IN Conversation with Trip Haenisch

Photo by Alex Fredik.

He’s a designer to the stars, living in a sparkling glass-box house high atop Beverly Hills with broad steps cascading down to an emerald lawn and winding infinity-edge pool. It looks like a set from a James Bond film. The home is featured in a gorgeous coffee table book, Personal Space: Trip Haenisch (Rizzoli, 2018) and it’s where, on Super Bowl Sunday, Haenisch was holed up alone so he could soak up every second of his beloved hometown Kansas City Chiefs’ date with destiny.

The soft-spoken, silver-haired, blue-eyed designer is better known on both coasts than in his native Kansas City. He was recently mentioned in a breathless piece in Page Six speculating that he will be designing a new mega apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York City for the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, and Bezo’s girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez.

Haenisch designed the homes Sanchez shared with her ex-husband Patrick Whitesell. In a lengthy phone chat with IN Kansas City from his office in Los Angeles, Haenisch apologizes that he can’t confirm the Bezos project, adding, “there are a lot of projects I do that I can’t publish or discuss because of who the clients are. Lauren and I have been close friends for a long time.”

His storybook career took an unusual path. After getting a business degree at the University of Kansas, Haenisch accepted a job with IBM in Los Angeles, setting off from his parent’s driveway with a pile of clothes and a TV strapped into the passenger seat of his Mazda, according to his book. In Los Angeles, he met celebrity designer Waldo Fernandez, whom he credits with teaching him about design. It was the beginning of a business partnership and a romantic relationship that lasted 26 years. Haenisch and Fernandez raised a son, Jake, who is now 26. 

Haenisch’s client list includes Courteney Cox, Laura Dern, Hank Azaria, and other film industry elites.

What was your childhood in Kansas City like?
I have such good memories of growing up. I was born in Marshall, in the middle of Missouri. My grandfather was a pharmacist in Slater, a small town near Marshall. I have great memories of visiting there. My dad was a New Yorker and met my mom at the University of Missouri, where he was studying journalism. My parents settled in Kansas City soon after I was born. Originally, we were near Shawnee Mission East on Howe Drive. It was a double cul-de-sac and there were a gazillion kids. It was a blast. When I was 5 or 6, we moved to Overbrook Road in Leawood, near 103rd and State Line. I went to Brookwood Elementary, Indian Creek Middle School, and Shawnee Mission South High School.

I was a gymnast since I was 5. In Kansas City everyone was into sports—that was a big part of my life. We just had so much fun. We used to come home from school and then run down to the creek, and then go over to a friend’s house. When it was time to eat dinner, my mom would ring a bell and we’d run home and eat. There was a sense of freedom. Raising a kid in LA, you can’t do it that way, and it’s kind of sad. Everybody’s kids have to be shuttled around in cars with people always watching them. 

You were a junior mascot for the Kansas City Chiefs and you performed on the field at the first Super Bowl. What was that like?
That was the first time I came to LA. I remember seeing all these palm trees. I’d never seen one; it was crazy. 

How did you get picked for that?
I was a pretty good gymnast—I was probably 7—and two girls and I got an audition with Lamar Hunt. He was so nice. We were junior mascots, and we would perform at halftime at football games. That went on for probably three or four years. We had a mini trampoline, and we would do cheerleading stuff. We had red tops that had the Chiefs logo and I wore white jeans and white sneakers. We were on the field for the first Super Bowl. I remember being so disappointed because the Chiefs lost. I also remember the stadium being only half full. It wasn’t like it is now. 

I’m such a Kansas City sports person. I’m obsessed with the Royals and the Chiefs. I’m so proud of what happened this year and the character of Lamar’s son running the team, and Andy Reid and Mahomes. Sports galvanizes everyone in this world where politics are complicated, and everybody’s at each other’s throats. It’s nice to have something that pulls you all together. I’ll go to a little sports bar here by myself, because there aren’t that many Chiefs fans, and watch the game. Nothing makes me happier. 

Where did you watch the Super Bowl?
I watched it at home, because during the Houston game I was with a client and his wife, who I love, in Vegas. I was watching the game while we were eating, and I couldn’t focus on it because I was trying to talk and be polite. Because of that, I decided to watch the Super Bowl by myself so I could just concentrate on it. Through the first three quarters, I was like, “Oh my God, this is so depressing.” I couldn’t believe what happened in the fourth quarter. It was the best.

I hear you are also a KU basketball fan.
I am. I love it. The tradition of KU basketball is so great. I’ve been able to get back for a couple of games at Allen Fieldhouse, which is amazing.

When you come back to Kansas City, what are your don’t-miss things you love to do?The arts scene there is incredible. There are a lot of great artists who are young and doing good work, so I like to visit galleries. Sherry Leedy’s got an amazing gallery. I go to Winstead’s and get a hamburger. My mom’s favorite place was Tatsu’s; I always check in there. And in my free time I’m always working anyway, so I like to go antiquing. And Retro Inferno—Rod Parks is amazing. I’ve bought the coolest things from him.

I saw on your Instagram the Memphis-style boxing ring bed that Rod used to have in his house.
Yes! I saw it there and I kept saying, “If you ever want to get rid of it, call me.” He was always saying, “No…No…No…” And then he moved and didn’t have a space for it and said, “Now’s the time.” And I said, “OK, send me an invoice.” Then I got the invoice and I was like, “Ouch.” [laughs] But I love it. Karl Lagerfeld had one of those in his house. There’s not many of those in the world. It’s kind of an amazing piece. 

