The Lifetime Achievement Award winners talk about trends and comforts throughout their distinguished careers.
This story first appeared in the Fall/Winter 2019-20 issue of Columbus Monthly Home & Garden.
With almost 100 years of combined design experience between them, Doug and RoseMary Kohler have seen dozens of decorating trends emerge and fade. From Georgian to midcentury, industrial to modern farmhouse, the Kohlers have spent their careers helping clients incorporate current trends into their homes with a thoughtful, measured approach.
Their design aesthetic is less evocative of a period or particular look than it is an overall feeling of harmony, timelessness, comfort and warmth.
“Our goal is always to make things look collected, as if they evolved over time even if they didn’t,” Doug says. Adds RoseMary, “We prefer a harmonious, not matchy-matchy look, to tell a story that is more authentic and personal.”
In recognition of their contributions to interior design and their ongoing support of the Columbus Museum of Art Women’s Board, the Kohlers received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the museum’s Designer Showcase earlier this year. Doug was one of the designers responsible for founding the event in 1973. (For years, the showhouse took place at private residences. More recently, designers have used sections of the art museum, divided into various rooms to resemble a home, as canvases for their creativity.)
At 81, Doug is an elder statesman within the American Society of Interior Designers, which connotes a level of knowledge and expertise in both design and architecture. “Interior design is not just picking pretty fabrics or placing furniture,” RoseMary says. “You have to know about electrical wiring, plumbing and structural issues.”
The Kohlers have designed spaces as small as 100 square feet and as large as 100,000, with all levels of budget. They say the key to designing any interior is to create a look that reflects the essence of those living and working in the rooms.
They aren’t fans of purchasing store-curated collections of like items, or casting aside old pieces that are still usable. In fact, they have been recyclers for decades.
“We are not part of the disposable society,” says RoseMary. “We are never going to say to a client, ‘get rid of this.’ We can give you a whole new look by restyling existing pieces.”
Their own home on Columbus’ Far East Side is a case in point. A loveseat in the living room has been recovered three times; a dropleaf table that belonged to Doug’s parents is at a kitchen window. Once Pepto-Bismol pink, green lacquer gave it new life, they explain.
Most of their own living areas are painted a soft yellow. While gray walls have dominated in popularity in recent years, the Kohlers knew they needed a different hue for their own home to counter Ohio’s many gray and dreary days.
The furniture, art and fixtures weave a story about their lives both personally and professionally. A multi-colored Murano glass chandelier hangs in the entry. Doug chuckles as he explains that it’s a purchase he didn’t intend to make while the couple was in Venice.
Other personal treasures include a painting by the late Columbus artist Helen “Lenny” Copeland and an antique tortoise tea caddy from San Francisco. Some of their lamp bases are antique pieces that have been electrified.
A unique, pod-shaped patio chair harkens back to Doug’s days as an Ohio State University student. Inspired by the form of a banana peel, he designed the chair for a senior project. While at OSU, he worked at the former Lombard’s Fine Furniture, where he was contacted by then-notable Columbus designer Gordon Findley. Eventually, Doug joined Findley’s firm after graduating from college in 1960. He bought the firm from Findley in 1974, and it became Findley-Kohler Interiors. RoseMary joined in 1981.
One of Doug’s early assignments was the Columbus Country Club’s clubhouse, which had burned to the ground in 1962. The project “scared me to death,” he recalls, but it was completed by Thanksgiving of 1963. The following year, the club hosted the PGA championship, which saw Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Bobby Nichols fighting to the finish. (Nichols eventually won.)
Doug also designed the interiors of the former City National Bank offices on West Broad Street, which led to an introduction to developer and Pittsburgh Pirates owner John W. Galbreath. One of Doug’s favorite projects was designing the guest house at Galbreath’s Darby Dan Farm, on Columbus’ Far West Side. The house was called Gay Chateau, named after Galbreath’s 1963 Kentucky Derby winner Chateaugay.
Doug relished working with the Galbreath family, even going so far as to search the archives of fabric house Brunschwig & Fils for a favorite pastoral-themed linen print that had been discontinued. He then had it custom-printed for a Galbreath project.
Even with far smaller budgets, the Kohlers say basic design principles can make any space look layered and harmonious. “We’re always thinking about scale, color and relational proportions of objects,” Doug says. “Contrast is hugely important. It’s how we might mix a traditional chair with a more modern drinks table. We don’t tend to group things by period or style, because it can be too predictable or stiff.”
The concept of scale plays out in the Kohlers’ dining room, where a large replica of an antique Russian chandelier immediately draws the eye. “I like overscale fixtures in small spaces for the ‘wow’ factor,” RoseMary adds. “Mixing in antique furniture or accessories adds soul to any room, be it traditional or modern.”
The building of large Georgian-style homes in New Albany has had the most notable impact on local design in the past 25 to 30 years, Doug says. Wood paneling, dark cherry and mahogany kitchen cabinetry, wallpaper and elaborate draperies have been some of the hallmarks.
But major furniture showrooms are closing every year and there is a waning interest in antiques, resulting in the present design trend. “There has been a marked change in formality,” concedes Doug. “Everything is more casual.”
The Kohlers still count generations of many Central Ohio families among their clients. While styles and personal tastes may change from one generation to the next, the friendships the couple has made remain constant.
“Design is one of the most personal things you can do for a person,” RoseMary says. “We absolutely love what we do.”