Lenny Kravitz Lives Outside the Lines
By Ray Rogers
Having received everything from multiple Grammys to being inducted into France’s prestigious L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Lenny Kravitz has racked up countless awards and accolades over the past quarter-century for his soul-powered retro rock, and is increasingly gaining just as much attention for his soul-infused interior designs. But the biggest compliment he’s ever gotten came the day when Stevie Wonder entered his Miami home. “He came in, took off his shoes, and as I was walking him to sit down, he said, ‘This space is so beautiful,’” recalls Kravitz, still in awe over the comment years later. “Imagine that—it’s all based on feel and vibe.”
That Kravitz mood magic seems to end up in everything he touches, from the music he creates (he just wrapped his 10th album, due out next year) to the films he acts in (this year brings the count up to four with The Butler—his second for Precious director Lee Daniels—and the reprisal of his role as stylist Cinna in the Hunger Games series) and the spaces he designs. “They all go hand in hand, and they all inspire each other,” says Kravitz, who counts the iconic photographer/filmmaker/writer Gordon Parks among his greatest heroes. “He was the first African-American photographer to shoot for Vogue and Life. He directed Shaft, wrote symphonies, and a brilliant book called The Learning Tree. I thought, ‘That’s beautiful that this guy can express himself in many different ways and not be inside a box.’”
In Miami, where Kravitz has deep roots, he’s as much a rock star in the design world as he is on the airwaves. With his modern take on Art Deco at the former Florida Room at the Delano, the global-chic penthouse suite at the SLS Hotel South Beach, and the eclectic interiors of the entire 47-story bayfront residential complex Paramount Bay, his company, Kravitz Design, has firmly made its mark on Miami. The hallmarks of the Kravitz aesthetic speak to urban elegance and refinement, with masculine touches like dark woods, marble statement pieces, and bold, eye-catching chandeliers. What ties it all together? In a word—his word, to be precise—“vibe.”
Above all, comfort is key. The goal, says Kravitz, 49, is to “achieve a vibe that’s got a lot of expression, that is comfortable, that makes the social experience deeper.” Kravitz Design, formed in 2003, aims to “create spaces where you just want to be with people, to talk, eat, drink, listen to music, and laugh.”
With Miami as a home away from home, and with permanent abodes in three corners of the world—the Bahamas, Brazil, and Paris—and decades of backstage hangs while on tour, he has spent a lifetime perfecting the art of the luxe den of cool everywhere he goes. His unique background has given him a multifarious design perspective perfectly suited to Miami and the jet-set sophisticates who call the city home today
During his formative years in late-’60s and early-’70s New York, Kravitz, the son of African-American TV star mom Roxie Roker (Helen Willis on The Jeffersons) and white Jewish father Sy Kravitz (an NBC news producer), remembers zeroing in on aesthetics long before he had heard the word. “Even as a child, I would pay careful attention to the lights, to how things were positioned in the room.”
When the family uprooted from New York to Los Angeles, Kravitz, then 11, took on his first design challenge: fully tricking out his bedroom. “I would go find these funky lights for my stereo in these weird little head shops, and I had posters and plants everywhere—the typical things a teenager would do to give his room vibe. But it was really important to me because it made me want to be more creative, and it enhanced the way I listened to music. I saw then how those things went hand in hand—music and interiors, and obviously fashion. I grew up watching amazing artists who had a flair for expressing themselves through their clothing.”
He clearly took note. Kravitz burst into the public eye sporting dreads, nose rings, tattooed arms, vibrant purple suits, and tight leather trousers, and has been making bold fashion statements ever since.
He’ll never forget the “life-altering” night his father took him to see the Jackson 5 at Madison Square Garden when he was about 6 years old. “Everything changed the next day. That’s when I realized what I wanted to do in my life. They wore these really funky outfits—they had the Afros, boots that came up to the knee paired with knickers, and colorful shirts and vests. It was the most incredible thing I had ever seen.”
Chilling with his parents’ friends also made a lasting impression on Kravitz. “I was around people like Miles Davis, who at that time had moved from his suit look to being really funky, wearing all these great leather, suede, and denim outfits, big glasses, and ethnic jewelry. A lot of my parents’ friends were poets, writers, actors, and directors, and this was the very early ’70s in New York City, so people were very colorful. And their apartments were very expressive, and I was just drawn to that.”
