Upon setting foot in Living on Main in downtown Dubuque, it’s evident that owner Kris Gorton has a keen eye for what makes a space work well.
“A space has to be functional,” Gorton said. “But it can also be aesthetically beautiful. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. You don’t have to trade in one for the other. It’s easy to have comfort and beauty. And really, you should have those things working with one another.”
With many spending more time at home in the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a philosophy that has caught on. It’s also keeping home designers like Gorton busy in putting their styling knowledge to use as homeowners seek to improve their dwellings.
“I do think that people are absolutely caring much more about their homes and valuing how their homes work for them,” she said. “It has become more front-and-center to have a space that functions properly for families and creates a comfortable and happy place that they can feel good living in. Many have a fresh perspective from the past year and are looking for a fresh plan for their homes.”
Gorton, 53, who opened Living on Main just shy of a decade ago on Dubuque’s Main Street, also is the mastermind behind her namesake business Kris Gorton Design. Through that, she has styled homes, commercial spaces and businesses including Marella and Body & Soul Wellness Center and Spa — both with former locations in the Roshek Building in downtown Dubuque. She also styled the colorful Candle Ready Cakes on Dubuque’s lower Main Street.
But Gorton’s timeless touch in the home is perhaps where her design aesthetic is the most pronounced.
“I would say my personal style is a cleaner, crisper, sharper and more modern look, even for a traditional home,” she said. “When working in someone else’s space, I like to incorporate that, as well as items that are a little more personal for that homeowner — style elements that remind me of that person or something that is unique to them. Growing through retail, there are certain standards that helped me form that opinion over the years.”
Although never formally trained in interior design, yet seemingly destined for it, Gorton stumbled into her knack for combining elements to create harmonious living and working spaces as early as grade school.
“I think home design has always been something I’ve been geared toward,” she said. “In fourth grade, I would be rearranging the furniture in my house. I’ve always just been really in love with it.”
Gorton put her talents to use in her professional career approximately 20 years ago, working for Marshall Field’s in Minneapolis.
“I have a history of working in retail, and through Marshall Fields, I landed in design and display,” she said. “The store took up an entire city block, so the displays we were coming up with and creating were huge. There were also special events and parties I designed. I just felt that area of design was where my future was. It was the most wonderful job in the world. It was really fun to see the transformation of these huge, weekly installations. There was always something innovative happening, with creative people involved.”
Upon relocating to Dubuque in 2010 with her husband and three daughters — ages 13, 17 and 20 — Gorton quickly found several outlets for her creativity to continue to grow.
“Scott and Julia Theisen (co-owners of Body & Soul) wanted help with their retail space in the Roshek Building,” Gorton said. “From there, I worked with Kelly Lengeling at Marella. With Candle Ready Cakes, it was the whole package — colors and everything.”
Gorton then moved on to designing and remodeling residential properties, ultimately opening her storefront to be able to offer a more personal experience.
“I adore it,” Gorton said of collaborating with her clients. “I love the innovation and noticing all the little details in everything. Whether its through fashion, the home or a leaf on a tree, I am enamored by beauty. You’ll often catch me taking pictures of something like a sidewalk because of something unique that I might notice about it.”
While Living on Main currently is operating during select hours and by appointment due to COVID-19, Gorton said the bulk of her business has continued to reside in her work on area homes.
“It’s not necessarily the kind of store you’re going to walk into to and pick something out that day,” she said. “A lot of it is clients working on bigger projects in a space of their home over a period of time.”
Since the start of the pandemic, Gorton said she has been as busy as she has ever been with a steady stream of reliable clients.
“The clients I’ve worked with are incredibly loyal, and most of the work I do comes from referrals from those clients,” she said. “The same people I started working with will still come back years later to work on different rooms. I’ve even done the same house twice now. That’s a nice thing. It means they really trust you coming into their home and creating your vision for it.”
Tammy Imhof, whom Gorton called a talented home designer in her own right, is one such client.
“I first met Kris when I walked into Living on Main six years ago and fell instantly in love with several items in the store,” said Imhoff, who also was a protege of Gorton’s. “She brought the kinds of products to Dubuque that I had only seen in larger cities. Kris’ designs are always current and fresh without looking trendy or predictable. She customizes her designs for each client and their lifestyle, creating a space that is reflective of the people who live there. She is especially talented in selecting and coordinating fabric and accessories. She is also a great problem solver, with the ability to turn a design challenge into a real positive feature.”
Whether people are tapping the talents of a professional designer or attempting to do it themselves, Gorton said that the key to having style at home is understanding who they are.
“People should have a sense of who they are and what they like,” she said. “Flip through a magazine to see where you land. Even your clothing choice can help reflect who you are because how you dress really is a signal as to how you might style your home.”
And, while the Midwestern home might be thought to be slow to catch on to current home design trends, Gorton said that locally, she has found the opposite to be true.
“People from their 40s to 60s and older are trending more forward in their thoughts about home design right now,” she said. “Older couples especially are shedding their big, ornate homes in favor of living a little more simply. When you pare down your clutter and the amount of things in your living space, it opens you up to make good, intentional choices based on the needs of your home. They’re finding that less actually is more and that it’s a much better way to live.”
And if you aren’t quite ready to part with that ornate collection of china?
“Even an ornate house can have a clean aesthetic,” Gorton said. “It’s all about applying all your design aesthetics equally, perhaps grouping a collection of a favorite item together to avoid a cluttered look. But be who you are and let that be reflected throughout your home. You don’t necessarily have to follow a trend, and in fact, sometimes you shouldn’t. Start a Pinterest board. Tear pages out of a magazine. That will give you an idea of your personal style and what you tend to land on.”
While Gorton said she is inspired to see a renewed enthusiasm for the spaces inside and outside the home due to the effects of the pandemic, her ultimate goal is to make the living space a sanctuary for homeowners to continue to grow with, as well as take pride in, well into the future.
“To have my name on it means something,” she said. “My goal is always to do work that I’m proud of. I think this time has awakened all of us to how important home is.”
Megan Gloss writes for the Telegraph Herald.