One of Kansas City’s top interior designers uses her influence and creativity to help change lives.
Story by Lindsey Corey | Photos by Sherry Mirador and Sam Sullivant
Kansas City interior designer Kelee Katillac wasn’t feeling very creative in college.
She was depressed and doubting herself. But Katillac tapped into her creativity, hoping to change her attitude by updating her environment, and out of it came what she called “the best little trailer house in Kansas,” and a new passion for interior design.
Today Katillac is a successful designer whose luxury interiors have been featured in magazines such as House Beautiful, and whose first design book received praise from Oprah Winfrey.
“My life was basically saved by the creative process,” she says. “So I really believe in it. When I work with kids and help them preserve that creativity instead of losing touch with it, I see how much it uplifts them. It helps me remember the core of what’s inside every one of my clients, no matter how successful they’ve become. And I want to be sure I’m addressing something that is essentially nurturing to them, something that affirms who they are and gives them a vision for the future.”
Katillac and husband Steve Heiffus, an architectural designer, founded Design Gives Back five years ago to provide rooms that encourage hope and healing for those in need. Now ten percent of the proceeds from their high-end design business goes to philanthropic room makeovers Katillac creates with the help of volunteers and corporate sponsors.
“My clients that we create these fabulous custom environments for are also part of the give-back process because part of everything we make goes toward Design Gives Back,” Katillac says. “So when we do a wonderful home that nurtures their family, my clients know that by doing that, they’re also helping somebody else. It’s a great cycle.”
And it’s personal.
“This isn’t ‘Extreme Home Makeover.’ They have a huge budget; it’s pure Hollywood,” Katillac says. “With us, it’s sincere, it’s smaller, and it’s very real. We’re working with small means and big outcomes. My first concern is the health and inspiration of the person we’re serving. We really spend time with the family to help them have ownership in it and ensure it’s an environment they’re going to have healing in.”
Environments like the one Katillac created for Colette Gauthier, a single mom and social worker diagnosed with breast and bone cancer.
Colette was given only a few months to live, plus a monstrosity of a hospital bed that overwhelmed her tiny house in Michigan. She knew the chemo and radiation would mean a lot of staring at her dingy ceiling tiles and peeling wallpaper… until Katillac and a team of volunteers drove 600 miles to complete the three-day transformation into the cottage oasis Colette dreamed of, a place for “hope to live,” Katillac says.
Before the hospital bed, Colette’s Labrador, Annie, used to snuggle up next to her, especially if she knew her master was in pain. But the dog was scared of the cumbersome bed. Katillac made it cozy, dressing it in colors hand-picked by Colette; volunteers added wooden beams to the ceiling; and at the center, they hung a small crystal chandelier.
Colette called it her “light of hope.” And after the crew left, Colette relaxed in her new healing space, and her pooch, Annie, jumped up beside her on the newly disguised hospital bed.
“The goal was really to serve the heart and soul,” Katillac explains. “It’s a makeover from the inside out and from the outside in.”
And Katillac has reason to believe it does make a difference: Four years after Colette’s dismal prognosis, she is doing well, and sharing what she learned from Katillac about the therapeutic powers of color, environment and meditation.
“The people who need me seem to find me,” Katillac says. “This has touchable, feel-able and see-able outcomes, and that’s why it’s so gratifying. We can pretty much guarantee a positive experience for everyone, including our corporate partners.”