Kenneth Brown: Designer for the Stars

Kenneth Brown in suit, tie

Kenneth Brown is a homegrown design celebrity with a cosmopolitan worldview. Born and raised in Baton Rouge, he received a bachelor’s degree in interior design from LSU in 1995. Kenneth is the principal and owner of Kenneth Brown Design, founded in 1997, with offices in Los Angeles and Baton Rouge. He has completed homes for Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Kristen Bell, Mia Hamm, and Nomar Garciaparra. In addition to his residential portfolio, Kenneth has completed numerous commercial projects such as A. Rudin’s Los Angeles Flagship Showroom, Cedars-Sinai’s Founder’s Room, Endeavor Talent Agency, Wood & Vine Restaurant and Bar and hotel collaborations.

His broad exposure and popularity from his own television shows on Fine Living, TLC, and HGTV led to offer Kenneth the role of resident Interior Design Expert. Oprah’s O magazine featured Kenneth in her “Live Your Best Life Tour.” He has been named a top 100 designer by House Beautiful and Western Interiors. He has appeared on The Today ShowTyra, CNN, iVillage LiveEntertainment TonightGood Morning America, and Fox Morning News. Kenneth was a visiting professor in the LSU School of Interior Design in 2011 and 2012. The College of Art & Design presented him the 2019 Distinguished Alumni Award.

Here, LSU interior design student Brannon Hardy sat down with Kenneth Brown explore his illustrious career. Kenneth gave a tour of his offices, sharing his work on some current projects, and a peek into the life of a design star.

Brannon Hardy: What is it like being back in Baton Rouge after living and working in Los Angeles?

Kenneth Brown: I like being back, but I do go back and forth between the two cities. So I never felt like I left Los Angeles. My office in Los Angeles is like my baby, and I never wanted to let that go. But me and my partner have two children, and we wanted to be closer to my family. Louisiana has this way of always pulling you back – it’s a very weird thing, and it doesn’t happen in any other state.

So when I came back, in my head I thought I’d be returning to the city I left [in the 1990s], but I came back to a totally different city. Being back in Baton Rouge is wonderful, because there’s a strong sense of community. I think in the career that we work in, design is based in community, and that’s a nice underlying connection that a lot of people feel.

There’s something about the South in general that has an eye for design. I think it’s very much at the forefront now in terms of what people are looking for when it comes to design style.

So I like being back, but things are not what I expected.

BH: Absolutely. I’ve seen Baton Rouge growing and changing so much. Can we talk about the early part of your career: your first job or internship?

KB: When I was in design school back in ’94, it was actually right when – I always associate the time with HGTV, because HGTV opened the doors to people understanding what design can do. It was not something that people thought about. Back in the early ’90s, the average person just didn’t have access to good design.

So when I was looking for a job, my only offer was in Los Angeles, so I took it. I moved out there, and worked for a firm that did a lot of large Las Vegas casinos, which was fun. I barely made it, since Los Angeles is an expensive city, but I enjoyed being exposed to different things.

BH: Are there certain lessons that you think designing casinos taught you about what you wanted out of design, or what you didn’t want out of design?

KB: I got a lot out of the job. It was a very structured environment, so I learned really soon about how projects were run, from some of the best designers out there. That structure is with me today in how I approach a lot of the projects I tackle.

Also, my very boss was so mean, so I always make sure I’m never that type of boss for people that work for me. I learned what I didn’t want to be. You learn what you want to do, and what you don’t want to do, in those early jobs.

BH: Do you think that moving to L.A. influenced you to open your own firm?

KB: You know the universe pushes you to do things that you never thought you were going to do. I think you and I have something in common – you thought you were going to be an attorney.

BH: Right. So how did you end up choosing interior design?

KB: In high school we have these ideas of what our life is supposed to look like, based on what we know. I said, “I’ll be a doctor.” When you’re younger, you lose connection with what your passion is, and you start to get influenced by money and status. So I came to LSU and started taking microbiology classes and was failing miserably. It’s a hard pill to swallow when you realize that what you think you’re supposed to do doesn’t work.

Through exploring general education requirements at LSU, I came across the class Introduction to Interior Design and thought, “a class on fluffing pillows, I can ace this.” (Laughs.)

What I soon learned is that interior design has so much more in depth, is so much more dynamic, and in a way influences people’s lives more than I ever could have as a doctor. It was never on my radar, but the universe opened that door for me, because of a failure.

I didn’t even investigate how much interior designers made. And that’s when I realized that I’d found something that really connected. It didn’t matter if I’d be rich or poor. I fell in love with this path, at LSU, because I realized that it’s so much more in depth than what you see on the surface.

