A Conversation with Carol Estes


We recently chatted with Carol Estes, a San Diego based interior designer who we love for her laid back, California inspired spaces with perfectly curated vintage items. We talked with Carol about what she loves most about living in a sunny coastal city, what the road looked like to becoming an interior designer, and her tips for a well-designed space.

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You have a full-service interior design business and also are constantly updating and freshening up your own home! Tell us a bit about how you got started in interior design.  

Becoming an interior designer wasn’t a direct route for me. Sure, I have been passionate about it since the age of 6 and when it was time for college, I wanted to major in it!  But my dad said no, there’s no money in that. Fast forward quite a few years and a lucrative career as an accountant, I decided it was time for me to finally pursue a career that brought me more rewards than just a paycheck.  I took the leap of faith and resigned from my position as a Director of Finance and headed to design school. After my award-winning schooling experiences, I interned with a local designer to learn the business side of design before going out on my own.

 The timing could not have been better.  Having just discovered Instagram, I immediately started posting my work there.  Luxe magazine subsequently interviewed and featured me under their “one to follow” column which helped my business take off.  Today, about 98% of my business is from Instagram. I don’t advertise. I don’t have a website. I rarely even have my work professionally photographed.  Still, the business is always coming in. 

You recently renovated your cabin that we can all agree is to die for. Tell us a little bit about what it’s like designing a space for yourself. 

Designing my own homes has been the toughest challenge.  The world is my oyster which makes choosing materials an endless task. My cabin has been a fun design opportunity. Built in 1930, it needed some love.  It had good bones and a floor plan at least. With the cabin, I set budget limits as part of my concept statement. I wanted to honor its purpose (seasonal mountain retreat) and its period. With that in mind, I challenged myself to furnish it with mostly thrifted vintage pieces mixed with current, inexpensive items.  By applying good design principles, it’s just as possible to create beauty and drama with inexpensive pieces as it is with high-cost items. When it came to remodeling the kitchen and bathrooms, the construction was a balance of high/low as well.

You live in San Diego! What are a few of your favorite things about living there?

Living in San Diego, I am close enough to be on the beach several times each week. It really is my happy place where I exercise, relax and reset. I love that you are never far from water in San Diego. Within less than two miles from my home, there are two lakes and beautiful hiking!! The warm climate suits me perfectly as does the laid back, surfer town vibe!!

What do you think are a few very important elements to making a room feel well designed?

A home should feel personal and as though people enjoy living there. Collecting furnishings and accessories over time can help create this feel. This keeps a space from feeling sterile and staged.  Time-worn items with patina and history can add warmth and character resulting in an authentic, lived-in vibe. You can easily find these pieces at flea markets, estate sales, and antique shops. It’s very important to combine these aged items with some new, contemporary pieces that you really love to keep it current and interesting. I enjoy using current hand-made, one of a kind pieces such as ceramics, textiles, and furniture, in a space. Art is very important.  Develop your taste in art! Visit museums and galleries to learn what moves you. Interior architecture is a very important part of a well-designed space. Get the bones right before filling a space! There is never just one solution in design. However, typically there will be a most effective or elegant solution. A designer’s job is to find that solution. Knowing where to raise ceilings, lower doorways, add windows, change shapes, styles, and proportions of windows are just a few elements that lead to a well-designed space.

Where do you go for inspiration?

France, Belgium, Netherlands, and England inform my style.  A couple of times each year I visit Europe for continued inspiration. In Europe, age, elegance, refinement, ingenuity, and creativity abound.

You have so many gorgeous vintage pieces in your home. Do you have any secrets to sourcing the best vintage items?

A great way to source vintage items for your home is to plan it into your vacations.  Research where markets exist in areas you will be visiting. Sometimes you will find the best items in the smallest, off the beaten track, markets and shops.  Also, look for estate sales in your area. These can be a bit depressing for me. But, they are often gold mines!! I also suggest you follow vintage sellers on Instagram.  

What do you hope your clients feel when they walk into the completed space for the first time? 

My hope and plan is for my clients to fall in love with their home, perhaps for the first time.  I want them to appreciate a natural, gentle flow between spaces and discover new comfortable places to relax and tune out the world for a period. In addition, I hope they will enjoy sharing their beautiful environment with friends and loved ones.  And… I hope they will say they wish they had hired me sooner!

What is next for you, both professionally and personally? 

For 2020, I have some very exciting full-house remodels heading into construction with vastly different histories. These include a large La Jolla mid-century modern family home and a modest-size 1920’s Tudor in a lovely historic San Diego neighborhood. Also on the horizon are a couple of ground-up builds. As always, there are more kitchen and bathroom remodels along with furniture plans. 

Personally, I will continue to travel for enjoyment and inspiration! And, I hope to be able to spend more time at my little mountain cabin surrounded by nature’s beauty!

What are a few trends you are loving this season?

  • Wood stained kitchen cabinets with integrated hardware
  • Live finishes
  • Bold white marble slabs with high contrast
  • Vintage statement light fixtures
  • Gio Ponti mirrors
  • Chairs and sofas covered in winter white wool boucle

What are five things you can’t live without right now?

  • Oversized cashmere sweaters
  • White sneakers
  • Doc Martins
  • Protea fresh and dried
  • Lelabo

All photos provided by Carol Estes, @cestesdesign

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