Christina Kawabata

A theme that’s emerged in our conversations with inspiring women for our Apiece Apart Woman series has been the clarity that comes from priority; in other words, how the self-awareness of realizing what’s important — to you, your work, your family — comes to steer the direction that life takes. And often, it’s away from what’s popular, and toward a place to start anew, sometimes from the ground up. We were first introduced to Christina Kawabata, a designer living in Upstate New York, through a feature the New York Times ran about her unconventional home: a minimalist, modern one-bedroom lofted house she’d designed with her husband, the architect Takaaki Kawabata. Born in Hong Kong, Christina lives a life informed by where she’s been, and how she can incorporate and combine the pieces of other places to create her own — very full — life. We visited her at home to discuss the decision to move out of NYC, her DIY home remodel, and the ongoing artists, architecture, and ideas that inspire her.

Christina wears ANALUISA FISHERMAN SWEATER in black
Can you share a little about your childhood? What was your upbringing like?
I was born to two bohemian expats living in Hong Kong, where I was born. By the time I was four, our family had lived in Bangkok, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur. I remember growing up surrounded by lots of animals all the time-dogs, cats, a baby tiger, and a monkey at one point. I was a tomboy, always bare-foot and climbing trees. The travel adventures came to a halt when my parents decided to settle in Tokyo, where we lived until I was 15 and I attended an international school getting to know other students from around the globe. Looking back, I really appreciate that I had this exposure to a diverse and multi-cultural environment. My parents instilled in me the idea of being a citizen of the world early on, and to be accepting and tolerant of differences in people. This really impacted my own sense of self-identity and adaptability, growing up in a foreign country, and it has been an influential factor in the way I apply that philosophy in my life and work today.
Can you share a little more about the ebbs and flows of your career, and what projects or creative pursuits are currently on the front burner?
I always thought a career in fashion was in my blood, having been influenced by my mother who was a successful fashion buyer. I decided not to take that career path and during college, I dabbled in hospitality jobs working my way up to managing a restaurant in NYC. After two years at New York University and lost at what I really wanted to do, I enrolled at Fashion Institute of Technology for Interior Design on a whim, which was the turning point in my life. I opened my own practice with my partner and husband after working as an interior designer for two architectural firms. About my life as my own boss…well, it’s a daily learning curve operating your own company because you don’t always get to do the fun stuff. There are challenges of running the day-to-day aspect of the business, but the rewards do reap in when clients compliment on how happy they are with the end results. The current projects in line which I’m really excited to be working on are a gut renovation of a Brooklyn brownstone with a new penthouse addition that was damaged during Hurricane Sandy, a mountain retreat in New Paltz, and a house in Tokyo from the ground up. We have also recently completed a design concept for a luxury brand that is expanding globally.
What went into the decision to move your life from the city to Upstate New York?
It was a natural progression once our son was born that living in the city was not the priority anymore. Life with a baby in the city was schlepping a stroller three flights of stairs everyday and trying to keep our downstairs neighbor from complaining about our son running around the floor. One summer, we visited a friend who had moved his family Upstate and we immediately fell in love with the area. It did take a few years of convincing from my husband to move us out of the city. Initially I resisted, having lived my entire life in urban areas and I wasn’t sure country life would suit me, but I took a leap of faith and trusted his judgment. Today, it brings a big smile to my face whenever I see my children running wild and care-free in our property-surrounded by trees, exploring, and getting their hands and feet in the dirt being one with nature.

Can you share a little more about your amazing home, and the work you and your husband did to remodel it?
The house was a fixer-upper and had an outdated kitchen and bathroom that was easily removable. Initially, we were not planning on a gut renovation, but we became inclined to do so after finding out the roof was rotted throughout and the walls had very little insulation. We decided to open up the entire space, gutting all the walls which were essentially blocking the light into the main living space. Thus began our year-long renovation, a journey with hiccups and headaches along the way, hiring and firing two contractors who simply didn't understand our vision. My husband ended up finishing the renovation with the help of friends in the industry and luckily we were able to do so within our budget. After the interior was completed, my in-laws flew in from Japan and finished the exterior of the house. My father-in-law put up all the cedar wood siding with a nail and a hammer in his hand and my mother-in-law mixed the mortar herself and refinished the stone masonry wall of the chimney. It was pure labor of love and a lot of sweat poured into remodeling our house.
I love the pinned-up bits of art and inspiration that you have hanging inside. Can you share more about what artists, writers, or designers have been most inspirational to you?
There are just too many to list but favorites are Louis Khan, Donald Judd, Richard Serra, Irving Penn, Agnes Martin, Mark Rothko, Tadao Ando, James Turrell, and Robert Wilson. Whether the inspiration comes from art, fashion, music, architecture, or design, it all becomes relative sources for fueling my creative process. I rely on inspirations in the form of concept images to create design from the drawing board to the finished work.
Related to the above, are there any new discoveries that have been of recent interest or inspiration?
We were in Tokyo this summer and in-between overseeing our project there, we went architecture hopping and saw Saint Mary’s Cathedral by Tange Kenzo, which just blew me away. It’s such a monumental space with concrete walls that lead up to a soaring ceiling, yet, when you walk into the space, you immediately feel a sense of intimacy and this instant spiritual connection to a higher being even if you are not a person of faith. Tange Kenzo’s architecture hits the soul in this way and I have a complete renewed interest in him and his work.
I’m sure life is quite different in Upstate vs. NYC. Big, macro differences aside, what small details have you noticed about how life has changed for you since moving: any new routines, habits, or changes you’ve observed in yourself?
I’ve learned to unplug myself in a more relaxing way. Here, life is a little more slow-paced. I take a hike with my children, go swimming in the lakes, or just hang outside in the hammock. The one thing I miss sorely is being more freely mobile without depending on a vehicle, which is a necessity up here. NYC is made for walking and I do miss that a lot.

