When a particular room, exterior, or garden grabs your eye, something instinctive speaks to you regarding what will bring you warm welcome, comfort, peace and a feeling of ease. Kate Stamps, a fellow Anglophile living in Southern California with her husband Odom Stamps, an architect and equal partner of Stamps & Stamps, has made the many voyages to England exploring both interiors and grand gardens as well as attending University, each experience deepening her curiosity and sincere zeal for an aesthetic which makes so many of us onlookers wonder in awe as to how English interiors bring it all together.
Combining the keen attention to historical detail along with furniture picked up at flea markets and brocantes, mixing and matching high and low details, Stamps & Stamps designs homes for their clients to luxuriate in with ease as well as decorating their own home in which they have lived for more than three decades to provide sanctuary for their life journey together.
Newly released, the couple’s book Stamps & Stamps: Style and Sensibility explores the interior and exterior of their own home in Southern California: a home which having happened upon one day while perusing Instagram, I immediately followed, saved multiple images and felt I had found the west coast cosy English decor aesthetic I had long been looking for as I sought-out inspiration for my own customization. The book also includes exclusive tours of a handful of Stamps & Stamps’ clients’ homes revealing personalized interiors, each carefully heeding the curation of elegant, yet leisurely comfort begging those who visit to stay just a little bit longer.
Today, Kate Stamps answers my questions about her approach to interior decorating, gardening and living well in our own home along with sharing our sanctuary with those we love. I do hope you enjoy her willingness to share in great detail and honesty how her eye for design was honed and her love for creating a sanctuary to comfort, soothe and rejuvenate. Let’s dive into our conversation.
Q:Pilar Viladas shares in the foreword you and your husband Odom ‘use [your] talents to design houses and interiors that prioritize the pleasures of domestic life over trends or aspiration. First, let me just say, your approach is refreshing. After all, houses are to live our lives in. When did you come to this realization especially as you are someone who makes a career in the interior design industry?
A: I think I really started to feel this way about houses and decorating when I was a child. My mother had an antique shop and we often traveled together buying things. Seeing historic houses, museums and gardens like Winterthur and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on our trips influenced me tremendously because the rooms, while quite grand and full of incredible things, were still very human and interesting. Back in the 70’s when I was a child, Architectural Digest always had one really good interior in each issue, something that I instantly loved. Most of those rooms were European, well lived in, layered, grand but not pretentious and very personal. I still have the clippings I cut out of those issues of John Fowler’s Hunting Lodge, the Sitwell family home, Weston Hall, Elsie de Woolf’s Paris house, Lady Diana Cooper’s divine London perch and many others. The greatest lessons in all of those pages were all about strongly individual points of view and a kind of quiet confidence in the unconventional way those rooms were put together. Comfort was paramount, Howard chairs and sofas sat side by side with Jacob bergeres. When carpets wore out, another less damaged one was laid on top. Fires blazed in the grates. Books were stacked on tables, floors and chairs. Grand Tour souvenirs populated the shelves and walls. Generations of a single family left their imprints one after the other. I have been very lucky to have had clients who have the self assurance to want their houses to feel this way, creative people who want their rooms to have character and soul.
Q:The book shares you ‘hate perfect rooms’. Your book demonstrates beautifully how to create rooms of imperfection which are perfect for the inhabitants. What are the components a room must have to be ‘perfectly imperfect’ for the homeowner and how do you discover what those are for each client and/or yourself?
A: I love cushions stuffed with down, where the human or feline or canine imprint is left behind so they have to be fluffed to look presentable. If those cats or dogs have chewed or clawed the upholstery a little, so what. When the sun shreds the silk of my 19th century dressing table, leaving the mauve taffeta in ribbons, I will hold onto it in its faded glory as long as I can. The 17th century carpets have darns and patches and the Chinese export bowls that hold potpourri or fire starters have riveted repairs. Some of the watercolors have foxed mats and the stone fireplace surround has patina from the years of smoke and soot it creates. Webbing under a needlepoint covered side chair can hang down with out bothering me too much. My favorite moment after the silver is polished is when it just starts to tarnish again. Slipcovers can be one size too big, as long as they are beautifully tailored, as if you lost ten pounds after your Savile Row suit was delivered. A child’s kindergarten artwork can be more precious than a Cezanne. That said, I don’t like careless clutter and I hate dirt. I love my books to have some system of order and my china to be organized by pattern for easy retrieval. Crisp, clean bedlinen is essential and I really like my chandeliers to sparkle. Enjoying the imperfections is not an excuse to be sloppy or lazy, it is about living in rooms with grace and thoughtfulness, but not with an obsessive need for everything to be new and perfect.
