If you have flipped through the pages of Architectural Digest, Elle Décor or The New York Times’ T Magazine recently, you have most likely been admiring interiors created by stylist Colin King. His warm, minimalist aesthetic is everywhere, quietly shaping people’s appreciation for beautiful, everyday things. And yet most consumers don’t even know his name, let alone his influence over their homes.
In a scant five years (which is how long it’s been since the 34-year-old former dancer decided to turn his life-long love of arranging objects into a full-time job), King has come to define “the look” of modern American design. And in doing so, he has become the go-to stylist for some of the biggest brands, famous clients and celebrated publications in the world.
King’s rooms – once you are familiar with his style – are easy to identify. They honour shadow and light. They gravitate to soothing neutrals. They respect old and new, combining vintage pieces with the latest in contemporary design. And they celebrate nature: gnarled tree branches, bare stone, scuffed wood, beaten metal all find a home in the spaces he creates because he loves their texture, shape and patina – and their untold stories. “I’ve always just noticed the power of objects, whether it is to evoke a memory or just change the feeling of a space,” says King, who grew up on a farm in Ohio.
“As a kid I started collecting rocks,” he explains. Rocks soon led to other things. “The first wedding I went to, I think I was eight years old, there was a piñata of the bride and groom. When it broke I took some of the pieces home and I had this little window sill where I lined things up. Even then, I had a reverence for discarded things that people often overlook. The arranging, however, was always as important as the objects themselves.”
King’s trajectory to the top of the international design world surprises no one who is familiar with his work, however it does continue to shock and humble him. “Styling wasn’t a career that seemed real, let alone possible. I pinch myself every morning waking up here,” says King, speaking on the phone from his newly renovated loft in Tribeca, which is featured, along with other projects, in his first book called Arranging Things, just published by Rizzoli. “I have a big imagination but even I could never have imagined all this.”
What he means by “all this” is the blur of non-stop, high-profile commissions that have poured in during the past few years: creative campaigns for home furnishing brands such as RW Guild, Zara Home, Anthropologie and Crate & Barrel; photo shoots of homes belonging to Gwyneth Paltrow, Kerry Washington and Drake; new product lines he has created for Morocco-based Beni Rugs, the Danish studio MENU and a lighting collection with Troy; as well as an upcoming bedding line with Cultiver and partnership with West Elm.
Sometimes he admits he’s a little overwhelmed by his success but mostly he’s just grateful to be here. His path, he explains, was not “a linear one” but rather a “series of meandering circles” where he kept pushing himself, trying new things, failing at some, excelling at others, until he found something he loved as much as dance. “My role as a stylist is to tease out the essence of space. To take everything in and determine how best to translate that spirit to image – much like a dancer keeps finding a new language inside to express him or herself,” says King, who began studying ballet at age 13, and moved to New York five years later to try to make it as a classical dancer, which is when his circuitous journey began.
Professional dance is a tough racket and King was routinely told he was too tall (he’s 6 foot 2) or not masculine enough. So he moved to Los Angeles (where the feedback was much the same). An agent recommended he become a personal trainer to pay the bills. He caught some lucky breaks, ended up moving to England, where he trained Paltrow, Victoria Beckham and Stella McCartney. After that, he managed six properties for a wealthy homeowner before eventually moving back to L.A. where he got his real estate licence (he never sold a house). In 2017, King settled in New York where he found work with some small design firms, styling and photographing vignettes and promoting them on social media.
One night at a dinner party he met the artist Jack Ceglic, with whom he developed a rapport. King pitched T Magazine on the idea of featuring Ceglic’s East Hampton home and ultimately styled the shoot. Soon after, Architectural Digest came calling and his career took off. It was a turning point that coincided with another milestone in King’s life. He got sober.
“I don’t know a human being who hasn’t been touched by addiction and I would be doing a disservice to myself and anyone who follows me if I didn’t acknowledge the impact sobriety has had on my life,” he says. “I wouldn’t have anything today without it. Recovery has become a bedrock of my world view, instilling in me a keen awareness of life’s messy undertones and a deep gratitude for every passing moment. My approach to styling builds off both: embracing the ephemeral, the bruised and the imperfect. After trying to be perfect for so long, sobriety taught to me to accept life on its own terms.”
