Kate Schelter has managed to do what many of us dream about—turn her passion and hobby into a successful career that continues to grow and expand into new territories. That said, it was mostly by happenstance, and she took a circuitous, but necessary route to get there. Kate has a sunny personality which is deeply imbued in her joyous, effervescent work. Many of her illustrations have a light, off-hand quality that makes them feel personal. But she is also much more than just illustrations, last spring she debuted her first book, Classic Style: Hand It Down, Dress It Up, Wear It Out, and she’s in the process of taking over an entire, rather storied, hotel. Here she shares what inspires her, what’s next and the airport buy that helped her grow her business.
Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do. I am first and foremost, an artist. That stems into my personal life and into my professional life. I’m a mother and a wife, and a sister, and a daughter. I think creativity is the thing that stems into everything I do. So whether it’s making dinner and cooking, which I love to do, rebranding a property, painting, illustrating or authoring a book, it’s all about my point of view and the story that I’m telling. I don’t always have a plan, but I usually have an idea or an image in my head that is a goal, or something that is inspiring me. Then all the creative work is to try to create that. Sometimes it’s really easy. Sometimes it requires a lot of editing, refining and reworking. But the idea is that it should all feel like me or whoever else is working on it with me.
You have an extensive fashion background. What did you take from those experiences to get where you are now? I’ve worked in pretty much every medium that there is in fashion. I started out as a graphic designer and interned at fashion magazines like W and a magazine called Colors that was based in Paris. Then I worked as a trend forecaster. And then from there, I launched my career in New York as a Vogue photographer. That was an extension of the trend forecasting photography I was doing where I was just running around New York–the streets, backstage, front row, taking pictures of people and what they were wearing. I guess what captured my heart was personal style and how people would display themselves. Then from there, I assisted as many fashion stylists as I could. And then I started getting my own jobs. I was a fashion stylist for 15 years.
At the same time, I was also a creative director. I was doing a lot of fashion consulting work for brands. So I did those two things simultaneously, the styling and the creative directing, and the branding. And then about five years ago, I shifted my medium again, which was to illustration. Work that I had always done when I was on holiday or vacation, which was watercolor painting, caught the eye of some of my friends who work in fashion and publishing. They started to commission me to do illustration work. So I went from being a luxury brand consultant to an illustrator whose clients were in the fashion and beauty and hospitality worlds.
That was probably the biggest growth spurt in my whole career. It happened at the exact same time as having my first child, my daughter. And it was just this huge creative outpouring of having zero plan, and yet having it be so naturally me. I wasn’t even trying to get it out there. Instagram had just started, and I was taking pictures of what I would do every day, or what I was painting. I would paint when my daughter was napping. That really took off and led to huge mural commissions and commissions with really big names, big brand names.
That led to me writing and illustrating Classic Style, which, in my opinion, ties my entire life and my whole career up to that point into a big red bow. It encapsulates everything, tips that I had picked up, things that I’d learned, anecdotes, stories. A huge part of my book is personal. A huge part of it is professional. Some of it is tips that I would offer a young woman who’s just starting out, all that kind of stuff.
You have a dream job, being able to turn a hobby–something you love to do on the side, into the center of your career. Why do you think it’s worked out so well? What’s that saying? It took me 20 years to have overnight success. I’ve been working my butt off for years. There’s never an off day. Whether it’s going to a museum or working with a client, or painting in my studio, I don’t ever stop.
So it’s more like a combination of everything you’ve done over the years. Yes, and I think it’s a really unique blend of skills and mediums that I’ve worked with. Often, I write about this in my book too. I call them the slash people, you’re a writer/producer, or a photographer/art director, or a stylist/consultant, or whatever. I just kept going. People would hire me to do one thing, and then we would be collaborating, and I would say, ‘Well why don’t we do this?’ So they’d say, ‘Okay, go do that.’ I just offered. It was very natural and organic. Sometimes I worked really, really hard in order to be able to do something in a new medium for a client. But more often, it was just the natural extension of what I was excited about. I guess in terms of breaking it down to sales, I think I can sell things that I’m really excited about. So whether that’s me being able to work on a project, or to do a concept for a photo shoot. It’s all about me just really loving it. If I don’t really love it, I try to avoid working on that project.
