Design Checkmate

Lexington interior designer Isabel Ladd makes a winning move


By Laura Ross
Photos provided by Isabel Ladd Interiors


The dictionary defines a “gambit” as a “chess opening where a player risks one or more pawns to gain an advantage in position.” It’s a calculated move that Lexington, Kentucky-based interior designer Isabel Ladd knows well. 

In a design world seemingly held hostage by grays and white, Ladd unabashedly loves color. “I love and need an explosion of color and energy that boosts me,” explained Ladd, the Owner of Isabel Ladd Interiors. “I am a curated maximalist, which means my designs are layered with lots of statement pieces and other cool pieces everywhere, but there is a symmetry to it all. I like to have several things in a room, so your eye is always moving. You don’t just walk in and say that’s a cool light fixture; next, you notice the pillow, and the table and the curtains. I strive for a happy feel.” 

The effusive Ladd was born in Brazil, but her parents, who are involved in the horse industry, moved to Lexington, Kentucky when she was just three years old. She graduated from Los Angeles’ Institute of Design and Merchandising, with an eye toward a career in fashion. She worked for fashion house BCBG, creating textiles for their dress collection, then later, married and moved back to Kentucky, where she and her mother began a cocktail and wedding dress business. It wasn’t her dream job, though, and after helping design interiors for a few friends’ houses, something clicked. 

In 2014, Ladd opened the doors on her company, Isabel Ladd Interiors, focusing on mostly residential interior design. She’s worked on a few commercial projects as well, and those connections led to a fun and fateful phone call at the beginning of 2021. 

Friend and client Whit Hiler, of Cornett, a Lexington ad agency, called late one Saturday night in January and asked her two questions: had she watched the hit Netflix miniseries, The Queen’s Gambit? And, how would she like to be part of a cool project? 

“I binge-watched the show in two days, actually,” Ladd laughed. “And, I loved it. I would stop it, rewind it and just stare at the design details. It was so well done.” 

That was fortuitous because Hiler’s pitch included asking Ladd to custom design a room at 21c Museum Hotel in Lexington that paid homage to the show, which was partially filmed throughout Lexington. The “Harmon Room” aptly named after the show’s title character, Beth Harmon, replicates her world of chess, intrigue and retro fashion and design, in a bid to lure tourists and fans of the series to 21c Museum Hotel. A pandemic-friendly tour and scavenger hunt through Lexington of prominent show locations were included in the chance to spend a night in the room. 

Ladd jumped at the idea to curate the set pieces but didn’t gamble at first on the quick turnaround needed. She was given one week. “He called on Saturday and by Monday I’d created a detailed prop list for the room. I collaborated with Lucy Jones, who is a mastermind of everything related to the 1960s. She loaned several mid-century pieces from her personal collection, and helped source other furniture and accessories,” said Ladd.

“I knew the wallpaper we chose had to make a statement,” she added, “but since we were limited to using temporary peel and stick paper, I couldn’t find what I needed.” Ladd also ran into a roadblock with her installers, who preferred more traditional pasted wallpaper. Ladd got permission from the hotel to go that route and landed a win when Versailles textile artist Alex K. Mason agreed to design and print the paper.

“On Tuesday, Alex designed the wallpaper,” explained Ladd. “And then, on Wednesday, we were asked if the entire room could be installed by Sunday. It was insane. We had to source and find the furniture, pull accessories, custom make the wallpaper, fabrics and more. I said yes and hoped to figure it all out later. I called in so many favors.”

Despite the stress, Ladd and her team pulled it all off, including the installation of a custom chess piece on the ceiling, by a Monday photoshoot deadline. The images and press that followed in the next few days sent the story skyrocketing to a national and international audience. “It went beyond my wildest dreams,” said Ladd, adding, “It was in Architectural Digest, E! Entertainment, Forbes, Italian Vogue, Elle Décor and more. I did an interview with HGTV also.”

The day the story was launched, the room was immediately booked through March 31, which was the original deinstallation date for the room. The ongoing interest has extended the “Queen’s Gambit” room’s booking opportunities through May 31. “When hotels are operating on low capacity because of the pandemic, things like this are good for everyone. I’d love to take this idea and capitalize on it in other settings,” said Ladd. 

Back in her home studio, with plans to open a downtown Lexington showroom later this year, Ladd is awash in fabrics, accessories and designs for current clientele. Despite the pandemic, 2020 was actually a great year for interior designers. Ladd worried that the luxury industry would screech to a halt, but the opposite happened. “People are sitting at home, looking around at their house 24/7 and they want action and improvement,” Ladd said. “Your surroundings affect your mood. If you’re around beautiful things and an organized workspace, you feel good, versus being around clutter and dull surroundings. People weren’t spending money on travel and entertainment, so they now have money for design projects.”

Listening to clients is the key to Ladd’s success. “You need to be in a surrounding that inspires you, and whether that’s a lot of bold colors, or something more serene and calm, it’s whatever makes you feel good,” said Ladd. “Clients say, ‘But, what if I get tired of it?’ I always say, ‘But, what if you LOVE it?’”

“Being an interior designer is 10% design and 90% life coach,” she added. “There is no right or wrong answer. Make your home your happy place, whatever that means to you. Whatever makes you happy is the right answer.”