Restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic have not only dramatically altered travel across the globe, they’ve also sparked interest in rethinking the design of the personal spaces where people are now spending more of their time.
Carol Kurth, FAIA, ASID, a principal of Carol Kurth Architecture + Interiors in Bedford, New York, is an award-winning architect and interior designer. Her extensive portfolio of luxury places to live, work and play are notable for their creative integration of site, form, structure and materials.
An avid traveler herself, Carol is a highly sought-after speaker, always offering fresh insights on architecture, interior design trends and sustainability.
Forbes.com spoke to Carol Kurth about the shifts she’s seeing in her industry, how travel can inspire architecture and interior design, and the creative ways—large and small—travel enthusiasts can weave reminiscences of their travels into their homes.
With travel curtailed and people spending more time at home, what types of shifts have you seen in design and decor?
Carol Kurth: Initially, people seemed to be focused on what I’d call nesting: figuring out where to shelter, how to work, how to gather food and supplies, and how to adapt to the ever-changing landscape. As all things evolve, the desire to make one’s shelter experience more livable, functional and more beautiful came into focus. People reorganized plans while also reorganizing their physical spaces and rethought the uses of those spaces to accommodate the shifting landscape.
Now, it feels like we’re in a phase of preparation: getting ready and planning ahead for winter, which poses different constraints due to the weather. This includes finding ways to socialize and entertain safely and create a seasonless outdoor environment that allows us to be outside as long as possible.
People are beginning to envision how they can shelter in place while still being able to do the things they love, that bring them happiness, and what changes they might need to make to the function and flow of their homes to achieve those goals. Often, this includes bringing memories, both physical and emotional, of their travel experiences into their homes.
What are some ways your clients with a wanderlust for travel have incorporated their experiences into their homes?
CK: The majority of our clients travel extensively—whether for business, leisure, adventure or philanthropic endeavors—and most have both interest and desire to incorporate elements from their travels.
Architecture and design are similar to travel in the sense that they can go beyond the physical; there is an emotional connection that engages the senses, transcending time and place. As architects and interior designers, we can help them translate these memorable experiences whether it is through tactile, visual or olfactory media.
I’ve worked with clients to memorialize their travels in various ways. Sometimes a specific memento might influence a design element, a color scheme, or the desire to highlight it within the home. I’ve been asked to curate collections of textiles, art, sculpture, pottery and books acquired from travel and designed custom built-in wall displays or cabinetry to feature these keepsakes as highlighted in our Art House 2.0 project. Some clients collect specific items while others seek out more indigenous finds based on where they’ve traveled to, whether regional or global, or an annual destination.
What are some of the most memorable examples of travel brought home?
CK: Years ago, a client purchased carved beams in India that we incorporated into a kitchen transformation. Another had large sculptural elephants that we incorporated as portals to a new family room. We’ve had projects where people collected objects such as a metal gate we used as a wall hanging, a carved door repurposed as a coffee table and an antique cabinet became a powder room vanity. It’s fun and interesting to find ways to use objects.
How has this desire extended beyond physical objects?
CK: Some clients want to emulate the feeling or design detail of a specific destination or hotel they traveled to, creating a hotel-at-home environment. We’ve seen this through the build of an indoor pool of our recent Tango House project which featured a sauna and relaxation area on par with a luxury hotel spa. The clients had been to a spa at Rosapetra Spa Resort in Cortina, Italy that featured hydro massage water jets and they wanted to bring that home so we incorporated that idea into the design of the indoor pool accent wall.
Designing outdoor spaces that have resort-like amenities, offer the feeling of a sanctuary at home. Our Treetop Lodge project features an outdoor spa and fire pit area, along with hand-crafted oversized swings, which truly come together to create a destination within the clients’ own backyard.
Over the years we’ve incorporated outdoor dining in our designs, influenced by European travel. Our Farm-To-Table Residence highlights that particularly well, having been inspired by the relaxed dining experiences our client enjoys from their travels to the Italian countryside. An outdoor dining pavilion and an elegant greenhouse conservatory create a seamless flow from the client’s backyard microfarm to the alfresco dining-room table.
