a 1930s Art Deco design that had been transplanted from Mission Bay onto “10 acres of land and bush in the Waitakere Ranges”.

“With my first house, we had a very tight budget. It was very rough and ready and needed a lot of work but over time we made it ours,” says Walker. “The brief was creating a unique, interesting property, that made the most of the city and allowed us to enjoy what was unique about the city – in this case it was making the most of the native bush and the Waitakere ranges.”

One of Karen Walker’s favourite things: Anglepoise Type 75 desk lamps. Photo: Stuff

The house, says Walker, “showed our love of contrast, throwing together extremes, interesting opposites.”

It had “a very juxtaposing, almost jarring feel to it and it really worked.”

Walker admits that design “can be overwhelming”.

“I think designing should be a joyful experience, and if it’s not, it’s usually because there’s something missing, whether it’s a problem you’re trying to solve or you don’t have the right team around you, you don’t know your budget or your budget doesn’t meet your expectation or the reality.”

She suggests wherever possible to get a team around you who will bring the skills and knowledge to the project that you don’t have.

“I always think that saves money in the long term and gives you a better result, even though it may feel like an indulgence.

“I’m not an interior designer but I have a point of view, I know what I like – but I’m not going to try and do that myself.

“My rule is hire a specialist, someone who’s good, who knows your taste, who knows how to bring the best out of you.”

Walker says budget is key to any design process. “Always set the budget at the same time as you set the brief, there’s no joy in creating a nice house if you can’t afford to live in it afterwards, like there’s no point in us making a coat that no one can afford to buy.

“With my current home, Katie and I went through it with a list of things we wanted to do, then we had to prioritise – that’s this year, that’s next year, that’s the year after. You don’t necessarily get to do everything in one go.

“Also there’s a myth that things have to be expensive to be good,” she says, referencing gallerist Michael Lett’s Nat Cheshire-designed twin cabins on the Kaipara Harbour as an example.

“I’m sure it didn’t cost millions to design and build but it’s still astonishing in form and function.

Design, Walker says, is essentially problem solving.

“So for me, with any design project the first step is always figuring out what the problem you’re trying to solve is, if you don’t know that you’re just going to be waffling around.”

-Josie Steenhart

– A version of this article was originally published on Stuff.


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