Why do you think the response has been so overwhelmingly positive for your illustrations? Oh, my god. I don’t know. Can you tell me?
There is so little authentic hand-done anything anymore. It’s the age of Instagram, we long for something that’s done by hand and maybe a little bit imperfect. I’m not saying your work is imperfect. But it has that…. A handmade quality. Now with the iPhone and Instagram we live in the age of photography where everything is immediate. So the same reason that people still love to receive a handwritten note is the same reason people like to see pictures of…. Sometimes I’ll post my process. I’ll post a picture of what I’m painting, then halfway through the painting, then the finished painting. I think people are like, ‘Wow, someone’s still making something.’
I think that so many artists have just blossomed with Instagram. I’ve learned about so many other amazing artists that I love to follow. We’re all getting sick of Instagram too, but we’re still on it. We just don’t know what the next thing is.
Instagram, it’s a love/hate relationship at this point, right? Yes. We’re sick of seeing the perfect pictures, although we still look out of habit. I’m just sick of being on my phone all the time. I am trying to be very mindful of the amount of time I spend painting and creating and walking around outside and looking at things, to try to keep that in check with the amount of time spent on Instagram. And Instagram has been an amazing tool, but it’s only a tool. So in order for it to endure, people have to be real.
I try to only post what inspires me, not what would create envy in others, because I don’t think you want to create that. I think you want to bridge that gap with people. It’s amazing to have followers. I try to reply to every single person that reaches out to me, because it creates a community.
What inspires you? Everything. You really never know where inspiration’s going to hit. Most of all, I’m inspired by nature, just the pure quiet beauty. Sitting in a garden and painting is such a treat. In the city, I’m very inspired by walking everywhere and just opening my eyes and living it. I can be inspired by the color of someone’s toenail polish while I’m waiting to cross the street. I look at it, ‘Oh, that purple is perfect.’
Then I also live half the time in Cape Cod. When I’m in Cape Cod, I try to take huge walks. And again, just the garden, the beach, nature, and peace and quiet is what I crave. And the old cliché of family being very inspiring. I think a supportive environment is extremely inspiring, just being allowed to do what you want to do is something I’m very aware that I’m lucky that I’m able to do that.
What motivates you? I like to be able to know that I can do something. Since I was very little, I’ve always made things with my hands. To know that I can do something and make something, whether it’s sewing a pillowcase, cooking a recipe, or painting a picture is very empowering. I like to be able to be like, ‘Yeah, I understand this, because I can process it. I can make something out of it.’
It’s so satisfying too when it comes out. So satisfying.
I’m also definitely motivated by the people that I work with. I like to satisfy people, which is different than people pleasing. It’s more of I like to do a good job, and I like to be helpful to other people. If they have high expectations of me, I will have high expectations of myself.
What was the easiest part about starting your illustration career? And what was the hardest thing that nobody warned you about? The easiest thing was actually painting, putting brush to paper. The hardest thing is I’ve longed for someone to do a lot of the management work for me. There’s only one of me.
There have been some learning curve situations. I have to be considerate about what I say yes to, because it might mean that I won’t have time to do something else. So the hardest part is that actual limitation on my time. And with the book, it was this special bubble. It was a five month period where I wrote and illustrated the entire book. I was very, very involved, more involved than I think my editor even wanted me to be. But she obliged and let me get in there and have my feedback.
