One-on-One with Kenneth Brown
 
May 1st, 2005

 

By Jeffrey Steele
May-June 2005

“I want a place where we can check stock at the click of a mouse, and know that what we’re designing will be available to us to meet our project deadline.”

Kenneth Brown is principal of Kenneth Brown Design in Los Angeles and host of HGTV’s popular new show, “reDesign.” He is uniquely positioned to talk about what consumers want—based on what they see in the media—and on working successfully with designers. In this wide-ranging interview with TileDealer, Brown talks about the impact of his Louisiana childhood on his design career, what he likes and doesn’t like about dealer showrooms, and how technology is affecting the appearance and durability of ceramic tile.

TileDealer: What’s your educational and design background?

Brown: I grew up in Baton Rouge, LA, in a middle income family, and my family wasn’t one to have a designer help with home decor. I shopped with my mom at a local J.C. Penney’s to pick out furniture for our home. From an early age, I always had an interest in design, the whole process, and naturally felt the inclination to do it. I would rake the neighbors’ yards, and rake them into floor plans. Having grown up in middle America plays a huge part in everything I do in my current career. And that basically comes from the fact that today, more than ever, people want access to good design. It’s no longer just for the upper class or wealthy people.

I went to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and I studied interior design. And I spent a semester studying in Manchester, England, where I focused on product design and industrial design, which really opened the door to a lot of opportunities I didn’t know were there. After graduation, I was offered a job in Los Angeles. The day after graduation I moved out here, and got an entry-level job in a design firm focusing on hospitality and hotel interior design. After about a year and a half there, I realized I wasn’t cut out to be confined to a drafting table all day. I needed to be out meeting with people and having a relationship with the client and the homeowner. So I left, and honestly had no plans to do anything. Luckily, I was approached by a contractor Lori Webb. And she was into buying rundown houses and refurbishing and restoring them, and then reselling them. She gave me the opportunity to do all the design on her properties. And as people came through, they would ask who the designer was. Through word of mouth, I began building a base of clients and opened my own business. That was in 1997. To make a long story short, here we are.

TileDealer: What is your design philosophy?

Brown: It gets back to my growing up and being able to relate to anyone who was willing to hire a designer. I took it as an honor to work with them. My attitude may have been different than others. My approach, my design philosophy, is to be friendly and really get to know the homeowner, and check the attitude at the door. My design philosophy is to really allow the homeowner to be the driving force, while I serve as the tool to help guide them along, to make the right decisions and keep them on track.

TileDealer: How did you get the opportunity to host a TV show?

Brown: I’d been working in Los Angeles, helping a lot of people, and through word of mouth I was given the opportunity to appear on various HGTV shows as a guest. People were taking note of the design process I prefer, which is being recognized as a very disarming, approachable process where the homeowner is very much involved. And HGTV wanted that kind of show. The mold fit perfectly.

TileDealer: If you were given a bathroom or kitchen remodel for an average to upscale home—what questions would you ask the homeowner?

Brown: I would ask them to give me three words to describe the bathroom they want to create. You listen, and you ask them to take it a step further, by pulling images, talking to them about how they use the bathroom. Some like to read in the bathroom, some like to see it as a place to escape their day. Bathrooms are no longer just for the obvious functions. Realizing how they use it and what they want starts to paint the picture.

The kitchen has to be more of the working horse for the home. That to me is the obvious: ‘Do you cook, and do you cook a lot? Do you really use this room, or is it just for show?’ Then I ask them for the three words that describe what they’re trying to achieve.

TileDealer: How would you prefer to work with the tile dealer or distributor on this kitchen or bath remodel?

