Celerie Kemble, the Manhattan socialite designer whose name and face seem to be everywhere, from the New York Observer to House Beautiful, knows from good taste. It's in her DNA.
She grew up in Palm Beach, Fla., in an unusual house that was once the Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea. Living there, she learned about style from the eclectic interior created by her mother, Mimi McMakin, who runs the Palm Beach office of Kemble Interiors with Brooke Huttig.
Celerie's clients at Kemble Interiors' New York office include fashion designers Tory Burch and Lela Rose. She attends the same galas as Blake Lively and Julianne Moore.
Marion McEvoy, a contributing editor at Domino magazine, has compared Kemble to Sister Parish, the doyenne of 20th-century society decorators. The two may, indeed, share the pedigree and clientele, but Kemble has the spunk to give tradition a twist by breaking the rules.
It's no surprise that her first book,
Celerie Kemble: To Your Taste
(Clarkson Potter, $45), features her name as part of the title. In the book, she describes the family home, built in the shingle style, as shaped like a castle "complete with flying buttresses, 30-foot ceilings, a turret and arched windows." The former church is on land once owned by her great-great-grandfather Henry Maddock, who came to Palm Beach in 1891.
But the charm comes from more than just architecture. It's how her mother decorated the house over the years that made such an impression on Kemble, a cum laude graduate of Harvard University who was a film producer before becoming a designer.
"Growing up in a house my mom designed is the reason I am in this business," she says. "I ended up loving and identifying with my surroundings. That's why I care so much."
She describes the secret to her mother's decorating as bringing together a million disparate furnishings - collected items, family heirlooms, and fun, irreverent things.
Taste doesn't have to be safe or boring, Kemble says. She talks about the risks her mother took in 1972 - painting the living room pink and installing hand-painted watermelon-and-pink Portuguese tiles on the floor.
"She gave that room a feeling, and she has developed it over time," Kemble says. "It's her spirit that made the house so magical. You can see how things changed, but somehow her fun, her taste and her comfort come through."
Both Kemble and McMakin have the courage not to be intimidated by furniture. They take things and rework them - even antiques. For example, McMakin transformed an old chinoiserie secretary desk that was dark mahogany, carved, and what Kemble calls "sort of important-looking."
"She painted the thing white," Kemble says. "Most people would have said she wrecked it. It's now under a portrait of my mother's grandmother. A picture in the book shows how she took something and made it ours. Make it yours. Don't let the piece own you."
Kemble also cautions parents to make sure the children don't own the design of their homes. She and husband Ravenel Boykin Curry IV have two children - 2-year-old Ravenel V (known affectionately as Rascal) and 7-month-old Zinnia. The family shares their apartment on Central Park South with Anchovie, their Jack Russell terrier.
"My conviction was that I should have my children grow up in a house that was attractive and built for us, not a romper room," Kemble says.
"My husband and I are worse than the children. We eat on the sofa more than the dining table. At least the kids are locked into their high chairs. I don't have anything so precious that I would be heartbroken if it was broken. In training them not to walk around the house with cranberry juice, we have a house we can enjoy."
The one concession she has made is faux-leather upholstery, which can take spills. She also suggests that parents add color with painted wood furniture and ceramic lamps rather than delicate fabrics.
But do tabletops have to be bare in a home with children?
"I let my kids play with things, as long as it's not dangerous for them," she says. "I shouldn't have it if I'm afraid it will get broken. But I do keep really fragile things out of reach. It's more important to let children live than restrict their freedoms."
Finding a personal style.
Kemble never hesitates to break rules. Her rooms reflect her personality - always tasteful, yet exuberant with a splash of whimsy.
Her book offers suggestions for the reader on how to discover one's own style, as well as providing inspiration for designing rooms around the way you really live. Photos range from her family home in Palm Beach to her favorite projects.
How do you get started? Here's what Kemble recommends:
Make your home a self-portrait. You can feel it when you walk into a house - someone cared enough to make you and themselves comfortable. Make deliberate choices and free yourself to have fun with your decorating.
Fear is a bigger inhibitor than budget or conflict. Start with small delights. Be a little silly. If something thrills you, buy it. Work it out later.
Start training your eye. Look at the details in spaces you like. Take pictures. Make a file of things that inspire or excite you. Look at magazines, books, your friends' homes, restaurants and see how they pulled things off. Learn what you like and chase it.
You can find style at any price. Hunt vintage. Rework what you already own. Spend the most on small splurges of high style instead of trying to spread your budget too thin.
Keep going; don't get immobilized. If you aren't in love with your sofa, throw a slipcover on it and concentrate on the pictures on the wall. Keep working with smaller pieces; add pillows, for instance. It's multiple layers that make incredible spaces even more incredible.