The Real Deal

Portrait by Tim Robison
Portrait by Tim Robison


As principal of Asheville’s Alchemy Design Studio, Traci Kearns embodies her namesake. She’s a conjurer, producing striking spaces with a mixture of client vision, trade experience, love of beauty, and environmental consciousness. Kearns developed her design chops a little more than a decade ago as a student in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s Interior Architecture program and soon after graduation started racking up accomplishments: her work’s been featured in Fine Homebuilding magazine, she was chosen as interior designer for the LEED certified Western North Carolina 2008 Green Southern Living Idea Home, and traveled in Asia collaborating on designs with village artisans.

Childhood travel to design hotspots like Milan, as well as grandparents who encouraged Kearns’ creativity, led her to this work, which she says requires balancing the practical with the beautiful, others’ dreams with her own professional knowledge, and patience as a project goes from the taking-shape stage to the final phase’s tight deadlines.

Her style’s been described as “warm modern,” and here she shares what inspires her and fuels her quest for creating authentic spaces.

How and when were you drawn to design? Were you one of those kids who constantly rearranged their parents’ furniture?  

My maternal grandparents were big influences; my grandfather was an avid woodworker and my grandmother and I worked on many sewing projects together. Gardening was a constant too. These experiences helped me realize my creative streak. I loved anything to do with color and texture. As I got older, I also started to love fashion.

When did you learn “designer” might be “what you wanted to be when you grow up?”

I had a great apprenticeship with an interior designer family friend during the summer of my high school sophomore year. I grew up close to Hickory, a world renowned furniture industry capital, so that probably helped too — proximity to that type of “design lab,” if you will. My summer experience sealed the deal, and I went on to get my degree from UNC-Greensboro, where I gained experience in everything from drafting and furniture design to space planning and lighting design. The program also bridged the disconnect that often exists with the architecture and interior design disciplines.

Do you employ a typical project approach, or tailor your services very specifically?

I’m lucky my projects are quite diverse; I’ve done new construction and renovation on the residential side of things, and worked on commercial projects too. My process always begins with building trust as my work is very much about listening — I’m responsible for coming to the table with fresh ideas, but also for hearing my clients’ needs. I do use a custom approach because every client has a unique site, budget, set of needs, and project parameters.

What’s your favorite part of the design process?

I absolutely love the collaboration. I get to work with a wide range of professionals — clients, architects, all the subcontractors, artists, and fabricators. I learn a lot from each of their outlooks, priorities, and skill sets. I also enjoy the final phases of a project, when things we’ve long talked and dreamed about start coming together.

It’s been said that building or renovating a home is a big threat to marital/relationship bliss. Do you agree? If so, how do you deal with clients, married or not, who experience friction? 

Things certainly can get sticky when bridging a couple’s aesthetic differences. Beauty is subjective, and I’ve developed diplomacy skills over the years to help people hear each other’s priorities, compromise when possible, and shape, ultimately, a shared vision. The design process is overwhelming, and couples’ issues aside, it’s a balancing act as I encourage clients to go outside their comfort zones, and at the same time stay true to their vision.

What does the layperson think your average workday consists of? Any misconceptions out there?

A common misconception is that we deal with just the “pretty” aspect of interior design. In reality we’re involved with everything that goes on behind the walls like plumbing, and everything that’s apparent at the end of the job, from pillows to countertops. There’s a physicality to it; I lug samples and drive around a lot. There are “marathon” times when out of town clients visit and we need to really focus. For instance, I was at a remote site very early yesterday morning and got home around 10 pm — definitely not non-stop glamour, but I love it!

What informs your work, design influence-wise?

Scandinavian design’s a biggie for me, and simplicity in general. I spent a year as a student in Oulu, Finland, and this design tradition is functional and beautiful. I continue to gravitate toward it.

What’s an adjective that best describes your interiors? 

I’d say restrained, but not in a way that implies scarcity. We live in this crazy world of constant activity and stimuli — from technology, work, and other sources. From a design perspective, it’s the hardest thing not to overdo sometimes, but I find it always works when I opt to have less going on. There are many ways to create a calming space, from furniture, color, and lighting choices to the use of natural materials like wood and stone.

Any design trends that drive you mad?

Materials that aren’t real — flooring that looks like ceramic tile but isn’t, furniture that only appears to be wood, and so on. Natural materials are so important to me and show through in a space; you can’t fake it. I place a high premium on authenticity.

Sounds like one of your most demanding current clients is…you!

Yup! I’m moving soon to a bigger office in the same building here. We’ve outgrown our current space — a great problem to have. We’re gaining 400 square feet, which will translate into more room for samples, work, and client meetings. The project’s given me greater insight into my clients’ perspectives.

What’s a recent design solution you’re proud of?

I’d say one I worked on for Wicked Weed down the street. It was a fun project — lots of room for creativity and great people to work with.  One challenge we had to solve under a tight deadline was the execution of a hand painted interior wall mural. There were so many opinions to weigh and a very firm opening date. I had limited time to find an artisan to do a great job and fabricate quickly! The project was finished earlier this year and the “eleventh hour” King Henry VIII mural looks great!

Visit to learn more about Alchemy Design Studio.