Brown: We work with tile dealers. We don’t really come into contact with distributors. The interesting thing is in today’s information-driven society or culture, our homeowners or clients are so educated about products that they know what they’re looking for. They may have researched it on the Internet, they’ve read design magazines, they’ve seen design TV shows. They have a better understanding of what it is they want. Our homeowners come to us and know the tile they like. But the problem is they don’t know how to apply it. How to fit it into a design and install it in such a way that it creates a custom look just for them. So what we do is go on field trips to the actual tile dealers. We go in with a good idea of what we want. We don’t go into the showroom without a good idea of what we’re shooting for, because to walk in and see all these options in one place, [clients are] going to shut down.

From a designer’s point of view, I like to go into dealer showrooms where there is someone who can check stock for availability and get prices immediately. Because when we’re doing kitchens and bathrooms, we may be working with six or eight different tiles. And nothing is more frustrating than creating a design with numerous tiles, only to find out some are not in stock. So the computer data base is what I’m getting at. I avoid places where they say, ‘I’ll have to call and get back to you tomorrow.’ I want a place where we can check stock at the click of a mouse, and know that what we’re designing will be available to us to meet our project deadline. At that point, we’ve come up with something that’s remarkably beautiful, and we know it’s in stock. We can sign off on it, while the emotional commitment is there on the part of both the homeowner and the designer.

Nothing is more upsetting to homeowners than going through that process and finding the next day that some of it is unavailable. When those things happen, we tend not to revisit that dealer. No one wants to go back and have to redo things.

TileDealer: What’s the best way for a dealer or distributor to get connected with a top designer?

Brown: Have a showroom that’s well maintained, that has reasonable hours, and has a friendly staff and service. A place that also takes appointments, that has a private conference area where the designer can work by himself and with homeowners and clients. In dealerships we’ve gone into that have bad fluorescent lighting, tiles do not look right. They need really good lighting to really allow the tile to be what it is. Tile is heavy, and tile is very tactile. People love to touch it. Tile boards have to be easy to handle and easy to move around. And tile that is fixed to wing displays is harder to move around, more difficult to hold, and to see in combinations with other tile.

TileDealer: How should dealers market tile to you?

Brown: I wish I could get out more than I can, but I can’t. Waterworks, a company I deal with, has a person assigned to me. When they have new tile products, Natalie, my sales person, comes to me, brings me what they have and keeps me on top of what’s out there. They’re putting things in my head, so when it comes to designing another bathroom, I’m going to first remember what Natalie brought me. Another showroom I go to, Ann Sacks, I think they have the best showroom for tile by far. The girl I work with there, she knows my favorite chocolate. And whenever I go there, even if it’s at random, she’s got my chocolate in her drawer. It’s these little things that make a difference. Last year, my office purchased more than $100,000 worth of tile. [Obtaining some of that business takes] doing those little extras, on top of course of having things in stock and those other things we talked about earlier.

TileDealer: How do you follow through on jobs?

Brown: When I do bathrooms, I highly, highly recommend the tile installer I’ve always worked with. A bad tile installation can make the most beautiful tile look horrendous. And so I’m lucky that over the years, I’ve developed a great relationship with my tile installer, who knows how I like things cut, where I like center lines to be, the size of my grout line, just the little details that are so crucial. He goes the extra mile. When clients tell me they want to hire a less expensive installer, I tell them you might as well choose less expensive tile as well. Because you get what you pay for. I do tend to go by [the job site], but I’m never there for the day [tile] arrives. I do have people in my office that are there when tile arrives, but I don’t go personally. But I do oversee the process and inspect the work along the way.

TileDealer: What about the future of ceramic tile?

Brown: There’s the debate between ceramic tile and real stone. Recently, they’ve come out with a great combination of both. There are products that involve both man-made and natural material. You get the durability for high-traffic areas of man-made products, and the luster and beautiful natural look of stone combined. So you can have a very high-end, natural look, but it’s still going to be durable. Technology is definitely increasing the options for combining the best of both worlds.For times and dates of “reDesign,” check TV listings at www.hgtv.com.

“When clients tell me they want to hire a less expensive installer, I tell them you might as well choose less expensive tile as well. Because you get what you pay for.”

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