I stood at a window one morning recently, taking in the yard. The landscaping, specifically. Spring was here, but it was cold and overcast. Nothing was growing yet, not even the random tufts of crabgrass.
To the contrary, my eye moved among all the damage that was left behind by a series of bad winter storms that came through in March with high winds and a couple feet of wet, heavy snow. Before I could take stock of what needed planting and replenishing, there were a slew of downed limbs—a couple of which crashed through a fence—and countless smaller branches that had to be cleared first. A lot of the trees, grateful as I am that they remained standing, were going to need pruning, too.
These last few weeks were a harsh parting shot to what already felt like a relentless winter.
Interior designers are human
There’s this misperception that, when your work is making homes beautiful, your own is in a constant state of readiness for the next photo shoot. And I do pour a lot of energy into refreshing our spaces with each season and updating our most-used rooms—the living and dining rooms, the foyer, the kitchen, and the master bedroom—but I arrive at the start of spring with a punch list of things that need to be done in and around the house, just as I imagine most of you do.
This year, my list is running longer than usual. There’s the storm damage. But even before the first nor’easter barreled through in early March, we’d already long since settled into a what-next rhythm this winter. In early January, amid a bitter-old stretch, a pipe froze and ultimately cost several thousand dollars to repair. Then a heater in the master bedroom—newly installed only two years ago—broke down on us. And then we went without heat for five very long days when we ran out of oil.
I realize we all have our gripes with winter, and mine are no more traumatic than a handful you could probably rattle off right now—probably are rattling off to yourself as you read this. It’s why we walk around during those first truly spring-like days with a euphoric-but-desperate expression, like we were saved from the remote island just before we were about to eat the other survivors.
But so far, I haven’t felt that. Instead, I felt the weight of everything that needed to be done around the house. And I didn’t know if I had it in me.
Breaking up is hard to do
Even when all the signs seem to be pointing in that direction, moving on is a hard thing to come to terms with. Especially when you’re literally moving. Making a home is never a half-hearted effort. I know as well as anyone. Over the course of a long career as an interior designer, I’ve seen firsthand the sacrifices we make in the name of shaping our homes into some ideal mold.
Just like any of us, I believe a home can’t reach its full potential until it has someone to believe in it. When we first laid eyes on our barn, it was a shadow of itself after years of neglect. Still, we knew it was exactly what we wanted. Nothing about its transformation was easy, especially in the early going, but the process was invigorating. With each completed project, the barn revealed another piece of itself to us, and us to it, in turn, just like a true relationship.
But this feels different. So what, in response to that, started out very much as a conversation about hypotheticals, quickly progressed to us touring plots of land nearby and discussing building a new home from scratch. Nothing was a good fit, though. We’re still too invested, emotionally, in the barn to make a sensible decision. The view was never good enough, the property, not as secluded as where we are now.
We have, though, come completely around to the idea of starting anew, building a home entirely free of compromise. (And half the size.) So, this spring’s punch list has grown further still and taken on a greater urgency as we prepare the barn for sale. The projects we planned during those five days without heat to give us hope—the shade garden near the entryway, adding an architectural fence to the veggie garden in the back—they’ve been bumped down the list in favor of replacing windows and the perimeter fencing, refinishing the tennis court, painting the exterior, and making over the two guest bathrooms in a more neutral (read: buyer-friendly) palette, the sorts of improvements, basically, that are going to have a direct impact on the sale price.
The thought that this summer will be our last here is still hard to grasp. Even though, if you’d floated the idea a month ago, we’d have run downstairs and packed our luggage without even asking where we were headed. The barn opened up a new world to us, so we have to trust that wherever we make our home next, it’ll do the same.
So much of what an interior designer does is seen in a series of edited glimpses for heightened dramatic effect. The kitchen, or the space formerly known as the kitchen, stripped to its shell. The newly adorned living room, complete with the lighting dimmed and the coffee table books stacked just so.
The beginning and the end; that’s what the TV producers and magazine editors found stirred the greatest reaction. You can’t fault them. No one’s ever been inspired to redesign their master suite by watching wallpaper go up. But once it’s up—different story.
