Studio 44: A Craftsperson’s Louvre in the Upper Village

By Jeff Wing   |   July 9, 2024
Studio 44 celebrates master crafts, and not a minute too soon

Stephanie Kaster has been our village’s Empress of Architectural Interiors for quite a little while now. Is Kaster an actual Empress? No. For one thing, that would make our deciduous little whistlestop an Empire, which hardly suits the place. Does Kaster comport herself like an Empress? If bounding across the room with arms outstretched in greeting is Empress-like, then yes. 

Stephanie Kaster of East Valley Design Strategies

As SLB Designs, Kaster for years operated out of a demure little walkup on Coast Village Rd. More recently, as East Valley Design Strategies (EVDS), she realized a longstanding dream. “I’ve been practicing in these nine square miles of Montecito for 28 years,” Kaster says, beaming. “And I’ve wanted to be in the upper village for about 21 of those.” Even as she has flourished and made a name for herself over time, Kaster has long envisioned a professional working space the visitor and prospective client may actually enter and roam, since architectural interiority is better experienced than purely imagined. Nestled within Kaster’s welcoming new space is the small, elegant gallery Studio 44 – glowing like the understated heart of a sapphire.

The showroom is the sort of calming dark wood grotto that immediately expunges your (possibly false) memory of having just walked through an office door. Enlisting her frequent collaborator – renowned master wood artisan Ken Frye – Kaster poured all her design instincts into the new showroom, and into the small but potent gallery that is its arguable core, both aesthetically and philosophically. Frye is a trusted colleague and frequent actualizer of Stephanie’s warm and intricately detailed interiors. “He’s a master wood craftsman,” Stephanie says emphatically, “and we’ve been collaborating for about 23 years. The only thing I can say about Ken is that when you meet him, he’s just wonderful!” When it came to Studio 44, Kaster’s initial “ideating out loud” phase may have momentarily paralyzed even the wonderful Ken. 

“I told him,” Stephanie says, “‘I’m getting a vision of the Médicis. Like, 16th century Italy.’ And he said, ‘Okay…what are you seeing?’ And I said, ‘I want to do inlay floors in diamond, and I want to do the carved birds in the corners that look almost like a mask that you would wear to carnival…’” That is, to Frye’s question, “What would you like me to do here?” Stephanie invoked the Médicis – the swaggering Florentine super-clan who sponsored da Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael, Michelangelo, and more broadly the Italian Renaissance. No problem. “There’s just nothing that can come out of my mind that he can’t build,” Kaster says with an electric smile, then adds an asterisk. “My colleague Ken is a patient man.” 

Kaster is similarly patient. Her determination to realize the vision has made her a presence in Montecito’s architectural interiors space for nearly three decades. Between her architectural credentials, fashion training, an MBA, and six augmenting business certificates from Harvard, Kaster’s approach to design doesn’t skimp on detail. “I’m also very patient,” she says energetically. “And tenacious.”

The Woods are Lovely, Dark and Deep…

The interior life is all..

East Valley Design Strategies’ truly bespoke architectural interiors are custom-crafted, enfolding works of habitable art. The magic? For all that class and elegance, Kaster’s designs – as realized by Frye – reach out and pull you in. There is a gentility and refinement that does not overwrite the familiarity and sense of arrival. “A completely livable elegance really is our forte,” Stephanie says. “There’s always going to be a room, it doesn’t have to be the whole house, that you just slip into, whether a fine library, a stunning bedroom, an elegant dining room or beautiful, beautiful kitchen – or just a space in the home. It elevates you.”

A stunned glance at Frye’s portfolio explains all; 3,200 hours of study with European Master Craftsman James Krenov added filigreed old-world knowledge to Frye’s early dedication to the endlessly pliable medium. Maple, Rosewood, Madrone burl, Frye’s own expertise has been lavished on a continuum of objets d’art – from a jewel box of Swiss Pear to a Macassar Ebony fireplace surround – that demonstrate vividly the scalar nature of his mastery. “We have a good way of communicating,” Frye says of his creative partnership with Stephanie. “We’re like kindred spirits, so if she can envision something and communicate it to me, we’ll make it happen.” Walk into the new EVDS space and you’ll feel you’ve walked into an indescribably cozy parlor you have no intention of leaving. 

