In a world dominated by safe beiges and subtle prints, meet Karen Bow, a Darien designer who isn’t afraid to lay on the color.
photographys by John Bessler
For many of us, color is an afterthought, a splash of brightness hastily tossed into our design scheme with a throw pillow or a vase of fresh flowers, but rarely do we commit to the degree that interior designer and homeowner Karen Bow has. For her, color itself is the lightning rod around which her entire house hums, as integral as electricity. “Everyone who comes into my home says, ‘Wow, this is so happy; I wish I had the courage to do it,’” says Bow, who majored in set design and unleashed her flair for the dramatic in the recent renovation of her four-bedroom Dutch Colonial in Darien. Not unlike the process of creating a finely tuned Broadway production, her play of pattern upon pattern, hue upon hue, is marked by precision and deliberateness. Elements and shades echo each other, from the family room’s Thomas Paul taupe-and-chocolate linen drapery fabric moonlighting in the breakfast nook to the magenta diamond-blocked David Hicks drapes holding court in both the living and dining rooms. “I love the movement that colors and graphics create to make your eyes dance around the room,” Bow says, “yet in the chaos there is an overall calmness.”
Bow might just as well be speaking about herself. “I am a lesson in contradiction, just like my house,” she says, grinning. “In lieu of a midlife crisis I decided to just go for it and apply my personal philosophies to designing these rooms.” Some of those mantras involve ignoring naysayers, listening to your instincts and taking big risks. For the young girl who once transformed her dingy New York City basement apartment into a kaleidoscopic shoebox with bodega-bought paisley contact paper, bright makeshift curtains and glossy painted floors, her commitment to uplifting spaces remains refreshingly constant. Though her budget was sizably larger this time around, renovating the home she’d bought sixteen years ago when her daughter Melanie was born presented a familiar challenge: maximize every inch of a relatively petite 2,500 square-foot canvas. Down came the wall between the living and dining room so the family could enjoy the view of the fourteen-foot Christmas tree they have delivered each year by the Darien Fire Department. Doorways were widened to create a better flow for entertaining. Out went the attic to create the ultimate teenager’s loft: a chic downstairs bedroom for Melanie with a ladder to a TV lounge-study saturated in Jonathan Adler optimism.
Because the family keeps their pool open from April through November and their hot tub bubbles year round, a clever fourteen-by-fourteen pool cabana was added, accessible through the kitchen’s eating area and via a private outdoor entrance. Bow’s husband Tom was the mastermind behind an ingenious storage space beneath the cabana’s floors. But was the pool house’s fuchsia palette—not to mention the intoxicating waves of peony, hot pink and raspberry radiating throughout their home—vetted by him? “I didn’t just come in and paint all the walls pink,” laughs Bow. “It was all a family effort,” she says, adding that Tom put his own stamp on their bedroom by choosing its graphic-print curtains in a black and white Maharam fabric. Given the rainbow that envelops Bow’s home, one might not be able to catch its more humorous nuances upon first visit. But look more closely and you’ll find yourself smiling. “I designed some of the rooms to have a double entendre,” Bow says mischievously. Take the handmade chain wallpaper in her office that she collaborated on with Given Campbell, a tongue-in-cheek nod to being chained to one’s work, or the egg-shaped sinks and bathtub in a master bath papered with Osborne & Little’s fertile pink flamingos.
Even the sign on Bow’s bathroom door, a playful take on the his-and-hers bathroom, is something of an inside joke. “I put it in decals so I could change it to Karen + Mot if we get divorced,” she says, giggling. But don’t take her at her word. Karen and Tom have been together since they were high-school sweethearts in Ohio, and it gives us further insight into the charming complexities of the designer. “I don’t believe in marriage, yet I’m happily married to the only man I’ve ever been with,” she says, exposing one more contradiction in her life. “I love chaos and I love order. I broke every rule in raising my daughter, and I broke every rule when I designed this house, yet both turned out wonderfully.”So what’s next for the woman imbued with as many complex shades as her home’s interior? “My daughter is redesigning our basement to turn it into a music studio,” says Bow excitedly. “She’s doing it all herself...she has a great eye.” What will be its main attraction? “Orange leather walls,” laughs Bow, pretending not to notice that her colorful genes have set the stage for a fabulous second act.
Karen Bow Interiors, 914-953-1517
Renovation: Peter Julian, Rock Shelter Landscape Design & Construction, 914-533-7124, rockshelterldc.com
Wallpaper hanger: Rich Mead, Rich Wall Covering, 203-223-8621
Kitchen Coordinator: Rami Affie, Deane, 203-972-8893,
Michael Yedowitz of Wainscott Solutions, 860-354-3638, wainscottsolutions.com
Various wallpapers: Given Campbell Handprinted Wallpaper,
Architect: Jim Denno, Jim Denno Design, 203-882-8755,
Home Works Representative: Cheryl Reagan, Home Works,
Various artworks: Amy Vischio, mixed media fine art, 203-257-9161