The result, though, is a culture obsessed with making over its living spaces (good for me), but with little idea of what that actually entails (not so good for me). So, in the hope of aiding both of our causes, I thought I’d fill in some of the details of how our firm, Rafael Novoa Interior Design, an interior designer in Philadelphia and its suburbs, approaches a new project.
Oversharing is not an option
You’re hiring me for my expertise (I hope), but the heart and soul of this redesign is your desire for it. Your lifestyle and aesthetic will inform every decision that’s made. This isn’t, after all, some showroom. It’s your home. So what we’re striving for is the best version of yourself.
Accordingly, I approach our first meeting more like an interview and try to encourage you to tell me as much about how you and your family live in your home as you’re willing to share. Your lifestyle’s a critical piece because, whether you realize it or not, it was most likely the catalyst for this redesign. We’re constantly aware of the aesthetic and nurture it accordingly, but it’s when our homes start feeling like they’re working against us—there’s not enough storage or the kitchen’s somehow morphed into the home office—that we finally decide enough is enough.
I’ll do my own looking around, too. Sometimes behaviors become so ingrained that we stop considering them concerns. Clutter’s my first tip-off, but there are a host of other signals.
We’re going to talk about your ideas as well. In my experience, as an interior designer in Philadelphia over the last two decades, I’ve found that clients, more often than not, are somewhat timid about sharing, either because they figure that I’d take it as an insult or they’re not entirely confident in their own sense of style. But the more you can tell me, the easier it makes my job. So, pull out the magazines you’ve been saving, or, better yet, let’s scroll through your Houzz profile or Pinterest boards together.
So, what’s this going to cost?
I never shy away from talking about the budget. But the amount that we’ll end up with is typically miles from what we’ll initially discuss, regardless of how free-wheeling or budget-conscious you are. Of course, if you give me a hard and fast number, I’ll stick to it. The tendency, though, is to want to do more.
I’ll ask during our first meeting how much you’d like to spend. But the actual budget likely won’t be set, more or less, until I return to make my presentation. At that point, with the concept boards and swatches laid out before us, you’ll have a more accurate feeling for what each facet will cost and what you can and absolutely cannot live without.
And when I see where your priorities lay, there are adjustments that I can make to ensure the design accommodates them. The floor plans play a central role in that regard. If, say, the proposal calls for replacing all of the furniture, we can reevaluate the spaces and maybe decide instead to refresh only the most visible pieces.
The presentation, essentially, is where the design comes into focus. I’ll come armed with three or so samples of everything—enough to give you a feel for the variety within the aesthetic, but not so much that you’re inundated—from the floor (rugs) to the ceiling (lighting), along with concept boards that’ll put everything into context. I’m showing you what we could do, and you’ll tell me what you really want to do.
Taste is a personal expression
The interior designer-client relationship is a unique dynamic. I’m hired based, at least initially, on the strength of my portfolio. But then I’m tasked with shaping an environment in the mold of the homeowner. The unspoken understanding there is that our aesthetics align. But that isn’t always the case.
In a number of instances, the only common bond between myself and the client was an eagerness to redesign the living space. But contrasting styles isn’t the deal-breaker you’d think it would be. It’s kind of like cooking in that way. I may be a classically-trained French chef, but that doesn’t preclude me from admiring, and occasionally implementing, Korean techniques, or Northern Italian, or old-school Southern. It’s all delicious when it’s done right.
Remember, the heart and soul of the design is your desire for it. It’s my job as the fortunate interior designer in Philadelphia that you selected to elevate that look. Sometimes it’s as simple as playing down a piece of heirloom furniture or an abrasive piece of art. Other times, I need to get a bit more creative and complement that wall color you adore so much with a more neutral, contemporary hue.
I have no doubt that we’ll hit it off famously. But even if we talk different languages, I’m not there to impose my will. I’m there to help your home look and feel like your little slice of utopia.
What I like about them, too, is plugging into a brand. With a living space, there’s a lot of feeling out that goes on into the early phases. You can tell a lot about someone from how they live in their home. Everything from the style of the sofa and the art that hangs on the walls to the size and placement of the flatscreen and the organization of the kitchen counters is a decision that speaks to the homeowners’ sensibilities and style. But I’m brought in, usually, to uproot one or the other or both and show them a better way.
