For the January/February 2019 issue of CQ, editorial director Joanna Saltz and five innovative designers talk about change—and our love-hate relationship with it.
Joanna Saltz: OK, let's do this. Tell me how you have changed as a designer in the past 10 years.
Erick Espinoza: Oh gosh. For me, I think it's changed a lot and very rapidly because I am a member of the generation that grew up with technology, right? And so…
Elaine Griffin: How old are you if I may ask?
EE: How old am I? 28. And so for me, you know, coming out of school, I was already working for Tony [Baratta] when I was still in school...At the time, the design that was coming out was very of that time, and I remember it very vividly. Like the Bungalow 5s were coming out, and you would see that everywhere.
EG: You still do.
EE: It’s still trickling in a little bit, but I've seen it change so much because with a magazine like CQ, they elevated it. They found a way to use those pieces, but use high and low and that, to me, is a principle of design. You have to use high and low. Bill Diamond taught us that, Tony taught us that. It's important because otherwise everything looks contrived.
JS: Well, it's thoughtfulness, right? There's thought behind it, it's not just out of the box.
EE: Right, it was a good mix, it was personal. It was like using their existing stuff with some new stuff, with some old stuff, and that's what makes great design.
JS: How do you think you've changed, Elaine, in your design or in your aesthetic?
EG: Less clutter. Less. Less. Less. Less. Less. Less. Just because it's moment of less. We've gone from the extreme lots to the extreme minimalism and now we're in a moderated...controlled maximalism. So it's less. It's strategic, but it's less.
JS: So, do you think that's because each thing needs to have more importance because we don't have as much time and space?
EG: Yes. The reality is...there's such a thing as clutter. And I will say every makeover I do, for example, the first thing I do is go in and clean stuff out...because it's too much stuff. People don't realize how much stuff they accumulate, unless you are living streamline.com.
EE: I purge every two weeks!
EG: Exactly! It's got to go.
EE: That was so last month! Because it's easy to accumulate and you can only have so many stacks of books on little tables. You know, I stack books all over...because I have like book problems. But at the end of the day you can only have so many of those, it looks cluttered now.
Ashley Whittaker: I'm over decorating with books. I think it had its moment where "What do the books look like"...What does the room look like? What does the architecture look like? What does the furniture plan look like? So I think we've kind of stopped decorating with books. I still, I love my books, I came home from Hudson two days ago, I didn't buy any furniture, all I bought was every new book...I'm so excited. But I think the way I've changed is, to our point earlier, is I have less of a fear of change and more confidence. I don't worry about it even if, you know, the husband's saying, "I hate the entrance hall table, I hate it, I hate it, I hate it." That's when I know it's good." Because it's so totally different than what they had in their mind and I'm like, "If you hate it in two weeks, call me, I will take it back immediately."
EG: I tell clients that.
AW: Only when I know they’re going to love it. If you're not taking risks, you're not doing good design, and I think it's that risk taking that really is very scary. It kind of should be a little bit scary.
Young Huh: Yeah, it should.
AW: I did have a client in South Hampton—one of my first projects—it was actually featured in CQ. I called the client, and asked "How is the sunroom?" We had just installed the curtains and she said "It's a little jarring" and I panicked. I had a friend in South Hampton, I was like, "Will you drive over to 8 Hunting Street and go look at the curtains in the sunroom? They've got to look horrible." And she said "They're so pretty, they look great." So I think I'm at a point in my life when they call me and they say "It's a little jarring," I say, "Great, we nailed it." So, you know, I'm not going for that crazy moment, but you need that level of discomfort before you become really comfortable and before you've created something exciting and dynamic.
JS: I love that. I’ve heard time and time again though, also from designers, that there are no such thing as mistakes.
EG: Yes, there are.
JS: Learning moments. You think so, you disagree? Really?
EG: A mistake is a learning moment...No, we tell you that so we don't have to pay for it ourselves. That's the only reason we're like "We can make this work," because otherwise we have to strike a check for it.
AW: I went to Amanda Lindroth's dinner after her book party the other night and
Rebecca de Ravenel, the jewelry designer, got up and she had the cutest toast to Amanda, it was just so sweet, she worked for her for a long time. She was like, "The most important thing I learned from you, Amanda: Plan B looks great." And Amanda yelled back, she goes, "And C, and D, and E." But I think we all have to embrace that. That it kind of is a little bit true. There are no mistakes, like "This is going to be great!" Make it work. Make it work.
JS: That's amazing. I want to make sure I get everyone, though. Young, tell me how have you changed.
