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How Kari Whitman became one of Hollywood’s most sought-after design talents

Boasting the likes of Jessica Alba, Kristen Bell, Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas among her impressive celebrity client base, here’s how Kari Whitman is making the world a greener place one luxury interior design project at a time

“Acting was never my true calling,” Kari Whitman tells Effect Magazine. “My heart had always been set on becoming a designer. One day, while on the set of NYPD Blue, I called my agent and told him to throw my acting and modelling photos away because I was going to start a new career.” Up until this point, the now-interior designer had been pursuing a successful acting career, starring in the likes of Beverly Hills Cop II, Men at Work and Mr & Mrs Smith. But as the old adage goes, ‘when you know, you know’, and for Whitman, it was time for a change. 

Today, the 59-year-old has more than 30 years industry experience under her belt, having founded her eponymous design studio Kari Whitman Interiors in Los Angeles back in 1994. She was spurred on by American actor and filmmaker Emilio Estevez, who recognised her talent after visiting her self-designed apartment one day during the filming of Men at Work. “He actually became one of my very first clients,” she adds. “From that point forward, it just took off.”

Now based in Los Angeles and Boulder, Colorado, with clients everywhere from California to Dallas and the Middle East to Mexico, Whitman’s design-build firm works across a wide-ranging portfolio of private residences, tea houses, restaurants, hotels, offices and even cruise ships. “I’ll take on anything that lets us work with creative clients. I love to celebrate the client’s individuality,” she says. “My design journey draws inspiration from art, nature and travel. I would say I blend timeless comfort with modern aesthetics to create what I like to call ‘eclectic self-expressionism’. No two projects are ever the same.”

I’ll take on anything that lets us work with creative clients. I love to celebrate the client’s individuality

Interior designer Kari Whitman

It’s this innate flexibility and dedication to her trade that has led her to bag some of the world’s most famous names as clients, from heads of state and royal families to A-list celebrities including Jessica Alba, Kristen Bell, Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas. “I’ve been lucky to work with some truly incredible people,” she tells us. “One of my favourite projects has to be Nikki Sixx’s home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. We used natural wood, leather and animal print mixed with upscale finishes and crystals. It brought together high-end design and the rugged, western aesthetic that is perfect for a rockstar’s mountain abode.” Whitman also designed a custom glass table for the project, as well as custom tassel chairs and barstools made out of saddles. “Think Mötley Crüe meets Ralph Lauren,” she adds.

On the opposite end of the spectrum you’ll find Jessica Alba’s LA home, a rustic, earth-friendly abode designed to be as pet- and kid-friendly as possible. “Jessica Alba is one of my most creative and green clients,” says Kari. “To meet her brief we used natural elements with tones of blue, brown and maroon to make the space elegant, and we then added wallpaper from Flavor Paper and a beautiful Carrera marble countertop in the kitchen.”

Capturing a minimalist paradigm and naturally-lit feel of green spaces, Whitman also used eco-friendly turf and Sunbrella fabric in the outdoor space, making it a safe playing ground for both Alba’s children and her beloved dogs. “Jessica is a ‘greeny’, so she and I get along great!” adds Whitman.

Jessica Alba and husband at home in their Hollywood Hills, interior designed by Kari Whitman - Effect Magazine
Jessica Alba and her husband at home in their Hollywood Hills, interior designed by Kari Whitman

In fact, as a self-confessed lover of the earth and all of its creatures (she also owns a non-profit Ace of Hearts Dog Rescue in Los Angeles, which is committed to saving dogs from shelters who are destined for euthanasia and finding them their forever homes), Whitman is considered one of the most environmentally friendly designers in the business. “I love to bring the outdoors into all our homes and commercial spaces,” she enthuses. “Animals and the earth are a big inspiration for me. They are my muse. I feel that sets us apart in many ways, as we will always do what’s most conducive to Mother Nature and her preservation.”

As such, Whitman prioritises sourcing from vintage stores like JF Chen in LA, while all her custom items are made and fabricated in the US, reflecting her commitment to supporting local businesses and craftsmanship. “I always say ‘to recycle is to reuse’, and I’m dedicated to collaborating with brands and vendors that share my green vision by using recycled materials in their products,” she continues. Taking her commitment to the environment one step further, Whitman has also created her own eco-friendly, DIY paint colour mixing kit Wall Makeup, which saves paint from landfills.

While it’s safe to say that Whitman has a strong portfolio of notable projects under her belt, she says asking to choose her favourite is no easy feat. “It’s like picking your favourite Stevie Nicks song,” she jokes. When pushed, however, she name-checks her most recent LA project, Doheny House, a family home nestled in the hills complete with floor-to-ceiling windows that frame the skyline as if it were a living piece of art. “To match our client’s artistic aesthetics, I spent some time all over the world sourcing art for the perfect pieces,” she explains. That’s when she found the Dream Catcher Blue Class artwork from the Italian Art Collection Di Mucciolo. “It was like finding a missing piece to the puzzle. I immediately knew it belonged directly above the custom dining table I designed.”

Art, in fact, is another of Whitman’s big passions, with Nina Tichava, Monsieur Jamin, James Verbicky and Art Angels all among her go-to artists. “If I wasn’t a designer, I would have been an art dealer,” she declares. Not one to take a breath, next in Whitman’s pipeline is another Los Angeles home where, she tells us, she will be putting her talents to their full potential. “I can’t reveal much just yet, but my vision includes adding tranquil koi pods, vibrant wallpaper and stunning chandeliers to shape the aesthetic,” she says. Elsewhere, over in Boulder, she is also hard at work on a 32-room boutique hotel. “And then I have to mention my two other exciting projects: a pre-war 6,000-square-foot gem in Savannah that has so much character and potential, as well as a three-storey beachside vacation home in Malibu that is a real work of art. You’ll have to stay tuned for the results.”

Read more: Interiors | Interior Design | Vintage | Design | ArtLos Angeles | California | USA