With an office or even a restaurant, though, a brand’s already been established (or is in the process of being established). So right away, some parameters are defined. The interior design for an office (or a restaurant) needs to be an extension of that identity—and not in some broad-stroke sort of way, like how molded, dark-wood wall paneling equaled law firm and bistro-style chairs and tables signaled cute café. We’re well past the nineties. Aesthetics, personal and commercial, started to become much more individualized as soon as savvy site design became more accessible and social media became more versatile and prominent. Suddenly, everyone had their own platforms, and with that comes an inherent desire to distinguish yourself.
So the greatest challenge, then, with a commercial design isn’t the thousands of lifeless square feet or several different voices asking for incongruent looks. It’s embracing the brand and extending it in a fresh and unexpected way. After all, the best brands are multidimensional. As are the best people. Think of your closest friends. Now think of all the qualities that you appreciate about them. And yet, when you picture each person, you have a very clear picture of them in your mind. A brand functions essentially the same way.
All of this ran through my head recently as I developed an interior design for an office in New Jersey. The client is a forward-thinking, tech-oriented company, but its new office space is anything but. It’s not, however, entirely void of potential. What I considered to be my greatest obstacle when I first visited the office, an abnormally long foyer, became the catalyst for my design after I gave it a bit of thought.
My overall aesthetic is modern, minimalist, sleek. Take your favorite Marvel movie and imagine the next installment set a century into the future. That’s what I’m going for here. The surfaces would alternate between etched glass and perforated and textured metals. The palette, accordingly, would be cold. Ice and steel.
And that long foyer would become a tunnel. The moment you stepped through the entrance, a gravitational pull would steer you toward the reception area, the centerpiece of the design. Like the one I had built for the Artcraft Health headquarters, the desk would be a large, sculptural piece. The kind of thing that commands your attention. But this one would be more refined, in keeping with the nature of the company.
I’d create a formal waiting room just off the reception area to help keep the attention on the desk and populate it with furniture in the same vibrant colors of the company’s logo—the only real hits of color outside of the neutral range in the entire front section of the office. And the walls of the main conference room, which also flanks the reception area, would be glass etched with triangular lines, mimicking the design scheme from the company’s site.
I’d swap out the generic ceiling tiles for textural metal plates and the high-traffic, low-thrills carpet for minimalist, synthetic flooring. And, because everything (and everyone) looks better in the right lighting, I’d pull out the stock fluorescent bulbs (which do no one any favors) and replace them with a modern, chrome fixture that sits flush against the ceiling.
A smart interior design for an office aims to inspire a little awe in every visitor. But a thoughtful one aims to embolden the people who inhabit it every day, too.
It’s always been kind of funny to me; we complain that the stores start stocking their holiday décor in October, yet we embrace leaving our own up well past its expiration date.
A lot of that is tied up in emotion, I know. There’s such a crescendo with the holidays—parties, family, shopping, overindulging—and then literally overnight, it comes to a halt. We’re expected to wake up January 2 and head back to work like none of it happened. But the dark Christmas tree is standing in the corner of the living room, whispering, “Stay home and play,” while you wait for the coffee to finish brewing.
I have a hard time letting go of the holidays, too. And I know it’s kind of cliché, but investing in my New Year’s resolutions has helped me bridge that canyon between Jan. 1 and 2. I like the idea of being able to rebuild myself. The holidays and the end of the year always lead me toward a lot of introspection anyway. So it feels natural to start a new year with a desire to fill those voids and right those regrets.
Still, by the end of the month, my resolve starts to wane a bit, we inevitably run into a string of overcast and/or bitterly cold days, and just that fast, it occurs to me that we have a couple months of winter left—a couple of months that can sometimes feel like three or four months.
Winter isn’t all bad, though. It sometimes takes a crackling fire to remind me of that. But there’s a lot of beauty and comfort to be had. Here are a few easy-to-execute interior design ideas that are aimed at taking full advantage.
Reflect the season
We tend to home in on the browns and grays when we think of winter’s palette, but there’s white and blue, too. Freshly fallen snow is about as pure as it gets anymore. And a clear winter sky is positively electric. Not to mention the stunning ice prisms. Carry all of that inside and watch how much brighter your spaces become.
I like to create simple arrangements with white flowers and short, skinny branches I pick up around the yard. I also pair those branches with a few select pieces of Christmas décor, glass and crystal things that mimic the ice. When the morning sun hits them just right, they cast a rainbow across the room. Without touching the thermostat, winter, in that moment, feels a whole lot warmer.
Interior design ideas, no matter the season, tend to run along aesthetic lines. There’s nothing wrong with crafting your living spaces like that if you’re angling for a spread in dwell. But it’s neglecting a much larger responsibility: to be functional and, even more, to be comfortable. Plus, in playing to the eye alone, you’re neglecting the other senses, and each one’s capable of greatly enhancing your experience.
Pillows are my go-to for a fast refresher, in part because I can’t imagine a living room or bedroom without them. They instantly soften a space. And they’re such an easy means to change the mood. A few well-placed pillows and the entire room assumes a new identity.
I’m also big into faux fur, whether it’s in the form of a throw, an area rug, or a pillow. It creates a warm intimacy when we’re entertaining. People see a faux fur throw draped over the back of the sofa and a fire dancing in the fireplace and a dinner party quickly jumps a couple of cocktails ahead. But, even when it’s the two of us and the dogs, the effect is just as intoxicating. The wind could be beating against the house, the snow piling up, and there’s nowhere else I’d want to be.
In that vein, scented candles are a powerful tool, too. It seems almost counterintuitive when we’re down to so few hours of daylight, but the dimmer the light, the warmer a room feels. I’d prefer to limit the artificial light in a room to a lamp or two and supplement it with scented candles, which, beyond their little, flickering flames, feel like a toasty wool blanket wrapped around the room.
Your home is your sanctuary, but it needs to be a fluid expression in order for that to hold through all seasons. In the spring and summer, we look to erase the lines between indoor and outdoor living. In the fall and winter, we arrange a few (comfortable) layers between ourselves and the harsh elements. That said, my interior design ideas are never meant to be one-size fits-all. Think of them more as a nudge in the right direction. Your home plays too big a part in your life (and your mood) to get stuck in a rut. If you’re not content and at peace there, change it up. As this hopefully shows, it doesn’t take much.
Little else seems to touch a nerve the way that the mere suggestion of hanging wallpaper does. The expressions I get in response range from, Wallpaper? Really? to Nope. No way. Sorry. And underneath, there’s always a very concerned scowl, like I just stumbled some upon some deep-seated memory that was consciously buried under decades of far less threatening thoughts.
I get it. I really do. I grew up in the seventies, when gaudy was pursued with every bit the mania that farmhouse is today. The louder, the more obnoxious, the better. And wallpaper was the canvas that punctuated every last brown and gold accent. We didn’t know any better then. I’d like to think that our parents didn’t, either. But as we matured into people with our own personalities and tastes, we started to look around and realize just how criminal our parents’ tastes were. And those moments scarred us for life.
In the years since, it’s been drilled into our heads by DIY TV shows, home design magazines, and Home Depot commercials that paint is a homeowner’s best friend. Nothing transforms a space as quickly and easily as paint. And since the only other alternative, really, was wallpaper, we happily bought in. But—I’m bracing myself as I type this next part—wallpaper is starting to have a comeback, in part because we’re in desperate need for another option to dress our walls. And wallpaper is satisfying that urge—much as I hate to admit it—to push past the conventional boundaries a bit, just as it did with our parents.
Going from taupe to navy is likely going to breathe new life into your tired, little study. Now, imagine hanging wallpaper instead of repainting it. And imagine that wallpaper is a deep mahogany (faux) leather. Forget same room, different color. It’s an entirely different space. If that feels like a huge leap, stay with me. We’ll get there together in a few short steps.
The stigma’s gone from synthetic textiles. And that’s because they’ve come a long way—light years—over the last few seasons. You wouldn’t balk at throwing on a Stella McCartney knitwear combo or carrying around one of her alterna-leather shoulder bags. So why would you shy away from some seriously trending flock wallpaper? It’s having a moment—a rebirth, rather—for the same reason Stella’s perched at the top of fashion’s hierarchy right now: The materials are elevating the design. There’s ingenuity not just in the way they look but in how they feel and move, too. You may recognize some of the flock patterns from your childhood, but I promise you this is not the same wallpaper. Interwoven metallic threads add dimension, not to mention glamour, synthetic fabrics add durability, and at no cost to the appearance. My example, a paragraph ago, with the leather wallpaper, wasn’t named at random. It’s true across the board, but especially so with the leathers; the difference between real and synthetic is almost imperceptible. Save for the price tags.
