5 Interior Designers Reveal the Risks That Could've Failed Spectacularly—And How They Survived

The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward—or the bigger the flop.

White plaster dining room with dogwood flower detail
For a dining room in Southampton, New York (below), Pheasant worked with a plaster artisan to create 200 dogwood blossoms, which were dotted across the ceiling.
Durston Saylor

Joanna Saltz: Here’s what I want to know: What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken recently, and—honest truth—did it pay off?

Paul Sherrill: In general, I think risk and creativity don’t have to go exactly hand in hand in the design process. It’s an iterative process; you run it through and test it. The bigger the risk you want to go take, you really have to test things more, to make sure that it’s not a flop.

Jose Solis Betancourt: For us, the risk is mostly managing clients. We push them sometimes to do things that maybe they’re not accustomed to—like a library and a dining room and a media room all together in one. So they’re expecting to go to the dining room or go to the media room, but you push them, because of program and because of the space.

PS: You're changing the way they’re accustomed to living. That maybe is why they’re coming to us, or to any designer: They love this new property but it doesn’t have all the rooms they had before, or maybe they don’t want all of the rooms.

José Solís Betancourt: I think technology is a great thing that’s also a big risk in many ways, because everything is changing so quickly and you want to push the envelope. We did this powder room where there are no knobs on the faucet—just a motion detector. The client asked, “What happens if it doesn’t work? It’s going to splash!” So you go in and try it; you test it out.

PS: Before that silk blouse gets ruined!

JSB: Yes. But you’re in good hands with the companies that do really great work. There’s always a risk—a “What if?”—but we go in and really study it first.

Joe Ireland: What we’ve been trying to do a lot lately is get the client to take a risk with us, and convincing them that the risk is worth the payoff. You know, DC is typically known for calm interiors—people don’t necessarily go crazy here with color and pattern—but more and more we’re doing that. So we get hired because we go out on that limb. With technology, we can walk a client through a house in 3-D that has a giant Christopher Farr wallpaper in the hallway, and we can get them to say, “OK, I’m still a little on the fence, but I’m gonna do it.” We’re trying to convince clients that the payoff is worth the risk.

Hallway with colorful abstract botanical print wallpaper
Ireland took a chance and covered the entryway walls of a recent project in Christopher Farr Cloth’s Tribe.
Courtesy of Joe Ireland


Tom Pheasant: I think we all share the same risk every day: creating interiors for people who a lot of times are strangers to you. And you have a short time to put the design together—you’re basically selling them on a concept that, honestly, they won’t know until they see it. And, honestly, we don’t know until we see it. I feel very confident, and I’ve certainly been around a long time, but I have those nights of like, “What? Is this really going to happen the way I’m thinking?”

JS: It really does feel that the thing you need to believe the hardest in is your own ability to bring a risk to life. You need to stand behind it—and frankly, you also kind of need to stand behind it if you mess it up. You have to be like “Alright, well, this didn’t work out and I need to be ok with that.”

TP: I’ll tell you a quick story about taking a risk and sort of this confidence-shaking moment. We were doing a fantastic old house in South Hampton, actually an old house that Consuela Vanderbilt once lived in, and the gardens were unbelievable. It had a center dining room that was lined by a former rose garden and a family garden on the other side. The client kept talking about the garden, so I had this idea to do the dining room in a white-plaster trellis with a ceiling of dogwood branches and blossoms. I’d put my whole heart into this concept. So I’m giving the big presentation, and we get to the dining room...and there’s silence. The client turned to me and said, “Tom, I don’t get it, but if you really think so, go ahead.” I was so deflated!

JS: There’s something about risk that makes you feel very exposed.

JI: As soon as the client starts questioning something, then you start questioning it.