King’s creative process is highly intuitive and relies on trial and error. He wishes there was a universal manual on how to pull a room together so that it “magically works” but he laments no such formula exists. “I just add or take away until the composition feels complete. Every job is different. It can call for a light touch, just bringing in branches and flowers, or it can involve propping an entire house, with a week of full-blown shopping.” He does, however, have a few tips to share that make the art of styling quasi-attainable for the rest of us.
One of the first things King does when he walks into a room is try to find the “interesting moments,” which can mean where the light is most dramatic, the way a lamp interacts with a chair or how a vase sits on a table. “I’m not trying to see or do anything,” he explains. “I’m just trying to be still and figure out what has potential, what can be improved upon and what can be edited out.”
He is drawn to anything of quality, whatever the period or style. He likes to layer organic elements – typically objects the earth has created as opposed to what we, as humans, have. ”Anything that is machine-made can have a rigidity to it, a standard form. That’s why I love branches so much,” he explains. “They have a fluidity and natural grace.”
He brings a dancer’s understanding of the power of stillness to each project, which means he never rushes to fill a blank space. “Emptiness can speak volumes, especially if the light and shadows strike just right.” And he values the serenity of earthy tones – “Friends tease I dream in 50 shades of brown” – although he has begun experimenting more with colour, injecting it carefully (and always with some trepidation) through an art piece, a rug, a pillow or throw.
“Styling is like conquering a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle,” King says. “Start with the borders, then work in some obvious pieces. Ask yourself: Is this strong enough on its own, or does it need a friend? Maybe walk away and come back with fresh eyes. Eventually you get to a place where no other configuration can work.”
He says friends and colleagues are always asking him, how can I make my bookshelves look like yours? His standard response: “Whatever you do don’t do it by colour. People always default to that. I like to do it by subject, because then it feels more organic.”
One of the most common mistakes people make is they try to make things look too perfect,” King adds. “They worry about a wrinkle on the sofa or a cord on a lamp. My favourite photo spreads are the ones that feel like someone was just there in the room, living in and loving their home.”
King’s favourite things
One of the first things Colin King does when styling a room is to take inventory of what’s already around him, opening cabinets and identifying pieces he loves, bringing forgotten keepsakes out and putting others away. He always tries to find ways to repurpose old and beloved things but, of course, there are times when something new is needed to inject life, vitality and not-so-subtle interest to a space. Here is a short list of some of King’s favourite things – items that can all be found in his own light-filled Tribeca loft – and an explanation for why he loves them all.
Shearling Stool: “These remind me of a mushroom. In a way they feel like a character connected and rooted in nature. They add texture and so much personality to any space and make a perfect footrest or floating sculpture.
Edward Weston Photographs Book: “I find myself returning to this book to reference Weston’s use of light and his compositions, but more importantly his abstracts, elevating the everyday – a shell, piece of lettuce, a bell pepper, or a nude human form – and turning them into these sublime, transporting sculptures.”
Bronte Table Lamp: “I love the proportions here. The base and shade have a playful dialogue that injects visual interest and a beautiful glow to any surface.”
Forged Décor: “As a rock collector as a child, I am always looking closely for beauty in nature. That translated to when I was on set and didn’t have the height I needed to complete a composition so I would find myself with my shears, foraging in nature.”
Abby Robinson Painting: “My friend Abby left her corporate job to pursue painting and recently graduated from the MFA program at Columbia. I went to her thesis show and have made multiple studio visits. There is a connection I have to her work, her journey and the various techniques and materials she uses to create her pieces.”
Tage Anderson Zinc Egg: “Based on one of nature’s most perfect forms, I’ve always been drawn to the egg shape as a perfect design courtesy of Mother Nature. It’s a classic shape but as an object, there is something refined and fragile about an egg but it can also be playful with a surrealist quality. Some of my favourite artists have interpreted the egg in their own ways, including bronze artist Constantin Brancusi and Man Ray.”