On a recent winter day in Chicago, one of Kara Mann’s clients invited her up to see the raw space of the penthouse she’s working on, located in a building currently under construction.
“No windows — it was just the 80th floor, open to the environment,” Mann recalls, sitting closer to the ground inside the second floor of a gallery space in midtown. “We were all a little scared, because you go up in this little elevator and it’s shaking along the building, and then you step over — so there’s a gap for one minute between the building and the elevator. It was a moody day in Chicago, so it was pretty amazing. Those are the things that I get so geeked up about in my career. I’m always fascinated that human beings make buildings and beautiful objects, that we create all of this stuff.”
A love for creating, and beauty, is what led Mann to her current career as an interior designer. Studying fine art and working as a fashion stylist led her to realize that she was interested in creating the whole environment of a lifestyle, not just the individual components.
Mann, creative director of her eponymous design firm, moved back to her hometown of Chicago a few years ago to be closer to her family after having a baby. The city acts as a convenient midpoint for traveling around to her various projects in different cities; New York, where she maintains an office in addition to Chicago, is only a short flight away. In tandem with with her team, she splits her focus between residential and commercial projects and product development; her current roster of projects includes a private residence in Miami, a large-scale property in Chicago, and a hotel in San Francisco. Past projects include a branch of Equinox, a pop-up shop for Goop, and the Hotel Chelsea. She’s also working to develop her second product line with Baker furniture that is set to launch spring 2020.
“All the things you don’t think of that go into a house, the non-decorative items,” Mann says of the line. “Everything that would go into your pantry, a beautiful broom, or things that go in your bathroom. Things that people kind of forget about when they build their beautiful multimillion dollar homes, and then they go into the closet and there’s a purple bucket and a green mop and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I need to edit this.’ I feel like everything in our world is designed, so why not take it down to that really utilitarian perspective?”
It’s a design philosophy that is aligned with the less-is-more, what sparks joy? Marie Kondo-style approach that has invaded the conversation around domestic spaces.
“People don’t need as much stuff as they think they do. So if you just invest and have something beautiful, even though it is utilitarian, I think that really elevates your lifestyle and how you live. I think it adds calm to people’s world, which I think we’re all looking for,” she adds.
Her residential work in particular immerses her in the lives of her clients, and requires discovering the essence of who they are and their style of living.
“It’s like blind dating when you first meet a client, and then all of a sudden you’re in bed with them and you’re like, ‘Wait, I don’t like you anymore!’ Especially on the residential side it gets real personal, you know a lot about your clients. But I’d say most of our clients, I’ve done second and third homes for them, too,” she says. “It’s definitely part psychology and part design. And part marriage counseling sometimes, too.”
One of her current projects is designing the family home of fellow Windy City resident Virgil Abloh. Hesitant to say too much — or inadvertently speak for her client — Mann does note the crossover of sensibilities between her firm and Abloh’s approach to design.
“He has his hand in so many different things, it is so much about every little piece in your life is designed,” she says. “In the period that I worked with him it’s just so amazing to see how prolific he is and how he’s just taken over the world. I’m so impressed. He inspires me to be better at what I do.”
More from the Eye: