The world of Katja Tamara Werner O’Brien involves a somewhat fantasy life most of us dream of- traveling the world, seeing art and fashion on every continent, and gathering the insight, vision and depth to layer character, history, and creativity into her fashion designs, interiors and overall lifestyle. It is her early upbringing and latest stint back in Marin County that has shaped this warm, approachable jet-setting gal into the style sensation everyone wants to get their hands on. We had the honor of photographing O’Brien of Katja Tamara at the De Young Museum this month for a modern interpretation of work by female artists such as Ruth Asawa and Jo Baer- bringing art to life and her couture closet to our pages. Katja’s story is exhilarating and her decor breathtaking, so make sure you read down to the last word for a link to Katja’s stunning Belvedere home featured today on Decorist and a juicy TWP discount for Katja or any other Decorist designer to help you create your dream home.
1. What were you like as a child? Who are you today?
I grew up with 1 foot in America and 1 foot in the Europe. My parents raised me in the USA, but with European interests, values, culture and language. I was a voyeur. I had tremendous exposure spending summers in Europe. My mother speaks 7 languages and we would travel, visit families and never miss a museum or historical building. When I couldn’t understand the language, my visual senses were totally heightened and I would absorb the colors, shapes, styles and design of a given place. It was fascinating to absorb beautiful art in museums, and the stylish women and men on the streets.
It was absolutely essential to my outlook on life to grow up in California. With tremendous acceptance of differences, an inquisitive nature and a warm heart, I thrived here and anything was possible. I was a bit of a tomboy with two older brothers and a fierce soccer, skier and tennis player. I was strong, climbing trees and always felt equal. This has helped me stay balanced. I love beautiful things, but I don’t let them define me as I know what is really important.
Luckily, I married a soulmate who loves to travel as much as I do. I think when you move to a new place, the home you decorate and the person you are truly meant to be shine. There are no preconceived notions of who you were in your school, job or community. I find that through my travels, my connections with female friends are absolutely pure and I have built friendships on my true interests. I am not friends with them because I went to school with them, but because we have so much in common now, in the present. That doesn’t mean I don’t love those in my past, but I am very aware of the present and the future.
Through my travels, I realized you can’t have just one style or one look. There are too many amazing things in this world to enjoy. Color, shape, modern, classic, contemporary are all relevant because they are beautiful. I love to choose elements from different designs and recreate my own.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
2. Your parents named you Katja, with two forms of pronunciations. What did this symbolize and how have the two meshed worlds of your parents shaped your own?
My parents named me Katja because they thought it would be easy to pronounce in three different languages, Norwegian, German and American English. My Father’s family all had K as their first name and so does my family. From their European perspective it was easy to pronounce, but for many Americans it was a very uncommon name years ago and impossible to pronounce! Basically you turn the J into an I when you pronounce it, but as Americans we pronounce a J the way we say jam so it is confusing for some.
As a young girl, I hated my name!!! Nobody could pronounce it at school and I remember the first days of school, my new teacher would always say K???? I was teased with nicknames like ketchup and gotcha caughtcha. As I matured, I grew an appreciation for my name. No one else I knew had it and when I heard it, I knew they were talking to me. When I travel in Europe there is never a problem, but in Asia it is still considered a bit difficult to pronounce.
My name is an easy conversation starting piece, it is unique and exotic for many, but it is all about perspective as it is quite common in Germany and Russia. I think because we are the only Americans in our family and our relatives are all abroad family is tremendously important down to the namesake.
3. You have traveled and lived all over the world, what are your biggest takeaways from these experiences?
Smile, be kind, be mindful, be generous. Go and see as much as you can- one of the greatest gifts my parents gave me was not to be afraid of traveling. Be out of your element. There is always something to learn and you may not realize it in the moment, but that experience will shape you and make you a better person.
I love this idea, of doing more than you think you can! I apply this in my work ethic. Taking risks is how I started my handbag/ lifestyle brand Katja Tamara and Resort Wear line SKiN Resort Fashion with one of my best friends in Singapore. We are now showcased in six countries and places such as The W Hotel-Sentosa, Singapore, The Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Kuda Huraa, and The Legian Bali.
We are all looking for happiness, beauty, comfort. My travels and exposure have made me understand myself much better and made me more compassionate and understanding. Visually, it has stimulated my design eye.
My Places To Be Inspired
1. Portofino – where I was married
2. Morocco – Fez, Marrakech- where we design our caftans
3. Under the water in Maldives – the bursts of color/ underwater life inspired the colors/skins for my handbag/ buddha necklace collection
4. Bali, Indonesia – where I work and create my products
5. St. Petersburg, Russia -the Hermitage Museum
6. Tokyo – the Harajuku girls and Omotosando shopping district
|4. Tell us about your life’s work.
To empower other people though design, fashion and art. Nothing makes me happier than when I have worked with a client and helped them to realize their vision. That can happen through redesigning their home, introducing new colors and style concepts, or by styling a client’s closet and watching them transform before my eyes as their demeanor becomes more confident.
Katja Tamara offers a lifestyle of design and fashion. I am still evolving and I am thrilled I still have so many things I want to do and places I want to see.
