If there can be such a title as mayor of a neighborhood, Delia Kenza would certainly be it. In Brooklyn’s rapidly gentrifying Clinton Hill, the brownstone Kenza and her husband have created is ground zero for the diverse neighborhood’s social life.
Not a weekend will go by when the couple and their two young daughters don’t have a house full of guests, from across the street, or around the world. While firmly rooted in her Brooklyn roots, the house is filled with art and artefacts from her wide travels from Angola to Zimbabwe as well as photography from fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier.
The home has been in the family for generations, Kenza taking it over from an aunt who was living in Florida for a portion of the year and looking for a new abode. A former attorney who became an interior designer, Kenza set about updating and furnishing the home, which also includes many costumes and props from her husband, Júlio Leitão, an artist, choreographer and creative director of Batoto Yetu.
Her keen eye, restless spirit, and urbane and multi-cultural background means she is a restless sponge of influences, which is reflected in her design aesthetics, as well as a closet full of the latest fashions, and a passport filled with stamps from Europe to Africa.
She brings this eclecticism to bear in her own approach designing for others, too. “I think a home should reflect the people who live in it, their history, of who they are,” she explains. “That could be a collection of their travels or even something in my travels I see that reminds me of them.”
Tell me about the art collection in your home. Many of the art pieces are my husband’s costumes from his performances. That’s how I ended up with that large mask in the living room. The other art is a collection from our travels over the years, and it includes a lot of artists who might not be famous, but we think they have amazing talent. Other than the photograph by Patrick Demarchelier, all the statues and everything come from different places: Zimbabwe, Angola, Congo and other travels. We always pick up something.
Do you have a favorite piece from your travels? Probably the painting of Queen Nzinga in my dining room. She was both queen and king, which was a big deal in her time because she was a defiant and strong leader during colonization. Júlio, my husband, actually did a production of her life story. We were driving in a car in Angola and saw the artist selling his work on the side of the street, and I said, “Wait, you have to stop. We need this.”
What was your most memorable trip? My first trip to Africa, I went to Ghana because my father would always say, “Your first trip out of the country should be to Africa. After that you can go wherever you want.” We were only there for four days, but I remember when we got on the plane to leave, looking at my sister and already missing the place. I knew at that point that I had to go back, and every opportunity I got once I got to college, I went to Ghana all of my spring and summer breaks.
What captured your imagination in Ghana? I felt at home there. Sometimes you can be in a place, but you don’t really feel like you belong. Going to Ghana it was nice to see people who look like you, people you can relate to. Even though culturally we’re different, I just felt very connected to Ghana. That’s really what sparked me traveling internationally and I’ve never stopped since.
How does travel influence your approach to interior design? Sometimes you’ve got to change your scenery and look at things through different lenses. You see the same old Instagram, Pinterest, all these things. They’re nice, but sometimes there are beautiful, amazing things that aren’t on there. So I look for travel to be creative, to see things differently.
Where was your last vacation? San Diego, California, for my brother-in-law’s third wedding to the same woman (it’s a long story!).
Where will your next vacation be? Angola, Africa.
The thing you can’t travel without? A few good books, interior design magazines and warm socks.
Plane, train or automobile? Automobile, because sometimes getting there is the best part of the trip.
The people you’d most like to sit next to on a long-haul flight? Someone who is nice and doesn’t want to chat the entire flight.
What is your in-flight ritual? First, I people watch, then I get comfortable.
The language you wish you spoke? Portuguese, so I could communicate with my husband’s family better.
When were you happiest on the road? A family drive to Florida. It was a last-minute decision and we had no agenda or time of arrival, and made stops along the way.
Desert island or downtown? Downtown. I’m a city girl.
If you could live at any hotel, which would it be? My fondest memories are from Farol Hotel in Cascais, Portugal. You get to enjoy city life and ocean views.
What is your room service indulgence? Alcohol.
The strangest place you’ve spent a night? At a hotel in Guyana—their sheets were from Harlem Hospital. How do I know? It was printed on the sheets. I left shortly thereafter!
What is your favorite market? The farmers markets in Paris.
If you could travel to any place in any epoch, which would it be? To see Nina Simone perform live in Paris in the 1960s.
What are the show-off spots in your hometown? Most of New York is impressive, but Dumbo in Brooklyn is a great spot. Brooklyn Bridge Park has wonderful views, Brooklyn Historical Society is in a beautiful warehouse, and after seeing them you can take the water taxi to Williamsburg.
Which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, and a year?
A weekend in Sag Harbor, New York.
A week in Mexico (most places).
A month in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.
A year in Ghana, West Africa.
Your biggest extravagance on the road? The travel itself. Once I get to my destination, all I want to do is explore as much possible. My best vacations involve country-hopping, island-hopping or road-tripping.
Describe a memorable meal from your travels. At a restaurant on a little side street in Evora, Portugal, with my husband and friend. We had just finished exploring and shopping, the weather was beautiful, the scenery was amazing and the food was delicious.
Travel hell is? Long layovers in airports.
Where are you ashamed that you’ve never been? Los Angeles. It’s crazy because I have traveled all over the world and never a trip to LA.
Three favorite stores on earth? Henrik Vibskov in Soho, New York. Lidija Kolovrat in Portugal. Aram in London.
Most treasured travel memento? Two statues from Angola. One lives on my bedroom fireplace mantle and the other in my husband’s office. They are our good luck charms; we place wishes, goals and future plans in them.
Why do you travel? It reminds me what it means to be human and how connected we are to each other.
Marc Blazer is co-founder of PRIOR, and an investor in hospitality, food and beverage businesses around the world. He is a shareholder and director of The Australian Agriculture Company; former chairman and co-owner of noma, the world renowned restaurant in Copenhagen; former owner of Le Pain Quotidien India; and advisory board member of The Drinks Alliance, a craft distillery conglomerate.