At an early age, he learned that being creative and having fabulous taste have nothing to do with material wealth. “A lot of these folks didn’t have a lot of bread; they were struggling artists living in very small spaces. But people in New York City know how to be very creative with small spaces. You can be in a mansion that’s got 20,000 square feet, and it could have no impact on you, because there’s no taste or vibe. And you can walk into a studio apartment, and it could blow your mind. That’s the beauty of design and style.”
A multi-hyphenate talent with downright enviable success in three mediums, Kravitz is lucky to have had a mother who taught him to stay grounded. “She knew very early coming up that it was about who you are; it was about respect, integrity, love, and authenticity—and not at all about this Hollywood glamour. My mother moved to Los Angeles when she got The Jeffersons and took the bus to work for the first season. The bus. She’s like, ‘I’m a New Yorker, there’s no subway, so I’m taking the bus.’”
That might have looked odd to Hollywood types, but for Kravitz it was perfectly natural. Growing up in New York when he did, he says, “You could be sitting next to a billionaire on the bus.”
Kravitz moved out at 15, over complications with his dad, and was met with some tough-love lessons. “I had education and advantages, but I had to find my way. When I turned 16, I wanted a car, and [my mother] said, ‘Oh, you want a car? You better go get [yourself] a car job. I’m not getting it for you.’”
It’s a lesson that’s been handed down to the next generation. Kravitz, who’s sold more than 38 million albums to date, raised his daughter, Zoë, with Lisa Bonet in Miami from the time she was 11 till she hit 16, when they relocated to Manhattan. Today, she’s a budding actor and musician herself, and they all remain close. “Zoë, myself, and her mom just had lunch two days ago in LA. It was just the best time,” says Kravitz, who is currently single.
His design firm, Kravitz Design, is no vanity side project but comes from an organic desire to share another of his many talents. “It wasn’t about, ‘Well, I’m Lenny Kravitz, and I am going to use my star power to bully my way into some other field....’ It was about actually designing, creating, and learning.” He let his creative spirit run free—making furniture, designing interiors, lighting, textiles, and carpets. As he modestly puts it, “I began to get little gigs here and there”: the Florida Room at the Delano, the recording studio at The Setai Miami Beach, chandeliers for Swarovski.
Then came another pivotal moment in his life: “When Philippe Starck came to my home, saw my work, and said, ‘You need to be doing this on a major level; you’re a real designer.’ I have to give him that credit for really pushing me to the next level.” Starck even provided Kravitz with his agent, who then began to rep him. After that came key collaborations: a chair for Kartel, based on Starck’s classic Mademoiselle chair; a presidential suite and poolside bungalows at the SLS Hotel South Beach; and the massive Paramount Bay gig.
Miami’s been a presence in his life since he was a child, when his parents would bring him to visit relatives. “I had an aunt Mable who lived in the hood—and I mean the hood.” Today, he still has family and friends here, and is regularly in and out of Miami en route to his home in the Bahamas (“I live right on the water in a trailer, and it’s my favorite place to be”), where Kravitz Design has its latest project, for the $3.5 billion resort enclave Baha Mar.
He still enjoys a run in Sunset Island, where he used to live, and the surrounding neighborhoods. “I meet friends for coffee in the morning at Panther [Coffee], and we love going over to JugoFresh. That’s my spot. That’s where my day starts and ends.” By night, he dines out all over the place—“from high to low.” (Zuma is a favorite.)
Miami’s transformations since he first started visiting in the ’60s are mind-boggling to Kravitz. “It’s a very special place. It’s still jumping, it’s still moving, it’s still becoming what it’s going to become.”
That sentiment rings true for Kravitz himself, but he’s never lost sight of his first love: music. Twenty five years into a robust rock ’n’ roll career, he has just completed his 10th album, which took root accidentally while he was filming The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. “There was this old-school ’70s studio in Atlanta that I wanted to visit. The next thing I knew, I was booking myself in there, filming the movie by day and making music by night.”
In hindsight, he says, the impulse to create on his own terms came as a direct result of playing a role in someone else’s show. “When I make my music, I write it, I produce it, I play the instruments—it’s my expression 100 percent. What I love about making films is that it’s completely not about me; it’s about a director’s vision, it’s about the character, and I’m there to serve. The music was a reaction of doing that all day. Something was brewing inside of me, so it had to come out. At night it would just be, Okay, now I am back to being me, and directing myself—and doing what it is that I do.”
photography by mathieu bitton; boone speed (paramount bay); Styling by Rodney Burns; Sittings editor: Joan Allen; Grooming by Jamie Taylor at The Wall Group
Cover shoot: Behind the scenes with Pitbull for the October 2014 issue of Ocean Drive magazine.