Q:You and your husband have lived and have been working on the house and garden for more than three decades. Your lives’ journeys are told in the decor details you have included in each room. How has your approach evolved or changed over these 30+ years?
A: Things have come and gone in each of the rooms of the main house over the years we have lived here. The original renovation was comprehensive, except for later alterations to the bathrooms and the kitchen, but when we started, we doubled the square footage without increasing the footprint. So the architecture has remained constant, and all of the rooms have stayed the same color except for the kitchen, so the backgrounds haven’t changed. The decoration has been more about a series of refinements. Carpets have worn out and been replaced, upholstery fabrics have nearly all been changed, but some curtains are the same. Evolution, rather than revolution has been our watchword. We knew in the beginning that bookcase space would be a limiting factor for us, so almost every room has endless shelves. Of course, they hold mementos, bibelots, photographs, and bits of porcelain, too, and paintings hang on the face frames of the bookcases. In all of the rooms, though, things have become richer and more layered as time has gone by. My own bedroom and studio are quite feminine, but the other rooms are less so than they were in the early years here. One of the greatest favors you can do for yourself is to always buy the very best you can afford. It is too easy to live with things we don’t love, and that ruins so many rooms.
The bigger changes are in the two guesthouses, The Bell Cottage and The Cabana. When we first started out here, our daughter Emma was nine, and we wanted to be able to spend more time with her, so the Cabana (the oldest structure on the property) became Odom’s home office and we designed the octagon room of what is now the Bell Cottage to be my work space. As Emma grew up and our external offices became bigger, the structures here became guest houses, and my mother moved into the Carpenter Gothic cottage that grew out of the octagon. She lived there until her death, and now it is where Emma and her husband Andrew Bell live, hence it is known as the Bell Cottage.
The Cabana has seen some architectural alteration, but the lovely, cosy, pure space with its vaulted ceiling and exposed beams is much as it was when built in 1903. Of course we added bookcases and replastered the walls, and added a closet into the bathroom and carved out a little antechamber where a guest can make toast and a cup of coffee, but it has always been everyone’s favorite room. The decorations have changed, too, and a few of my favorite things from my childhood home in Michigan have ended up there, making it an even more personally resonant space for me.
The Bell Cottage has had several complete changes, and now Emma and Andrew have made it their own, with a little help from the parents. The bright Moroccan rug in the bed/sitting room is young and warm and lively and the upholstered furniture is comfortable and casually slipcovered in some chintz and in Guy Goodfellow’s Fez Weave, one of my favorite fabrics. The octagon is now an office, a library and a dining room, and since the pandemic started, a frequent Zoom site.
In the past year, since we have all been so much more at home, the garden and the spaces that function as garden rooms have become really important. Evenings around the fire pit, on the circular wicker sofa and dinners under the cathedral like bower of the carob trees have been places to gather with family and occasionally even a few friends. Emma and Andrew work and lunch on the little porch of the Bell Cottage, shaded by a hand printed Indian umbrella in floral printed blue and white, and I often have my morning coffee on the tiny terrace outside our front door, a space that was never really furnished until this year. Now there is a very comfortable French metal garden chair and a Victorian wirework bench, both cushioned in turquoise fabric trimmed with scalloped white ric-rack.
Some of the changes to the living spaces on our property have come out of necessity or a change in use, others because a wonderful object has appeared and needed to find a home with us. But it is always style over fashion, and the comforts of home draw us in and provide security and solace.
Q:One of my favorite reoccurring photos you share on IG is your reading nook in your sitting room. In fact, you mixed the wall paint into a custom green-ocher-umber hue. How can each of us customize our sanctuaries in such a way that nurtures the inhabitants but also welcomes guests and beckons them to stay far longer than they might have imagined?
A:Warm, human spaces invite guests to linger and feel welcomed. Sometimes I wish our dining room was larger, but ten people can fit knee to knee around the circular table there, and meals become very friendly and intimate, and no-one is ever left out of conversation. Before we sit down to dinner, we often have drinks in the garden, and afterwards we gather in the sitting room for a cup of coffee or port or a digestif, and it is key that there is a comfortable seat for each of the guests. There are many nights when we have had every spot taken until three AM, and a few where the extra beds in the house and guesthouses were taken, too!
