Here at Kathy Kuo Home, I am thrilled to announce a brand-new series of interviews here on The Kuotes blog!
To celebrate and spotlight brilliant female entrepreneurs, founders, and CEOs–both in the design world and in other lifestyle categories like health and wellness, fashion, food, and parenting. In these uncertain times, I wanted to spotlight how some of our favorite women in business are making it work as they work from home and give them a portal for sharing their successes, struggles, advice, and questions with likeminded individuals–because, now more than ever, we are all in this together!
We are calling this series Kuotable Women–get It? Don’t eye roll please!–I enlisted, our lovely content manager, Mia Weber, to interview me since ultimately, as much as I love writing, it’s hard for me to write about myself sometimes (okay, maybe all of the time)…so here goes! -KK
From Mia: Let’s kick things off than our very own founder and CEO, the celebrated interior designer, businesswoman, and mom-of-two Kathy Kuo herself! Read on for a deep dive on how Kathy started our company, what she loves about her own home decor and designer furniture pieces, and how she’s staying sane and productive while socially-distancing (also, who came up with this word, this is so a-la “consciously uncoupling”-sounding).
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What were some of the key milestones that brought you to where you are now professionally? How did you end up starting Kathy Kuo Home?
I started Kathy Kuo Home out of a recession. I was working at Interlude Home–one of our current furniture vendors–at the time. I was their first designer and worked there for 4 years starting as a peon freelancer and working my way up the ranks of product development and sourcing to ultimately seeing the product come to life in a showroom or retail store. In addition, learning quickly that being able to talk about the product to sales reps and what made them covetable was just as important as knowing how to chamfer a perfect 1/4″ fillet on a table edge with the proper amount of gold gilt. We launched close to 500 new products and doubled the business during my tenure there, and all in all, would count my lucky stars every day that I truly had the job of my dreams. So, you can imagine how much I fell from grace when 2008 happened.
If you recall, or lived through the “Great Recession of 2008,” you’ll recall the burst of the housing bubble, where housing prices fell and homeowners began to walk away from their mortgages; banks were unable to provide funds to businesses, and homeowners paying down debt rather than borrowing and spending… and there you have it…a 19 month long recession.
People stopped building homes, and obviously stopped buying home furnishings. This affected us in a very direct way, similar to how COVID-19 is really affecting the travel and the hospitality industries now.
I was laid off and it was one of those things where I kind of saw it coming, but I didn’t really think it was going to happen to me because I had such an important role in the business. Eye roll. Clearly I now know, everyone is replaceable when there is a crisis. Prior to being let go, I saw the urgency for liquidity and thought how we could offload excess inventory…and this was in 2008 when eBay was the only game in town. So I was learning how to get our inventory on there and how to create product titles, how people search for product titles, and just teaching myself SEO in the early days.
I remember I presented the concept of online retail ideas to my boss…and after we went through it, he gave me a big hug, and then basically said “unfortunately I’m going to have to let you go.” Frankly, he said he could no longer afford to pay me anymore…it was totally crazy but I understood and moved on. In that moment of scrambling I thought to myself “what can I do with the learnings that I did here? Maybe I’ll start tinkering around and figure out how to launch an online business on my own.”
I initially built a custom a site with my friend Chris–whom I’ve known since I was 14 years old–after posting on Facebook that I was looking to build a website and he reached out. It was over pizza and beer that I said that I’d pay him. He was like “Yeah, I’m kind of interested in this stuff, I’ll help you out.” He still works with us today so it’s been an over-10 year relationship…I was also freelancing for Bed Bath & Beyond and Assouline as my main job while I figured out how to build a company–haha!
I ended up taking the BBB job because my then boss was a legit guru. He was my Yoda. He taught me so much about design, sculpture, 3-dimensionality and objects. When I presented him beautiful new bowls or serving dishes that I had designed, he would ask me questions like: “Does this bowl celebrate the art of eating?” To which I would drop to my knees and say: “Maybe? I don’t know! Can you tell me if this is approved for production?”