TP: Right! But I found this family plaster company, and the grandfather came out of retirement when he heard what I wanted to do. I showed up one day, and he had created 200 plaster dogwood blossoms in different stages of opening. He was 89, I think. He got up on the scaffolding, I handed him the blossoms that I wanted to use and we put them in their places. For that afternoon it was just me and this gentlemen. It was such an emotionally gratifying experience, and I learned so much. The clients were ecstatically happy. But it was that kind of risk that we’re taking when we don’t really know, but we’re wanting to explore. I think it’s important that we do it, but it’s just a fantastic example of taking a risk and having it work. It could have gone the other way.

Man smiling with arms crossed
Stephen Voss

JSB: It’s a beautiful ceiling because it’s traditional but it also has freshness. It’s just incredible.

Andrew Law: Tom touched on the fact that we’re all really great at coming up with boundary-pushing ideas, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we know how to execute them. One of the things that’s so rewarding on almost every project is that you leave having learned something, either from the architect or the builder or the artisans whom you are challenged to go out and find. And it pushes each project, so you bring that to the next project. I think if you don’t, if we don’t do that collectively, we risk homogeneity—and there's so much homogeneity out there. So much of it’s been done and it’s bland and it’s everywhere. Our clients kind of come to us for these truly bespoke interiors.

JS: You should never stop learning. We should never ever stop learning. The minute you think you’ve learned it all, I mean, throw in the towel. You’re out. You should always feel compelled to gain more.

TP: I think the patron-client relationship does that. That really creates an environment where new ideas really can be explored collaboratively and pushed. You already have that built-in confidence level, you’re already on the same page, and I think that can produce really wonderful results.

PS: Something Andrew was saying that I think is really important is the vendors, the artists, these new people. We find that risk a lot because we don’t necessarily only work here in Washington, we’re all over the place having to find these new vendors. What's also rewarding is, “Wow, they can do this and do it even better than what we anticipated,” and that collaboration with those artists and people. We found someone amazing in Palm Beach that we use on a regular basis now. Even though the person is not local to us, we’re using their product and shipping it.

I think that’s the thing: Proceed cautiously with unknowns, but take on the risk and manage it. Then you can put it into your bag of tricks.

AL: Ten years ago, you might say to a client, “What shelter magazines are you looking at? I would love to see some imagery of what has appealed to you.” Now, the images that they’re seeing on Instagram are international, and I think that’s what’s interesting. Even our resources are so international now: Linen is coming from this place, plaster work’s coming from Italy. I think part of that is the challenge of finding the resources within the United States to also do some of those trades, and bring it to the next project.

Man and woman posing for portrait
and
Stephen Voss

Amanda Nisbet: Well, most of it’s been said, but I agree. One of my favorite things about what I do is sourcing new materials. There’s never a job when I don’t use something I’ve never used before. For a Kips Bay room, I wanted to do this resin table with floating gold specks, but I wanted you to be able to see down into it and see the floating gold specks. Well this became a huge endeavor and for myriad reasons, we had to layer the specs and so do thin thin layers with the gold specs floating. Let me just say, it’s about an 8,000-pound table. I now own it. It’s a lovely cocktail table in my living room, but always the movers are like, “We love this table so much,” and I’m like, “Thanks, do you mind just scooting it over there?”

I’m sourcing right now. I’ve got some mesh from Paris I’ve never used. The contractor’s like, “We’ve never seen anything like this.” And I’m like, “Well, do your best.” To me that’s the fun of it is seeing how will this work. Will it work the way I intended? Or will it come out horrible? I did this Kips Bay room that no one else wanted because it had this yucky old lady wallpaper, and I got last choice. So I decided to create this pattern and wallpaper, and I sort of made it this modern day boudoir for a woman. And I was very cheeky and got lots of, sort of, sexy provocative pictures. I put a Marilyn Minter, who’s sort of quite provocative with her mouth, you know, wide open. And so Veranda decided to publish it, which was so nice, but when it was published the Marilyn Minter was erased.

JS: Andrew, do you have an example of a similarly big risk that you weren't sure would pay off?

