Interior Design Powerhouse Kathy Kuo Is All About the Career Pivot

Gladys T. Black

Glamour’s Women to Watch series spotlights women who are redefining what it means to be an influencer. Yes, they have “personal brands” and rapidly growing social followings—but in some way, each of these women is pushing the boundaries of what an influencer should look like, act like, or stand for. Their very presence is broadening the scope, which gives them the space to have actual influence: These women are changing conversations, dictating trends, and creating style. And they’re just getting started.

Every day more than a million people log into Design Home, an interior design game that allows users to decorate virtual homes using real-life pieces from brands like Joybird, West Elm, and Williams-Sonoma. And if you’re one them, you might feel a slight thrill when you hear the name Kathy Kuo Home.

“People definitely recognize me now,” Kuo tells me. The interior and industrial designer opened her namesake online boutique in 2012 after 20-plus years spent designing furniture and home decor for both luxury and mass retailers. So she was already highly respected in the home industry—and had also appeared on reality shows such as FYI Network’s Rowhouse Showdown—when Design Home approached her. Even so, nobody could have predicted the loyal fanbase that came with the Design Home partnership. For some, seeing Kathy Kuo Home IRL has become a bit like a Real Housewives fan making a reservation at the Regency: It’s a historic site, as high on some tourists’ to-do list as visiting Times Square or the Empire State Building.

Her flagship store is now located in Southhampton, New York—but when her design showroom was in NYC’s Harlem, she would see tour groups stop and gawk outside. It became such a popular destination, she says, that some walking tours even started incorporating it as a point of interest. “People would be like, ‘Here’s the Apollo Theater, and then here’s Kathy Kuo from the Design Home app. It’s hilarious. I’m like, ‘Wow, I didn’t really think that there was a tremendous amount of importance there as part of the Harlem tour, but I’ll take it.’”

But Kuo’s success is much bigger than any one app. She’s been steadily growing her business for nine years, offering a carefully curated selection and focusing on a more holistic approach to furniture shopping. What differentiates Kathy Kuo Home from competitors is that there’s also an interior design side of the business, and the service staff is trained in design as well. Meaning when you go to Kathy Kuo Home to purchase a sofa, you can talk with an experienced professional about what you want your room to feel like rather than just selecting the color or fabric.

“I think a lot of retailers don’t really address how we decorate our homes. It’s just so important to really figure out, How do you want your space to feel?” she explains. “That’s why we’ve created a destination in which those are the things that we ask. We’ll essentially try to understand a little bit more about their lifestyle and their project.”

After the pandemic forced everyone to start spending more time at home–and, as a result, reconsider their living situations—Kathy Kuo Home took off at rapid pace. Earlier this year Architectural Digest reported that her company’s staff of around 30 has grown to more than 150 and year-over-year revenue soared around 800%.

Below, learn more from Kuo about how she got started in interior design, her best career advice, and what home trends are inspiring her at the moment.

Glamour: What time do you get up in the morning?

Kathy Kuo: I wake up every morning around 7 a.m. to get my kids ready for school. I have a 5- and an 8-year-old, so I also make them breakfast before they get up so we can stay on schedule. Two to three days of the week, I will be up by 5:30 a.m. for a 6 a.m. workout. Since COVID, I now do Zooms with my personal trainer, which is so much easier than having to leave the house. I love this early dopamine injection, and it definitely sets the tone for the rest of the day.

Are you a breakfast person?

I drink a cup of hot lemon water first thing in the morning while I’m getting ready, and then have a shot of one of my favorite productivity drinks, organic herbal Magic Mind. It’s a combination of matcha and adaptogens which gives me a steady and clean caffeine boost that lasts through the day. I will sometimes have a small cup of jasmine green tea to go with it, but often not. I have my first meal around 11 a.m. which is combined with lunch.

What’s a bit of career advice you’d give someone in need?

