In Conversation: Kalon x Reath

A conversation with designer Frances Merrill about juxtapositions, storytelling and striving for work that speaks to a stranger

Released in 2020, our Rugosa Collection is the synthesis of a many years’ conversation about living rooms: their evolving function, enduring spirit, and what we love about some of our very favorite living room spaces. Inspired by the Narragansett home from which the collection takes its name, Rugosa was designed to invite comfort — both communal and solitary. They are the kinds of pieces that can effortlessly flow between feeling comfy, familiar, and deliciously worn in, as well as elevated, streamlined, and elegant.

Two years after Rugosa’s release, we collaborated with fellow LA-based design studio, Reath Design, revisiting this original seed of inspiration to present a brand new limited release of custom upholstery for the Rugosa Sofa, Rugosa Daybed, and Rugosa Chair.

With each of our respective practices evoking rather disparate impulses of the aesthetic spectrum, we were excited to see what might come of such a partnership. We’ve always held that while Kalon pieces undeniably appeal to minimalists, much of the magic is in their versatility. To bring this new collaboration to life, we drew from the vast catalogs of Alexander Girard, Rose Cumming, and the Warner Textile Archive. In so doing, the Kalon x Reath Rugosa Collection pushes the limits of juxtaposition and harmony. Against a backdrop of clean-lined Modernist forms, the textile selection of florals, stripes, and checks sings, injecting an undeniably eccentric, nostalgic flair to the original designs. Departing from the oft-austere impulse of minimalism, these exuberant pieces evoke a bold generosity of spirit and mood of lived-in creativity.

We sat down with Reath founder Frances Merrill to explore juxtapositions, storytelling and striving for work that speaks to a stranger. 

Listen to the conversation between Kalon founder’s Michaele Simmering and Johann Pauwen, and Reath founder Frances Merrill.


Johann Pauwen: Your influence on this piece was so cool to see because it really did change it. You know, the first collection in the Rugosa fabrics were very bright colors — I would call them poppy. But what you did with these more traditional fabrics is maybe even more pop than what those bright pop colors could do. That was fun to see. Just that a totally different perspective can exalt the designs in a different way. 

Frances Merrill: It’s funny, even though we are known for color and pattern, I’m always saying everything has to start with elegant and functional. And then if you can also have a fun sense of humor on top of it, all the better. But the baseline has to be functional, has to be elegant, has to, you know, have some purpose in the space. But then, for us, the next thing is getting that kind of personality in it and really being very personal. And I think that is a big difference: you guys, you don’t have a specific person [you are designing for]. You have this baseline of beauty and what someone with an elevated eye will appreciate. For us, we have the added constraint and the added inspiration of an individual person that we can draw from for direction. And I felt like the photos that I saw of [the Rugosa] family house that you took the inspiration for Rugosa from, just immediately had that vibe, right? You know, something that’s very particular to those people. And I think that’s something that I’m always really drawn to. 

Michaele Simmering: That’s a fascinating distinction to point out. And it’s a real challenge for us all the time in our design work because as designers we are also striving for things to be personal for people. We want there to be a personal connection that’s developed between them and our designs, but it’s something that’s going to have to be developed. So I think, you know, how do we do that? In your instance, you’re really designing your work around a personality, but for us, I guess you would say we have to leave room for a personality. So there’s a continual striving for engagement. One way we try to do this is through material selection. I think natural materials are just inherently warmer and invite a different kind of engagement. Another is a recognition of the aging process, the way the materials will wear, the way the piece will wear, the way the piece might shift in response to the body that’s using it. And one of the things that I think we talk about all the time and perhaps, maybe the most important way that we achieve it, is through tapping archetypes. And so much of what drives our work is this kind of process of distillation. 

Merrill: Yeah, and honestly, I think your version is a lot harder. There’s a lot more room for error in what we’re doing because it can kind of, you know, come and go and you can add and subtract little things. But when you’re really trying to distill something, it’s harder to stick the landing on your end. 

Pauwen: Right. That’s why working on projects like the one we did with you is so much fun.

Simmering: So we’re actually at Rugosa right now; Rugosa being the house that inspired the collection. It’s a space that really invites gathering and supports a pretty broad understanding of what that could mean. So whether that’s a lot of different people in one space or one person alone, it kind of feels like there’s an infinite ability to relax into the space. And so the design work and material selection are all really geared towards capturing that and inviting that. But, you know, as much as we were really focused on capturing a feeling of a space and not so much the aesthetic of the space, there is a lot going on aesthetically in this house and I really loved seeing how you picked up on that and carried that forward.

Merrill: And that’s my favorite thing. The visual storytelling to me is really fun and that was, for us, really an in. Because your pieces in the Rugosa collection are really just beautiful and simple and they really lend themselves to how you guys have done them before with a solid color or a neutral. They’re lovely and wonderful. You don’t really want to throw a lot of stuff on them. But being able to think of this idea of how things can evolve or how you can take from the past… I think some of what we were really drawn to in this collaboration was this idea of sort of different perspectives, different generations, different time periods kind of coming together. And those juxtapositions really excite me as a designer. I’m always super vigilant about trying not to make something feel jarring. You want it to still feel comfortable. We looked at a lot of different fabrics for this and trying to piece together how we could tell this generational story in a way that also could stand alone without knowing the story. And I think some of that is the colors, they’re bright, but they’re also not super bright. There’s a fadedness, I think that also kind of talks about time. 

Simmering: Just this morning I was sitting in the living room, which was actually a room that was pretty central to the collection for us, and I was looking around at all the objects around me. The house has the collected belongings of several generations in it, things that have accumulated over time. So there are layers and all the textures and textiles are part of it. The room feels incredibly lived in and I think that trying to capture that in a piece of furniture in an interesting challenge. To tell that story of time and different bodies together in one place.

Merrill: Very often when we’re doing a project, we work with families. We may have couples that don’t like the same things or aren’t drawn to the same things or kids that have different needs than the adults. Trying to take all of those different elements and make them into a cohesive whole is a lot of what we spend time researching and digging into and trying to figure out. That was something that was fun for us to take these different fabrics and layer them on your pieces that have such a very beautiful, elegant simplicity.

Simmering: It’s very hard to pull off. You know, our work, which is pretty pared back, can sometimes be overlooked or dismissed as simple. But creating a piece that reads as effortlessly simple is incredibly challenging. I think the same thing is true with designing a collection like this where there is so much going on. People could dismiss it as something anyone could do. But the textile selection was incredibly challenging, gathering patterns and colors that were all different but worked together. For the upholsterers too, it was incredibly challenging because direction of repeats all had to be taken into consideration. 

Merrill: I think it really was about a balance. One of the nice things about a lot of our work being in Los Angeles is there are so many different types of architecture. When working on a mid-century house, we might be more likely to put older antiques and where we’re working on a craftsman or a tutor, or we might be more likely to use more modern furniture. And so that you aren’t sort of just tied to one, one era and one feeling. The mix is what creates something new that really is more about that moment. 

Simmering: Yeah, I’m really happy with how it came out. I think it tells that story beautifully. I also think there’s something really interesting going on with the way it plays with the perceived differences in our work. I think a lot of people see our work as being very starkly different, Kalon’s and Reath’s. But I think one of the things that the collection does really well is it takes things out of the buckets people want to put them in and shows the way that they can work really beautifully together.