AL: I mean, there’s definitely a lot of nights where I wake up at 2 in the morning worried about something. The decisions that often make me the most nervous are the ones with a sense of permanence, things that are really hard to understand or fully know the scale of, like the exterior finish on a house. You know, if we’re doing leather on walls, I'm always slightly nervous about how it’s going to come out or be pieced together. Also, everything is kind of on the table now because of technology. Clients can come to us and really there isn’t anything that can’t be done.

So a lot of times there’s a risk in saying, “Okay, let’s do this pattern and let’s do it on the drapery, all of the walls, let’s do it on everything in the room.” And, you know, you can run 80, 90 yards of fabric. But there’s a risk in that. How will it turn out? So much of our work is custom. So even down to the minutiae of the trim, or you know, having custom wall coverings made. There is a risk in all of that and you don’t always know exactly how scale will translate or the art will translate, but that’s the customization that makes the projects so special.

TP: You know what’s interesting about risk? I’ve brought 3-D renderings into a few presentations, and the clients look at it as if it’s a done deal and don’t react much. But the same presentation, with sketches and samples instead, get them excited about the spirit and direction, and they’ll say, “Great!”

There is a risk of showing too much of what you’re doing and not giving yourself that time to really nurture your ideas through the whole year or two that it takes to do the project. Everyone’s like, “We need it now. We want the house built in a year.” So you’re like on this fast track. What’s interesting with my newer generation of clients, the 30-somethings, is that they’re like, “Send me an email! Just show me a picture! Get whatever you want! How fast can I get it?” So trying to be responsible for their investment and their process, like, “Come on, let’s talk and let’s nurture this house,” is a big commitment.

Man laughing sitting on stool
Stephen Voss

JS: Yeah, in the day and age of Amazon Prime, there’s no waiting for anything. And I’ve heard actually designers say that their clients are sometimes so impatient that they start buying stuff themselves. They’re just like, “Well I don’t want to wait to see, I picked out this thing.” They’re jumping the gun, frankly, into your pool. It seems crazy.

AL: So often when we do the presentation, the final iteration of it is different. And it might not be that perceptible to the client, but while we kind of got them signed on to one thing, it goes through several iterations in our minds before the final project comes out. I do love that moment of “This is what it’s going to be like. This is some furniture, fabric, the sketch.” But leaving that ambiguity there is, I think, really important. That is something that you cannot do in a rendering.

JS: It’s like seeing clothing on a model, you know what I mean? You still have to try it on because your experience is different than everyone else's.

JI: Finishes, fabrics, rugs especially...You cannot convey what a rug’s going to look like in a rendering. Period. You just have to get these things in front of the clients. My issue is, maybe, talking too much in the beginning. I get so excited about the project that I think I end up putting my foot in my mouth because I’ll say something and they’re like, “Yes! Let’s do it!” I’m like, “I didn’t think about this long enough, why am I saying this?!” But it turns out excellent most of the time.

PS: One risk we’re undertaking right as we speak, is that we’re working on two projects. One’s a townhouse in New York and one's an apartment here, and we’ve never met the client—we’ve never emailed with the client. There’s an intermediary! We’re relying on a third person to do all the presentations to them. It’s sort of been enjoyable, but not everything is being approved. Stay tuned!

Two men standing and laughing and smiling
Stephen Voss

JS: Who right now is taking—and inspiring you to take—great risk?

JI: I hope it's not cliché, but when I was at the Venice Biennale in 2017, Damien Hirst did this exhibit called “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable,” and it’s a full-scale archaeological dig of a fictitious ship. The more you got into it, the more you were immersed in it. That, to me, was a huge risk. It was a massive single installation, he’s got a lot of money there to put behind it, but it still could have been a total flop.

JS: I think what you’re touching on also is the importance of exposing yourself to those kinds of things, because it makes you think differently. It breaks your brain in sort of a way.

JI: It was incredible. It was unreal.

