Production designer Kristi Zea has worked with some of the most legendary filmmakers of our time: Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Nancy Meyers, Sam Mendes, and James L. Brooks (who gave Zea her start) to name a few.
Now, Zea is embracing opportunities to execute projects that involve her own vision, including film directing, and expressing her uniquely eclectic, warm and modern style at home.
Pairing old set pieces from The Silence of The Lambs (Zea worked as we production designer on the 1991 film) with cozy bookshelves, or her mother’s furniture with original Malian fabric commissioned in Morocco, Zea strikes a balance of whimsy and practicality at her home in the Valley Cottage area of Rockland County, New York. Here, we chat with Zea to get a sense of how production design influences and differs from her home decorating mindset and how she goes about looking for the perfect find.
Architectural Digest: What is the story behind this property?
Kristi Zea: The house itself said something to me. It’s nestled on this very rocky hill on one of the highest points in the area so in winter it has wonderful views of the mountains and then in the summer it becomes this little aerie of dense woodlands and pine trees and lilac bushes. For me, it was a wonderful blank slate. The bones of the house were there – everything that you see in terms of the shape, the walkway above the grand space, all of that, was there.
The house however was in total disrepair. It had been inhabited by a family since the 60s. It was really cleverly built out of barn bits. The entire house had barn siding on the inside which was a very 70s thing to do. They also added mirrors out of a movie theater in Brooklyn and the flooring was pressed hay. When my contractor looked at it he said, “I haven’t seen this in my life except in Bavaria.”
The kitchen was a dark hole. I added the french doors and all the other windows to create this space of warmth and sunlight. Then I added more skylights in the kitchen area and one more skylight upstairs so that basically the house which had been this dark sad shell was lit up with sunlight in every way possible.
AD: When you started decorating this place, how did you go about it? How did that process differ from what you went through for, The Departed, let’s say? Or even something as dark and moody as The Silence of the Lambs?
KZ: I get inspired by the space itself and this house has a lot of character and a lot of love put into it. That’s kind of what I like to do when I design films. I look for locations that really say something to me, and that give me a sense of what the story is. In the case of my house, it already had a story that I could build on – this gutsy repurposing of materials creating a really wonderful inhabitable space. That gave me inspiration to continue to do more of the same.
When I work in film and I’m looking for location, I look for those same clues. For example, The Silence of the Lambs, apart form the Hannibal Lecter story which is very dark, is about Clarice Starling, Jodie Foster’s character. There’s a desire to warm up her life, so when she was younger you see where she lived. Then when we tell the story of the victims of Hannibal Lecter, we go into small beautiful American towns and show the lives of these women before they met Hannibal Lecter.
You find things out there in the universe and use them to tell the stories that you need to tell. I see a piece of furniture or a painting just sitting there, or lying on the ground or whatever and they talk to me. So I’ll take it and I’ll bring it into my life because there’s something about it that’s true to me as a person and also because I think it belongs in the house.
AD: How would you describe your signature at home style versus your production design aesthetic?
KZ: It is uniformly eclectic. There has to be some purpose to the content, but there’s also a bit of humor. I try to do that in my sets as well. I try to, in a sense, create the container for the story. So every film presents new challenges and new places for me to explore. For instance, I love industrial warehouse-y spaces, and I have for years and years, but it wasn’t until The Intern that I could take that whole industrial look and sort of plop it down in the middle of a trendy Brooklyn start-up company. Those affinities are useful to know and appreciate so that you can figure out where and how to use them.
AD: I would imagine starting out as a costume designer you have a particularly intimate relationship to textiles; your work shows that as well. Where do you get your fabrics? Where do you go for textiles?
KZ: Part of it has to do with where I am. So, for example, the textile that I put on my mother’s bamboo furniture turned out to be from Mali. It’s part of their absolutely extraordinary tradition of woven cotton goods. I had those made in Morocco and brought back. Textiles in general I’m fascinated by. There will be times when I just go into the D D building and walk into these wonderful showrooms just to refresh my memory about what is there. Revolutionary Road was a really fun film to swatch for because the palette was very, very, subtle. We wanted the red blood to really pop. So there were just tables full of swatches and wallpapers. It was so fun to play with them that it was almost unfortunate when I had to decide what I was going to do with them!
AD: What’s the best find, location or object, you ever made for a film?
KZ: When I was in Morocco recently doing a series for NBC called American Odyssey, I was staying at a hotel that used stone from the neighboring region for all of its sinks and floors. Inside that stone were crustaceans from hundreds of thousands of years ago. I went to the quarry and I asked them to make me a dining room table which I then shipped back. I wanted something that had that kind of provenance to it, you know, that was beyond old, something that when you sit down to eat, you realize what the world is made up of and how long the universe has been around. I’m not afraid to ask to do something as preposterous as cutting me a round 60 inch table top and then getting it shipped from Morocco to Valley Cottage, New York!
A lot of my finds come from my movie sets, too. I have a quilt from the Beloved movie that I have on the wall now in an apartment in New York. I have a desk that we used in Sleepers. I have a little settee here that was used in The Departed. I have all kinds of little remnants of movies blended into the mix.
Sometimes I give things away. From The Silence of the Lambs, I got the armoire that stored serial killer Jamie Gumb’s skin suits. I had it as a TV cabinet for years and years. On the inside door it still had all the newspaper print that he collected from all of his terrible killings. I had that in my apartment in the city for a while and it scared the babysitter. Ultimately, I decided that it was too big a piece for me to deal with any longer so I sold it at an auction to help my daughter’s elementary school.
AD: What’s next for you, professionally and at home?
KZ: I’m about to design a series for NBC called New Amsterdam, which is a hospital drama. What the series will hopefully do is shine a light on what does and doesn’t work in the American hospital system. I directed a documentary about the life and work of Elizabeth Murray for American Masters this fall. I’m also working with Anna Deveare Smith on screenings of her film Notes from the Field in educational settings. Right now I want to work on projects that have an activist core.
AD: What about this home? Would you ever part with it?
KZ: If I find the right buyer, I would consider it, but it would have to be somebody who loves this place as much as I do.