This connectivity to travel through the vehicle of design can recreate a fantastic experience but even the smallest nod, such as a candle or scent of a soap, can recreate a sentiment from travel. It needn’t be on a large scale.
When we travel again, what are some ways travelers can bring home the ambiance of other lands and cultures?
CK: Many people have been embarking on “armchair travel” while they’ve been at home. They’re looking at old photos and/or watching documentaries about destinations they hope to travel to—so I expect we’ll see a lot of pent-up demand for travel, whether it’s returning to favorite destinations or visiting new cities/countries that were added to bucket lists during the pandemic.
With regard to bringing back some of the ambiance from other cultures, it’s always a quest to find original indigenous pieces and handmade work that reflects a historic era, cultural time or place. Sourcing keepsakes from travel is an incredibly personal connection, so I encourage clients to acquire things that move them and create a thread to that experience.
More modern influences are also gaining popularity as collectibles, such as street art or having personalized commissioned pieces created by local artists. Having an expandable space within the home such as built-ins or niches to accommodate new acquisitions is always helpful.
Any ideas for the tasteful display of travel photography?
CK: During COVID-19, people are craving their vacations, especially those that have an annual gathering or special place they go as a family. We recently redesigned a client’s lower-level during the pandemic. The programming and decor took on more importance with the notion that the space would have an increased use.
The client wanted to incorporate a visual of their family vacation so we created an oversized photographic mural of the ocean from a cherished destination as a way to architecturally weave these happy memories into their home on a large scale that can remind them of their travels until they’re able to get back there in person.
Which of your own personal travel experiences have been the most meaningful?
CK: For the past few years I’d been attending Art Milan/MiArt (scheduled for April, 2021) and Salone Del Mobile, both in Milan. It’s been a major annual sourcing trip for me for art, design and lighting that we’ve specified on projects, a non-stop series of events that are a combination of the largest design show and cultural immersion experience. It’s yielded many invaluable inspirational elements, sourcing items and trends, ahead of the curve.
Do you travel beyond the region as part of your work?
CK: Over the past five years my travel increased significantly as I expanded our business curating art and objects for clients. Whether domestic or abroad, local or far flung, I’m always seeking out artists and artisans. I spend a lot of time going to galleries and always keep files of wall dimensions and spaces that need to be filled on various projects. You just never know what or where inspiration strikes. I love the quest and relish finding a storied piece of art or sculpture for a client’s space.
A few years ago when I was in New Orleans, by chance, I roamed into the Arts District of New Orleans (ADNO). It was a Tuesday and almost every gallery was closed. I spotted a very cool piece in one of the open galleries and sent my client photos on the spot and suggested we commission a companion piece for an adjoining wall. My client was excited and the gallery reached out to the artist who welcomed the prospect. When I returned from the trip, my team and I mocked up a drawing showing the art as we envisioned it, along with a concept for a companion piece. The results are a colorful focal point to the space in our Skyscape45 project.
I’ve had pieces sent to me on approval from Paris, Italy and various US galleries. I’m currently sourcing a sculpture for a pool — the great thing about digital connectivity in today’s world is the opportunity to discover new artists through Instagram and online. There’s nothing quite like traveling and the thrill of the find but being able to do it from the touch of a phone is pretty amazing as well. It offers local artisans a global audience which I champion as a small business owner myself.
When travel resumes, what is one of the first destinations you would like to visit and why?
CK: I had plans to go to Bilbao, Spain so I think I’ll head there next for art and inspiration!
I’ll probably venture out on some day trips to Brooklyn or over to Rhinebeck this Fall. Nature is one of my biggest inspirations so just being outdoors seeing the changing landscape is gratifying, inspirational and satisfies travel yearnings on a micro scale! My more extensive travel list is quite long and my art quest list is growing longer by the day, I can’t wait to get out there — the world awaits!
Note: This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
About Carol Kurth:
Carol Kurth is a registered architect in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and Florida; a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects (FAIA), a member of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) and a LEED-accredited professional. A native New Yorker, Carol was born and raised in the scenic Hudson Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. She is inspired by both the layered urban backdrops of the city and the quiet, natural surroundings of Westchester, where her studio has been located for more than three decades. Her work has won numerous design awards and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and national shelter publications, as well as on national television broadcasts.