AN: This is a little old and cliché, and I don’t even know who Gucci’s designer is now, but when Gucci first came out with this sort of street fashion mixed with bohème, at first I thought it was the ugliest thing I had ever seen. Now I’m obsessed. I think it’s sort of become the zeitgeist for fashion, and maybe even interiors. And I’ve noticed other fashion designers are now trying to copy it. Like Louis Vuitton is doing it, not so good. But that Gucci guy, he’s very inspiring to me. And it’s selling! I can’t believe that’s selling.

JS: Well to your point, they're pushing people to places where they didn’t think to go and then suddenly creating a cult moment.

AN: And the damn running shoe? I resisted that for so long. Now my children are like, “Mom, you just can’t do it. I don’t care if it’s a Prada shoe, you just can’t do it.”

TP: I think these spectacular things we're talking about, they are inspirational. As a creative person you’ve got to go outside of your office and look. But what really impresses me are the number of designers from the past and present that have evolved their voice. They’re kind of riding above the trends. And I love trends—trends are great, they sell your magazines, they’re important. But people who have longevity, who have evolved within their own vocabulary. You see that constant dedication to their own evolvement, and I think that is, in a way, the bar for all of us and for what we call our design culture.

Because there isn’t one voice, but if you’re one voice and you’re trying to be every voice, you’re diluting yourself. So I think there’s a number of heroes out there. They may not be big, they may be small architects or designers, but you’re seeing that lifetime of pushing that personal rock up the hill.

JS: It’s like a friend of mine in media used to say: “If you’re going to work and you’re not a little bit scared, you’re not doing it right.” When you start to feel comfortable, it’s time to change things—you need that friction to continue to move you forward.

Long bar in dark space lit a million ways
Solis Betancourt says the hotel industry in China is a constant source of risk-spiration to him. The NUO hotel in Beijing is one of his favorites.
Courtesy of Nuo Hotel

AL: A small bit of time when you feel comfortable is a nice thing. Just this morning I was having a conversation with a client about Elon Musk, somebody who’s out there right now, a true visionary, and who’s really pushing forward. I think he’s so inventive and so smart, so I think he is somebody who is really kind of a hero in that realm. I think he’s pushing people forward or pushing, you know, it’s almost like the equivalent of what an industrial revolution. For a time we even had space travel in this country and that’s exciting. And with all of those sorts of things, especially with high speed trains and that sort of thing, I think there will be a whole other element of design with those things. But it really will affect how people will live long term.

PS: Building on that politically, I think we need to be thinking big ideas that may even involve our industries. If we want to acknowledge global climate change, then I think we have to introduce a lot of new things into the way we’re living and the way we’re teaching people to live. We’re in a place where we can instill or offer the ideas of those values that we’re going to need to apply sooner than later.

JS: I love that. It’s like where risk meets necessity.

PS: We have to think about the clients are off doing their thing and making money and doing their own projects, but they come to us and say, “Oh, now I’m going to build a house.” They’re not thinking about those things we have the luxury of thinking abou. Now maybe we’re only going to be able to apply ideas that we think of now to projects that are five years out, but I do think we need to take some responsibility. We have the luxury of suggesting, “Well, it might be nice to have a compost area in your home.” How can you do these things elegantly? If you throw it in the drawings, it maybe will appear.

JSB: I think the hotel industry, for me, is just running a lot of risk. When I travel, the hotel is the most important part, and since we've been going to China, I was so impressed with the hotels. They were just so outrageous. Almost like you could stay in the hotel the entire time–different restaurants within the premises and amazing bars and amazing experiences. The spa! I think the gym calls my attention in Beijing because it really was an experience.

A lot of clients probably come to you when they’re in the middle of a project, and they go to a trip, and they’re like, “I need to have this.” There is a lot of risks in these things that can be applied to residential, and incredible technology in terms of lighting, music, sounds, smell. Like that feeling of walking in and having a distinct sensation when you go into the Baccarat Hotel. What is it? We have seen a dark room before, but it’s about that sense of the aromas and textures. I think it’s just so inspiring.

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