He’s A Natural
Spend five minutes in the company of Ken Downing and you can’t help but fall for his quick wit, effusive personality and effortless sense of style. In the world of the globe-trotting fashion director of one of the country’s leading luxury retailers, the boundaries between work and play seem to disappear altogether. An industry expert at bringing cutting-edge fashion trends to his discerning clientele at Neiman Marcus, this Dallas-based style genius still manages to find time to indulge his love of interior design. We recently caught up with Downing to discuss unexpected parallels between the fashion and design worlds, his most treasured design discovery and what he’s got his eye on from Christie’s upcoming Interiors auction…
Describe your signature style.
In a word, eclectic. I love modernism, but at the same time, I’ve always been drawn to the mixture of high and low, vintage and modern. The idea that some fabulous tag sale find could be juxtaposed with a piece of designer furniture is very appealing.
Right now I’m having a love affair with owls. My grandmother collected them and the sight of them brings me such fond memories. I’m also into anything made of brass – hardware, lighting, frames – the warm tones are super chic to my eye.
What design philosophy do you abide by?
Good interior design doesn’t happen overnight. It accumulates over time. It’s the effort and care you put into the selection of each piece that gives a space its heart and soul.
Biggest design faux pas?
In a well-appointed interior, art and furniture are in constant conversation, the one enhancing the other. It drives me absolutely insane to see empty wall space – pour me a drink, get me a hammer and let me fix it for you!
What is the home décor equivalent of…a killer stiletto?
I immediately think of Christian Louboutin, the undisputed king of heels. I’d compare his shoes to a Saarinen dining table, which feels both of the past and of the future. It’s the most perfect piece of furniture because it marries well with everything. It’s like the perfect date – it looks appropriate no matter where you place it!
…a little black dress?
Chanel’s is superlative - no woman’s closet should be without Karl Lagerfeld’s LBD. A classic piece like that can be worn from coffee to cocktail, day to night. In the same way, no interior should be without Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona daybed. The modern yet classic style makes it perfectly versatile. I have one in my bedroom, kitchen and living room.
…this season’s “It” bag?
That’s tough – this season we’re seeing a return to a very ladylike style, and Celine is on everyone’s list. That said, Chanel still wins out for its timeless appeal. Their bags are heirlooms that get passed down from generation to generation. And a must-have accessory for the home right now? I’d say a Florence Knoll club chair. The quilted, handmade quality makes it something that you’ll want to hang on to for years to come.
Where do you go to get your creative fix?
Honey, my radar is always up. I travel for a living, so I’m constantly surrounded by inspirational people, art, architecture….but when it comes to interior design, nothing is better than a good antique mall, flea market or estate sale. I get such a thrill out of the quest for and discovery of a treasure.
Tell us about one of your most exciting discoveries.
I went to an auction outside of Dallas where everything you saw was brown oak and washbasins and hall stands. That’s usually a good sign that there’s bound to be one or two modernist treasures no one else will be bidding on! Sure enough, near the end the auctioneer brought out a hanging lamp that consisted of a metal frame and three boxes of glass. No one else was bidding, but given the shape I sensed it might be something good, so I offered him $25. He sold it to me, saying, “You just bought the ugliest piece in the sale!” Well, it turned out to be the most exquisite Carlo Scarpa chandelier. I have it hanging in the corner of my sitting room, in front of floor-to-ceiling windows. It looks incredible!
Any advice for those just starting to decorate or collect?
Find someone you trust – who really understands your taste and knows what’s out there – and let them guide you. You’ll gain confidence with every decision you make. And remember, at the end of the day, it’s all about surrounding yourself with the things you love. If you combine a sharp eye with a true love of the object, you can’t go wrong.