New York’s St. Charles—maker of coveted kitchens since the 1930s—has now branched out into a new world of customization thanks to the enduring vision of its principal, Karen Williams August 23, 2020
This article was originally published on Christie’s International Real Estate’s lifestyle blog, Luxury Defined.
There are kitchens, and there are kitchens. There are kitchen designers, and there is St. Charles. The company, founded as cabinet makers in 1935 and renowned for its classic kitchen design, stands for taste, heritage—it was the choice of titan architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe—and commitment to innovation.
Chief among its innovations was the appointment of Karen Williams as creative director. The company’s youngest and first ever woman designer, she joined in 1979, and remains the driving force behind St. Charles’s continuing success and standing. “Kitchens have never been more relevant, we are valuing them more than ever,” she says. It was a different world when she joined St. Charles 40-plus years ago. Then “they were unknown as a designer space; they were simply a necessary space.”
Williams graduated in interior design from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and planned to “break new ground in design” but needed a job to pay the bills. She was hired by a kitchen firm. “I had originally wanted to be an architect, and with kitchens it was all about hard surfaces, precise spaces, fixed dimensions, and straight lines… I loved it.”
Having decided she wanted to stay in kitchen design, Williams did her research and knew there was only one place to be: St. Charles. “They brought design to kitchens. A St. Charles kitchen was defining, it didn’t refer to just an object but a complete package and that resonated,” she says.
Kitchens have never been more relevant, we are valuing them more than ever
Problem was, the company wasn’t hiring. “I pursued them,” she laughs. “I found out they needed cover as a receptionist so I did that for two weeks and got to know everybody. Once that was over, I kept stopping by until eventually they offered me a post.”
St. Charles was one of the first tenants in NYC’s Architects & Designers Building. In the 1950s, it was already incorporating style features such as under-the-counter lighting, linen, and silver storage. It offered a paint range and combinations of wood, metal, and steel.
Williams has drawn from this impressive history to launch an own-name collection, the first in the company’s history, of three designs numbered simply one to three. “It is a curated assembly of predetermined choices,” she says. “Our aim is to demystify—there is a lot of misinformation that can be overwhelming for clients. We want to make it simple without sacrificing quality.
The designs—STC No. 1, STC No. 2, and STC No. 3—are versatile and unique, tailored to fit into a range of architectural spaces. They echo the quality of masters Van de Rohe and Lloyd Wright, with customization for those seeking a more bespoke feel. “Collection one is a contemporary style with lots of glamour. The second leans toward the traditional with moldings and hinges that lends itself to architectural homes, and the third is more casual, chic, and timeless.”
Clients can choose from four palettes, five metal finishes, and four woods—walnut, paldao, oak, or eucalyptus. There are also upgrades, with interior lighting and accessories, such as an entertainer’s draw, baker’s drawer, or carver’s draw. “Clients are very involved and not locked into a particular style,” Williams says. “We’ve followed the idea of a complete kitchen that can be personally accessorized to the very highest quality.”
A St. Charles kitchen doesn’t refer to just an object but a complete package, and that resonates
She’s excited at the prospect of extending the concept, but plans will depend on feedback, particularly from architects. “We want the Frank Lloyd Wrights of today to want St. Charles kitchens.”
Williams’s enthusiasm and passion resonate when she speaks, her relish for her work palpable from the off. When she leaves the showroom and goes home, what kind of kitchen does she have? “I have two!” she admits. “A St. Charles new collection in Manhattan, and a bespoke design in the Hamptons. My lifestyles are different depending where I am, and a kitchen must be designed for the way we live 90 percent of the time.
“In the city, breakfast is quick, so I don’t need a bar or island there, but in The Hamptons it’s leisurely and the kitchen is where it must be comfortable for guests to hang. There I can have more fun things, such as a teppanyaki grill for entertaining.”
As a trailblazer, how does Williams see the future of kitchen design? “We’re designing new kitchens for the world as it is today. There’s been a change already with larger pantries and larders, and now clients want appliances for preserving, sealing, storing—for a healthier way of living. The challenge is, ‘How can I design a kitchen, a functioning kitchen in a beautiful envelope, with all this new information we have?’ It’s a wonderful opportunity.
“Oh,” she adds, “and outdoors. We’re spending more time at home so it makes sense. And I don’t just mean a grill!”
Banner image: St Charles collection two
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