Since it opened earlier this month, hundreds have flocked to Manhattan’s Upper East Side to meander through the Kips Bay Decorator Show House and its parade of interiors by some of decorating's top talents. But the biggest draw for AD PRO at this year’s edition stands just shy of five feet tall.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, after pushing through a crowded vestibule, AD PRO finds the subject in question in the backyard, reclining in a curved deck chair that heats your rear like the seat of a Lincoln Town Car. He pops up and ceremoniously presents a business card. It reads in a crisp font, “Graham Gilbert: Junior Design Consultant.”
Gilbert—a.k.a. @Instagrahamdesigner—has flown in from his hometown near West Palm Beach, Florida, on the eve of his 11th birthday to fulfill what for him is a dream come true: to visit the legendary show house, now in its 47th year.
The youngster has become something of an Instagram sensation, known for his quippy yet earnest observations of the design world. On his Instagram feed, you can find shots of Gilbert hamming it up with decorators, inspecting fabric samples, flipping through the latest issue of AD, and, of course, doing typical 11-year-old things like attending an orchestral version of Star Wars: A New Hope or sitting triumphantly in front of a pile of candy.
The budding designer rises from the heated chair and sits down on a low-slung retaining wall near a series of babbling fountains installed by Delaney + Chin. While Gilbert’s twinkling blue eyes and sprinkling of freckles might bring to mind a character straight out of the Sunday funnies, his natty attire (navy slacks, waistcoat, brogues) lends him the air of a C-suite executive.
Gilbert attributes his interest in interior design to his mother, Fran Sachs, who heads up the business operations for Krista + Home, a firm servicing greater Palm Beach County. “I came with her to the marketing events, mainly for the food at first,” Gilbert admits, “but I started meeting with the people there and I started learning about design.”
The fifth grader soon became a regular fixture in the office and impressed everyone with his winning grin, sponge-like intellect, and charming old-soul mannerisms. So taken was the design office with the aspiring designer that Krista Watterworth Alterman (whom Gilbert refers to simply as “Ms. Krista”) eventually offered him the honorary position of junior design consultant.
Back at the show house, Gilbert, trailed by his mom, his dad, Jon, and a photographer, makes his way inside. His friend and mentor the Los Angeles–based designer David Phoenix arrives, looking dapper and unruffled despite having just spent nearly an hour in traffic from JFK. The pair met in February at the Kips Bay Palm Beach satellite show house in Florida. “He was at the show house like every weekend, and he was looking at things and touching things and I said, ‘Who are you?’” Phoenix recalls. "After a few moments, I said, ‘Wait a minute, I have to tape this because no one is going to believe me.’”
The subsequent Instagram interview Phoenix posted of Gilbert describing his dream bedroom (navy blue walls, dark wood furnishings, white curtains) was a viral hit, garnering hundreds of views and supportive comments from prominent decorators and members of the Schwarzenegger family. The success of the clip led Gilbert and his mom to set up his own social media account.
Gilbert and Phoenix work their way through the show house, making stops at Cullman & Kravis Associates’ “Rhapsody in Blue” dining room, a study by Paloma Contreras (one of Gilbert’s idols), and a room by Eve Robinson Associates (“hard to dust,” Phoenix observes of a particularly intricate light fixture). They make their way down the show house’s spiral stair, outfitted by Gluckstein Design. “This was my friend Jeremiah Goodman, a very famous illustrator,” Phoenix explains to Gilbert, gesturing to a series of ethereal watercolors on the wall. Gilbert nods in approval.
Phoenix sees a lot of himself in Gilbert. The designer grew up outside of Boston copying floor plans from magazines and walking, entranced, through furniture stores. “I wish I would have had a place like the Kips Bay show house,” Phoenix says. It was through a mentor in his teens that Phoenix honed his craft as an interior designer.
And Gilbert will continue to hone his craft once back in Florida. There—amid homework assignments, tae kwon do class, theater practice (he recently played Melman, a hypochondriac giraffe, in a local production of Madagascar Jr.), and violin lessons—he will resume his after-school routine at Krista + Home, pulling up a chair at his mother’s large desk and diving into his tasks, still in his school uniform.
Though he has only been at it for a short while, Gilbert speaks of the business with the ease of a professional five times his age. “Don’t be afraid to get what you want,” he advises. “You are going to be a lot happier with the original thing you wanted—not the thing that was a bit cheaper and maybe not as extravagant.”
Of course, earning respect from your grown-up peers when you are still in elementary school can be an uphill battle. But Gilbert is not bothered by those who might dismiss him: “I meet some designers and I say, ‘I am an interior designer myself,’ and they go, ‘Hahaha [mimics bellowing laugh].’” He shrugs off such encounters. “I understand. As an adult you’re more inclined to expect that adults will be working—not kids—on interior design.”
Ultimately, Gilbert has the last laugh: He recently landed his first-ever client, a local homeowner in need of a discerning eye to help her select backyard furniture. “She said it would be a great learning experience,” Gilbert explains. “And I said, ‘Why not? I love learning.’”
Indeed, there are more lessons to be learned. Inside the show house Phoenix and Gilbert enter a Jeff Lincoln–designed room, filled with surrealist furnishings and sculptures. “It looks like Mars,” Gilbert remarks as he and Phoenix pad across a swirling carpet. Gilbert is particularly taken by the softness of some taupe alpaca wool drapes. “I want to rub my face on them,” he declares.
Phoenix swiftly intervenes. "Oh my God," he says to his young design squire, “that’s expensive!”
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest