STIR article - Color Personalities header image
Originally published in STIR®

By Beth Rutledge


Meet Chicago-based commercial designer Karen Herold. Her imaginative interiors are a delightful mix of vibrancy and comfort.

Name: Karen Herold
Occupation: Partner and Vice President of Design, 555 International, Inc., Chicago
Notable Projects: Chicago restaurants Embeya, Girl & the Goat and Balena; the Wynn hotel’s La Cave for Michael Morton at the Morton Group in Las Vegas

While her environments feel boldly current, Karen Herold makes it her business to studiously avoid design trends. She also eschews design formulas and color psychology for gut instinct. This high-energy, in-demand, globe-trotting commercial designer, with a degree in material design from the Institute of Fashion and Design in Amsterdam, displays a marked penchant for layered textures, custom lighting, Old World plaster work and a muted neutral palette. Settle in to learn more about her.    

STIR: What three words describe you as a designer?
Karen Herold (KH): Intuitive, spontaneous, instinctual.

STIR: Where do you find your color inspiration?

KH: I gravitate toward natural colors, colors found in nature. So traveling, being outdoors, a winter day — all of those experiences can inspire a space.

I use color sparingly; for me it’s about layering a color. I love neutrals. I love to layer 10 different shades of white ― all in different textures. In nature, I always find the most interesting hues.

STIR: You work with color every day. Do you find your personal preferences (a favorite shade of green, for instance) making their way into your designs?
KH: Absolutely. One hundred percent. I have ideas about what a color says; I have a feeling. My mentor in fashion design told me there have been studies done about redheads having a sense of color, and I do read colors emotionally. For me, I need two or three names to describe a color. Like, there is a green I really like that’s a wet, dirty moss color. It has shades of black and brown and gray, so people may not experience it as a typical green. I’m drawn to complex hues that are more than one color and aren’t easy to describe. I guess I like a color when it ends in “ish.”

STIR: Restaurants and commercial spaces often reflect color trends. How do you keep the spaces you design fresh yet untrendy?
KH: I simply don’t do trends. Like everyone else, I’m affected by what I see, hear and experience in the world. But, especially for restaurants, I’m trying to evoke emotions, rather than displaying a trend or trends.

When designing a space, I include the customers, the people who work there, what’s happening outside the windows. It’s about the experience of the space. It’s about using lighting and textures. The design is the palette and it creates a certain energy. How do you want people to feel when they’re there? The season and geographical setting help create the mood, too. I believe design should always be driven by emotion; that’s how spaces become unique.

STIR: Are there any interior design rules you consistently follow?
KH: Sure! Texture is everything. Every place I create, I focus on texture and layers. To me, it’s more important that a space feels good than looks good. So I layer in lighting. I try to direct energy through layering the experience. Some parts of a space can be intimate, some busier. With texture and lighting you create mood and let people gravitate toward the experience they’re looking for.

STIR: Describe your design process.
KH: There are two ways to design. One is the additive way. Like, when you’re cooking. You get out a pot and add onions, tomato, ground beef. At the end there’s dinner. How do you feel when you eat it?

The way I work is not that way. Instead, I start at the end. I don’t say, how do I want the space to look? I start with asking, how do I want to feel in the space? I design with my eyes closed. Maybe I want to create a space that’s going to make me feel like I’ve taken a long walk in the forest, my feet are cold, and now I’m in front of a fire. So, the design starts with a personal connection I’ve made; it’s the initial spark.

You ever have that experience where you’re dreaming and you wake up suddenly and the whole dream is there? Then you immediately start to forget it. But during the day, snippets of the dream come back to you ― float in and out of your consciousness. I try to start with the whole dream — that feeling. From there I start looking for materials. Sketch traffic flow. Bring together ideas. Weeks after I see a space for the first time, I show the client visuals of what was in my head.

STIR: You’ve said that you try to make the spaces you create as timeless as possible. How do you accomplish that while still ensuring every place has a unique identity?
KH: I like to think of restaurants as my children ― similar to each other, yet uniquely different. If you take the time to get to know the space from the core, to answer the question “What does this restaurant want to be?”, you’ll capture the personality of the space, and that creates longevity.

STIR: The details in your designs are often unexpected. What are some of your favorite touches?
KH: Textures are my passion. I also like to use burnt wood, different materials, found objects. In one of our restaurants, we included an old carved fireplace mantel that looks like a Mexican roadside shrine. I have someone who does plaster work that I just love, and someone who does burlap on walls. Those textures are so interesting. Also, if we have the budget, there’s always something we make ourselves. We do a lot of custom lighting, made in our shop [555 International, Inc.]. It’s fun to do a custom piece because you really get to show a personal vibe.

STIR: While you don’t market yourself for residential design, are there any particular elements you’ve used in commercial spaces you believe translate well in homes?
KH: Everything translates. Textures, layering — it all works. What I don’t like is when residential designs are done with what is hip and cool and expensive. The times when I do residential design, usually for clients we’ve already worked with on the commercial side, I guide them by making sure their elements are incorporated. I help them choose what’s meaningful from what they already have. We mix together old and new. It’s important for an interior designer to edit and guide, and I encourage involvement from clients. They live there, so they should make their home a meaningful place they want to be in.

STIR: Last question. What’s the style vibe in your house?
KH: Eclectic. More whimsical. It is all about comfort, nothing has to be “just so.” It’s set up for family and friends and the way I live. But you know that nursery rhyme about the shoemaker’s kids having no shoes? My home is always the last place to get any attention.