You may know Kathy Kuo as a businesswoman. An interior designer. A hardworking mother. A TV star. Or maybe to you, she’s just a pretty face you see occasionally on Instagram: the pearly white smile and set of alluring eyes you admire for knowing how to place a tiered serving dish so effortlessly.
But our founder Kathy Kuo has just as much adamancy and conviction about her work and her desire to help other designers, both new and old, through her efforts at KKH. Whether you’re a designer who has known Kathy for ages or a recent friend, we invite you to read on and explore what Kathy Kuo Home can mean for you.
How does a designer define the home?
Kathy Kuo was born in Taipei, brought up in a world of avid tourism and beautiful skyscrapers until she first came to America when she was four. Her father was a diplomat, so the family traveled a lot, back and forth between Asia and America until eventually relocating to Boston for her middle and high school years. She remembers feeling transient as a child, drifting from place to place while trying to establish a sense of home.
For Kathy, it was very apparent. She and her brother would craft cityscapes from Legos, complete with a police station, a city hall, and a soccer ball wrapped in aluminum foil to serve as a stand-in moon. They would build models of homes with Escher-like staircases. As Kathy grew up, she also took immense pride in her room, constantly reorganizing and re-laying things out. Her stuffed animals never grew bored, as they were regularly moving around the room in makeshift hammocks and seating areas.
“The home is definitely family. It’s somewhere you go, and you feel calm, you feel a sense of relaxation, and it should be a reflection of who you are in that present moment.”
I learn something here from Kathy that we all know is true: What it all boils down to is love. Fill your home with memories from your travels, memories from your childhood, and reminders of the people you cherish most in your life. Psychology tells us that memories and emotion are cued by our physical surroundings, and the way we decorate our homes can be seen as an extension of ourselves. (Okay, okay—this will be my last psychological analysis). As a designer, Kathy strives to give clients homes that they love: Homes that are their homes.
How do you get started as an interior designer?
“I went to the Rhode Island School of Design.” f it sounds familiar, it could be because of their astounding design programs… or it could be because you’ve seen Wedding Crashers too many times on cable and know that Todd, the amazing painter, went to RISD, affectionately articulated “rizz-dee.”
Here is the 411 for designers wondering whether or not they should pursue a degree: Do it. Kathy uses her academic training daily at KKH to truly understand how things are manufactured from a raw materials standpoint. If you need an example, think of ceramic garden stools. We have many people call in here at KKH who are curious why ceramic garden stools become so expensive once they surpass 18 inches in height. The answer? Quite simple actually: It’s due to the number of stools you’re able to load into a kiln at once. Once a garden stool exceeds 22 inches, there is a high slump and defect ratio. These are things that you’re typically only going to learn in school.
How do you go from design college grad to design superstar?
Kathy’s answer? It wasn’t easy (and she doesn’t approve of my term, superstar). After six months in Europe post-graduation, she moved back home with her parents. For any young designers reading this who are just starting out in the industry, I want you to take this story to heart:
Kathy took photos of her travels in Europe. This was back when everyone had digital cameras au lieu de iPhones, and every photo was three or so megapixels. She printed out each photo, mounted them, and then biked to the Government Center in Boston to sell her photos on the streets.
“I was a street cart vendor…but I didn’t even have a cart,” Kathy laughs about it now.
After an entire summer of selling her prints, Kathy started her first design job designing welding helmets in Boston. It wasn’t until six months into that job that Kathy received a call from her agent to be on a design show called Knock First.
This was during the rise of on-air reality television when shows like Trading Spaces and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy were in their prime. The premise of Knock First was redesigning kids rooms. While on the show, she made lifelong connections with HGTV stars John Gidding of Curb Appeal (if you open that link, I dare you not to drool) and Taniya Nayak of Restaurant: Impossible.
Recently, Kathy has also starred as a judge on the show Rowhouse Showdown, with Carter Oosterhouse and Jim Bronzie which you can read about here. But after one season of Knock First, Kathy moved to New York City as a designer to work for a luxury furniture company. It was here where Kathy learned a lot of what KKH is all about today: understanding how furniture is manufactured and shipped worldwide. Her life seemed to be going steady and strong…until the height of the recession in 2007.
So then, how do you start an online shop?