His name is James Murray (aka Jimmy)–he’s the executive VP right now at Simon Pearce. One of the reasons why I have such deep love for this American made brand is because he is the principle steward of great design there and one of our favorite brands we carry on KathyKuoHome.com.
The pivotal moment for me was one day I was in the model shop, 3D printing yet another bowl, and my phone rang on my gigantic Nokia. I picked up the phone and a woman–I still remember her name like yesterday–asking me: “I want to buy that ottoman on your website and I want to give you my credit card,” and I nearly fainted in disbelief.
It was crazy that I created something that someone could transact on. Ultimately, a few more months in, I decided to take the scary leap to quit my day job. That’s how I started Kathy Kuo Home–I got laid off and was looking for options.
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Tell us about your home–whom do you share your space with, and where do you live?
Today I share my space with my 2 very special tiny humans, Thing 1 and Thing 2 aka Maya and William. We live on the Upper West Side of New York City. I live in a pre-war classic-8. It’s always been my dream to live in a traditional apt with classic moulding, architectural fireplaces and 12 foot ceilings right on Riverside Drive (a la the Marvelous Ms Maisel). My last apartment in New York was a very contemporary duplex with floor to ceiling windows, not a ton of character. Now I have VERY LOUD radiators, no AC, and every floor board creaks, but I love every single imperfection about this place.
During these uncertain times when many professionals are finding themselves working from home, how are you approaching working from home and balancing work with the other aspects of your life?
I need to find more balance! I will say that the one thing that I still do is that I wake up and shower at the same time, I put on work clothes. We have morning sales meetings at 9am. Most recently a few girls started wearing lipstick, and now everyone does it–our whole Sales huddle team meet, we wear lipstick and it’s so joyous to just see everyone “making an effort” for everyone else on the Zoom. I even sometimes put on perfume so I can feel like a normal person, and so there’s the transition with getting ready for the day and also winding down from the day, as opposed to staying in my PJs all day which is not a good mental place for me to be. I also schedule workouts in mid day so that I force myself to stretch and get some cardio in.
Since I co-parent with my ex-husband, I do make a conscientious effort, when my kids are with me, to be super-present with them. I actually design my day so that I have times in my day where I plan and schedule for scheduling things that I want to do. I will schedule 10-15 minute blocks in my day to brainstorm things I want to do with my kids later, so it’s not ad hoc when they show up–we always have something planned. I take scheduling really seriously–I have lists of lists but they’re all designed so that I have times on my calendar to deal with the lists. And even with that, it’s a little chaotic. A great book that I recommend is David Allen’s Getting Things Done.
How is your home workspace set up right now?
My workspace at home is actually right by my entryway. There’s a little tucked away nook and it’s set up to feel very residential. I have a giant vase (not pictured) with a ton of dried flowers that are very oversized–which makes me happy because I can’t actually get fresh flowers right now. There are pictures of my kids, trays, a large gourd-shaped lamp, a starburst mirror. I try to do everything I can to keep my desk really tidy so that there’s not a lot of visual clutter. Visual clutter makes it really hard for me to get through my day–I’m like: “Oh my god, there’s a pile of mail there! Oh my god, I’ve got to deal with shuffling through this pile of stuff I haven’t organized!” So, I do make a point to keep my desk pretty tidy.
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What are some of your work from home must-have items or favorite pieces? On the flip-side, what are some of your favorite items that help you enjoy self-care and relaxation?
What I don’t have in the office, which I will probably like to bring in once we’re back, is I actually have a drawing pad with a stylus. A lot of times what I do, when I think of things and organize thoughts in my head is that I draw them…I like to visually lay out my information. Since I don’t have a white board here, I use the stylus and drawing pad.
My must-haves are pictures of my kids. It just brings me so, so, so, so much joy just to see their faces every single day. In terms of self-care and relaxation: I will say that I probably am sheet-masking more than I used to. I do a bit more skin care than I normally would because I have a little bit more time in the day. Also, there’s no such thing as too much serum!
