Karen Rapp, ASID
Wiseman and Gale Interiors
The interior designer contemplates repeat clients and her stealth modernism
By Nora Burba Trulsson
Interior photography by Laura Moss Photography
Over the course of nearly four decades in the business, interior designer Karen Rapp has become known for her gracious, comfortable and traditional interiors. Few, however, know that her deep roots are squarely in modernism, long before it become known as “midcentury” modernism.
“I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah,” explains Rapp, who joined Scottsdale’s Wiseman and Gale Interiors in 2020. “My family was the modernists on the block while everyone else was doing French provincial. We’re talking 1964.” Indeed, with a father who was a general contractor and a mother with an eye for interior design, Rapp grew up in a house with grey carpeting, terrazzo flooring, an original Saarinen Tulip table, a Bertoia Bird lounge chair and other classics from Herman Miller. “I loved it,” she remembers.
Being an interior designer was always on her radar, from early childhood. “My friends and I played house by drawing floor plans on our concrete driveway with chunks of drywall we found at home-building sites at the end of our street,” she says. “I also made furniture out of twigs and houses for fairies under our lilac bushes, because I was sure they came to visit at night.”
After finishing her degree in English at the University of Utah, Rapp moved to Arizona and pursued her interior design dreams by getting a degree in decorative arts from ASU in 1984. She quickly landed a job as a design assistant to Don Brady, who had
an interiors shop at the old Safari Hotel in downtown Scottsdale, a property that he had just renovated. “Our big project after that was the remodeling of the Hilton Scottsdale Resort and Villas,” Rapp remembers. “Southwest style was all the rage back then, and I traveled to Santa Fe and Mexico to buy things for our projects.”
Brady closed up shop in 1987 to move out of state and, essentially, handed Rapp a client list. “I never really intended to start my own business, but I did, working out of my little condo, getting jobs by word of mouth.”
Her big breakout project was a collaboration with architect Don Ziebell and Desert Star Construction on a French country-influenced home in Paradise Valley. “The roof and floor tiles were from France, the hardware was from France—it was an incredible home,” Rapp remembers.
By the 1990s, Rapp had earned a rep as a master of the traditional look. “I became known for that,” she says, “but honestly, I love all styles. You get your inspiration from the architecture and what the clients want. An interior should not look out of place.”
Rapp continued with a steady stream of clients, many of whom came back to her time after time, year after year, for a second, third and even fourth home, not to mention renovations and additions. She’s worked on notable home projects with architects like Mike Higgins, David Dick, George Christensen and Matthew Thomas. In 2017, she collaborated with architect Cathy Hayes to build an office building in Arcadia Lite, where they would each have a studio.
The pandemic forced the sale of the building, but as one door closed, another opened. Scott Burdick, managing partner of Wiseman and Gale Interiors, approached Rapp about joining the noted Scottsdale design studio. Despite several initial months of working remotely because of the 2020 COVID lockdowns, Rapp quickly became part of the collaborative studio.
“After working on my own for so many years, one of the delights of being at Wiseman and Gale is working with other designers and getting instant input on design challenges,” she says. Rapp says she enjoys the studio’s aesthetic of a curated style, and the freedom to work on her own projects, for past clients and new jobs, including renovations, additions and ground-up homes. “I love my ongoing clients,” she says. It’s always about the relationship, not the project. These clients are like family, that’s why I can’t retire. There’s too much to do.”
Lest she go down in the annals of Valley design history as one of the best interpreters of traditional style, Rapp is looking forward to working on a new—modern—Paradise Valley home, collaborating with fellow Wiseman and Gale designer Michael Marlowe, architect Brent Kendle and builder GM Hunt. “It will be contemporary,” Rapp says firmly, “and it will reflect the architecture.”