On Style: An Introduction

When talking about design, some critics say, “We have seen everything before. There’s really nothing new being created.” On a granular level, I’m inclined to agree.  

But interior design has always been defined by its moment in time, generational movements that are, in turn, shaped by culture, economics, and fashion. For example, in the 1970s industrial minimalism was au courant. In the early 1980s, many decorators were putting their own spin on British or French design. Concurrently, other designers created rooms that celebrated juxtaposition: Lucite with floral chintz; streamlined Parsons tables with eighteenth-century Irish chairs. This set the stage for the eclecticism of the high-flying 1990s.  

The rise of the Internet at the turn of the twenty-first century provided a proliferation of visual information to drive the eclectic movement still further. Glorious Moroccan color palettes, sleek mid-century Italian silhouettes, and the patina associated with Japanese wabi-sabi are just a few of the ideas designers freely incorporated into their work. With so many concepts in the mix, interior design increasingly became reflective of a global view.  

That brings me to this book.  

In choosing fifty designers who represent the next generation of interior design, I began by doing research. Who has great style? Who has something visually interesting to say? Who is moving the discipline forward?  

As I sifted through the finalists, I found that there was no one style of design that captured today’s moment. Instead, in what feels like a natural progression from eclecticism, there is a proliferation of aesthetic diversity. Words like contemporary or classic feel too limiting. We need a broader vocabulary to describe design today. Among the designers featured in this book, there are the New Traditionalists, who pay homage to classic design while responding to societal changes; the Modern Minimalists, who seek to create sanctuary to balance frenetic lives; the Saturated Colorists that conjure new palettes; the Casual Bohemians, who mix humble furnishings in exciting ways; and devotees of masculine restraint and urban chic.  

Now, make no mistake: interior design’s function will always be to provide a personal backdrop for the business of living, and Louis Sullivan’s famous “form follows function” edict remains prescient. But there’s a new freedom in interior design. We may have seen it all before, but the variety of aesthetic lenses through which designers see interiors is expanding exponentially and in tandem with the technological advances of the twenty-first century.  

As you read the profiles of the fifty designers included in this book, with their thoughts on their influences and inspiration, color and key elements, it’s my sincere hope that their answers, in concert with stylish images of their work, will inspire and delight you. Because in the end, isn’t that what great design is all about? 

Content Connectivity

Back in February 2015, the marketing guru Seth Godin published an article on one of my favorite blogs, Contently.com, suggesting, “You Need Editors, Not Brand Managers.” It changed the way I think about marketing and promotion.

The take-away from the article, simply stated, is that we’re living through a revolutionary moment in the way we communicate with each other, share news and information and promote products and services. Social media has upended our reliance on print and television, and offers opportunities for both individuals and brands to advance their goals by developing and disseminating content with relative ease.

The secret to using these new tools successfully, according to Godin, is to develop content that connects with your audience, the people who might become your customers.

In my work as a consultant, I strive to help my clients make these connections. When working with designers, I spend time helping them better understand their brand and their potential customers. This is often simply a matter of “aesthetic forensics”—examining what their work represents and whom it might reach.

Let me give you an example I share with prospective clients who are interior designers.

Imagine you have a keen interest in placing art in interior design; to be more specific, let’s say you love 20th-century works on paper. Presumably, these kinds of works appear in rooms you’ve designed, and feature prominently in your portfolio.

Here’s what I might recommend: research all the auctions, gallery shows, and museum exhibitions over the next 12 months that include works on paper, and make a plan to attend as many as possible. Here’s when the content development becomes important.

If you’ve established an industry blog, I would recommend that you write and publish a review of each event you attend. In that way, you’re telling an organic story of your interest in works on paper to anyone who researches you online. Ideally, your review should include photographs you’ve shot at the event, images of your favorite pieces from the show, and a photograph of yourself in the space.

One important auction on the calendar in New York this spring is Sotheby’s photographs by Ansel Adams. This would be a perfect choice for several reasons. First, Christie’s has 445,000 followers on Facebook, nearly 91,000 followers on Twitter and more than 500,000 followers on Instagram. Second, it’s likely that if you promote Christie’s auction on those three platforms, they’ll return the favor by promoting your content free of charge.

And who are the people who follow Sotheby’s? Many of them are your potential customers, with a strong interest in photography. If they land on your blog to read your review of the Adams auction, they may choose to browse through your design portfolio as well, and appreciate your use of works on paper. Through this shared interest, you may gain a new customer. That’s what I refer to as “Content Connectivity”.

Now, a bit about how to craft content that not only connects with your audience, but also inspires them to share it.

Here I have a catchphrase: “be of service” to your audience. In other words, create content that enriches the lives of your audience and the larger community by offering a bit of your expertise. This is where I’ve been known to say, “Your ego is not your amigo.” Talking about yourself incessantly turns people off; like a bore at a dinner party, people eventually stop hearing you. Make your content about your audience, not about you.

