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Cathie Hong's recent Emory Ave Project

The Art of Interiors With Cathie Hong

For designer Cathie Hong, creativity has always been her calling but it wasn’t until she had children that her eye for interiors came into focus as a career path. Over the years Cathie has lived in San Diego, Orange County and Los Angeles before establishing her eponymously named practice in the Bay Area, where she grew up. We caught up with Cathie to chat about her background in the arts, defining a design aesthetic and creating spaces that consider the nuance of modern family life.

Tell us about the first piece of design that really mattered to you.

One of the most memorable pieces of design that mattered to me was a mid-century antique chair we bought at the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena. We bought it early on in our marriage before we had kids, and have since reupholstered it two times. The first time was in a burnt orange upholstery fabric we found in the LA fabric district, and the second time was in a graphic Zak+Fox fabric I had eyed for a year or so beforehand. We still have the chair, and it lives in our kids’ bedroom.

You come from an arts background. How did you know interior design was for you?

I didn’t actually know until quite late. I had dabbled in calligraphy and stationery products for a number of years while raising little children, and thought that was the creative venture I would try to grow once I was done having babies. When the time came, I felt unsure if that's really what I wanted to do and started to consider interior design as a possible career choice. My husband encouraged me to take some design courses at a local college, and I loved it! I started out helping some friends with small projects to gain experience, and eventually, my business and portfolio grew to where it is today.

How would you describe your aesthetic?

I always have a hard time describing this, but I think I am somewhere between Japandi and mid-century. I love modernism, but it always needs to be paired with softness and warmth. I love minimalism, but I’m also a fan of using rich colors to tell an interesting visual story.

You recently finished a beautiful family home, your Emory Ave project. How did you use your personal experience to design a space for the whole family?

As a mother to four children ranging from preschool age through middle school, I’ve found that my experience as a mother is one of my secret weapons as a designer. All of the unique intricacies that come with babyhood, through the school-age years, and into the teenage years are familiar and personal to me. How the family operates, how children use communal spaces, and how important privacy is as they get older dictates how I design spaces for the family. Emory was a fun one because my clients have twin daughters who are the same age as my oldest daughter. I knew how important it was for both of them to have bedrooms that reflected their personalities and interests, as well as a family room and living room for them to spend time outside their rooms with their parents.

How does your design process differ when designing for clients with children versus those without?

When designing for clients with young children, I take into consideration the durability of materials, cleanable fabrics, softer corners, lower furniture, and generally less fragile materials. I would say that the majority of our clientele are families with young children or couples who may have children later on, so this is generally how we design most projects.

How do you balance functionality and design in your projects?

We are always weighing these two facets carefully when designing our projects. After getting to know the homeowners better, it is generally clear to me how much they value practicality and functionality versus making riskier design choices, which may not always be the most practical. Functionality is always more important because we want our clients to be happy with their spaces long-term, not just initially when it looks nice and new. But when we have the opportunity to present a unique design vision and have clients who are eager to try something new, that really produces the best and most rewarding results.

What is your favorite space or element of this project? Which aspect was most challenging for you?

Hands down, my favorite space is the wood-clad hallway connecting the entry foyer to the main living room. The entryway has high ceilings, drops into a lower ceiling through the hallway, and then soars back up to high ceilings in the living room. The architect cleverly designed entrances to a coat closet and powder bathroom in this hallway, and I proposed the idea of making those entrances into concealed doors with wood slats along both walls, on the doors, and on the ceiling as well. It’s such a fun hidden element! The most challenging room was probably the main living room, just because the room is so vast and the ceilings so high. It took a few iterations to figure out the correct size sofa, rug, TV, and console to fill the space nicely.

Emory Ave was a new build, what percentage of your projects are new builds vs. renovations? How do you approach each type of project differently?

Currently, we have about 50% renovation, 35% renovation with addition, and 15% new construction. With renovations, we have to be careful to take into consideration the architectural style of the home, the neighborhood, the elements of the existing house that we plan to keep, and try to marry that with the homeowner’s and our own design aesthetic. Depending on how involved the renovation scope is, sometimes there are structural factors that limit what we can do, so we spend a good deal of time coming up with creative solutions and space planning around existing elements. With new builds, we work closely with the architect to develop the style of the house and make sure it’s cohesive from exterior through to the interior. There is more flexibility in what we can do when we’re building a house from scratch, but the challenge then is how to make a stark structure feel like a personal, layered, and cozy dwelling place.

You do a wonderful job at curating unique pieces for each project, from lighting to ceramics. What advice would you give to someone who is looking to curate more unique objects for their space?

We spend a great deal of time researching and seeking out smaller independent makers and brands, and I really think these last steps of furnishing and styling are what bring the designs to life. I would recommend browsing Instagram and Pinterest for some of these smaller, boutique brands. Once you find a few, it opens the door to so many more. It’s also great to look internationally, as other parts of the world are creating and innovating new ideas that we just haven’t caught on to yet in the US.

We are honored to have our Malawi rug featured in Emory Ave. What is front of mind when choosing a rug for your projects?

Top of mind is comfort and durability for rugs. So many rugs out there are cheaply made with unfavorable materials, don’t hold up well to stains, feel itchy to the touch, or shed endlessly. We love Armadillo rugs because they are none of these things! We’re always happy to recommend Armadillo to our clients because we’ve witnessed how well they stand the test of time. On a personal note, I have an Armadillo Malawi rug in my living room, and having lived with it for a year with four children, I can confidently recommend it to all of our clients as one of the best rugs I’ve ever had.

Finally, what projects are you most looking forward to in 2023?

So many good ones! We have a Hawaiian-inspired renovation kicking off construction next week, a Japandi-style Spanish home we hope to start later this year, and a colorful, eclectic mid-century project we’re getting permits for right now. On the design front, we’re working on a modern ground-up project for one of our favorite builder's personal family home, and we’re about to start designing a breathtaking glass, timber, and steel house on a secluded wooded lot that I can’t wait to see come to life.