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Ancient Artefacts to Modern Furnishings: How Claudia Kalur Unearthed Her Passion for Design

Megan Hill

Claudia Kalur once called the galleries of The Met home, working for their Department of Egyptian Art. But growing reluctance to pursue a PhD (necessary to advance her career) and lingering memories of her childhood fascination with architecture and design, led Claudia to consider a different path...

She did end up pursuing another degree. But this time it was in interior design.

Claudia set up CFK Interiors with her newborn daughter in tow. Years later her brand is synonymous with "pristine, timeless and tailored design"—a credit to her accomplished academic past. Claudia explains why moving on does not mean giving up and shares the wholesome origins of her love for fabric...

Claudia Kalur poses, arms crossed in font of a design inspiration board. She wears a blue shirt and clear frame glasses
Claudia Kalur—CFK Interiors

Family inheritance

I am from Portugal, a country over 800 years old, and my father would often take us on day trips to museums, churches, monasteries, etc. when I was growing up. Whilst as a child I sometimes found it boring, they definitely developed my curiosity. They awakened a love for art and architecture and the stories within them.

Also from my father came my love for fabrics, he was a fabric rep for mills in the north of Portugal that weaved men's suiting wools like pinstripe and plaids. I grew up with fabric swatches and always loved when some fabrics were discontinued and I could have the samples!

Memories of The Met

After a degree in History of Art (from the University of Lisbon), I moved to London to do a Master's in Egyptian Archaeology at UCL. I worked at the Egypt Exploration Society and the British Museum as part of my research as an assistant to researchers.

I was working with Egyptologists whose work I had read while an undergrad in Lisbon and now here I was working with them. I was in complete awe the whole time.

I also worked at the Royal Academy of Arts where I was exposed, not only to the beautiful building but to the background process of curating exhibitions. Some of my fondest memories are of standing in the galleries with the art handlers seeing the pieces being installed.

Then I came to NYC as an intern to the Department of Egyptian Art at The Met and ended up being offered a full-time job as a research assistant, where I stayed for over 6 years.

I loved Mondays at the Met! The museum was closed to the public so the galleries were empty.

I loved walking slowly through the Egyptian wing and looking in more detail at everything in the collection.

Awakening passions

I have always loved interiors, I have been buying interior magazines since I was 13 or 14. At the time there were none in Portugal so my first magazine was the Spanish, El Mueble. But it did not occur to me that it could be a profession, I only thought of it as a hobby. Plus, by then I was in love with Art History so I never gave it much thought.

Then my husband took a huge career U-turn—he was a private aircraft broker but after we had re-done two apartments, he decided to go back to school and do a Masters in Architecture.

So, he started to bring home floor plans and we would discuss room layouts and that awakened in me the idea that I could perhaps consider doing it as a job...

A double life

I started my diploma in interior design whilst working at The Met. Because my job was research-based anyway, studying just felt natural—the diploma was a distraction!

But as I became more disillusioned with work at the Met, and increasingly excited by fabrics and furniture, the thought that I might make a serious career change started solidifying. But it took me a long time before I quit Egyptology and decided that I was starting afresh.

I think I lived a double life for a couple of years! I only told my husband and a friend at The Met that I was thinking of completely changing career paths. Mostly because it was hard for me to quit something I had worked for, for so long and for a while saw it as a form of defeat. I saw it as giving up.

Starting from scratch

I still feel like I'm playing catch up. All the time.

But I think it's down to my personality, as I felt the same with Egyptology. I always felt others knew more so I had to catch up—read more articles, more books, visit more collections.

Having said that, what I did not realise was that because of my degree in History of Art thus having studied architecture—I was more caught up on knowledge than I thought.

Going at it alone

I loved working at Privet House and I learnt so much: a business perspective, choosing and buying antiques and vintage pieces, aesthetics, design, art, interiors. I met so many designers and architects I admired and learnt from them.

I wanted to do interiors, not just sell beautiful things.

But ultimately the shop had no intention of offering design services and so, I figured I needed to start doing it on my own. I had just had my daughter and needed a paying job so there was no way I could afford to start as an intern at a design firm.

So, I created my company and very, very shyly started offering services to friends, friends of friends and soon enough I started getting projects. My first two projects were 'zero fee' in exchange for photos for my portfolio!

Lessons from a personal history with history

My academic path and working in museums taught me a few things that I carry with me to this day. Whilst I loved Egyptology and even went on excavations in Egypt as a ceramicist, what I was interested in was art research and working in museums.

I was (and still am) fascinated by flow paths and how curators design exhibitions in a way that intentionally guides people through a space.

Also, the importance of having a method. When you research and gather information whether, for an article, an exhibition label, or designing a room, it's fundamental to have a method, an order of things.

It's all in the details

Egyptology taught me to see, and pay attention to, the details.

Training your eye is fundamental in design. You may be naturally predisposed but you still need to train your eye to see more, to see differently, to understand what you are looking at and to realise why an artist or designer chose to do something a certain way.

As both an art historian and Egyptologist you spend hours looking at pieces to understand all the details, the nuances, the changes, so you can understand a period, a method, the story behind it. This helps me zone in on certain details but also to see the big picture and what works and does not work when putting a space together.

The bucket list

I lived in London for 5+ years and my aesthetic has always aligned more with the way British designers view and design interiors. I have had projects there and I keep up with the design world in the UK and France—I make sure to visit Chelsea Harbour and showrooms every time I am in London! But I want to have more projects in London, and I'd also love to work in Portugal, simply to have an excuse to be home more.

But, on the bucket list:

  • Design the interiors of a boutique hotel or a historic inn. Or even a private jet!
  • Have a project published in the pages of House & Garden—what a dream!

If you could go back in time...

I wish I had made the move to interior design sooner, so I could have had spent more time working for and learning from other designers.

I think we have stopped appreciating the value of an apprenticeship, I think it is so important to learn from others' perspectives and experiences.

I wish I had made the move whilst in England as I would have begged for apprenticeships at Colefax & Fowler and Nina Campbell (today that list would include Rita Konig and Todhunter Earle too).

Accepting it is time to move on

It was extremely hard to leave Egyptology. I quit because I felt I had hit a wall—I did not want to pursue a PhD anymore and for an academic career that is a must.

I did not want to immerse myself in a degree that no longer gave me the same joy.

Re-discovering what I now consider my first passion, interior design, may have made me doubt my future in Egyptology.

I do miss working in museums terribly! Now and then I find myself thinking that one day when I have more time, I would love to study museology as a hobby...

Visualist's reinvention series spotlights creatives who have let their passions lead them into exciting near careers. It is never too late to do what you love, and these creatives are proud to prove it!