What the flock?
Let me take a step back for a moment. Flock wallpaper, in case you glossed over it in your aversion to all things wallpaper, is the garish stuff that most of us grew up with. It’s back—in updated colors and patterns—because bold patterns and loud colors are about as hot as it gets right now (as in 2018, not January). And the more disjointed the contrast between paired patterns, the better.
Approach it like you do your wardrobe. In other words, after a couple of years, prepare to update the look. Hanging flock wallpaper is, essentially, embracing the moment with a big ol’ bear hug. It may have a short shelf life, but what a life!
That said, flock isn’t reserved for the extroverted among us. An accent wall can be just as transformative for a room as covering all four walls. There’s also, of course, a healthy range of much more subdued, never-goes-out-of-style patterns among its ranks. Where’s the fun in that, though?
The advanced course
As much as I work with it, the closest I ever come to hanging wallpaper myself is calling a professional to schedule a time for him to do it. You may be a seasoned do-it-yourselfer, but this is the kind of thing, like replacing an electrical panel, where you can get in over your head before you’re even done prepping. In old homes, lines are rarely straight. And even when they are, your eye isn’t. Spare yourself the frustration.
Once that first room’s done, don’t be surprised if you begin seeing your entire home differently. Hanging wallpaper’s kind of infectious like that. I’d never dare suggest it at this early, cynical point, but once you wade in, let your imagination roam. As in, consider the ceiling, too. I recently found this wallpaper that’s covered in plates, and I think it may be a perfect fit in our kitchen, where the walls are already covered in my plate collection. That way, it’ll look really clutter-y and more than a little disorienting. Basically, forget everything you think you know about hanging wallpaper. With this brash, new generation of it, there are no rules.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. The holidays, for me, are not just an opportunity to spend ample amounts of quality time with family and close friends but to do it, largely, within the comfort of my own home. Entertaining always entails some degree of setting a mood. Christmas and New Year’s gatherings are no exception; the scale’s just much larger.
As far as Christmas decorating tips go, I try to capture some of the brilliance and whimsy of the season—the stuff that still brings out the kids in us all—but, ultimately, I want to create a warm environment, the kind of setting that encourages long, overdue conversations, unrestrained playfulness, a place that says, “I love you.” These are a few of the ways that I go about that.
Expand your palette
Don’t be afraid of unconventional colors. We have some beautiful turquoise French glassware from the 1920s that was given to my parents as a wedding gift. It’s not a particularly large set, but the color’s so unusual that it seems to catch your eye from everywhere in the room. So it seemed only natural to carry it over to our Christmas tree. I load it up with lots of balls of that color, or close to it, and complement them with a range of metallic. I even throw in a cheery yellow at the top of the tree for striking accent. None of it looks all that Christmas-y in the traditional sense—until I begin incorporating the red. And that’s the key. Red = Christmas. So, be as bold as you like, just be sure to bring it all together with red, lots and lots of red.
Play to all of the senses
It’s easy to get hung up on making your home visually appealing, but, creating a deep, rich mood requires playing to all of the senses. From Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, there are scented candles burning almost every waking hour in our home. And if we’re hosting a dinner party, or even just a cocktail hour with some hors d’oeuvres, and the aroma’s downright mouthwatering, I’ll shut the oven and stovetop off an hour or so before our guests arrive so that the scent has the chance to fill the house and linger faintly.
I used to be a strict real-tree advocate. Our first Christmas at Eight Bells, we erected a massive, 15-foot-tall tree. Which turned out to be a lot easier than pulling it down and hauling it out. That was a winter with a lot of snow, so it sat, basically, just outside our sliding glass doors until the spring thaw. Our tree now stands just as tall, but it conveniently goes up (and comes down) in four parts. I miss that unmistakably clean scent of evergreen, but I try to introduce fresh elements in other ways. In November, I start potting a bunch of different bulbs, like paperwhites and tulips, and, once they bloom, sticking them all around the downstairs. They’re a nice contrast to the tree and an even better reminder that December isn’t just cold air and gray slush.
Also, the power of a roaring fire can never be overstated. Cozy to sidle up to and entrancing.