What’s it like living in Los Angeles?
I love LA in spite of LA. There are lots of people out here who are, you know, a little self-absorbed and doing things just for themselves. I’m Midwestern, so I was raised that when people are sick, that’s when you show up for them. You bring them food; you bring them soup. I’ve found friends who are like that, you know, that you can count on. But you’ve got to wade through a lot of disappointments. I find that a lot of my friends are from the Midwest, which is interesting.

Your son, Jake, is 26 now. What’s he up to?
He went to college in New York at the New School—these youngsters like New York. Sometimes I feel as though I’m suffocating when I’m in New York. It’s too much, but he loves it. He was working at Revlon and then he got stolen away to another company. He’s doing really well. He’s happy. He’s getting a paycheck, which is good. [laughs] 

Is his work design related?
No. He was in HR and now he’s involved in tech stuff; I don’t even understand it. He’s really smart and really sweet and I’m proud of him.

How do you approach designing a home?
When I look at a project, I look at the architecture first, before I even think about the furniture. If there isn’t beautiful interior architecture, it’s never going to look right. I’m a frustrated architect. I’ve trained myself so that I could build a house from the ground up, although I’m not a licensed architect. That’s the first thing. Then I take into account the setting, the climate. And then certainly I take into account the client, what they’re willing to do and how far I can push them.

It’s not hard to make a house pretty. But to figure out how to make a house work for somebody is the most challenging part of it. In California we have nine months out of the year where we’re able to be outside. It’s that kind of indoor/outdoor living where you have these big architectural doors where the whole panel can open up and you can blur the line between the inside and the outside. That’s a really fun way to live.

When you are designing homes, do you have a favorite color palette?
I do this every day, and things change. Sometimes I’m a green person and then I get sick of that and I might become a blue person, and then I’ll see something else, and it looks fresh to me. I was in a great relationship for 26 years, and we lived in the most beautiful homes where everything was very neutral and clean. When we split up, I was depressed and I thought “I need some color in my life.” So in my house I did all these pops of color, and now I’m wanting to go back to something very calm. 

I think when you use color, you need neutrals such as beiges or grays. Then you can infuse it with color in the form of art or pillows or a chair. 

Do you design mostly in LA or do you work all over the country?
Normally it starts with clients in LA, then they get second homes. I’ve done houses in Aspen. I’m doing a house right now in Tahoe for a client that lives here. I’ve done work in Mexico, Hawaii, and New York. I’m doing a place in Montauk for the CEO of Mattel, which will turn out really nice. 

How is designing in LA different than designing in New York?
My ex and I had a house in East Hampton from the time our son was born. We would go there every summer, so I spent a lot of time in New York. 

One of the things I love about designing in New York City is the spaces are smaller. People there kind of pride themselves on being so smart. [laughs] You know, they’re always putting Californians down, but they buy quality. They don’t have these big houses with rooms to fill up—they tend to buy collectible pieces, interesting pieces, which I love. I love the idea of buying better. Here [in LA] some people force you to go to Restoration Hardware, which, ah, you know what I mean, is not as interesting. I like going to auctions, shopping. Prices in Kansas City are lower, so I shop there because I can get good value for my clients. It’s part of my Midwestern upbringing. 

How has technology changed your work?
Before I would have to get on a plane to do much of the work. If I was doing the house in Tahoe, I would have to be there all the time. Now, with FaceTime I can walk through a house like I’m there, so I’m a lot more productive.

Haenisch’s Beverly Hills master bedroom, as featured in Personal Space: Trip Haenisch. Photo by Peden + Munk.

What were the challenges of shooting your own book?
I learned a lot. Now when I open a book, I look at it on a whole different level. Thinking about things like page count and the differences between vertical and horizontal photos are things I never thought about before. 

I’m really pleased with the night shots in my book. Usually in design books everything is shot in the daylight. How a house looks during the day and then how it evolves at night—how it’s lit, how it feels—is something I obsess over. 

Another thing that was great about the book is that I’m always working with piles of stuff in the inbox every day, so there’s not much time for reflection. Doing this book allowed me to really take a wide view and feel gratitude for some of the great people who have given me opportunities, and for the great people that work for me, who support me and have been there for me through thick and thin. It felt nice.

You don’t do much work in Kansas City. Do you have a read on the design aesthetic here?
I would love to do work in Kansas City. I would love that opportunity. I know a lot of wealthy people in Kansas City—I think there’s this thing where, if you have money, you aren’t supposed to show it. Whereas in LA, a lot of people who don’t even have money are trying to project that they do. When it becomes about just showing off and not even enjoying it, it becomes something I’m less interested in. I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. It’s nice to be able to live in a stylish way and to be able to share it with your family and friends. If you can afford to do something nice, why not do it? And I would add, you can live in style even if you aren’t wealthy. CB2 has a lot of stylish things, for example.

You have a lot of celebrity clients. Is there someone you haven’t worked with that you would like to work with?
I would love to work with Patrick Mahomes. I have a lot of young clients who are very successful, but they don’t really know about design. I’m kind of parental in a way: I hate these stories of young kids who make a lot of money and then they are taken advantage of. I find it really fun to expose young people to design and teach them to collect good things, so that the value goes up as time goes on. At this point in my life, I take on what I want to do, and I love being able to teach young people who can afford it how to live well and how to invest their money properly. When I see young clients get excited as they discover a new way of living that enriches their lives—that’s the reward. 

Interview condensed and minimally edited for clarity.