This seductive home-like setting comes bundled with risk. Kaster had explained to her landlord what she wanted to do with the space and he gave his blessing to the transformation. When he arrived and had a look around, though, his response rattled her. “He walked in and quietly looked around, and I was thinking, oh God, what did I do? Finally he said under his breath, ‘I’m going to have to think of a way I can move right in!’” 

There is no mistaking Kaster’s work. “Ken and I are a boutique niche,” Stephanie says. “We do very, very custom woodwork and furniture design.” The effect is Old World with a classily eclectic mien, the overarching theme the artisanship inherent in gorgeous woods. “Go into the residences of Queen Elizabeth, the rooms where she liked to spend her personal time, you’re going to find treasures and coziness. Not the regal formality, but a way to live with very beautiful and eclectic interiors. And I always say, if she can blend woods, you can blend woods.”

Studio 44

EVDS’ in-house gallery is a calming, gently-lit room whose own glowing woods work their organic magic on the visitor. Where’d Kaster come up with the idea of this specialized little master crafts gallery in her office showroom? “I had this beautiful space, and I wanted to think outside the box for the gallery. I want to seek craftspeople from all over the nation, really, that want to show their work here in this little beautiful town.” 

The gallery’s inaugural exhibitor is classically trained silversmith Randy Stromsoe, who fell into the craft as a young man, and by 18 was apprenticed with the legendary Porter Blanchard, a storied silversmith to the stars then in his ‘80s. Blanchard was not exactly fading into his autumn years. “We had people flying in from all over the world to buy work,” Stromsoe still marvels. “I was 18 and he was a robust 84 and he was working six days a week, 10 hours a day. He was excited. He would sing and dance at work.” 

Randy Stromsöe and the art of the hammer blow

Falling in love with the calling was clearly one lesson Blanchard imprinted on the young Stromsoe. The firehose of training the young man absorbed seemed an attempt to compress Blanchard’s encyclopedic life experience into a foreshortened late-life time frame. He threw the kid into the deep end. “We had to make a batch of 14kt. gold trophy cups for Santa Anita Race Track,” he says of an early summit. The promise shown by the young excited upstart was not misleading. 

Stromsoe’s work is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Museum for American Art’s Renwick Gallery, and the permanent collection of the White House Collection of American Craft, to name a couple of the roadside attractions showcasing his acknowledged mastery. His work has been presented as presidential gifts to King Hussein of Jordan and Pope John Paul II. “I’ve made presidential gifts for the Reagan administration, for the Bush administration…” 

In this aptly-named Age of Blandly Ceding Human Art and Industry to AI®it is almost tear-inducing to be reminded there are yet masters of craft who do with their hands what the humming, handless machines will never be able to do. I’m staring in slack-jawed wonder at a dazzling silver bowl in Studio 44, and Stromsoe explains the work it took him to create the thing. 

“The White House bowl here, I counted the hammer blows. One hundred thousand blows to make the bowl,” he says matter-of-factly. And then there were the chalices. “We’d been making chalices, but then the Pope was coming to America and was interested in knowing if we could make a chalice for the papal visit.” 

Stromsoe begins ardently explaining the stich. “And so we’re really excited and we worked on designs for a long time. We came up with this big, beautiful chalice. It was for the Pope’s service at Dodger Stadium. And then they asked us to make 640 pieces for the communion wafers.” What on Earth did Stromsoe think during the Dodger Stadium ceremony itself? 

Like many a master artisan whose most deeply felt impulses go into the work itself, Randy Stromsoe is a soft-spoken guy, and speaks softly now of this pivotal event, just one of many that have forged the man, at 72 years old still an ever-deepening work in artistic progress. “There we were at Dodger Stadium,” he says with quiet awe. “And the place is filling up with 50,000 people. And we’re in the middle of it. We’re in the front row, we’re in our 20’s. And we’re just young people sitting there going, whoa…”  


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