YH: I think, sort of what Ashley said, I've become more confident and I think the critical component to that is being more relaxed. And, I think, just accepting those mistakes, those issues—there's always issues—and now, like when the client panics, I'm so prepared for it. Now I even give them a little tutorial before construction and say "Hey, at some point you will lose your temper, you will yell at me, and it's going to be OK." We will get through it together. It's sort of like the phases of grief, there's the phases of construction. And then at the end you will love it and you will call me again. I guarantee.
EE: I think part of it is also believing in what you love already, right? The things you love, you're always going to love. You're going to look back on things from an old project and say "I still love those things," right? So you can’t let them instill doubt in you. They say "Well, are you sure this is going to work?" or "You really like that?" and it makes you doubt yourself. No, you should never doubt the things you love.
Lindsey Coral Harper: I'm OK with saying that. "You know, maybe we have to reconsider this." But for the most part, especially with construction, you've planned it so much, and again, the phases of construction, the phases of grief, I know what they're going to go through...it's like clockwork.
JS: But sometimes also, I think you need to see the negative in order to really clearly see the positive, or see what it is, what it should be. I do feel like, in a lot of ways, you have to go through...you know, we can be reactionary, humans can be reactionary and it's easier to see a bad thing and know how to make it good than to see nothing or to go straight to the good. Clearly with design, that’s something.
YH: What's so funny is people are always happy when it's completely demo-ed. It's when things start going in that they panic. They're like "Oh my god! I didn't pick that!"
LCH: Well I think, for me—and also through a lot of therapy—I'm much more relaxed. It is confidence, but I think coming off the heels of working for [Richard Keith Langham], everything's like detail, detail, detail and layers, and ball-gown curtains and fringes, and this and that. I look at my first clients, and they were a little bit older than me and—they're still so beautiful—but I'm like "Wow, the detail." I was also very young, so I paid so much attention to detail...Everything in this apartment I did about 12 years ago, which I looked at recently was custom. I couldn't believe the amount of detail. Now, I'm like, "I don't have time for that." Also, people change. I'm doing second and third homes for people, they don't want all that. So I feel like I've definitely simplified. I'm still a maximalist, I'm not a minimalist. I'm still a hoarder, I do love books, I still love all kinds of stuff, but I do think my design is a little more relaxed and laid back. But I've also been doing it on my own now for ten years and I did it with Keith for eight, so I've been doing it a while...I had a client out of the country and we had just installed the grasscloth in their bedroom and they called freaking out, "There's lines in this…This is terrible." And I'm like "It's supposed to look like that." "Oh, it is?" "Yes, just wait until we get your curtains..." That's the process I don’t like, is when they see it half-baked and I'm just like "Please wait until we get to the end."
AW: Breathe into it, that's what I tell them. Just breathe into it.
LCH: Like you'll install a kitchen table and the chairs aren't there yet and they're like "IT'S TOO BIG" or "IT'S TOO SMALL!"
EE: We have a general rule, we do not half install, ever, because of that. I don't care if you're waiting a whole year for your furniture, you're waiting for everything.
JS: What is the one thing you wish people would change in their homes?
EG: It's going to be my epitaph on my grave: Hang your curtains at ceiling height. Too many people are either hanging them halfway between the ceiling and the window, or they’re hanging them right above the window trim.
EE: It raises the ceiling height! I have a pet peeve about little rugs: They drive me nuts. And if you can't afford a big rug, use some sisal matting. It's cheaper. But fill the room with your rug—you don't want all this extra floor space.
AW: Also, look at the rooms you'e not using and really evaluate why. If you're not using your dining room, for example, morph it into a great library or a sitting room. Could you maybe put a television in a room that you're not using? Live in your house.
LCH: I can't stand paper shades. If it is a well-thought-out and painted paper shade, great. But I don't know why people spend all this money on a beautiful lamp and just stick the free lampshade on it. You know when you buy an outfit and they give you the suggested leather belt? It's suggested!
EG: You never wear that!
AW: Wait, I think I wear that belt.
JS: Me too.
YH: People not using their dining room is a pet peeve of mine, actually. Even once a week, have Sunday dinner there. Just make it really fun and cozy and usable. If it's too formal and off-putting, you're not going to use it.