I also spend a large part of my day with my daughter every single day. Basically after four pm, I’m with her. And I’m a really big believer in making those decisions, because I don’t think you should be answering work emails while you’re at the playground with your daughter. Although, sometimes we have to do what we have to do. Sometimes I’m like, ‘Okay, there’s just not enough hours in the day.’ It’s really taught me the power of being picky, and really having high standards for what I work on, because I don’t have infinite amount of time to fill like I did before I got married. Now, every single second counts.
What do you think has been your biggest success to date? The most successful thing I’ve ever created is my daughter. If she has a tantrum or something goes crazy unexpected, that can also feel like, ‘Oh, my god. I’m just a failure. I don’t know what I’m doing.’
If I’m going to talk about my career, I think I’m most proud of my book. I get messages, emails and amazing feedback every day from people who’ve read the book, and certain chapters they’ve really connected with. It never gets old. It’s a huge source of joy. I’m really proud of it, because I worked so hard on it.
What has been a dud or failure and what did you learn from it? I’m not a failure focused person though I know I’m not 100% successful. I would say that when you become very busy with work, other things can suffer, like personal relationships That can feel like a failure. I tend to prioritize work when I have hard deadlines. Sometimes I don’t even have time to have that conversation with that person. That can feel really frustrating and painful sometimes.
One failure that does stick out is my first year out of college I did a freelance job at a design firm. I was hired to be there for two weeks. I remember, I had no idea how to use one of the computer programs. I came in. They said, ‘Okay, we’re doing this album artwork or something. It has to be in this program.’ I was like, ‘No problem.’ And I didn’t know what I was doing. I was too scared to ask.
I got a message on my home answering machine saying, ‘Kate Schelter, I don’t know what we’re paying you an hour, but it is not worth it. Your work is terrible, don’t come back.’ That was the only time I’ve officially been fired. I don’t really consider that a failure, I consider that a stepping stone, a learning opportunity.
Best career advice you’ve received and advice you would share with others: Go directly towards what you love whether it’s a company or a person. Get in front of them, introduce yourself to them, meet them, send them fan mail. Send something handmade to their office. A handwritten note goes so far, or try to email them.
And if you’re in the room with someone, don’t be afraid to go introduce yourself, because that’s what they’re there for too. They’re not on vacation sitting by the pool. They’re there to meet people as well.
The other advice I would give to someone starting out is work leads to work. When you do a project, it always leads to more whether it’s more interaction with people that you like, or having something beautiful to show in your portfolio, or just experience.
Role models: Too many to list. I always say that my main role model is Matisse, because I’m a big believer that your role model doesn’t have to know that they’re your role model. You can model yourself after someone without them being an official mentor.
I love that Matisse worked in a million different mediums. He worked with cut glass, paper, paint, watercolor, pencil, murals, architecture, fabric. It’s so inspiring. So that’s where I am in my career right now, taking me and my brand and vision and applying it to different mediums–to more than just a painting on the wall, or a logo. That’s really exciting for me.
One of your attributes that helps you succeed: I have confidence in what I do. I think some people are afraid to say that. It’s embarrassing to say it. But I mean that in the best sense of the word. I love what I do, and I’m confident about my skills. I trust myself. I don’t agree to do something that I can’t do. Not after that experience that happened 20 years ago! I have confidence that I can figure things out, and that I can work well with people. And that I have the talent inside to be able to create something that I like, because I have practiced doing it. That doesn’t mean I’m pompous and tooting my own horn all the time. I think having confidence is really important to being a creative person and an artist.
It doesn’t’ mean that I suffer from insecurities every now and then. But the overall person you’re getting is someone who’s willing to say, ‘Okay, I’ll try it.’ Or, ‘Let’s see, let’s try it.’
Three words that describe you: Creative, love-driven, hard working.
Three words that describe your work: Classic, joy, style.
What’s next? I’m going to be doing a project with the Maisonette, which is the children’s wear started by Vogue editor Sylvana Ward and a bunch of other really awesome moms and girls who worked in fashion.