Pick your spots
Before we moved to Eight Bells, we lived in a much smaller home, and I had many (many) more Christmas decorations. I felt compelled to decorate every nook, inside and out. Here, it’s just not possible. And, in fact, it’s become the cardinal rule among my Christmas decorating tips: Focus your attention on the high-traffic areas.
The living room is where our tree stands, and it’s a natural gathering spot, so I swap out all of the pillows with batches of others in reds and metallic. I was never much for stockings until my parents gifted us some. Now, they hang from the mantle. But I leave it at that. The tree commands so much attention, to try to compete with a mantelpiece display would be too much. Instead, I decorate (very modestly) the tops of armoires and a Bombay chest.
The downstairs is basically one large, open floorplan, so a pair of tables in the foyer, between the kitchen, dining room, and living room, double as serving stations during parties. Accordingly, I decorate each in its own theme. But, because they need to be functional, too, I try to keep the decorations fairly spare. On one, I encircle a couple of three-foot iron trees with smaller, fresh plants.
And, I treat the outside as an extension of the inside. After all, your guests begin forming an impression the moment they pull up. And with a winding driveway, I have the opportunity to nurture their expectation. A couple of trees are lit up, one right at the entrance, another at the bend, pulling them toward a more spectacular display: The fountain in front of the house filled with oversize ornaments, a huge wreath hanging on the side of the barn and the allée leading up to the fountain, all lit up, the barn doors propped open, exposing a wall of glass and all of the warm light coming from inside. It’s a thrilling sight and one that, hopefully, foreshadows a festive night.
It may seem like a lot, but think of it this way: Every ornament, every light is a personal touch meant to show just how much you care. Pick and choose what you like from these Christmas decorating tips, but make that your motivation. If it was just the two of us, Robert and I would probably be happy with the fire and a small tree. (OK, a big tree.) Everything beyond that is part of a concerted effort to create a memorable night for those with us. The fire and tree, they may remember. The overstuffed fountain, the cinnamon-y aroma, the fresh flowers, they’re not likely to forget.
Happy Holidays to you and yours.
When I launched my blog back in May, I was just beginning to work on my latest Philadelphia interior design project, a total-apartment redesign at the Ritz-Carlton in Center City. If you remember, its owner, a single guy in his twenties, was looking for a modern-minimalist aesthetic with a strong, masculine presence. In other words, a fairly dark palette punctuated by a few substantial pieces of furniture.
A couple of weeks ago, we installed the wall coverings, our first tangible strides toward that end. By day’s end, they had completely transformed the look and feel of the space. Much is said about the power and convenience of paint, but wall coverings, in my eye, are even more potent. Certain materials and designs have an almost architectural effect, as though you raised the ceiling or added a wall. These coverings fall in that category. They’re fabrics usually associated with clothing—linen, wool, suede—much of them lined with pinstripes of various gauges. Basically, I dressed his walls in some beautifully tailored suits, which made the installation more like a fitting.
If that wasn’t dramatic enough, I divided the apartment into two distinct halves. The front, where the foyer, living room, and kitchen reside, is all black. The back half of the apartment—the master bedroom and bathroom—is all white. I may also incorporate some navy by way of the bedspread to play off the navy pinstripes in the wall coverings. And eventually, all of the metal details will be silver.
It may seem like every urban living space, the contemporary ones, at least, look their best when they carry a slight to severe edge. But I try to approach each home as a unique entity. This particular Philadelphia interior design project was inspired by a single piece of pre-existing furniture: a black-lacquered, art-deco credenza. The homeowner wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted for his apartment, but he knew he loved that credenza. I did, too. So I started developing the concept from there.
But as the design’s come along, I think he, too, has started to embrace his style, and it’s not entirely what I was expecting. As soon as the wall coverings were in place, we turned our attention to the next significant installation: the lighting. I showed him different kinds of art deco-style fixtures—all clean lines and modern designs—but he had another idea: crystal chandeliers. They paired well with the decadent suit fabrics, but they would throw us off our modern, minimalist, masculine course. I found some with marquise-cut diamonds that I plan to add miniature black lampshades to. Now that I’ve got a handle on our new angle, I think the chandeliers will add an intriguing nuance. And we’re not forsaking the apartment’s masculinity, after all. If anything, the contrast between the crystals and the wool and suede has made the space feel richer, warmer. The atmosphere, now, is closer to an update on a gentlemen’s haberdashery from the turn of the century.