We are very lucky to have the Cabana here for guests who are staying with us for a little while. Guesthouses are wonderful, both for the host and the guest, because there is privacy, and a place to call home away from home. There should always be a cleared closet, a well functioning bathroom with stacks of fluffy towels and baskets of lotions and potions and all of the things we need but often forget to pack, like toothbrushes and aspirin, shampoo and French milled soaps. Good air conditioning and heat are essential, as are a comfortable bed with fluffy pillows and cosy blankets, and a reading lamp. A place to make a cup of tea or coffee, a fridge stocked with bread and butter, cream and the makings for breakfast and a few little treats, some fruit and your guest’s favorite things to drink will make them feel welcome. Plates, napkins and silver, mugs and glasses, corkscrews and ice – it is all about anticipating a guest’s needs and wants. These days, of course good wireless internet access is important, and I always have a few plug strips and charger cords available, too. Books to read and a little bistro table on the brick terrace in the private garden outside the Cabana ready for a quiet snack or drink are all a part of making guests feel wanted and cared for.
Some guests want more quiet time and others want to be entertained, so I think that is important to divine, and accommodate them accordingly. But most of all, providing a relaxed environment is the thing that makes guests feel most welcome.
Q:Paris also plays a small role in your decor in your home as you have visited the brocantes in France, specifically Saint-Ouen in Paris. Treasure hunting is such a joy of my own and many TSLL readers. Describe your approach to exploring brocantes and/or flea markets and how to then integrate what you have found back into one’s sanctuary?
A: I don’t much enjoy early mornings, but they are a necessity when shopping the flea markets and brocantes. Dealers do their early trading when it is still dark, and the most interesting things can travel from stand to stand before they ever make it into a retail customer’s bag. So a big cup of coffee and a poached egg on toast to give energy are my usual starting points. Once we are able to travel again and Uber or Lyft are good to use, I will be on my way to the flea markets. If I have a very long list of items to find, I will often hire a car or taxi to shadow me so I can drop off purchases as they can be easily lost or damaged in the crush of the markets. If it is a less serious shopping expedition, I bring large folding filament fiber bags and open them as needed.
I love Portobello Road market best, mostly because it is most familiar to me. I have shopped with some dealers there since I was very young, in my teens, and there are always new sources that pop up, too. I have many wonderful finds that have made their way into my house from all the markets, but I can spy a dozen from my seat here that came from Portobello. Knowing the dealers you buy from is a great help, because you know they can be trusted and you won’t be surprised by damage that didn’t show while you were negotiating in the dark!
Q:The art of layering is a skill I have found the English are quite apt at and you demonstrate with aplomb in your own home. How did you learn this skill which initially can be incredibly intimidating and what are the keys to understanding how seemingly dissimilar items, prints, colors can actually complement each other quite well?
A:This is probably the very hardest question to answer. At this point, it is completely instinctive, and to some extent for me it always has been. I can say that it is a search for harmonies and contrasts that balance. When I look at a room to decorate, something can inspire- a carpet, a painting, a wallpaper, and I will build from there. But sometimes the room is fully revealed in my mind’s eye before I start choosing any of the specific elements. There are a few components that seem to repeat, however. When using multiple prints, I often look for a positive/negative element, as I call it, where the background color on one pattern is light and on another is dark, but they are the same family of colors, just reversed. If a background or wallpaper, for instance, is very busy, I choose smaller scale, less high contrast pattern to complement it. I tend not to use large patterned carpets in low ceilinged rooms, choosing smaller more repetitive patterns so that they are not as bold and dominating. It is so difficult to describe this process because there really are no rules, or if there are, they are meant to be broken. There can be wonderful surprises in rooms, too- where new objects just slip right in and feel right at home, another layer or pattern that is serendipitous. In any home, the layering will come more easily if it is done over time, on a trial and error basis. Rooms that are more subtle in their color palettes also layer more easily. So many American rooms have bright patterns on white backgrounds, and I find that so difficult. Pure white is antithetical to my kind of decorating. I love strong color, though, and color contrasts are a wonderful way to bring visual interest.
Q:Books abound in nearly every room except one. As an English teacher and unapologetic bibliophile who loves having the physical books surround me, can you share what books in the home provide aesthetically, but also if you could, three books that changed or opened-up your eyes to life and how you live and how so? (I realize this is a Sophie’s Choice, but if you could select three titles and lessons that affected your life in a profound way either with regards to decor, gardening, understanding how to live well, I think the readers would love a peek into your library in this way.)
