At Home with Kay McGowan

The well-travelled design mavenplays tour guide in her worldly living room

Photo: MELISSA OSTROW

After a trip abroad, most of us return with souvenirs — maybe a snow globe or a refrigerator magnet. But Kay McGowan’s living room is filled with far more impressive treasures. McGowan spent more than a decade working for Mohr & McPherson, the South End’s famed importer and retailer of high-end home goods. Then in April, she launched her own project: A Curated World (acuratedworld.com), an online storefront where shoppers cull through handpicked handicrafts — home décor, clothing, and more — from exotic locales. Together with her team of contributing writers and photographers, including Oleana chef Ana Sortun and esteemed shutterbug Quentin Bacon (who shot for Michelle Obama’s new cookbook, American Grown), McGowan has devised an innovative, immersive experience — part shop, part travelogue. The creative concept scored her acceptance to Betaspring, a Providence-based accelerator program, earlier this year. And it gives us a place to find gorgeous, globally sourced décor that is the real deal — not a HomeGoods facsimile. We traveled to her Somerville home for a quick tour.

A. McGowan got this Argentinean painting during a trip to Buenos Aires, where she was drawn to its whimsical depiction of a child surrounded by fish. Water is meaningful to McGowan: a competitive swimmer from ages six to 14, she once took on future Olympic gold medalist Jenny Thompson in the lanes. After high school, she deferred college and briefly moved to Hawaii to work as a lifeguard. The wanderlust bug had bitten, and within a few years she had again moved on her own to New Zealand. “So much serendipity is born out of travel,” says McGowan. “That’s especially true if you’re traveling by yourself. It creates a situation where you’re so open to what you might find and the people you might meet.”

B. This oversized coffee table is actually a camel cart from India. (Also from India are the horse head, which once adorned a doorframe, and the window-side teakwood chair, a type of seat common in Indian municipal buildings in the 1930s and ’40s.) The cart-turned-table was McGowan’s first employee purchase at Mohr & McPherson, where she spent 14 years. Thanks to her work with esteemed dealers, buying trips, and personal travel to a dozen-plus nations, nearly every item in this room reflects a different corner of the globe: China, Japan, Turkey, Syria, Pakistan, and Indonesia are among the countries represented. Says McGowan, “I wanted to create a lifestyle that would bring me around the world and introduce me to new things and new people all the time.”

C. This painting was bought from a street vendor in Morocco, one of McGowan’s favorite places to visit. She most recently visited Marrakech with Quentin Bacon, documenting the adventure for the first in a series of “travel experiences” hosted on A Curated World’s website. Each city-specific experience follows McGowan and contributors as they meet with merchants and artisans, offering travel information and examining the country’s culture from food to fashion. It’s an ambitious approach, meant to provide browsers with an emotional connection to the people and place behind each handicraft — no passport required. (Next up: a fall travel experience on Istanbul.)

D. The mid-century couch from Cambridge’s Abodeon and the modern Visual Comfort lamp are definitely departures from McGowan’s typical style, which leans toward (often vintage) Eastern handicraft. But her attraction to these pieces nonetheless reflects her philosophy on home design: “Listen to your instinct. If something speaks to you, trust yourself. A common thread will emerge.” And for McGowan, that thread is artisanship. “You can still see the hand of an artisan in that sofa, and I believe the hand of an artisan is what gives something its authenticity and its sense of intrinsic value.”