Text by Karen Carroll
Dallas designer Cathy Kincaid combines antique textiles, custom wallpapers, dressmaker details, and pretty porcelains with her eye for practicality to create high-style interiors that exude comfort and livability. We had the honor of talking with Cathy about how she got her start, what has inspired her ever since, and much more.
Southern Home (SH): What was your first inkling that you were destined to decorate?
Cathy Kincaid (CK): It wasn’t even a plan. I took home economics in high school and had always loved to sew, making my own outfits and other things. Young people probably don’t even know what home ec is anymore, but it taught me good life skills, such as how a house works and what a kitchen needs. And I still think it’s really important that a designer knows how to sew—it teaches you how fabrics work, the way they are constructed, and how they perform. I think it probably also explains the dressmaker details that I’m fond of in my upholstery and curtains. I went to college at TCU (Texas Christian University) with the plan of majoring in home ec, but interior design was in the same building, and I decided to give it a try. I ended up really liking it.
SH: What experience, piece of advice, or perhaps lesson learned the hard way has been the most formative in the way you think about decorating?
CK: My very first job when I was 21 was an internship that turned into a full-time job for Minton-Corley in Fort Worth. Joe Minton would give me a piece of carpet or a pillow and tell me to look for fabrics that would work with it. I’d pull what I thought looked good, and he’d say, “Cathy, that looks cheap.” When I’d ask why, he’d tell me I was trying to match colors too exactly. He helped me realize that while you want colors to blend, it’s the mixture that makes a room interesting. Colors should be complex and not too bright, and they shouldn’t all be the same intensity or clarity. Otherwise, the room becomes expected. The same idea is true with furniture. To embrace one style completely becomes monotonous. Even if you love contemporary or midcentury modern, I believe you should always have a pretty piece of brown furniture. It settles the room and gives it some substance. If it is a beautiful piece, it’s going to look good with a Saarinen table or with a Serena & Lily chair. It makes a room look more collected, less expected.
SH: Designers like to say there are no rules. Do you agree?
CK: Oh, I think there actually are a lot of rules! But they can become second nature for designers, so we may not even realize that we’re following them. Houses should reflect a sense of style, but first they must be comfortable and functional—then you can play with the rest. For example, you need a table beside where you’re sitting to set a drink on, and you need a lamp nearby for reading. The furniture should be comfortable, but it also should be scaled properly for the room.
SH: Scale seems to be one of the most challenging things for a do-it-yourselfer to get right.
CK: We’ve been building all these great big houses with very tall ceilings, and people generally think that means you need huge pieces of furniture to fill them up. Instead, it starts to look like Alice in Wonderland with gigantic chairs in gigantic spaces. You end up sitting too far away from the person next to you. Or there’s a humongous coffee table that pushes the sofa and chairs so far apart that you can’t even have a proper conversation. It works better to break up a large room into several seating areas made up of smaller furniture.
SH: You clearly appreciate the combination of blue and white. Is there a house without blue-and-white porcelain in Cathy Kincaid’s world?
CK: I believe we all have a palette we’re naturally drawn to, and that’s a combination I use a lot. I think of it as almost a neutral. But there’s hardly a color I don’t love. Whatever color you choose, it’s important to thread it throughout the house to help rooms relate to one another. Otherwise it can look like a show house where designers are competing to make their rooms as different as possible to stand out. That’s fine for a show house, but it makes people nervous in everyday living.
SH: While we know there is no exact recipe for a Cathy Kincaid interior, what are some of the ingredients you use again and again?
CK: I like to use pretty lampshades made correctly with trim, piping, and liners so that when you turn the light on, they give off a pretty color. Antique textiles on pillows give a room a look that can’t be achieved by only using newly printed fabrics. I love to use Turkish towels; old saris; or English, French, and Indian block prints—anything that has some age and where the colors are all natural dyes. And I like layering carpets. Sisal on the floor helps ground a room and keep it from getting too fussy, and you can always layer a patterned rug on top of it. I also love to use wallpaper.
SH: What’s your approach to deciding whether you’re going to wallpaper or paint a room?
CK: Wallpaper helps create depth in a room that doesn’t have many windows. I’ll also paper a space that isn’t very pretty architecturally or that has weird angles. An all-over pattern makes those angles go away. People are afraid that wallpaper is going to make a room look smaller, but it usually doesn’t.
SH: You often create interesting groupings of paintings and porcelains, even atop a scenic wallpaper, but things never feel visually cluttered. How do you know when enough is enough?
CK: There’s that old saying attributed to Coco Chanel that says before you walk out the door, you should take one accessory off. Sometimes I have to stand back, look at a space, and decide what isn’t needed. People are moving away from decorating with a lot of stuff.
SH: Given that you love to use one-of-a-kind pieces in your projects, we’d love to know what is your own most-treasured possession?
CK: Well, I realized this the hard way after my house burned five years ago. It was kind of the perfect fire, if there is such a thing—we all got out and I didn’t lose everything, but it definitely weeded things out. You realize how much you have that you don’t really need and what’s really important to you. I learned to live with less, and now I enjoy that and do so by choice. My son, who is in real estate, helped me find the house I’m in now—it was the first one he took me to, and I fell in love with it. But getting back to your original question, I have a painting of a watermelon by Julio Larraz. I bought it when I was very young, and I never get tired of looking at it.
SH: What’s your favorite room in your house now?
CK: My living room—it has big windows, comfy chairs, some of my favorite artwork, and an old fireplace. It’s where everyone gravitates, which is kind of funny because I rarely used the living rooms in any of my previous houses. I’m not nearly as particular as I used to be. I want everyone to enjoy being in the room, so I’ve sacrificed some of the glamour and perfection for that. I have a puppy that chews on everything, and I have granddaughters that love to run around and play in that room, so my rugs are worn, and I have slipcovers on all my furniture. People will tell me how much they want to see my house, and I find myself apologizing and saying, “Oh, but you don’t understand. I don’t live like I decorate.”