Kristi Nelson of KM Nelson Designs creates spaces that merge the confidence of a collector with the soul of an artist. With a background in fine art, she draws from her studio training and approaches each space as both an artist and a designer. Before she officially entered the industry, Nelson worked within various professions that serendipitously dovetailed into the designer she is today.
As a child, Nelson grew up drawing alongside her greatest inspiration, her grandfather, who was a mechanical artist.
“A joke in the family is that I could draw before I could write my name,” she says. “I drew everywhere…if there was a flat surface, I was drawing. Sharing that with my grandfather was really special for me.”
After graduating from college with a double major in Studio Art and Art History, Nelson worked in sales and marketing for a garment manufacturer in Los Angeles. Three years later, she decided to apply to art school again, this time for her masters degree. She was accepted into a private school in Paris.
“I quit my job, drove my car back to my hometown in Indiana along with whatever possessions I had, and left for Paris,” she says. “It was an amazing adventure.”
After completing her masters, Nelson returned to LA and began art consulting, eventually working for a world famous sculptor and painter. While the opportunity sounded glamorous, Nelson says this transition brought out an unexpected realization: she no longer wanted to be involved in the art world.
“There were a lot of things about the culture of the art scene in the ‘90s that weren’t working for me,” she said. “I ended up taking on various marketing and PR jobs before deciding to take art classes through UCLA.”
Upon enrollment, Nelson began drawing again and came across a class for interior design — specifically kitchen design.
“At the time my husband and I were doing some renovations on our house and I thought, ‘well, this could be interesting,’” she says. “So I went to the class, and fell in love with it.”
The interior design classes sparked joy in ways Nelson hadn’t anticipated.
“Because my grandfather was a mechanical artist, I knew how to create blueprints without having to be taught,” she says. “And as an artist, you think very three dimensionally…
very spatially. So it became this happy coalescing of being able to draw and create, but in a way that had purpose versus being an artist creating for art’s sake. I found that I
Nelson officially enrolled in UCLA’s interior design program soon after. While completing the program, a new homeowner asked Nelson for decorating assistance.
“My house itself was a little quirky, but they loved how I designed it and wanted me to help with their [home],” she says. “I always planned to work for somebody for a few years before taking on a solo design job. Maybe eventually I’d have my own firm. But that was not how the universe had it mapped out for me.”
Following the opportunity, she set herself up as a business entity.
“I helped them design the kitchen in the home they bought, suggested different paint colors and all that miscellaneous stuff before they moved in,” she says. “That was the first job I took on 20 years ago.”
Today, Nelson has grown her business, and has clients and projects all over the U.S. She also creates custom products for certain projects.
“My soul always loved to draw, paint and create,” she says. “I particularly love it when there’s a function. But up until that point, I didn’t even know the design world existed because no one I knew did it. Discovering that was such a light bulb moment.”
Her recent collection with Chelsea House provides another avenue for Nelson’s creativity, with pieces ranging from Contemporary Neoclassical lighting fixtures, to mirrors inspired by the Art Deco period and ornate decorative pieces. The collection was set to debut at High Point Market last year, but was postponed due to the pandemic. It finally turned heads at Fall Market 2022.
“With this collection, I got to be more of a solo artist,” Nelson says. “I’m still drawing for a market and a brand, which I’m well aware of. But it’s a broader market and audience.”
She says creating the collection allowed her to tap into her passion for drawing, and revisit her artistic roots in a new way.
“Creating that collection has been incredibility exciting and freeing,” she says. “When you’re in that mode, it’s like turning on a faucet that’s almost impossible to turn off. Once you get going, the ideas just keep flowing.”
Nelson’s greatest inspirations for the collection were the places she missed being able to travel to during the pandemic.
“My husband and I are usually in Europe at least twice a year,” she says. “We love Italy, and we usually spend a week in Florence right around our anniversary. We missed seeing some of our friends in Paris and London too. That really came out in the various collections.”
The Claridge and Connaught Mirrors, for example, are named after Nelson’s favorite Mayfair hotels in London, where lavish Art Deco designs and British craftsmanship leave a lasting impression. Her brass Dancing Fans Sconces capture the energy and character of Roaring Twenties decadence, referencing the movement and “swing” of the flappers.
With a background rooted in art, Nelson also offers art consulting as part of the business.
“Obviously as a designer, I’d rather them let me help when selecting art and make wise purchases,” says Nelson. “We’ll let them know where we’re going with designing their space, and suggest artists that would fit well within. Sometimes we’ll suggest a specific gallery, or do a gallery walk with them. It’s a great value add to the business.”
Nelson says when choosing art, she aims to help people trust their gut instincts when deciding what they love.
“It’s not just about acquiring an antique,” she says. “It’s about learning to trust what’s right for you and taking those risks. If you’re going to spend $10,000 or $20,000 on art, then yes, I’m going to be right there beside you helping you to make that decision, and we’ll do a deep dive into the real value.
“But you have to live with it. So I want to make sure…do you love it? Do you connect with it? Are you going to be happy looking at it day in and day out?”
Similarly, her internship program has acted as a mentoring opportunity, with several mentees beginning their own firm following their work with Nelson. Her method is to “unpack” each person’s strengths, peeling back layers to get to the root of their desires.
“If somebody has more of a desire or talent in a specific area, I’m going to support them in that,” she says. “I think that’s how things should be approached with people in general. Whether they’re working for me or not, it’s all process versus program.”
Nelson also remains interested in what her mentees are doing long after their time together, which has made their relationships long-lasting.
“I take great pleasure in maintaining a relationship through ongoing support and encouragement,” she says. “Being able to see them succeed in their careers, support them and cheer them on — I think it’s just as important.”