Given that you work in the home and design space, what are your go-to furnishings and decor pieces that are keeping you sane right now?
Obviously anything from Kathy Kuo Home! I love natural materials–right now I love anything from Palecek. I’m also realizing, and it sounds so cheesy, but baskets really make my life so better. I’ve got tons of throws–so I have a basket for throwing throws. I’ve got trays all over to coral all my little things–like for the amount of wood samples and paint chips and tile bits that I have at home–that I need that corralled. I love anything that’s storage oriented.
I’m also rethinking my kids’ toys. When my kids were younger there was this thinking that I wanted the toys out of sight, so I designed my own house that had this incredible storage area that had bins and the bins were color-coordinated. My daughter had pink bins and my son had gray bins…but nothing was ever in the right bin and the kids’ never would know what was in the bins since they would pull them out, groan, and say, that’s not MY TOY. You had to pull the bins out to see what was inside. Rookie parenting mistakes. I now know better.
Basically, what it has come down to is that I have to figure out what to do with the toys. I’ve seen the toy storage from Oeuf that other people have where the bins show you the contents of what’s inside. I know that’s visually cluttering but it’s easier for the kids. One thing I want to tackle right now is going through my kids’ toys and finding all the missing pieces, legs to soldiers, wheels to cars and basically have a full TOY resurrection (and donation) day.
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For anyone who wants to do a home refresh while they’re spending so much time there these days–but they don’t know where to start–what are some easy recommendations?
One simple and easy thing to do would be to get a new rug. You can do so much with a rug–you can transform a room to be a spa sanctuary or a Moroccan boudoir so quickly and easily, just based on pattern and pile. We sell so many performance rugs right now, as well as some very well-priced rugs, so for $100-500 you can transform a room.
I’m not sure how easy it is for you to get help right now, but if you’re fairly handy, change up your paint color. If you have been dying to test a new color, just do it right now. I think because we’re in our spaces so much more and looking at our space for longer during the day–just move your furniture around. It sounds crazy, but try moving your sofa to the other side of the room so that you can experience that flow differently.
If you have the ability to, if you have drawing paper or paint or whatever, make your own art. That’s what my kids and I have been doing–we’ve taking oversized paper and I’m helping them just paint and just get messy, and then we pin the art on the wall and we rotate it out and it’s so fun. We don’t get it framed or anything, unless we all collectively decide it will permanently live there. We just literally tape it to the wall. But it’s fun because they get excited about what mommy puts on the wall.
Aside from navigating the immediate challenges of our current moment in history, what goals do you have in your personal and professional life right now?
One of the things that I’m deeply passionate about is helping other women and female entrepreneurs get through the challenges of having a career, and how that all works when you have children. I made the conscious decision that I really wanted to be home with my kids, and I had to ask what kind of career could I have that would allow me to do that. There are a lot of careers that don’t allow for that, and that’s incredibly challenging and limiting. That also made me think of the concept of being an interior designer.
There are so many parents out there who are incredible designers, or artists–how do we mentor people in the creative space so that they can have fulfilling careers and also be able to be a mom or a dad, and be home with their kids without feeling like they’re missing out on climbing the corporate ladder or they’re not doing well with their careers? I think that’s why I’m so passionate about the interior design space–because ultimately I think that the more people who can pursue their passion as designers and allowing more people in the world to #LoveWhereTheyLive would be beneficial. Helping female entrepreneurs is a passion of mine.
People ask me what I love about Kathy Kuo Home most and I say, what’s not obvious, is that I genuinely enjoy building a team and building a team culture and just seeing the team grow organically on their own and taking ownership of the things that they do and stepping into their own. It’s almost as fulfilling as having children–you give them the tools and the parameters, you pave the direction, and you grow together. It’s one of the most rewarding aspects of having Kathy Kuo Home.
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