Already a recipient of the ARTS Award for Lifetime Achievement, Carolyn Kinder is not one to kick back. Just named a finalist in the Product Designer category, she reflects on how she got to where she is today.
She may have been nicknamed “Petunia” (Nunnie for short) since birth, but Carolyn Kinder is no fragile flower. Although delicate in appearance as well as in her artistic sensibilities, she has an inner core of independence and adventure that has led her on an exciting journey all over the globe. Like many designers and artists, she is always ready to make a quick sketch of something that has caught her attention; however, she is also known for rolling up her sleeves and getting her hands dirty perfecting a distressed finish at factories in China, India, and Italy. Soft-spoken and ethereal, Kinder is also a teacher. Appreciating the painting lessons and observation skills about light that she was taught at an early age, she passes along what she has learned to others – first, years ago while conducting painting classes for students and now to workers in the various factories that manufacture her products globally. Furthermore, just as she was encouraged to explore her artistic side while growing up, she nudges and guides the latent talents of people around her. Recalls Kinder’s sister, Coni Houghtling, “My parents always encouraged our forays into the arts, filling our home with collections of art and music plus the tools and media necessary for our own expression. While my brothers and I seemed to have a penchant for the performing arts (music, acting, public speaking), Carolyn, from a very early age, demonstrated an astonishing talent for drawing and painting, distinguishing herself far above the rest of her three siblings in this area.” A pivotal time for Kinder was when she visited her grandmother in San Antonio for one month as a child. “My grandmother had a friend who taught art classes,” she explains. Kinder would sit in on the classes, even though the other students were in their teens. “I was way under-age for that class,” she chuckles, adding, “But the teacher saw something in me that I wasn’t aware of and helped me grow it. Once she taught me to ‘see’ [the way an artist does], I never forgot it.” Life as a Globetrotter Kinder’s parents were in the military, which meant the family traveled to many countries and observed a variety of cultures. This awareness influenced Kinder’s work through her openness to explore different techniques and media and allowed her to move beyond her comfort zone of painting and into other areas like developing picture frames, molding, vases, and statues. When living in Arkansas, Kinder got back into oil painting and started showing interested friends how to do it. Word spread and soon she started holding classes. She opened a custom framing shop called The Art Place in 1970 in Stuttgart, Arkansas. “I realized that once the students finished their paintings, they really needed some picture frames,” says Kinder, who then began sourcing picture frames. Naturally, ordinary frames weren’t going to cut it. Kinder became keenly interested in the art of picture framing. “When you frame a painting, you want it to look as good as it can be,” she explains. “You want to have it look strong, but not busy.” She worked for a while in an Italian factory, where she spent countless hours rubbing silver leaf onto frames and creating a cross-scratch technique to bring texture. From there, she segued into moulding. “Decorative moulding can be so rich that you simply can’t ignore it. It just demands that you look at it,” she quips. She also ventured to India, learning the ins and outs of brass craftsmanship. Becoming a Manufacturer In the mid-1970s, she co-founded the manufacturing company Kinder-Harris, with Virgil Harris, which originally specialized in artwork and decorative frames. “Soon we started doing lamps and accessories to go with the picture frames,” Kinder adds. “I hired one of my students, Kris Lindsey, to come work with me at Kinder-Harris. Kris stayed with us through the years and eventually became president.” Kinder-Harris has enjoyed an enviable reputation in the home furnishings industry as a high-end manufacturer of artwork, lighting, and decorative accessories and is highly sought after by interior designers. Kinder was thrilled when JC Penney bought the business in 1987. “They were looking for entrepreneurial companies that offered eclectic and wonderful things to add to their fold and Kinder-Harris was identified as a good fit,” she explains. Deciding to go the independent route, Kinder founded the design firm Carolyn Kinder Inc. in 1992 and began licensing her designs for major manufacturers such as IMAX, Uttermost, Austin, Sea Gull, Thomas Lighting, Stanley Mirror, Sears’ The Great Indoors, JC Penney, Magnusen Home, Casa Bique, Lazzaris, Crescent, Neilson Bainbridge, Larson Juhl, and of course Kinder-Harris. Over the years, her contributions to the industry have been lauded by groups such as ART and WITHIT (where she was nominated for a WOW Award for Outstanding Woman in the home furnishings industry plus a nomination for WITHIT’s Legacy Award). Under the new corporate identity Carolyn Kinder International, she has expanded her focus to include sourcing, design development, multi-product licensing partnerships, and direct importing for the home furnishings industry. Kinder considers China her primary residence, although she also maintains a home in the States. “I am able to work with such wonderful people at these different companies,” she says enthusiastically. One of the aspects she appreciates most is the freedom she is given to explore new finishes and techniques. “Sometimes a finish I have created is so expensive that there has to be a trade-off elsewhere [in the product],” she admits. The manufacturers, however, are willing to compromise in confidence that such uniqueness will elevate their brands. Kinder’s way of looking at the world around her and finding something artistic in all of it is a true gift. “I’ve even taken pictures of tar on the ground,” she states. “In my photos, maybe you’ll just see a shadow on the pavement, or perhaps it’s a photo of the edge of a car tire – but if you look close, you’ll see something in the tread.” Inspiration comes often. “It comes from anywhere, all the time,” Kinder comments. “I’m always wondering, ‘What would that look like if it were upside down or inside out?’ There are all kinds of ways to make things change form through nature – consider how metals can be turned into liquid!” Houghtling adds, “My favorite TV interview of my sister was for a local station. Carolyn was creating a large oil painting while discussing art and answering questions. She was illustrating the impact of texture by referring to the human eye’s ability to tell the difference between suede and satin from across the room. The interviewer asked, “How? How DO we tell the difference?” The answer, so simple, so profound, changed my life: The way they reflect the light. Carolyn has a way of taking an ocean of teaching and crystallizing it into a single statement that echoes forever in the halls of the mind. This gift makes her a powerful teacher and mentor.” At the High Point Market, you can find Carolyn Kinder’s products in the Uttermost and IMAX showrooms. In January during the International Lighting Market in Dallas, she will also be unveiling a new line with Quoizel. Fred Cohen: Looking Back to Move Forward