Tuning Into What’s Beautiful

A background in Nordic design is a boost in home-centered times

Traci Kearns’ world travels can help you at home.
Photo by Clark Hodgin

A life filled with travel, beginning in her teen years, helped frame designer Traci Kearns’ approach to creating visually interesting spaces. The proprietor of Asheville-based Alchemy Design Studio spent formative time in Milan, Italy; at the University of Oulu in Finland; and later in Beijing and in the Yunnan Province of Southwest China, working with ethnic tribes learning about their crafts and product development.

Each place’s design traditions have informed the services she applies to residential and commercial projects. And yet her worldly influences often give way to a micro-local approach.

How did your early travels affect your design work?

Each trip changed me, but my University of Oulu study-abroad experience allowed me rare exposure to modern architecture. It was eye-opening to learn about the progressive ideas that stem from European ways of thinking about design. The Nordic culture is very attuned to their interior environments because of their harsh climate.

You’re leaving town shortly after this interview to work on a residential project in rural Virginia. What’s special about it?

[The homeowners] are passionate equestrians, and the horse arena and stable that are part of the property in addition to the home coalesce in exciting ways — when you’re there, it feels like you leave the rest of the world behind you. … We’re using many natural materials to create beautiful, sophisticated contrast in their space, but at the same time it’s unpretentious. They’re unafraid of color, which is fun, and it’s an element that plays a big role in your mood. Plus, they’re invested in using local artists’ work in their home, and that’s important to me, too.

I can’t imagine that this historic pandemic hasn’t substantially altered the way you do business.

It’s changed much about how we interact with our clients. The hard part is that our work is so much about the tactile, like holding fabric samples, for example. We had to get creative to work around the limitations. At this point, we’re just beginning to carefully plan a few on-site meetings. Thankfully, our whole staff has kept working.  

What about the changes in how we imagine home? 

I think with everything else going on in the world, not just the pandemic, there’s a sense that the world needs healing. Folks are looking for ways to create that change, even in their homes. Like everyone, Alchemy’s clients are spending more time at home and rethinking what brings them joy when they’re there. They’re tuning in more to what’s beautiful, comfortable, and what works, from home offices to outdoor spaces. 

More clients want to know the origins of the furniture and materials in their homes. They’re favoring sustainable, American- and North Carolina-made things, though local artisan-made is even better. I’m always asking, “How do we get what we want done locally?” Handmade items tell stories. 

What about your own home?

I tend to lean in to the architecture to inform some design choices. I gravitate to earthier, organic colors and materials, and introduce brighter colors in smaller ways, through artwork or textiles, and that’s our approach at Alchemy, too. I’m a big fan of changing pillows and bedding out seasonally, too, to keep things interesting. 

Which clients are most rewarding to work with?

I’m most jazzed by the collaborative piece of the relationship. I love the beginning of the process when clients share their goals and desires with us, and their trust never fails to amaze me. 

It’s also rewarding when fully engaged clients push my boundaries. That’s my role as a designer, to push them a bit, so it’s great when they do it with us. The results are always extraordinary when this creative energy goes both ways.  

Traci Kearns, Alchemy Design Studio, 60 Biltmore Ave. Suite 250, Asheville. For more information, call 828-255-5110, e-mail info@alchemy-interiors.com, or visit alchemy-interiors.com.