I seem to tap another vein in my creativity when I’m in the city. That’s how a casual foray into Philadelphia interior design became a full-fledged arm of my firm. And my lifestyle. A couple years back, feeling that pull and surge of inspiration, we bought our own apartment at the Ritz-Carlton and I embarked on one of the more audacious makeovers of my career. I’ll always feel at home in the suburbs—I love my gardens and my pond too much not to—but I’m more likely to encounter the unexpected in the city, as evidenced by this project, and those are the moments when I feel most alive.
A recent project illustrates just how imaginatively offices are considered these days. As a commercial interior designer in Bucks County, Philadelphia, and the surrounding regions, I’ve come across my fair share of sterile cubicles. But The Feed Mill Station in Flemington, New Jersey, offered something fairly unique: A blank canvas.
The building—and it is an actual former feed mill, silos and all—was destined to become the new headquarters of Artcraft Health. But when the company bought the building, it was just a shell. The previous occupants had abandoned their renovation, it appeared, right after the demolition phase, so it was pretty much just studs, rafters, and concrete floors. There were, however, plenty of remnants of the building’s original iteration. My aim was to preserve as much of that character as I could, which meant, in most cases, leaving those rafters and the ductwork that would eventually be installed exposed and keeping the floor plans open, not sectioning them up into rows of individual offices.
Artcraft wanted a modern office in the mold of the kind that had come to occupy so much of Silicon Valley: casual, relaxed, conducive to spontaneous gatherings, rich in amenities. The kind of place, basically, you didn’t want to leave during your lunch break or even at the end of the work day. My job as a commercial interior designer in Bucks County was to adapt those experiences to a non-millennial, though very much creative-based, company and a region where retrofitted offices are the norm, but banks of overstuffed pillows that double as conference rooms are not. What I came up with was a spin on the farmhouse-industrial aesthetic that took advantage of the building’s inherent character and fostered the unconventional environmental the client wanted.
Unique as the building itself is, it’s the front desk that steals most of the attention. It looks like it was transplanted from a Depression-era factory. The base does, at least. The massive steel coil extending from the top of the desk to the ceiling above it transforms it into a piece of modern art. I had this idea for a huge, heavy hunk of steel anchoring the wide-open space and tying together all of the other steel, wood, and corrugated metal around it. I came up with a rough sketch and took it to a metalsmith I’ve been working with for over 15 years, and he ran with it. He does a lot of technical work, so when I come to him with a design, his eyes light up. He also ended up crafting several other pieces of furniture for the Artcraft office, including the sofas and Corbusier-style chairs in the lobby and some tables made from recovered machinery gears.
Matching the brand with the office’s aesthetic; that’s usually the hardest part about being a commercial interior designer in Bucks County and, I imagine, anywhere else. It’s because it’s almost always the office that makes the greater sacrifice in that compromise. But here, the two ideals aligned almost seamlessly. Modern may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think retrofitted farm building, and yet the end result is the height of avant-garde. It’s not a modern office in the Silicon Valley sense. But that would look unnatural around here. We highlighted what we liked about the concept and the space and made them our own. That’s Interior Design 101.
Warmth is a year-round pursuit. In the spring and summer, we seek out swaths of grass, and beach, and water, anywhere that provides an uninterrupted connection to the sun. In the fall and winter, we retreat to our deepest, darkest corners. In both cases, we’re motivated by a desire to feel warmer, physically, though in the cold-weather months, it’s just as important for a cozy interior design to help us feel safe and secure, too. When the world turns ugly, our universal response is to put as many layers between us and it as we can.
Open to interpretation
The commonalities don’t end there, of course, but warmth, as with any sensation, is expressed (and felt) in a variety of ways. What I consider to be the warmest room in our home, the living room, doesn’t really fit the conventional mold. Scale and space in an interior design convey warmth and security to me. The living room is at the heart of our retrofitted barn home. It’s a space that reaches two stories high. Standing nearly as tall, and dominating much of the attention, is a massive—it feels appropriate to describe it as overpowering—monolithic concrete fireplace that I designed. Where a guest could easily derive a stoicism from its size and minimalist design, those same characteristics describe a strength that leaves me feeling well protected.