I had a deal with myself that I made early on, that I would always surrender, when I felt like I was failing at something. So when I went to LA, and I had this boss that was horrific, and I was designing this Luxor stairwell for a year, and I hit a wall. I was overwhelmed with fear of failing at the job I’d moved halfway across the country for, and I thought I hated design. But it wasn’t that I hated design, I just hated the experience I was having with it.

And then this woman came into our office one day, her name was Laurie Webb, and she was from Atlanta, Georgia, and she recognized my accent. She and I became fast friends. We were two Southerners in Los Angeles in our own little world.

She told me, “what I really want to do is rehab old houses.” She said, “why don’t you do this with me? We’ll get into the guts, redesign them, and sell them when they’re done.” It’s now called flipping. So she would do construction, and I would have free range of the design work. So we started working on these historic homes in Los Angeles, and I didn’t even realize what I was doing was beginning my career, building up clients of my own.

So I started my own business, out of my garage, and in that process Kenneth Brown Design was started. It just happened, just like that Introduction to Interior Design class happened.

BH: Were you ever afraid of your firm not taking off, and how did that impact you?

KB: The lesson I’ve learned, looking back is: if you have a passion that’s truly passion, you’re going to find a way to make it work, to find work.

My biggest fear was telling my parents that I wasn’t going to be a doctor. We’re all ultimately trying to make our parents proud, it’s what drives us. I see that now as a parent myself.

When I told my parents that I was going to change careers, my dad said, “when you were little, you used to go in the front yard and rake all the leaves into floorplans in the yard. You would create hallways and living rooms, and you would be out there for hours, and we couldn’t get you to come inside for dinner because you weren’t done designing your house in the front yard. You used to get lost in that process. That has always been a part of you.”

Then my mom showed me the drawings I did as a child, of floorplans drawn on the back of old computer paper. The fear I had, of rejection from my parents, was overwhelming, but when they showed me that, I connected the dots that this has always been in me, from 7-8 years old.

BH: Any advice?

KB: You always have to keep moving forward, and you have to let go of the expectations of others, and the expectations that you have for yourself. And you have to stop comparing yourself to other people.

After I got my television show, I was at a launch that Oprah Winfrey hosted on “Living Your Best Life” – HGTV did tours with Oprah one summer, where we would travel to different cities talking to people about living their best life. One thing she said to me: “The biggest mistake I see people do is, they try to live the life of someone else. The only role you can fill is the role that have yourself.”

That made sense to me. No one else can fill the role of Kenneth Brown, and I can’t try to be another designer. You have to be yourself. That’s how I started Kenneth Brown Design, letting go of the noise, the comparison, the fear, the looking for approval.

So that’s where it started, in the garage of my house.

BH: That’s awesome. Obviously it was a success.

KB: Thank you. I appreciate that, and yet I’m sitting here now, and I still feel like I’m working toward that success.

BH: It’s a never ending growth. So how did you get in to television?

KB: There was this new network called HGTV that I’d heard about. I was buying my house, and my real estate agent said, “there’s this new show that the network created, called House Hunters. It focuses on the real estate agent showing you houses, and since you’re a designer you might want to do it.”

In the last sequence they show the house you buy, the before and after. Between me buying it and moving in, Laurie and I had gutted it, completely redid the space, so the before and after was dramatic. Without even knowing it at the time, that show that aired became their highest rated episode of House Hunters. Every time they reran it, it peaked in ratings.

One day, 4-5 years later, I was working, and I got a call from the president of HGTV, who said, “we’d like to talk to you about having your own show.” I really thought it was a joke.

That’s how I accidentally got my show. I didn’t look for it. The poor real estate agent thought it would be about her. Hard work paid off, and being true to who you are.

BH: So then you worked with HGTV and TLC?

KB: I did, and I did a line with Babies R Us. I continued to run my own business. I knew there was a lifespan to television. My show was very high end for the network. It was about the design process, with realistic timeframes and budgets. I played the role of a real designer.

The show came to end after 100+ episodes, and I had built my business, and the crazy thing is, you don’t realize how many people watch your show. Zac Efron’s mom loved show; he’d just bought house, so it led to me working for him on his house. Then I worked with Kristin Bell, and other celebrities I’m not allowed to name, and it was great. That ultimately allowed me to continue what I was doing.

BH: What’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on?

KB: I get that question all the time. What’s your favorite project?

BH: I’ve only done a few so far. (Laughs.) They’re how you learn about yourself, challenge yourself.

KB: There have been so many. I designed for these two girls who had been homeless, and I did a makeover of their home for them. Having a beautiful place to live, they told me that helped change the trajectory of their life. I still stay in touch with them. Those are the projects that mean the most.

BH: How did LSU prepare you for a role in design?

KB: One thing that LSU did for me, was it gave well rounded view what you could do for your career. And it led me here. The universe will whisper in your ear and if not, it will hit you upside head with a brick. But it all goes back to raking leaves in my yard as a little boy – and here I am.