So, how can you be of service to your audience? I have a four-point strategy: educate, solve, promote, and entertain.

Taking the Ansel Adams auction as an example, you might;

  • Educate your audience. Share a bit of biographical information about Adams and his career in photography. Perhaps place him in the context of the art of the American Southwest, and explore his relationships with other artists such as Orville Cox, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Edward Curtis.
  • Take the opportunity to solve a problem. As the works in the Christie’s auction are large-scale, you might choose to offer your expertise on how to best hang large-scale artworks, or how to best incorporate black-and-white photography into a color scheme.
  • Promote something of value. Review the auction lots in advance if you can gain access to the sale preview. Because you’ve had experience with placing Adams’ work before, you might find a special photograph that’s got a low estimate, a rare image, or something iconic that’s not often seen at auction.
  • Entertain. Tell a story. We all have a wealth of history to draw upon; take the opportunity to share an anecdote about your first experience with an Ansel Adams work. Perhaps you were in design school and traveled to MoMA, where you first saw his work in person. Write about that experience.

Let me sum it up for you. When I think about the importance of crafting branded content and sharing it across social platforms, I’m reminded of a designer I met with a few years ago who said “I don’t need to be on social media; I don’t really care about what my friends are having to eat.”  And on some level, I understood his reluctance. But carefully considered and well-crafted content could connect you with a client, and that might pay for your lunch.

Windsor Smith: On Communication

A careful balance between antique and modern furnishings is found in this room, which is anchored by a large table topped with books and a mirrored globe. The corners of the room are places for the occupants to retreat for intimate conversations, and the herringbone parquet floors, which lend purposeful symmetry, were reclaimed from a seventeenth century château in Lyon, France. Photo credit Luca Trovato

Instant messaging, urgent e-mails, video chats, and online streaming mean that the devices designed to bring us together are also pushing us further apart. I realized some time ago that the only way I could make clients with demanding lifestyles truly happy at home is to evolve my work to this shiftier new landscape of starts and stops. The flow I need to focus on building is the everyday flow of conversation.

Somehow, I need to find tangible ways to put emotion and connectivity into the DNA of rooms I was previously consumed with making beautiful. I had to draw people deeper than the next room. My job was now to inspire clients to express themselves and communicate in a deeper way within their walls.”

An Introduction

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Interior by Madeline Stuart

In 1897, when the great novelist Edith Wharton and her friend, architect Ogden Codman Jr., published The Decoration of Houses, the world hovered on the brink of new movements, technologies, and modes of production that would radically transform the built world. Wharton and Codman sought to make sense of both this ferment and the past—recent and distant—for the lay reader, purporting to set forth the rational relationship between structure and surface, architecture and ornament. Wharton proclaimed, “It is with the decorator’s work alone that these pages are concerned,” and in so doing, she established her book as the springboard from which any informed knowledge of interior decoration began.

The twentieth century saw a great many interior decorators who carried Wharton’s precepts forward through their own aesthetic lens: Elsie de Wolfe, Rose Cumming, Eleanor Brown, Frances Elkins, Dorothy Draper, Sister Parish, Albert Hadley, Joe D’Urso, Angelo Donghia, Ward Bennett, Michael Taylor, Billy Baldwin, and Mark Hampton, among others. Some of these designers wrote landmark books setting forth their own conception of interior design, such as Billy Baldwin Decorates, Mark Hampton on Decorating, and de Wolfe’s The House in Good Taste.

By the late 1980s, interior design had hit its stride, bringing with it an outpouring of monographs, as the design of one’s own space had become a national, if not a global, obsession. Yet there have been few attempts to provide, in the manner of Wharton and Codman, a comprehensive account of what the industry’s finest practitioners believe works in interior design today, and why. While I would not attempt to draw a direct comparison to The Decoration of Houses, I have always envisioned Interior Design Master Class as a modern-day answer to Wharton and Codman’s accomplishment by applying their room-by-room and element-by-element organization of the subject of decoration to its contemporary creators. In the voices of more than one hundred preeminent American designers, this is a comprehensive guide to the elements of interiors, including planes, portals, furniture, and color, to name a very few, as well as a meditation on related subjects such as archaeology, psychology, and literature.

Today, the welcome democratization of decoration that has taken place since the advent of the internet continues to expand, and more people than ever are interested in the design of their home. Interior Design Master Class offers a view into the world of the finest practitioners in the decorative arts, uncovering the intellectual and philosophic roots of this most ancient and necessary of arts. My hope is that it will instruct and inspire a wide audience, from the curious layperson to students of design as well as practicing professionals.

We all inhabit dwellings of some kind; the more thoughtful the attention we exert upon them, the more our infrastructure—our whole built world—is beautified.