5. We brought art to life at the De Young – how do you do this in your daily design aesthetics & interpretations?
It was absolutely magical to bring art to life at the De Young. My mother worked in the Africa, Oceania, and the Americas department for over 30 years and she just gave a lecture to docents a couple of weeks ago. I grew up walking the hallways of the old De Young Museum being warmly welcomed by the guards and the many esoteric characters who were in charge of different collections. I took art classes on Fridays and was genuinely inspired by the curator’s passion. The De Young which was home to my mother is like a second home to me. Art has always been a passion and I worked at Sotheby’s in New York in the 90’s.
When I returned to Singapore, my son was starting kindergarten and my daughter was entering 2nd grade. This was my next chapter as both my children were in school full time. I treasured the times I had spent with them, but I knew I wanted to pursue something for myself. One of the greatest reasons was I had been educated in the US and Europe learning about history, culture and religions and I had lived in Tokyo and Singapore twice, yet Asia was still a mystery to me.
I selected the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore to do my docent training and luckily they selected me. The civilizations in Asia are steeped in tradition, history and religion. It was one of the hardest and most intense programs comparing Daoism to Sikhism, learning about Kiswahs, Boddhisattvas, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sancai Tomb guardians, the Literati and the jewelry! Remarkably I was finally able to connect the dots. I found context in understanding the cultures around me and why things are the way there are.
At this same time, friends were beginning to collect pieces and I could now understand their historical, religious and cultural significance. I had one client who had a pair amazing winged deities carved out of wood and over 3 feet tall. When you entered her home, she had placed them with their backs facing the person who enters their home and they were partially hidden. Out of respect and honor, these deities needed to be moved to a more focal point of their home to welcome guests.
I love designing for Decorist, an online interactive interior design forum. Decorist is such a powerful tool creating accessibility and possibilities. I am able to connect with clients all over the world recommending and designing any space they wish. To bring a client’s vision to reality is pure delight.
When I am styling interiors with a client, I try to understand how they use the space, what they are looking to achieve and what they are wearing. What we wear represents what we love and can quickly show me a client’s favorite color or style.
I like to find a cohesive element and carry it through a room. Whether it be a shape, color, material or element, it creates a connected space. I absolutely believe in the mantra function and form. That doesn’t mean you can’t have an outrageous piece, but balance that with empty space or clean lines. Be mindful of scale and what feels good. Let that be your measuring tape.
6. What is your personal measuring stick for success?
My measuring stick is health, happiness and home. My three H’s. No matter how much stuff I have or don’t have if my family is not happy than I am as happy as my saddest child. When I was traveling as a present and reminder for my husband, I have him H cufflinks (Hermes cufflinks to remind him of these 3 pillars of life).
|7. Name your whiplash moment- something in life that made you change up 180 degrees.
Breaking up with my fiance in San Francisco, where I would have probably stayed for the rest of my life and listening to my gut (which I feel is a combination of your head and your heart) to marry my husband. When I moved to Asia starting a new chapter of exploration, travel and love, this changed the trajectory of my life. I finally was mature enough to trust my instincts – this has served me well in my companies, design business, and entrepreneurial endeavours and personal life.
8. How did your mom influence your artistry?
My mom showed me that most things are done with a purpose, there is symbolism in everything and just because you may not initially be aesthetically drawn to something, don’t just pass it by. Take another look, you may not like it, but appreciate it for what it is. I remember in my teens and early twenties loving Impressionism and not appreciating Tribal art. I still love Impressionism, but I now love Tribal art too!
Now as I am older, just like her, a young Norwegian who was intoxicated with Africa, Oceania, the Americas and Tribal art – I too am obsessed with the exotic from my perspective and that for me is Asia.
9. And now as a mom yourself, how do you pass on creativity?
In my twenties, I was selfish in a positive way. I took risks, traveled, worked hard, played hard and spent time with different types of people. So when in my thirties, I was ready to have kids. I had done so much and tried so many new things, I was happy to be home and spend time with little ones.
I love to take them to museums and shopping with me (when they will come!). I tend to talk a lot explaining, pointing, asking questions and then I am quiet. I let them digest what they are seeing by themselves and sometimes they ask me more questions and sometimes they are quiet too. But I know they have absorbed a little bit and they will take that with them and apply it to whatever they are doing when the time is right.
What is quite remarkable is I am hoping to expose my children to the world my parents exposed me to. They have already lived in Singapore and the US twice, Tokyo, Zurich, and Switzerland. I think they are open minded and have walked in a lot of different “shoes” so they know what it is like to the be in another person’s “shoes”. Since they have been the “new kids” at school many times over, this has taught them tremendous compassion. We travel and they spend time with their cousins from London, Norway and Bangkok. They have global pen pals and instead of using paper, pen and a stamp, they post in instagram and facetime each other.
I like to nurture their interests and try to balance their experiences. My son is a master builder in legos and now Minecraft, but loves soccer and skiing. My daughter who excels at science and math can be found playing in my closet and trying my makeup on and the next day she is kicking a soccer ball or racing down the ski slopes. This boggles my mind!
10. Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Spending my time between Asia, Europe and the US. Designing, building, collecting, and growing ….
To see Katja’s latest styling tips & tricks and her beautiful Belvedere home, hop on over to Decorist, the savvy online interior design site that makes creating your dream home personal, easy, accessible and virtual. And Decorist is now making it even easier for you TWP readers with a delicious discount. Use this code TWP20 for $20 off a Decorist makeover with Katja or any other Decorist designer .