A: Books have been a constant in my life. I must have been a very odd child, because my favorite Christmas present when I was 7 was the National Geographic book This England. It was a compilation, I think, of many articles that had appeared in the magazine. I hadn’t yet been abroad, but I set a fire, I think, and began a long lasting Anglophilia. There have been many books that I have loved, and most of them are very strong cultural influences rather than specific decorating or garden guides. Vita Sackville-West’s writings on gardens and houses have been inspiring, but the vision of a family living in a chilly ancient castle in Suffolk in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle paints a glorious word picture of eccentric Englishness really beautifully. Jane Eyre, and of course all of Jane Austen’s books and Nancy Mitford’s thinly disguised family memoirs are perennial favorites. I have loved Robert McFarlane’s books, especially his The Old Ways which recounts a series of his walks and hikes in England and around the world, unsentimental, but also a little mystical, like the great works of his literary forbear, Edward Thomas. The list could go on and on, and really has nothing specifically to do with my profession except in the most esoteric way!
Q:I have become someone, like so many others during this past year who has taken a keen interest in gardening. You share the first decade in your home, the garden had your immediate and full attention. Now it has matured into a tranquil space inspired largely by English gardens you have toured during your trips to Britain. What were some of the most significant lessons you learned or approaches you were inspired by based on your travels?
A:I have learned to let the garden itself guide me. We started out by creating what are essentially a series of garden rooms, so that we could respond to the areas of bright sun and deep shade by compartmentalizing them. Some areas are meant for passage, others for quiet contemplation and yet others for social gatherings with friends and family. Structure defines and delineates those rooms, with straight paths in the more formally arranged areas and ribbons of meandering broken brick trails wending through the wilder areas. Because our house is a cottage, the plantings are more romantic and soft, within the quite strictly organized outlines of the garden rooms. Roses cascade, six foot tall campanulas are allowed to choose their own places in the middle of a gravel path, Viburnum plicata arch over walkways, showering their white blossom like springtime snow. Most of the European gardens I love have very strong, often architectural frameworks that bring order and permit the possibility of plantings that are relaxed without being visually confusing. Climate change has been a potent force in my garden and has changed the plants that grow there. We have lost some lovely oak trees to borers, and heat has killed some plants outright and others gradually. In years of drought, we always water our trees deeply, but some of the smaller plants have been allowed to die away. Mother Nature has filled the gaps, though, with plants that have filled in to thrive without much help from me. If I were starting this garden again, I know I would choose a different palette of plant material, but I have loved seeing this garden grow.
Q:Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West inspired much of your approach to gardening. What specifically were some of the most valuable takeaways you learned from their gardens in how you planned your own garden?
A:Both women designed gardens with strong organizational structures that respond to the houses and topography and visual cues of their environments. If we don’t respond to the ‘Spirit of the Place” our gardens will feel false and inauthentic. Within that framework, I think both Vita Sackville -West and Gertrude Jekyll approached their garden design with a very strong painterly sense and encyclopedic knowledge of plants. The plant tapestries they created were thoughtful progressions through the seasons of combinations of color, texture and association. In South Pasadena, we can grow many things, so we have a wide choice of plant material, but all of those elements need to harmonize in much the same way that layers and textures and colors do in decorating, except of course, they live and die and are never the same from day to day! Gardening is in many ways more difficult than interior decorating!
Q:Simple pleasures play an integral part in your design aesthetics. What are a your most cherished simple pleasures you include in your own home and everyday life?
A:There are so many. That first quiet cup of coffee, taken in my bed or on my little front terrace or toile covered chair in the entrance hall, is a good way to start the day. And at the end, I always fluff the cushions and turn out the lamps, one by one, in my sitting room. And in between, I love to pull vegetables and snip flowers from the garden, sit quietly in a favorite chair to chat with a visitor, make dinner for friends or family and soak in my bathtub with a cup of Greek saffron tea and a paperback version of a favorite book. I have made a promise to myself to try to spend a little part of every day with a good book and with my watercolor brushes and pencils, and although work sometimes gets in the way, I am getting better at choosing to do the things that really matter to me.
~Explore Kate and Odom’s home and much more of their talents in their new book Stamps & Stamps: Style and Sensibility (April 2021), visit their website Stamps & Stamps here and be sure to follow Kate on Instagram.
~All images of Kate and Odom’s home are sourced from her Stamps & Stamps Instagram account.