Interview: KitchenLab’s Rebekah Zaveloff (designer/artist/foodie and friend)
KitchenLab founder Rebekah Zaveloff contacted me after hearing about Strange Closets from Marco Polo owners Brian and Alan. We met for coffee, and I was impressed with her portfolio and the way she talked about her customers past and present – nearly all had become friends (if you’ve ever rehabbed anything – let along a kitchen or bath – you’re probably surprised to hear that). I’ve seen several of her kitchens and baths in person and they’re stunning – each completely distinct and based on the customer’s taste, personality and lifestyle. And while she doesn’t specialize in decorating interiors, Rebekah has helped many pull a room together while supervising the installation.
We didn’t talk that much about kitchens really, but we talked about art and people and food and life. Enjoy, and do contact Rebekah to discuss your kitchen or bath project (773-495-4383). To see more of her work or for more information, please visit KitchenLab’s website.
Can you tell me about your background?
I grew up in Columbus Ohio and studied fine art at a high school called Fort Hayes. It’s a terrific school that really informed my experiences. My experience was so far outside the norm – I had a couple of off-the-wall teachers and no structure.
So it’s an arts high school?
There’s drama department, a fine art department and I think dance . . . and that’s it. It’s on an old army base, I think, and there’s a huge amount of land in downtown Columbus. It was a really neat experience.
What did you concentrate on?
The coolest thing about the high school was the piles and piles of scrap metal lying around. I learned how to weld in high school so I got really into sculpture very early. With my sculpture I was making non-functional furniture. I was into anything industrial – exposed fasteners. I made a chaise lounge once that was made of bent sheet metal that was covered in a draped sheet fabric that I had glued wood shavings from the woodshop on. I went on to UCLA and majored in Fine Art.
Did you like L.A.?
I cannot live somewhere with no seasons. I need to mark the passage of time.
I lived in San Diego for two years and I found the weather to be oppressive.
There is something very disorienting about not being able to demark change both in your environment, your growth, in the sense of time passing, and I think the seasons help us do that. My nostalgia became very evident about needing that. I probably would have had less culture shock if I’d moved somewhere where I didn’t speak the language.
I struggled . . . in a good way . . . in the art department; people like Chris Burden and Nancy Rubens and Charles Ray taught there, but I was an old school sculptor and painter and that was not in vogue . . . painting was declared dead.
Did you graduate from UCLA?
No I transferred to the Art Institute in Chicago . . . totally different experience than UCLA. The painters were like the old guard there.
I’ve heard mixed things from artists about the process of art education. Do you think your education “put you in a box” or discouraged your creativity? What was your experience like?
In art school, doing design is such a no-no. It’s copping out, selling out, all of that stuff. The worst insult they could give you at UCLA is calling your work decorative. I’ll never forget being in a critique and a girl almost started crying when the professor said her work was decorative.
So would you call yourself an artist?
I wouldn’t call myself an artist because I’m not making art right now. It’s as simple as that; it’s just that simple. But I’ve been an artist longer than I’ve been a kitchen designer.
I just can’t afford some of the pieces I love. It’s expensive . . .
But you can see why it has to be . . . they’re starving. Even if a painting is $10,000, they have to sell a number to make a good living.
And they might sell two and that’s what they live on and they have to pay taxes on that. But like Damien Hirsch is making God knows how much . . . I don’t even want to go there.
Nobody I’ve talked with wants to go there.
He’s not my cup of tea. You gotta admire the guy – he’s making a point.
I think it’s striking, but to me it’s not so much art as . . . promotional. He gets attention.
It’s like, “What is art?” Chris Burden was known for locking himself in his locker and crucifying himself on the back of a volkswagon.
It’s funny – he came up in my interview with Michael Thompson as well.
Well yea, he’s a symbol for “what is art.” I think what’s sad is that people start being influenced by ideas or dogmas, frankly. Part of art and becoming an artist is pushing against boundaries and learning how to define yourself. (Art school) has completely informed who I am. I was forced to ask myself “Who am I?” “Do I have something to say?” “Is my work interesting?” Do I want to be decorative? Do I want to be political? But I’m not a political artist – I don’t have the activist sensibility – I just don’t. People are intimidated by art. There’s always afraid that the person in the room that knows more than them will make fun of them. It’s Kindergarten mentality. People who have the ability to inspire and get people excited about art without making them feel stupid is a gift.
What do you like about living in your farm house?
It’s all about small. It’s about living really cool and eclectic and casual – Everything doesn’t have to be perfect, which I love. I love patina and flawed things . . . flaws are what make things beautiful – in people and in things.
How did you go from artist to kitchen designer?
I wound up working in set design at the same time I was waiting tables so I got really into food and wine. Film started drying up in Chicago, so I had to either move to L.A. or stay in Chicago and do something else.
I had to get a degree that gave me skills. I’d just gone through art school, but I didn’t have very “marketable” skills, so I went to Harrington for design. I got a job at a kitchen design firm and worked for them for four years and then I went out on my own.
And that was KitchenLab?
Why design school and not something else?
What got me to go back to interior design school . . . my husband had bought a building, and we were standing on the 3rd floor in the middle of February – it was totally gutted, totally exposed walls, plaster and lathe, the old 100 year old stud walls and framing, beautiful old dark wood from age and vodka bottles in the wall cavities. Being in a raw space was the most beautiful thing. That’s when I decided that that’s what I wanted to do. I’ve always had this thing for old stuff. I just knew that rehab was where I wanted to be.
What do you bring to the table that’s different from other designers?
Part of what I pride myself is really understanding people’s lifestyles and understanding their needs. What I love about kitchen design is the problem solving aspect. There’s always a problem to be solved period. Some people are naturally talented at certain things. For me, space planning is one of those things. When I get that one plan and know “this is it,” I get really excited.
Are there trends that drive you crazy?
Cherry wood with black countertops. There was a period where everybody wanted the cherry cabinets with black countertops. I’m sure everybody will look back on this period and say “everybody wanted a white kitchen.” But I’m trying to get away from trends, to design kitchens that have a longevity and a lasting power, that feel like part of the house. Hopefully those kitchens won’t get torn out and thrown in a landfill in ten years.
What’s next after stainless steel? Is it going away?
I do not think stainless steel is going anywhere. It’s a neutral. You can’t ignore that. But I love the baked enamel appliances that come in different colors. Some people are really into the wood panels if they’re seamless. I just think stainless works with anything.
What about copper? I called copper years ago.
You and my husband both. The problem with copper is mixing it with stainless. It’s awful! I like the staples – fabulous industrial lights with cages over them, wire glass, hexagon tiles on bathroom floors, subway tiles, stainless appliances in restaurants . . . things that make you swoon. They made me swoon at 18 and they make me swoon now.
What is the process if somebody wants to work with you?
Call me. My office or work number is my cell. I come to your house for a free consultation the first time. Usually I setup a phone intervew to discuss location, timing and budget. If it seems like a good fit I meet with them at the house. After a contract is signed, I start taking measurements and it goes from there.
You seem to really love what you do?
People always want to be in the kitchen. There’s something comforting about it. Food is the most basic cultural currency there is. It is what makes people feel comfortable and welcome. It’s how we show our love and affection. It’s an incredible way of connecting with other cultures. Food and cooking has changed my life. It brings people together and that’s why people renovate kitchens. It’s a basic internal need that’s not really talked about.
I agree. Thanks Rebekah!
OK folks, I’m vouching for Rebekah; I’ve met a few of her clients (watch for upcoming home tours), and they all love her. Give her a ring at 773-495-4383 to discuss your requirements.