I played the rest of the room off of the fireplace. The sectional sofa and accent walls are variations of charcoal, the floor is espresso, and the casegoods are mahogany antiques. The furniture, highlighted by a rustic-style rope-and-chain French bell-shape chandelier, is all substantial enough to complement the fireplace’s size.
Shades of warmth
When a client explicitly asks for warmth, I ask, in reply, for his or her favorite colors. After all, warmth begins with comfort, regardless of the season or the setting. And you’re more inclined to feel comfortable when you’re surrounded by some of your favorite things, especially hues, because we have such an emotional connection to them. Even among our living room, there are bursts of color that I change seasonally. Much as I like the dramatic effect of such a large room cast in a moody palette, it could all feel a bit of Game of Thrones without at least a few well-placed reminders that the world isn’t such a cold place. The subtle incorporation of some cool hues and the not-so subtle incorporation of some loud ones elevate an interior design from a sweatpants-only zone to a sophisticated corner that’s ripe for both solitude and gathering.
The weekend makeover
The true beauty of warm-minded interior design ideas is that they’re pretty easy to accomplish. A fireplace always helps. But even without one, repainting the walls a deeper color or swapping out the sofa for another in a dark material carries the same weight. (And, to me, facing sofas is instant intimacy.) Supplement it with heavier window treatments, a few stacks of some thick, hardcover books, and a little texture diversity. (Enticing as it may feel to slip into a plush cave for the winter, the sameness gets old fast.) And don’t neglect the lighting. As with the textures, aim for at least a couple different kinds that create a layering effect. Nothing too bright.
The end goal here is to make your winter retreat a place you want to retreat to again and again, alone or with company, early in the morning and well into the after-dinner-drinks phase of the party. Because the winter can be interminable.
Few people I’ve met in this industry have followed a straight path to interior design. My own was rather unconventional, too. I started out as an architect and was fortunate enough to work for a few of the most accomplished firms in the world. Much as I respected my peers and as challenging as the work was, I lost interest in it.
Entering college, I was torn between architecture and interior design. The two became intertwined in my mind while I was growing up. I lived in Madrid until I was four (though I was born in the States), and my family returned to Europe most summers for several weeks at a time. My memories of those trips are filled with countless medieval villages and castles, my eye registering the lush upholstery in the preserved chambers as much as the intricate network of archways that formed the corridors. As I got older and was able to better appreciate them, they influenced so many corners of my personality. So, separating them felt sacrilegious, but architecture, at the time, struck me as a more viable career. My mind (and heart), however, never drifted far from interior design.
I circled back to those old-world designs in time, but my early days as an interior designer are notable more for an aggressive pursuit of the avant-garde. I was in love with hyper-minimalism—if less is more, then next to nothing was sublime—and technology, even though tech back then was bulky and awkward. Both, I thought, spoke to a time and place well ahead of our own. In my young arrogance, putting myself above the trends was how I created separation, I guess.
Eventually, I (re-)discovered antiques, my world opened up, and I began to develop a style that I’d like to think is worthy of distinction. At the very least, it’s a purer reflection of me. That’s probably the natural course of maturation. My designs now, ironically, are more often even bolder than they were back then. The critical difference is that in the beginning, I was chasing an aesthetic, whereas now, I’m following my instincts.
I never fell out of love with minimalism. In fact, I’m in the midst of a modern-minimalist apartment design, my first in years, and it seems to have awakened something (or someone) in me. Design is fluid, after all. And all the while, I’ve been designing furniture, which has always leaned noticeably toward minimalism. It started as a hobby back in college, and when I left architecture, I honed in on it for a period before moving into interior design, exhibiting in the International Contemporary Furniture Fair and putting out a limited line.
I still design furniture. Now it’s in the course of my interior design projects. For that modern-minimalist apartment, I’m creating a bed that also incorporates a nightstand and a desk. Unwieldly as that may sound, it’s beautifully streamlined.
As an interior designer, I’ve come to understand that we’re more vulnerable to impression when we’re young than we’ll ever admit. And when we’re older, we’re only just beginning to grasp all that’s required of making one of our own. They key, I think, is learning how to own those influences, not ignore them.