Designer Talk: Kenneth Walter

Chicago-based esigner Kenneth Walter; of Gray & Walter; has been designing personalized creative spaces for discerning client for 30 years. An advodate of being faithful to a client's unique taste, even if that leads to uncovering surprises along the way, Walter heralds the benefits of working withing a formalized plan. Not limited by tradition, the designer says he will determine what makes the most sense for a client, and that antiques and contemporary art are a few of his favorite supporting elements for unique space. -GV

CGN: Tell me about your design philosophy and what you do for your clients. 

KW: My firm was established in 1989, and today we do all different types of projects, from contemporary hotels and club to historic preservations. I find that I'm very interested in working with a plan—seeing how a project will relate to a site. I also have to see how a client and the overall project are related to one another. I would never deprive someone, but I will maybe try to talk them into the thing that's best suited to them. A good professional doesn't do just one thing. I prefer to work with that is appropriate, but I think a lot of architects and desigers get caught up in a look, and then potential clients get confused when they see only one kind of work in a portfolio and cannot get beyond it. 

I describe what i do as 'ecletic classicism'—designed based on classical principles, and classical in terms of order, though not always style. Something could be really far out, or done as a period, or it can be funky. I think you can do anything, as long as there is an overall order. 

Things definitley come in and out of fashion. One day people will want silk curtains dripping with trim again. Lucite is back right now—I never thought I'd see that come back! So, everything that's old is new again. Chintz will probably come back—whether it should or shouldn't isn't the point, but it will come back, so it's good to work with a lot of styles. 

I think people can have a wonderful art collection and it doesn't have to have museum-level name or even quality. When we work with clients, we often start out helping to grow a collection. We say, you can buy something that's affordable by a major name artist—a lithograph, or a print, and there are also many emerging artists to explore—you just have to love what you buy. You really can't even buy art as a major investment unless you're spending thousands of dollars anyway. 

How do you combine antiques with contemporary art? 

There's nothing I love more than contemporary art with antiques. I recommend for clients to look at a piece of art and ask 'Will I love it in 5 years? In 10?' For antiques, changes are the real thing will cost more than a reproduction, though sometimes I'm shocked by reproduction price—it screams new but it's actually more expensive! Buy the best that you can afford and that you feel you will really love. I think it's a great idea to go to estate sales—you never know what you'll find, and there are some great values to find as you learn. Auction houses are great too. 

Do you have any favorite pieces or projects? 

One of my favoirte projects was for a young couple who had nothing when they came to me. We helped them set up an art collection as well as their home—we got them into Ruth Duckworth, Giacometti, Henry Moore—named artists with provenance from good galleries, many in Chicago. If a client has an art collection started, we help them add to it, or curate it, or update framing and placement—there is so much to do. It's lots of fun.