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Workspace designed by Ronen Lev featuring Agra in Byzantine

The Art of Interiors with Ronen Lev

Trained in the fine arts, Jessica Wilpon Kamel has an exquisite eye for detail as well as a keen appreciation for scale and proportion – dual traits that skilfully come into play as the founder of Ronen Lev, the New York-based architecture and interior design studio she runs with Christina Akiskalou. Below, Jessica shares how her ethos of paring back to the essentials results in spaces in which our well-being will thrive.

Entrance to Park Avenue Duplex
Living room of Park Avenue Duplex
Left: Park Avenue Duplex, in collaboration with AK Design Group, styled by Katja Greef and photographed by Nicole Franzen. Right: Upper East Side Renovation photographed by Nicole Franzen.

Where did you grow up? Were you creative as a child?

I grew up in Port Washington, New York. My parents are both from Brooklyn and moved to a suburb outside of the city when we were kids. I was a very creative child. I practiced drawing constantly, filling sketchbooks with faces and people. When I was in middle school I took the train into Manhattan on the weekends to take figure drawing classes at the Art Students League, and my parents eventually turned our attic space into a studio so I could have a space to paint.

How do you think your fine art background informs your aesthetic as a designer?

I studied oil painting and art history in college. The discipline needed to be a fine artist has carried into my work as a designer and has helped me develop skills around receiving verbal feedback and revising work. I think being a painter has made me view the world in a different way – I am always taking note of contours, shapes and lines.

Kitchen at Goop Lab
Goop Lab San Francisco photographed by Adrian Gaut.

Do you have any personal values that guide your practice?

We always strive for a space to look beautiful, but more importantly to feel good. I walk into some spaces and I immediately have a strong feeling. I know that our energy can be enhanced by design because I feel a range of emotions when I am inspired by a space.

"We always strive for a space to look beautiful, but more importantly to feel good."

Workspace at Maison
Front desk at Maison
Maison, in collaboration with Lubrano Ciavarra Architects and Laurie Messman, photographed by Nicole Franzen.

Give us a little insight into your design process. How do you balance your keen eye and vision with a client’s taste and preferences?

We spend a lot of time thinking about the individual experience. The process of renovating a space is layered because it is so complex and intimate. While we are learning about the client, we’re also thinking about the structural aspects of the space and the circulation. Our strength lies in our ability to work through architecture, construction and interiors. There are so many hidden layers behind what we present to a client. There is tremendous thought in every decision we present.

Recent studies show that our surroundings have a very real impact on our energy and emotions. Do you agree?

That is very much in our design ethos – exploring the very idea of design as it relates to humankind’s wellbeing. I’d love the world to be more conscious of the quality and beauty in good design.

Living room of Carnegie Hill Apartment
Carnegie Hill Apartment styled by Katja Greef and photographed by Nicole Franzen.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed like there was a movement towards comforting, sensorial spaces. How do you think the inclusion of tactile elements, like a rug, can nurture our well-being?

I strongly believe that integrating design with well-being can restore a sense of balance to our busy modern lives. This requires selecting the right pieces for any budget, as well as making the design process as efficient and enjoyable as possible. In our approach, the use of natural materials helps nurture our well-being.

There’s something timely yet timeless about the spaces you design. What’s your advice to the interior enthusiast on creating a home that defies trends?

Strive for authenticity, simplicity, and purity.

Seating area at Maison
Goop MRKT Nantucket
Left: Maison, in collaboration with Lubrano Ciavarra Architects and Laurie Messman, photographed by Nicole Franzen. Right: Goop MRKT Nantucket.

I love how the Ronen Lev Sourcebook came about because your friends kept turning to you for decorating advice! What would you encourage us to splurge on, and where can we save?

I read this somewhere: “Do the objects we surround ourselves with tell a story? Or are we simply consuming goods at face value, collecting and gathering and hoarding until the very meaning of the object itself is lost amidst the heap?” Design can be thoughtful or it can be thoughtless, and much of the design we’re surrounded by every day is the latter. The objects we live with influence our energy, shape our emotions and affect our general wellbeing. I would encourage scaling back to what you love and splurging on pieces that you are naturally drawn to and that have a story.

Pre-War Renovation by Ronen Lev
Pre-War Renovation by Ronen Lev
Pre-War Renovation photographed by Kirsten Francis

You’re also a real advocate for craftsmanship. Why is it important to invest in quality, timeless pieces?

I’m interested in the whole story, from the city to the studio, to the way a person lives or works, or the process behind the pieces that they make. All that information helps me make decisions about what to select in a project. I think an important role of an interior designer is to bring exposure to craftsmen and makers that you believe in. We have this unique job of curating someone else’s space. I’ve always felt honored to have a platform to showcase exceptional work and support the growth and success of makers that I love.

Bedroom of Amagansett Residence
Amagansett Residence styled by Katja Greef and photographed by Nicole Franzen.

What’s keeping you creatively stimulated during these uncertain times?

We are a small firm but we are quite busy. The situation right now offers a lot of advantages. We’ve always had personal and direct contact with each of our clients, but now with Zoom in our living rooms it feels even more personal.

Finally, we can’t help but ask – what’s your favorite Armadillo rug to have underfoot?

Ooh, I have so many! Palermo and Sherpa are so soft to walk on. Andorra is versatile and can work in any space. I am in love with Agra, the colors are rich while still feeling subtle. We’ve brought Armadillo rugs into [everything from] co-working spaces to townhouses, the versatility and quality makes them our go-to.

Jessica Wilpon Kamel and Christina Akiskalou of Ronen Lev

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