Jennifer E. Mabry
The artist, entrepreneur and director of her eponymous Los Angeles residential and commercial boutique design firm traces her interest in the field back to Berkeley, California, where she was born and raised. Her parents bought a house across from her maternal grandparents, who left Louisiana to escape the racial and socioeconomic segregation of the South during the Great Migration.
Creativity was abundant in the family. Coulter’s grandfather was a blues singer, her grandmother a quilter “who could have been a master chef”, she says, adding: “There would be a can of green beans and a light bulb in the fridge, and we would have a gourmet meal.”
The house was an exquisitely detailed 1908 mini-craftsman that Coulter said was built “with dark mahogany walls, beautiful light fixtures, and Batchelder tiles around the fireplace.” She thought the aesthetically luxurious setting of a working-class neighborhood was a residential norm until she reached adulthood and discovered that housing estates were no longer the rule at that time and her childhood home was exceptional.
Coulter’s environment inspired her to tap into her creative side. She majored in theater at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and upon graduation quickly landed acting roles in some of the biggest TV hits of the 1990s, including A different world, Martin and Family matters. Within a few years, she appeared in her first film, the 1997 film Rosewood, a drama based on the true story of an economically self-sufficient black community in 1920s Florida that was destroyed by a white mob. She met her husband, Don Cheadle, an Oscar-nominated actor and activist, on the Rosewood Position. The couple have two adult children.
As their careers began to take off, they agreed that one parent would always stay with their children while the other worked.
During those early years, Coulter says she often spent the time moving furniture around in their 1,100-square-foot Venice bungalow while Cheadle worked. One day when he returned, he asked, “Will it be a month when I get home, and this is how our furniture lives?”
This question, along with requests from friends who admired her aesthetic and her flair for design in her own home, led her on a journey of exploration to “understand what design is”, while wondering “How does the space we live in affect how we feel and what we do? Does it inspire us or limit us?
Coulter returned to UCLA and earned a master’s certificate in interior design, graduating with honors. Coulter credits the program, which she says leaned more toward the study of interior architecture than interior design, for providing an array of hands-on experiences that improved her way of thinking about palette, texture, scale and surface in his work. “I’ve always been aware of space and how it makes me feel, whether it’s inspired, embraced or warm,” says Coulter. “For me, space is an experience, and we spend so much time in inner space that I think it’s important to be aware of the space (that we’re in).”
For example, when Coulter and Cheadle embarked on the journey in the early 2000s to build their forever home — the West Los Angeles residence where they still reside — they intended to create an emotional experience for their family. “We wanted our kids to think anything is possible, so our living room has high ceilings,” says Coulter.
By contrast, she says, the family room is designed as a “dark, cuddly cocoon” where they enjoy playing board games and watching TV. And the kitchen has large windows that stream sunlight into the central gathering place for dining and cooking. The couple “dreamed and drew” the floor plan and hired an architect to realize their vision.
Each individual will have a different feeling or interpretation of what the house represents, Coulter says. “For some it may be stifling, for others a sanctuary, but it’s undeniable the time we spend in our homes and other indoor spaces,” she says.
Coulter says the measure of what constitutes successful interior design is not based on the designer’s credentials, but on “if the house is warm and like that person, and if they are happy and like living in that space” and hosting friends there.
Contemplating deeply how human beings “feel, think, and move differently in space is what I love to apply to interior design,” says Coulter. “Space is my canvas. This is how I tell a story in 3D.
It’s the insight she attributes to her training as an actress, and an aspect of her practice that she says inspires many people to seek her services. “It’s been fun for me to try and figure out this puzzle of what you want to feel here and how can I tell this story through space and give you this experience?”
Like asking a mother to pick her favorite child, Coulter says it’s hard to pinpoint her most beloved design project. Without a doubt, it’s all about combining elements that are part of its signature style: layered, monochromatic, with textured patterns and an earthy vibe. “Stylistically, my heart starts beating for warm modern,” she explains. “My Dream of Dreams is a modern take on an African safari set on a mountain facing the ocean. It’s all my favorite things combined together.
The same care with which Coulter approaches her design practice played a role in a business venture she started in 2018. Coulter’s house of blackbirdsa coworking space in Culver City, California aims to support and uplift professional women of color and their allies.
The sprawling former industrial space that Coulter personally designed is described on its website as “a progressive collective that celebrates creativity, promotes well-being, inspires productivity, and encourages activism.”
Deliberately respectful of the environment
Being purposeful and having a positive effect on the world is a personal principle and part of the Coulter business ethic. For example, it stopped using materials containing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) several years before the state of California banned them because it was against its principles. Toxic VOCs emit – or “off gasses” – fumes that emanate from a freshly painted room.
Most clients come to a project envisioning a specific end result, and Coulter works hard to keep them happy while educating them on the long-term benefits of spending more on higher-quality materials for an office or home renovation. compared to a cheaper alternative, noting the installation cost is generally the same. It’s an easier conversation today than when she started her practice 15 years ago, she says, because consumers are “more open-minded” and know the need to create safe and habitable.
“Sustainability can also mean building something that is passed down from generation to generation,” says Coulter, who also reupholsters durable classic furniture made in the mid-20th century. “I don’t like disposable furniture, which often ends up in landfills.”
She tries to convey the importance of “recycling” furniture that remains salvageable and usable. For customers who feel pressured to buy new furniture or other decor, she recommends items made from recyclable metals, wood and other eco-friendly materials.
“Everything (we) touch, someone thought of it, and someone designed it, and someone tried to make it useful or pretty, and that fascinates me,” Coulter says.