Charm + Style

San Mateo interior designer Kari McIntosh creates elegant interiors infused with global inspiration.

  • Category
    Homes, People
  • Written by
    Diane Dorrans Saeks
  • Photography by
    Christopher Stark and John Merkl

Decorator Kari McIntosh is admired for her dashing sense of style and her cosmopolitan approach to decorating. She has a business degree from CalPoly and studied at the UC Berkeley School of Interior Design. But what inspires her most are international design-focused travels, studying and researching architecture, interiors, textiles, art, handcrafted pieces, antiques, and decorative objects for the interiors she designs all over California.

“I love to travel to find rare and beautiful objects for my clients,” says McIntosh, “and to present them with more in-depth ideas and a richer field of design concepts. Travel fulfills my desire for a broader panorama of decorating styles and color palettes.”

McIntosh, who founded her eponymous firm, Kari McIntosh Design, in 2008, has become an expert at traversing the chicest Paris flea markets for Francophile clients, and she’s knowledgeable about insider London antiques dealers, and art dealers and galleries in Belgium and Rome. Recently, she traveled to Istanbul to study historic architecture, interiors, and craft, and she has focused on the rich colors of Roman ruins in Pompeii.

When she returns to California, she finds further inspiration in the state’s natural beauty and her lively clients. “Northern California has a reputation for luring adventurers and innovators dating back to the Gold Rush,” notes McIntosh. “I’m deeply inspired by this notion and love that California residents are international, daring, and wonderfully open to new ideas. My clients crave and desire unique items of high quality, and they appreciate learning about the artisans who create the furniture and objects they live with. They treasure an artisan-crafted bookcase to hold their library, or block-printed cotton curtains, or a hand-made quilt. Many are delighted by the prospect of a decorative artist gracing their home with hand-painted wallpaper, for example. Custom wallpaper is the ultimate experience and it offers story and vision and artistic expression to enjoy and to share with visitors.”

McIntosh says that in Northern California she senses a return to entertaining and creating connections with colleagues, family, and friends. “I see a desire for versatile spaces that can easily accommodate groups of people yet remain intimate for a four-person gathering.”

Design ideas are always in flux, she emphasizes. “I’ve noticed the return of a separate dining area. There can be multiple uses for a formal dining room and I have played with creating almost a family office in this space. I also recently turned a dining room into the premiere showpiece of the home, with decorative painting, metallic ceilings, and bespoke lighting. Either way, clients are happy to have the dedicated space with walls.”

McIntosh is also seeing movement away from the all-white kitchen, and a new emphasis on colors such as gray, green, dark blues, or the use of oak (including quarter- sawn, plain, and rift) either stained light gray, or natural golden sealed, and rich brown stained.

“Kitchens open to casual living spaces so that parents can watch children while working in the kitchen, or to serve as an entertaining area when hosting large groups,” the designer notes. “Countertops are still predominantly very practical and easy to care for using man-made materials, especially as technology has improved the look. Clients love handmade tiles and mixed metals in kitchens and baths, and I see more requests for integration of technology through smart-home systems.”

What new custom design ideas is she exploring? “Last year was all about decorative walls inspired by my visit to Roman ruins and to Positano,” she adds. “This year, I’m exploring uses and applications of glass and mirror, and I’m thrilled to use verre eglomisé techniques for the San Francisco Decorator Showcase this year. I’m also applying an antique mirror backsplash to a family-friendly California Rustic project in Walnut Creek.”

And travel continues to be her professional obsession. “I am heading to Montana this summer to explore the grand historic lodges of Glacier Park,” relates McIntosh. “And I am eyeing a trip in the fall to Marrakech, where I plan to find Moroccan rugs and embellished textiles. In Sweden next summer, I’m planning to study Gustavian manor houses and 18th-century Swedish interiors to learn about their pale colors and neoclassical décor. Continued design studies are so important and very inspiring.”

She also feels a deep connection to the architecture of the United States. She has made countless trips to the prairies of Iowa and loves the European vibe of Santa Barbara.

Most of all, McIntosh is happy to live and practice in Northern California. She notes, “California is an exciting place to be a designer today. It’s a remarkable time. I’m filled with endless inspiration from our landscape and new creative ideas. Homeowners here are open to new approaches and concepts. I’m grateful to pursue what I love every day. All projects and designs and décor are different and a pleasure to create.”

San Francisco Decorator Showcase

This year Kari McIntosh is designing rooms for the annual San Francisco Decorator Showcase, which benefits tuition for San Francisco University High School and runs April 27 – May 27.

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