I’m hesitant to say this, because it hasn’t been officially announced yet, but I may be doing a collaboration with Veronica Beard, some prints based on my paintings. The biggest and most exciting thing I’m working on right now is, I was hired as the creative director to handle all the rebuilding for the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach. It’s soup to nuts–everything from what will the bikes look like, to what will be on the pillow for the turndown service, to how the logo will be treated, how the branding will be featured throughout the property. It’s a huge list of amenities and branding applications. It’s so exciting. That’s where my heart is right now.
I also recently became a friend of Fendi and they have invited me to go to Rome and stay in their palazzo there. I’m thinking of doing a residency in Rome, where I just run around Rome and paint all the things that I love.
Life goals: I would really like to build my brand. I would love it if Kate Schelter were synonymous with a Martha Stewart or a Jonathan Adler in terms of being a whole lifestyle brand—where there’s depth and different products, and really taking everything to the best it can be for my career. And then to keep traveling and painting on location as much as I can.
And to just to keep saying yes to the ‘hell yeah!’ projects, the projects where you’re like, ‘Oh, my god. This is amazing.’ So hopefully having those opportunities, and every single project builds on top of the next.
Daily goals: To eat well, exercise, paint a little bit, and spend time with my husband and my daughter around the dinner table with no phones.
Favorite inspirational/motivational books: There’s a great book called Classic Style! I love the Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Then for business, Let My People Go Surfing, by Yvon Chouinard. I love Tibor Kalman. There’s a book called Tibor that’s an amazing book on him. There’s a stupid book that I got at Barnes & Noble called Million Dollar Consulting. It’s the kind of book that you buy at an airport. It was so helpful with just little details about everything from how to write an invoice, to how to submit a proposal properly. Again, I am my own MBA self-taught on the field. I found that really helpful. There’s a fantastic book called Paint Magic by Jocasta Innes, who worked at World of Interiors. She painted on every surface of every room. It’s this amazing book on just painting all over everything. It’s so liberating and fun.
Daily rituals: I always shower at night. If I have to go to an event, I’ll shower before I go out. But most nights, I don’t go out. I’ll shower after dinner, after my daughter goes to sleep. It’s my little peaceful moment.
How do you unplug: I read or go for a walk.
Hidden talents/hobbies: I love improv comedy. I used to take classes just for fun at the Upright Citizens’ Brigade in New York, and at the Groundlings in Los Angeles.
Do you collect anything? Yes and no. I use everything I collect, so I don’t consider it collecting. But I collect books. I collect art. I collect dishes and linens. I love seeking out specific china patterns that are discontinued. I love fabrics and linens. I’m obsessed with all that, I really want to create my own line.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret: As long as you can afford something, it doesn’t feel like a splurge if it’s really useful. I never buy something if I think it’s too expensive. I remember once trying on this amazing Yves Saint Laurent coat. It was back when I was doing a lot of styling work. The coat was $4,500. I thought, ‘I don’t think a coat should cost this much. I think that should go to charity.’ So I didn’t buy it. A couple years later I found it on eBay for $400, and thought, ‘Sweet.’
Wow, that’s a good one. And that almost never happens unless you’re obsessed with eBay like I am.
Favorite small indulgence: Getting my back scratched by my husband and ice cream. I love ice cream. Mint chocolate chip with rainbow jimmies.
Album currently on repeat: I love the Ronnie Lane station on Pandora.
Scent that brings back memories: The smell of wet cedar reminds me of my childhood in Cape Cod. Humidity with a cedar shingle or a cedar closet. It’s almost mildew, but it’s not actually mildew. It’s kind of like wet wool. You know how when wool gets wet, you’re like, ‘Ew, what’s that yucky smell?’ But it’s natural at the same time.
Favorite hour of the day: I like all hours of the day as long as I’m not exhausted. If I’m awake and feel alert, that feels good. It’s when you’re tired that all hours feel terrible.
Follow Kate: Instagram.
portrait, Patrick Kline; home shots courtesy One King’s Lane.