Just take the first step. If I knew everything that I knew today about being an entrepreneur, I would have been too scared to venture out on my own. Oftentimes we overanalyze, overthink, and try to predict every potential and possible outcome as a means to control the situation, but then it paralyzes you; you’re already fearful of impending failure before you’ve started. Business, life, and careers will unexpectedly change, and you will need to pivot, adapt, and quickly learn about what you have control over and what is just perceived control. Take the plunge; you’ll learn so much by leaning in quickly and iterating quickly on mistakes.

What’s your biggest challenge at work?

Being both micro and macro at the same time. I built this company from the ground up and as a result know how everything is built. This makes me uniquely able to quickly understand what connective tissues need massaging between departments and how to audit the issues quickly. However, staying so close to the details also limits your capacity and bandwidth to think really big and creatively.

What’s your favorite low-stakes treat after a productive day?

After a productive day I love to unwind with my kids. It’s important that no matter how busy our schedules get, I take the time to catch up with them, play a game, or just watch a movie. Uninterrupted quality time together is the best treat I could ask for, and it’s important I can show them a healthy balance of my career and our family life.

What’s your go-to thank you gift?

I always try to get people gifts that they typically wouldn’t buy for themselves, like one-of-a-kind items, unique conversation starters in the serveware or barware category, or just exquisite tabletop decor or flatware. For items that come in sets, I always gift 8 or 10 so they don’t have to replenish the set on their own. Of course, I shop the KKH site! We carry more than 100,000 items, so regardless of who I’m shopping for, I know there’s always an amazing option.

What’s your typical email sign-off?

It depends who I’m emailing, but my team and friends call me KK, so that’s usually how I sign off!

If you weren’t doing your current job right now, what do you think you’d be doing?

Traveling and cooking. Is that even a job? [Laughs.] I would love to learn about every culture’s food, whether it’s Asian, Middle Eastern, Scandinavian—food culture tells so much about the rich history of the people. I would love to be an apprentice under a master chef and just learn, ingest, digest, and consume gorgeous food cultures.

How did you first get into interior design? And how did you make the jump to CEO?

I’ve been drawn to interiors for as long as I can remember. When I was a child my family moved around a lot; my father was a diplomat, so we were frequently relocating between Asia and the Americas. I loved creating new homes everywhere we went and integrating new meaningful objects from my travels. This instilled both an appreciation for good design and a love of unique, high-quality products at a young age. This passion led me to the Rhode Island School of Design, where I majored in industrial design, and later into television, with appearances on home renovation shows like Rowhouse Showdown and Knock First. After that, I worked designing and developing furniture and textiles for a luxury importer. I spent a few years in the interiors space working for brands like Assouline Books and Bed, Bath & Beyond. The experiences, insights, and understanding of product design, manufacturing, and global distribution later became the building blocks of Kathy Kuo Home. When the online boutique started to grow larger than I could manage with another job, I took the jump and went all in, launching Kathy Kuo Home in 2012.

You don’t have to name names if you prefer to keep anonymity, but who do you consider your first big client or “get”? The one that felt like, “I’ve really made it”?

I’ve had the privilege of working with so many amazing clients over the years, it’s hard to name just one! Looking back—from the official launch of the company in 2012 to the opening of our flagship retail location this past summer, and all of the moments in between, those are what have made me feel like this brand has really made it.

One thing that has been truly special has been the development of our first-ever proprietary collection. At the start of my career, I focused on product design and development. It was an experience that really reinforced my love for interiors and good craftsmanship, so this project has brought me back to my roots. It’s also brought us to places we haven’t been before, having to take on risks operationally and logistically that you just don’t experience as a drop-ship retailer.

What specific pieces or design styles do you find yourself gravitating toward for yourself and your clients right now?

I am loving beautifully crafted murals at the moment. It’s incredible how they can truly transport you to another place or feeling, even in your own home. I just added a Susan Harter mural to my entryway foyer this spring, and I’m transported into another world!

Anna Moeslein is the deputy editor at Glamour. Follow her on Instagram @annamoeslein.

Originally Appeared on Glamour

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