LCH: I think fabric shades actually elevate your lamp that you've spent $500 to $5,000...The second thing is just perception. I can't tell you the number of people who stop me on the street and go "Oh I love your work, I could never afford you" and I'm like “You just bought a $6 million house, yes you can." I've never told anyone how much I cost. It all depends on the job and the client and the amount of work we have to do. And I feel like people blame us that furniture is expensive. It's not me, don't be mad at me that the sofa costs this and they think I'm making all this money.
JS: But also why does it cost that, right? It's important to know that.
LCH: Right, we can explain! But I'm like, the perception has to change.
EE: If they went out and got it themselves it would actually be more money, because you're getting the net-price.
LCH: That's what I say, "I'm actually going to save you money because you're not going to make the mistakes."
YH: The other thing is to make sure you appreciate the craft because that's why it costs so much. You should be using our artisans and our makers who make things for us and value that and not just think about the dollars.
EG: At the end of the day, especially for your reader, I think it's important to stress that there's a time and a place for budget everything. Just like we wear Target somethings, we all have at least one Target thing in our wardrobe. I was reading online because I was getting a side table at Target for a project, and some lady was like "This table is horrible quality, for the price I would have expected so much more." And it was like…
EG: Yes! The reality is that for America you have part of your readership that is definitely like "I want a $500 sofa, I want a $50 coffee table, I want to do this entire room for $2,000 and that's a lot of money."
JS: Honestly, in reality, we also have a lot of our audience that will happily spend $2,000 on a handbag.
EG: Those same people! Those same people with the $50 coffee table.
JS: It's perception and education.
YH: That is kind of interesting. Like why do people spend like $5,000 on a suit, but they won't spend $5,000 on a sofa that you sit on every single day.
EG: For 20 years!
LCH: That makes no sense.
AW: Was it Oscar? I know Miles says it often, "Buy the best and you only cry once." I just built a house and I just cried when I got the invoice. I'm like "Don't do it, don't do it, don't do it, don't do it. OK, just get it. Don't tell me about it." I don't even know, I forgot...You forget, you move on and it's beautiful and you get to look at it every day, and you never think about how much it cost before.
LCH: They also say you can get good, cheap, or fast, but you can't get all three.
EG: Good, cheap, or fast...I've never heard that before.
JS: You can only get two of the three.
EE: OK, I have one last comment. I think everything in terms of style and interiors is definitely cyclical, though. Think about it in the '40s and '50s it was chintzy, it was over the top. In the '60s and '70s it died and became modern, '80s, '90s it came back. The 2000s, simplified. We may be seeing a return, and I'm excited about that because I relish in thinking about every single detail.
EG: We are! Chintz is back.
JS: But, back to the point we were saying before. I think a lot of that is because we want things with story, with history, with thoughtfulness behind it. It’s not just about disposability, it's really about—
EE: I don’t want to see another white room, give me something, give me your personality, who are you?
JS: Yes, give me something to react to.
YH: I think that's another thing that's changed for me. I use so much more color than I used to. When I started out I did things very in a lot of neutrals, textures, and now my clients are all asking for colors, prints—prints on prints on prints.
JS: To that point, clients come to you for changes like that, yet they seem reticent to actually change. Why do you think change is so scary?
YH: There's an old Chinese curse: "May you live in changing times." You don't know what's going to happen—it could be awful, or it could be wonderful.
AW: Change is a good thing! When they discontinued fabrics at Brunschwig & Fils, my heart broke—but then it was like, what about all of these new block prints that didn't even exist before?!
EG: I think that fear and experience are inversely proportionate. The more experience you have, the less afraid of change you are. You know it's going to be messy, it's going to take longer than you thought it would, and it's going to cost more than you originally estimated, but you're going to have a happy ending.
EE: That's so true. Some clients are really, really bad about change—down to the tiniest thing, like, "Well, what about the table I used to put my keys on every time I walked in the house?" They are so stuck on it that they're afraid to move past it.
EG: Your house is like a family member. And when you say to a client, "I want to paint your living room, change your sofa, and redo your floors," they’re like, "Well, why not just cut my arm off, too?"
LCH: We're creatures of comfort, right? And you're dealing with people's homes. I mean, I love change, I love to redo people's houses. And I agree that that's why the more experience you have, the better you are at it. The more you've done it, the more they trust you.
JS: What's that old saying? "The only thing you regret about change is not changing sooner"?
EE: I think part of it is also believing in what you love already, right? The things you truly love, you're always going to love. You're going to look back on things from an old project and say, "I still love those things." So you can't let them instill doubt in you, because they do that. They say, "Well, are you sure this is going to work?" or "You really like that?" and it makes you doubt yourself. You should never doubt the things you love.
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