When I interview successful and distinguished people, I am always interested to know where they came from and how they started. The commonality between the stories seems to lie in one particular detail – they have been passionate about what they do from very early on. I began my interview with Allan Knight, by all standards a unique and distinguished interior designer, with my traditional question.
Allan, please tell me your story. How did you become a designer?
It may be hard to believe, but I knew what I wanted to do when I was seven years old. It happened in a bookstore. I picked up an illustrated book on interior design and realized that that’s exactly what I wanted to do some day. I remember my grandmother always introduced me as “This is my grandson Allan, and he likes pretty things”. At thirteen I started working for a designer doing re-arrangements, setting up flowers, staging rooms – it was a very hands-on learning experience. Then at fifteen I helped her design Christmas decorations. By seventeen I was assistant buyer. I actually completed my degree in architecture while working as a buyer for a furniture store here in Dallas.
I know a lot of people who dabbled in various projects when they were kids, but you actually worked! That says a lot not only about your talents, but also about your determination. Very few people have such discipline at an early age. So what happened after you received your degree?
After graduation I met an acrylic manufacturer who needed me to do some product design for him. However, the business was not very well organized. I was fascinated with the process though, and I got really involved, learning all aspects of the business. In a short amount of time, I was running both the design and the production side of the business. About the same time I went to Asia and became interested in antiques. It was a great combination – presentation of antique items in acrylic surrounds. As you can see, I still heavily incorporate both elements in my designs and in my showroom.
Did your current incarnation grow from that acrylic manufacturing business?
No, I left that business as an employee, consulted for a while on antiques on my own, and then started a company with a partner developing product for luxury retail in home fragrance, candles and accessories category. The company grew so fast, that it completely consumed me. It was a success financially, but I was unfulfilled. It was a lot of work for little time to do design, which I still loved. I eventually had to make a decision to walk away from it.
Is this when Allan Knight and Associates was born?
I started Allan Knight and Associates with my business partner in 1999. In 2002, my other half, Cearan Henley joined our team. Together we have grown the business from 7,000 to 40,000 square foot showroom, now with over 40 established represented lines as well as our own brand of furnishings. We built upon the foundation of what I knew best – acrylic, Asian antiques and luxury textiles. Every piece that we create is meticulously designed, engineered and crafted. We deal with vendors all over the world to gain access to the best raw materials, which allows us to achieve a very high standard. For example, one of our European factories developed two custom acrylic colors for us: Sable and Chinchilla.
Achieving a superior level of quality and customization was a process that took several years. Now they are staples in our collection. We now also own our lighting company. We design and produce one of kind light fixtures incorporating natural elements, crystals and handcrafted metals. We continue to offer a wide range of high-quality Asian antiques; however, their availability has become scarce in the recent years.
Who would you say your customer is? Can you describe them?
We do a lot of international trade, as well as having wide representation domestically. Our products must reach that special customer base that appreciates and understands the value of what we offer. We call our products “jewelry for the home”. They are not for everyone; our products are unique and conform to the highest standards of aesthetic and manufacturing standards. Our customers have discerning tastes and an appreciation for our distinct style, and that’s why we strive for such a high level in our designs. Also, we don’t want to do what anyone else is doing, or offer what other companies may be offering. In all humility, we strive to make out products better than what is currently available and it is all bench-made in America. That is why we call it “haute couture”.
Where do you draw your inspiration?
Our design is a unique combination of influences. I draw from the things I love: architecture, organic and natural motifs, and details from all types of antiques. I am driven by the desire to see things differently, to create something that has not been seen yet – a fusion of existing components re-envisioned in a distinctive way. And, I am constantly inspired by nature. Cearan’s and my house is surrounded by a half an acre of a landscaped garden. I see inspiration everywhere when I go outside to reflect and recharge. I believe we are all drawn to organic elements. Naturel elements somehow resonate with their dreams, their perceptions of beauty. Take our Bayon cocktail table… It is an elegant blend of architectural structure and natural influences. I combined fluid shapes found in nature with strong and sleek architectural components to create this piece. The result, I believe, has a very sexy, modern appeal.
You mention antiques. Why antiques? It is a somewhat unexpected choice to bring antiques into a contemporary environment.
I personally connect with antiques, having them around brings us closer to the past, makes us feel like we are somehow a part of it. Sometimes, you can’t really tell what drives you, what exactly serves as inspiration. Creative process is the culmination of energies that feed us. I have never felt this influence stronger than when we visited the temple ruins at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The vine covered, crumbling temples at Bayon in the jungle not far from the main temple complex is where I received my inspiration for the Bayon series. Everyone should visit that region. It is simply amazing!
You used the word “sexy” to describe your style – a very telling description. One associates it with fashion more often than interiors. Do you see the connection between the two? What is your take on fashion?
Of course, there is a connection. The discipline of design crosses all categories. I want to sit on a sofa that looks and feels like the clothes I wear! Fashion is the frontier of the design. It consistently challenges us to do better, to sharpen our skills, because it moves fast. Interior design trends experience periods: British, Chinese, mid-century – they are not rigid, but often long lasting. In transitory time, when one trend replaces the other, fashion plays the most influential part, as it teaches us to adjust and curate. Fashion breeds discipline, showing us where and how elements should be edited, what needs to be added, and when it is necessary to stop. Clothing is the architecture we live in.
Notions of ego, pretension, and sexiness are often associated with fashion, but they are not limited to fashion. Environments can speak the same language. We design environments that definitely convey those notions.
I have never heard anyone use such terms in relation to interior design – very thought provoking. I love it. Now, we know what Allan Knight and Associates is doing today. What is the direction for the future? What is the next challenge, or the next dream?
My husband Cearan Henley and myself are always in the forefront of the business; we are driven by customer interaction. It is always important for us to feel the response of the customer to our products. We have really enjoyed the interior design projects that required us to the given parameters of a client’s space. We see our future in the broadening scope of what we do by offering all types of design solutions to our clients, while using our unique one of a kind lighting and furnishings.
As a Gemini, I am always conflicted between two inclinations or attitudes; one pushes me to enforce present my specific views, to present my own vision and creations to our clientele. The other entices me to slip into another’s skin, see the world through their eyes, and give them the environment they’ve always wanted. The challenge is to accomplish both and stay true to my own spirit. One has to remember, our business venture is propelled and restrained by the style that we offer and from which we create. Our goal is truly collaborative creativity.
What is the last piece of wisdom you’d like to share with our readers? What is the role of a designer in life? How do you see it?
A couturier dresses your body, hiding the flaws and highlighting the assets, presenting the best version of yourself to the world. The role of an interior designer is similar. Except, I don’t limit myself to designing for the body. I work on a much larger scale. I may say that my role is to tailor my clients’ existence by creating their living environments.
To let someone into my life and allow them to “tailor my existence”. It sounds tempting… Perhaps someday!