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The Ladies of the House by Steffi Kammerer | 25th November, 2016 | Personalities

One of Manhattan’s most sought-after interior designers, Celerie Kemble combines Park Avenue sophistication and Palm Beach lightheartedness with a great flair for imperfections. She learned this art of effortless interior design from her mother Mimi McMakin. Together, the two have created distinctive spaces that magically attract friends and family, year after year.

Listening to her words, you immediately want to join her on the deck beneath a star-lit sky – warmed by an electric blanket on a cold winter’s night. With coyotes howling in the distance, interrupted by the occasional hooting of an owl. Up there in the mountains, sounds sometimes reverberate for minutes at a time. There is no cellphone reception at all, and life in the city seems infinitely far away. Inside the house – and outside, too – there is a gigantic fireplace in which the logs are always lit. After all, nothing beats an open fire. Especially when it is accompanied by wine and cheese and friends and family. The hideaway that Celerie Kemble has just described is located in the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate New York, and was created by her mother Mimi McMakin. An interior designer just like Celerie, Mimi only ever wanted to do one thing: create spaces in which to make great memories – characterful houses and apartments with creaky floorboards and other charming imperfections. Celerie was only a baby when her mother took her along to her first property viewings. Later – whether they went up north to Maine or all the way to Paris – they would visit the spectacular homes of friends and friends of friends, which clearly helped to train Celerie’s eye from a very early age. Today, she is one of New York’s most sought-after interior designers, although she has remained a Florida girl at heart. Having spent her childhood practically always going barefoot, she now lives among the Manhattan skyscrapers and sorely misses the open sky. Nor did Celerie grow up in just any old beachside town, but on the privileged island of Palm Beach, which her great-grandfather had helped develop. From the age of 14 she attended boarding school in Massachusetts and then graduated from Harvard with a degree in English. Later, she had three children with hedge fund manager Boykin Curry. At the end of the ’90s, she joined her mother’s company and opened an office in New York City. Very well connected and equipped in every way, she is still entirely down-to-earth, a woman with a throaty laugh who wears flat shoes and even sleeps on the floor as the occasion requires. And when she travels, she loathes large, soulless luxury blocks, preferring authentic hotels even if the towels smell a bit moldy.

“Our respective success helps us both. We are not
competitive with each other.” Celerie Kemble

Her first name really says it all. In official documents, her name appears as Cecilia, but her mother has always called her Celerie, and did so even before she was born. It started out as a joke, but the name stuck, and Celerie Kemble wouldn’t have dreamed of changing it, because it fit. There was never any competitiveness between her mother and herself, she says. “Her success enhances my reputation, just like my success helps hers.” Their tastes are similar to this day, as is their style, which is why Celerie says she would be perfectly comfortable changing one of her mother’s designs – even without asking her permission beforehand. “A house is never really finished, we both know that.” On many levels she continues what her mother began. Celerie grew up being friends with the children of Mimi’s friends, and they are still her closest confidants. These days all their children play together. One of these friends now lives in London, as does Celerie’s younger sister Phoebe. So, getting together is even more precious. They meet in the Adirondacks or at her mother’s house in Palm Beach, a 19th century former church which has been owned by the family for generations. Celerie herself owns a fabulous apartment in Manhattan overlooking Central Park, but the house in the mountains is her spiritual home. “Properly furnished, places develop their very own magnetism. Everyone wants to keep coming back, ideally for generations. That’s when a house can become the setting for family traditions.” You only have to look at old photo albums, she continues. Your gaze wanders quickly from the people to the furniture and design objects: “Oh, that’s when we still had the old sofa!” “Look, the chair with the wobbly leg!”

This is why, in this family, creating great interiors means understanding what we humans want. Plus, great design should be comfortable. Furniture has to allow for life in all its richness to take place on it. Celerie Kemble’s clients appreciate this personal approach: “Those who are just looking for expensive design don’t normally come to me,” she says, laughing. The floorboards in her office are dark red, the walls light green, and above her desk there’s a cornucopia of children’s photos and memorabilia. It smells good, too, because Celerie Kemble also produces scented candles. She is as delightful as she is industrious. Over the last few years, she has designed two hundred pieces of furniture and written three books. Then came her biggest project to date: a collection of high-end bungalows in the Dominican Republic.

“Properly furnished, a house can become the setting for family traditions.” Celerie Kemble

There, she and Boykin Curry had purchased a huge plot of land right on the beach. Very soon, they found 22 investors from her A-list circle of friends, including Alexander von Furstenberg and George Soros’s son Jonathan. Celerie planned every detail and closely supervised construction despite not speaking any Spanish. She cheerfully tells the story of how she once tried to communicate to the workers that a feature was supposed to be curvier by pointing at her rear. One thing they simply couldn’t grasp was that she wanted a row of nails to be crooked rather than straight. When they shook their heads in bafflement, Celerie just pretended she was having a beer and becoming a little tipsy – and the nails went in just like she wanted. Today, the bungalows are rented out to vacationers.

Celerie often takes the children there. After all, Manhattan is so exhausting that she escapes it every chance she gets. She has a house on Long Island for quick getaways as well. Is all this traveling not tiring? “Oh no! I constantly think about where I could go next.” Laos and Vietnam top her list at the moment. But first there’s Christmas to think about. As so often with the Kemble clan, the holidays tend to revolve around food. Phoebe is a professional chef and Celerie also loves to cook. “And we’re all greedy.” Friends will drop by throughout the holidays – the door is always open. But don’t be fooled by the sophisticated images on these pages, she says. “We are only that formal one evening.” The rest of the time is spent in bathrobe and pyjamas.

IssueGG Magazine 01/17
City/CountryNew York/ U.S.
PhotographyDouglas Friedman / Trunk Archive