Christina wears MARTYNA BUTTON UP in white and MARTA SAIL PANT
If visiting Upstate New York in the fall, what are some suggestions for places to visit or things to do?
There are many interesting places to visit and things to do but here are some of our favorite spots in the fall: Storm King Art Center in New Windsor, an open-air museum that houses sculptures by prominent contemporary artists. Be prepared to stay the whole day, bring food/drinks for a picnic, and see the dazzling fall foliage. Fishkill Farms in Hopewell Junction for apple, vegetable, and flower picking. Pelton Pond in Fahnestock State Park for hiking, boating, and kayaking. DIA Art Foundation in Beacon for contemporary artist exhibitions. It’s set in a converted former printing warehouse, overlooking the Hudson River. The café inside the museum is managed by Homespun Foods, which also has a café on Main Street in Beacon, and this is our favorite breakfast/lunch spot. Manitoga / Russell Wright Design Center in Garrison, home and studio of the Mid-century industrial designer that is open to the public for tours. The garden is equally amazing.
Your home and lifestyle are quite minimal — I’m curious about whether this has been a conscious decision for you and your family, or if it’s been more fluid? Are there challenges that come from raising a family in such an open, compact living space?
It was a conscious decision on our part when we renovated the house. The emphasis was to invite nature and light into the interiors and in order to accomplish that, we strategically placed a ribbon of windows facing the south and skylight facing the north so natural light would filter into the space throughout the day. The walls were all painted white and there are no hanging curtains to maximize the light to enter into the space. Living in an open space without walls mean communication is the binding agent in our daily interaction. It was the constant flowing of dialogue and seeing what his family members did at all times that my husband remembers vividly from his childhood, growing up in a large one-room farm house where he lived with his parents, siblings, and grandmother. Of course, living in an open space has challenges in that essentially there is no privacy. My son has started to ask questions as to why we live so unconventionally compared to his friends. I’ve told him that this is just another way of living and that it is alright not to be conventional. Another challenge is that there is no room to hide any clutter. Everything on display is visible so we edit carefully and keep what we absolutely love.
Do you have any plans to expand the space as your children get older?
Yes! It’s the never ending renovation project! We are considering building another 1500 square foot addition, hopefully, in the next few years. Our dream is to connect the main house to the addition with a wooden walkway. We have a son and a daughter, both still young, but I’m sure they will want to have their own space sooner or later.


When we visited you, you’d just returned from Japan to visit family: undoubtedly a dual perspective influences you, but can you share a few examples of how you’ve integrated some of other cultures into your daily life?
I wish I can sleep on tatami mats everyday but we get close to that as possible by sleeping on a futon mattress that is placed directly over the wood floor. This is an Asian way of life that I can’t get it out of my system no matter how long I’ve lived in this country. There are a mix of furniture and objects from different cultures displayed throughout our home, collections that have amassed on our travels together. My husband and I always love to go where the locals shop. We scour flea markets, antique stores, and farmer’s markets and find objects that we are compelled to bring back home. There are baskets and woven trays from Mexico and African rugs and stools in another corner nestled along a Mies Van Der Rohe MR Chair and Eero Saarinen tulip tables. They are not necessarily expensive, but each item has some kind of a colorful history that we find it special and meaningful to have and somehow they all seamlessly integrate and compliment each other.
What’s a typical day in the life for you at home?
My morning usually start at 6am. I check and respond to emails and set the schedule for the day. Depending on the day, it can be working on current projects or seeing clients for a meeting. I wake up my son at 7 (usually he is still sleepy), fix him breakfast, always including a variety of fruits, and send him off on the bus to school. My daughter wakes up at 8, and we usually have breakfast together and I drop her off at her preschool. I work in my downstairs office and try to get as much work done followed by a quick bite of lunch. Once the children are back at home in the afternoon, I try to dedicate as much time with them playing, helping with homework, and dropping and picking them up for after school activities. At about 7:30, we all have dinner together. After the children are tucked into bed, my husband and I will work a little more, watch a movie, or simply have a glass of wine and chat, unwinding down at about midnight.
What do you make for dinner alone?
Comfort food Japanese style: White rice with homemade dried pickled plum and mint leaf (the purple color of the plum is exquisite), natto (fermented soybeans—delicious, I swear!), or piece of grilled black cod fish, and miso soup with tofu. Describe a daily ritual. Breathing exercise similar to yoga asanas.
What are you serious about?
My family’s well-being first and foremost, then my work.
What will you never take seriously?
Keeping up with the Joneses mentality.
What object has been most significant to you lately?
My husband’s latest sculpture made from weathered reclaimed wood.

Christina wears SAMARA SHIRT DRESS in black - email to purchase. 
Photography by MICHAEL A. MULLER | Styling by ALEXA HOTZ | Interview by LEIGH PATTERSON