Here’s how it began: A seasoned employee at a prestigious design company, Kathy walked into a conference room filled with executives and made a proposition: the online market. She had spent weeks researching and making trips to book stores to read up on selling online. She stayed up late perfecting her PowerPoint presentation. This was her moment. She gave the presentation, going into precise detail about the benefits of making sales online. As she finished, she took a deep breath in. She waited. The air in the conference room was thick. Everyone seemed to be anxiously leaning in towards her.
“Thank you so much, this is amazing,” her boss said sincerely. Kathy felt her heartbeat speed up a bit. Then he frowned, “But unfortunately, we can no longer afford to keep you on.”
“There was a lot of crying, my boss included,” Kathy says to me. They had grown the business from 11 million to 22 million within four years, and just like that, it was over.
However, something inside of her couldn’t let the idea fade. The online market for furniture: There was no reason why it shouldn’t exist. Or, at least, she had to try it.
After designing her website prototype and every one of its buttons on Illustrator (which we now thankfully know is not the way to go about designing a website), she posted a message on Facebook, reaching out to any friends who might help her in exchange for a free dinner (not a good value proposition in hindsight). Chris, a longtime friend of Kathy’s from Boston, responded and adopted Kathy Kuo Home as his pet project. To our luck, he stayed on and remains a developer eight years later to this day!
She took on several corporate jobs to survive financially while working on KKH on the weekends. She remembers a turning moment from when she was a designer for Bed, Bath, and Beyond. A customer of the KKH site called her during work, so she hid in the BB&B model shop room to take the order.
“I remember thinking: Why are people calling me? People actually want to order product? Our first year, we did $80,000, and I thought to myself, maybe I can go full time.”
All of the sudden, there it was: Kathy Kuo Home. Her own online shop.
How do you own your business and still own your life?
For Kathy, everything is about balance. For every ten balls she has in the air, she realizes that only 5 or 6 will end up on the floor, and that’s okay with her. She keeps running to-do lists on her phone, and we use project management software, like Pivotal Tracker and Google Docs, to ensure everything gets done on time. When I ask about her personal life, Kathy says that it’s definitely the toughest part to manage, but you always find your way to the right choice.
“I had a daughter, Maya. She came very early. She was born at three lbs. I had severe preeclampsia”
“Everything is about balance.”
Kathy worked throughout her entire pregnancy as well as after Maya’s birth. With preeclampsia, her pregnancy was even more demanding than usual. Every day for a month, she went to the neonatal ICU, breastfeeding Maya in the incubator and doing “Kangaroo Care” skin-to-skin therapy. This, all during Hurricane Sandy with New York in total shutdown while working full time at Kathy Kuo Home.
“All I wanted to do was leave work and be at St. Luke’s Roosevelt and sit next to my daughter and hold her all day. I had a lot of guilt…the thought that I wasn’t providing my daughter enough care and support would make me so sad. Plus all of those pregnancy hormones!”
It was really hard, at first, for her to balance the workload at KKH between herself and her employees while having such mixed emotions. To any designers out there who struggle with balancing work and family, know that you are not alone. But it is all worth it.
What can Kathy Kuo Home Do for You?
Established designers and design-savvy alike: while the story of Kathy Kuo may be inspiring to you, perhaps the most important information you want to know is how Kathy Kuo Home is going to help you with your business. This aspect of KKH is something that we strive to accomplish on a day-to-day basis, so it is important that I end the interview on this note.
“As the business grows, we take on more and more interior design projects. We are dialed into the design needs from small scale residential to larger scale commercial to even larger scale hospitality.”
As many designers know, one of the most difficult parts of the job as a designer is the bureaucracy behind obtaining and shipping product. Where am I getting this couch from? I see it on this website and on this website too. Will my product arrive on time, or did it get backordered? At a certain point, Kathy felt like she wasn’t even designing. Her job became following up with people, pricing items, and searching for items all day long. Kathy Kuo Home was created to eliminate all of this middle management and provide great proactive customer service to designers in need.
What we’re really focusing on now is infusing technology into the site. We spend a lot of time and effort working on the tech component and user experience part of our site. We’re hoping, in the near future, to further technological advances relating to customization and even holograms. Yes, holograms. My mind goes to Star Wars—but I promise you, it’s not that unattainable. We’ve also launched this new blog initiative to cater to the needs of designers and the design-savvy like yourself.