For a former east coaster, David Phoenix sure has taken famously to his spot in the California sun. The 20-year interior design veteran has become one of the country’s most influential tastemakers with a client list that reflects some well-known personalities in the Golden State—journalist and author Maria Shriver, actor Rob Lowe, Middle Eastern royalty and the Kennedy family are all on his list of devotees, just to name a few.
His admirers also include the editors of House Beautiful who awarded David the title of one of America’s Top Young Designers. The secret to his success: Creating designs that reflect the personality and passions of his clients—no matter their job. Though he prides himself on giving each client a unique design, by and large clients seek David out for his take on what he calls “California elegance”. Here, he shares the secrets and staples behind his signature style, as well as the insider scoop on his list of kitchen must-haves.
This classic California kitchen exemplifies David's great eye for materials, finishes and design.
CULTIVATE: Celebrities and dignitaries love you because of the laid-back, but still refined California style you bring to your kitchen projects. What are your favorite go-to materials that help convey your signature look?
David: I believe in furnishing clients with the best quality millwork they can afford because that single element is what breathes the most life into a kitchen. One of my favorite cabinetry companies to work with is Merritt Woodwork. I consider them the Rolls Royce of cabinetry. I also love Christopher Peacock. He has a great eye for detail. I’m currently working on a project using Arclinea, which offers a wonderful selection of lacquer and steel cabinetry for a contemporary look. Again, they offer beautiful details that make the room’s personality really come to life. When it comes to countertops, I prefer using marble and dark teak butcher block, sometimes in combination with each other to evoke that casual elegance.
CULTIVATE: What other kitchen details offer qualities of both culture and comfort?
David: There are many facets to doing this right, but the real key is great lighting. Of course you need task lighting around the prep and clean-up areas, but you also need to be able to dim the lights to create ambiance. How you accessorize is also important—the little touches like cookie jars and cookbooks are what make a house feel like a home. I also believe that an organized kitchen is a comfortable kitchen, so when planning a kitchen remodel, I take an inventory of everything my clients have before we start. Ideally, the final result should offer a place for everything that’s important. I always make sure there’s plenty of comfortable seating. No matter how elegant a kitchen looks, it has to feel good while maintaining its durability. Regardless of what anyone is in life or what job they have, everyone ends up in the kitchen so you have to make sure your seating can withstand the constant use while still looking great.
This bright and airy kitchen that's finished beautifully is a perfect example of David's cool California aesthetic.
CULTIVATE: As an honorable appointee of the State of Historic Resources Commission, you are in tune with preserving architectural history. How does that relate to your kitchen remodels?
David: It’s difficult to restore an old kitchen because that’s the room that has the most ever-changing technology. Even the way kitchens are used has changed significantly over time. Having said that, when I get an opportunity to salvage old appliances, I love it. I recently restored an O’Keefe & Merritt stove and an old vault with warming drawers. I even got the opportunity to retrofit an old-fashioned icebox into a beverage center. It’s gratifying when those historical details live on and become the inspiration for a contemporary kitchen.
CULTIVATE: You’re originally from New England, but obviously a Californian at heart. What are some differences in the way the two coasts design their kitchens?
David: The East Coast is more formal, more old school. In the house where I grew up, the kitchen was separate from the living space. It was a real workroom. California kitchens, on the other hand, are much more casual. They flow into the family room and the outdoor spaces. They are very much a part of the living and entertaining space.
CULTIVATE: You just moved into a new home with a galley-style kitchen. What big plans do you have in store for it?
David: In my last kitchen, I had two refrigerators—one dedicated to food storage and the other for beverages. I think of the food fridge as my private space, while the beverage fridge allows guests to freely help themselves. I will definitely be duplicating this in my new kitchen. I like to bake, so having a wall oven at eye level is handy to keep tabs on what’s inside. I love the new speed ovens that are on the market so I’ll be finding space for one of those. Then of course, there’s my Breville coffeemaker. No matter where I am, I couldn’t live without that. It doubles as my morning alarm clock. I’m excited to choose cabinetry. In my old home I had inset panels made of solid wood with a custom finish. I’m looking to do something similar with lots of open shelving. Not only does high-quality cabinetry look good on its own, it allows for what’s stored on its open shelving to shine as well. I try to use everything I have, but that can only happen when I can see it and remember it’s there.
A sleek, modern design works well in this tight galley-style kitchen.
CULTIVATE: We understand you wanted to be a chef when you were growing up. Does this influence how you design a kitchen for your clients?
David: Sure. Food is such an important part of life and therefore the kitchen needs to be designed as the heart of the home no matter how big or small the house. People have hang-ups about cooking, and as a result we’ve gotten away from it to a large extent. It’s nice to come back to it and the way a kitchen is created can certainly help. Even if you can’t cook—and believe me, I have plenty of clients who don’t—it’s important to live with a comfortable and inspiring kitchen where you can gather friends and family together and celebrate each other while enjoying good food, even if it was cooked elsewhere.