Saving Spaces

PROFILE-June 2011

By Rebecca Falzano  |  Photography Nicole Wolf

You might say she’s an interior stylist. Or perhaps a design advisor. Some might call her a personal space translator. If it didn’t sound so New Agey, you might even call her a house therapist. No matter what you call her, Krista Stokes helps people express themselves through their living spaces.

She started with her own.

Every house is plagued by at least one Achilles’ heel. A space that feels all wrong, has lost its oomph, or maybe never had any in the first place. A space that seems daunting or hopeless, that feels draining instead of energizing-maybe even paralyzing. A space you find yourself making excuses for when friends are over. A space that, for whatever reason, doesn’t make you happy.

This is where Krista Stokes comes in. Stokes has made a livelihood resuscitating those very kinds of spaces and inspiring her clients to use design and personal expression to help them feel at home in every part of their home. In any room she touches, her approach is to make it all about the person who occupies it. Her design philosophy does not hinge on storyboards or fabric swatches; instead, it’s built on a simpler, more intuitive mantra: If you like it, surround yourself with it.

You can’t help but get swept up in Stokes’s world. When you meet her, you meet all of her—she lays her cards out on the table, so to speak. Of course, the table is an antique garage-sale find, and the “cards” are more like pretty, mismatched vintage dishes she’s collected from flea markets over the years. And Stokes’s space is just like Stokes herself: open, welcoming, charming, and unapologetically her. You understand instantly why she is so good at what she does: she lives it.

Stokes’s home is the first floor of an old toy shop in Kennebunkport, and it radiates the same sunny, openhearted vibe that she has. Its generously windowed walls let in natural light and the sights, sounds, and smells of a tiny coastal town. Beautiful saturated colors fill the walls, and transparency is used as a design element. Instead of hiding her shoes and clothes away in closets, they are stored out in the open and integrated into the design. Mementos and life accessories are visible on every shelf, begging for their story to be told. The furniture is a mix of church-sale finds, garage- sale saves, hand-me-downs, and dump-pile rescues. Stokes has been known to barter with friends as well—a piece of artwork in exchange for design advice, for example.

Design may be what Stokes does, but “designer” isn’t a term she uses to describe herself. For about eight years she has been creating spaces filled with life and, more specifically, with the spirit of the person who lives in them. But in a state full of talented interior designers, Stokes stands apart as something altogether different. She has no formal training or design education. “I can’t read blueprints to save my life, and I’m the opposite of handy,” she admits. (Stokes’s long-time assistant, Cynthia Horvath, is her saving grace.) Stokes instead uses the world as her classroom, gleaning inspiration from museums, which she visits often, and subways, which she rides whenever she travels. “I don’t necessarily feel that my style, clinically, makes much sense on paper. To me, design is more about thought and empathy and feeling.”

Designers often work with a blank slate, but Stokes prefers to curate personal spaces for people who don’t know where to start—a use-what-you’ve-got approach. And while many designers dream of outfitting a spacious penthouse in Manhattan, Stokes dreams of fixing that penthouse in Manhattan. “I’m not that interested in doing the interiors for a brand-new house,” she says. “I’d rather go in and help show people how to love their bedroom, for example, by just painting it and rearranging the furniture.”

Stokes’s own carefully curated collection is always evolving. Someone who visited her home two weeks ago will find a different arrangement today—she is constantly changing her living space, rearranging furniture, repainting, finding new places for things. “Today I’m a couch-over-here kind of girl, but tomorrow I may be a couch-over-there kind of girl. I’ve always been willing to think of my space as an ever-evolving story.” Part of her desire for constant evolution comes from Stokes’s childhood as an army brat. “I moved around a lot,” she says, “and rearranging was a way for me to control things a little.” In Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Stokes lived above a grocery store with her mom and sister. They didn’t have much money, and their only belongings were whatever they could fit in the car. But Stokes was resourceful, even at a young age. “I always used to say, ‘you can change your house around for free’ and so I would. I’d move furniture around, and we’d take advantage of cast-offs from my mom’s friends. We didn’t have much, but our house was always filled with so much life.”

Today, Stokes’s home is still filled with life. “All of this is just random stuff that I love, for whatever reason, be- cause it was important at whatever time in my life. I can honestly tell you where I got every single one of these pieces.” She goes on to describe her space, piece by piece, memory by memory: “This is a framed note that my friend who works at the Library of Congress typed and mailed to my dog, Sid. It’s one of my favorite things ever. And this credenza came from Kate and Pete who own the Ramp in Cape Porpoise. It has moved around with Kate since she was in her twenties. And that mantle came from an artist’s studio. And that’s my grandmother’s suitcase; she just passed away this year.” The result of her eclectic approach to design is a living space with an authentic, cozy, cobbled-together feel. And everything has meaning: it is the collection of her life’s artifacts.

Stokes encourages her clients to view their homes as a form of personal creative expression. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting a homeowner to take a risk or experience that great sense of relief that comes when they realize it’s okay to like what they like and not listen to anyone else. In addition to the beauty and authenticity of this breed of no-design design, there is freedom, even liberation, from the supposed rules of interior design.

Except Stokes might allow one rule: “There’s no right or wrong here—it’s just you. Your house, your story.”

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