Though Catherine Kwong, 33, wasn't always dead-set on a career in interior design—she studied political science at Brown University—her childhood experience of touring construction sites with her dad, a developer and home builder, never quite left her. "Growing up people always asked me if I was going to help my dad with his business," she says, "And I always said, 'I'm not going to work in construction.' And now, of course, I'm walking job sites all the time."
Yet it wasn't until moving to NYC after school for a brief stint in advertising that Kwong's career path solidified. "During that time I was super inspired by New York and all the different environments within the city," she says. And although she had taken "a lot of architecture courses in college, and was sort of thinking about architecture school at one point," Kwong decided to pursue interior design instead, enrolled at Parsons, and landed a gig working on high-end residential projects for Studio Sofield, the Manhattan-based firm of the venerable AD100 designer Bill Sofield.
"That was just such an amazing first job," Kwong reflects. "I learned so much about artisans and finishes. Everything I worked on was super thought out and well designed. We barely bought anything from showrooms; everything was vintage or we bought it from auctions, or it was custom. So that's my framework."
For her former boss, the affection is mutual:
"In tandem with her diligent compassion, precision and sophisticated aesthetic," writes Sofield by email, "Catherine masterfully managed our most prestigious projects at hand. She continuously transformed abstract ideas into tangible form, following the process from documentation to realization and completion with inspired foresight and a grounded understanding of function. While I am sure you are faced with selecting finalists from an overwhelming number of qualified candidates, I can guarantee Catherine's talents and strengths place her amidst the upper echelons of an emerging generation of young designers." After working for Sofield for a couple of years and spending a year doing store design for Ralph Lauren, Kwong returned to her native San Francisco Bay Area and joined The Wiseman Group, an established firm there. In 2011, while taking time off to plan her wedding and freelance, she applied on a whim to participate in the San Francisco Decorator Showcase and "unexpectedly I got chosen," she recalls. "It all kind of happened at once. I didn't really have my own firm yet but I got the room. That was my first project and it helped establish the firm. It all just sort of came together in this very busy year."
Now, a couple of years later, the small staff at Catherine Kwong Design could be working on three to four projects at a time, mostly residential but often a hospitality project tossed in there, as well. Kwong returned this year participate again in the San Francisco Decorator Showcase; this time, however, she scored the pièce de résistance, the living room. The project, which combined gutsy, modern details—oak doors with bronze pyramid studs, Cy Twombly-inspired floor art, and strands of vintage fringe lights—all under gilded crown molding original to the 8,000-square-foot Georgian mansion, earned much praise from design blogs (view Curbed SF's coverage here) not to mention mainstream newspapers and magazines. "In San Francisco there is definitely space right now for modern designers—people with a little more of an edge and people who are a little bit more into contemporary art, avante garde fashion, and so on," she says. "I think there's definitely room for that and there's definitely an audience for that. I don't necessarily think it's something that I'm trying to push; it's just what i'm interested in, and so for me it's about creating rooms and interiors and homes that are exciting to me."
Curbed SF editor Sally Kuchar echoes this sentiment. "What I like most about her—and I say this as her friend—is that she's not stuffy, and you can't fit her into a box like a lot of other designers," Kuchar says. "She's just doing her thing and getting a lot of attention because of it."
Kwong's "hoping the big break is yet to come"; for now, though, "You want to make sure your clients are getting the service they need while you're still trying to grow and take on new projects—I think that's been the hardest challenge for me, making sure we have a healthy business and that we always have projects but that each project is getting the attention it should be getting." She adds: "My husband's told me he's never seen me so stressed and also so happy at the same time."