5 Design Insights from Top Interior Designers (+ Why You Might Need One)

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10.23.17 | By
5 Design Insights from Top Interior Designers (+ Why You Might Need One)

Most of us have spent hours trying to choose the perfect dining chair or scoured the internet for the most comfortable sofa. (After all, you are reading a design blog right now.) And it makes sense. Your home is your family’s flagship. Prada has its Rem Koolhaas-designed SoHo store, Louis Vuitton has a giant glass concept store in Singapore, and for your family, there is your home. This is the place that conveys your mission and values to the world. It’s also where you unwind and escape from the world… so it may make sense not to leave it all up to chance and consider calling in a professional.

The bedroom of a Tiburon home by Nicole Hollis. Canopy bed by Holly Hunt Chaise by Christian Liaigre Nightstand custom design by Nicole Hollis. Art work is by Ki-bong Rhee. Photograph by Laure Joliet.

When it comes to designers, you can’t get more professional than the ones we spoke with. The short-list of Stephen Shadley’s client roster reads like a blockbuster’s title credits. He has designed homes for Diane Keaton (multiple), Jennifer Aniston, and Woody Allen. He has made the AD100 list, Architectural Digest’s catalog of the world’s best interior designers and architects, since the list’s inception in 1990. Despite all the accolades, he’s also known for being easy to work with and collaborative. Not adjectives usually applied to Hollywood heavy weights. “To me, it’s all about connection,” says Stephen. And that sense of connection and collaboration infuse every aspect of his work.

We also spoke with Jordan Fife, managing partner of the National Exchange Hotel Company, a design-centric hospitality group that is reutilizing historic or architecturally significant buildings to craft a luxury hotel experience, and Nicole Hollis, a San Francisco-based designer whose firm has received accolades including Luxe Interiors & Design Gold List, two California Home & Design Awards, four Hospitality Design Magazine Awards and a prestigious Gold Key Hospitality Award. All offered their take on how a designer can make your life a little less stressful (and just maybe why you might want one for your home).

Hawaiian bedroom by Nicole Hollis. Custom bed by Nicole Hollis. Photograph by Laure Joliet.

So.. why a designer?

One thing that Stephen’s clients have in common is their fantastic aesthetic sensibility. Yet, when comes to their homes, they all turn to a professional designer. The reason? It’s not about time. It’s about collaboration. For many of Stephen’s clients, especially those who have honed their aesthetic sensibility on sets, they work best when they can bounce ideas off someone they trust. It’s a process that is just as fun for the designer as the client. “I love to work with people in the arts,” says Stephen. “They have a personality. You have to respect them. They are geniuses.”

Nicole Hollis’ clients rely on a designer to make the process of designing a home easier. “We bring an expertise and understanding in the process required to design a beautiful home. Our long term relationships with architects, builders, fabricators, artisans, fabricators and showrooms help streamline the design, purchasing and project management process for the client,” she explained. Occasionally clients will want to try their hand at purchasing or project management both which are complex and time consuming. “They soon realize it’s a full-time job to perform these tasks to ensure a high quality project.”

Carrara marble kitchen by Nicole Hollis. Photograph by Laure Joliet.

How to design a kitchen

Kitchens are often a central focus of any design project.”They have become the focal point in the house,” Stephen said. “They are gathering places in the way that they weren’t a few years ago, Now you combine function with this cool room that everyone wants to hang out in.” Where you once had a door that you could shut, now Stephen adds in deep sinks so that you can hide dirty dishes with disturbing the party flow.

The Modernist refrigerator from Dacor that Nicole chose for her clients in the San Francisco Bay Area. With dual mounted cameras, they’ll never wonder if they’re out of milk.

Appliances are a critical piece of kitchen design. Nicole spends a lot of her kitchen design time focused on the choosing the right appliance, “[They] are now as smart as your smartphone. And can help make your life easier in innovating ways such as built-in cameras inside the oven you can see the food from your smartphone, or door mounted cameras in the fridge so that you can check to see if you have milk while at the grocery store.” These features were what attracted Nicole to the Dacor Modernist line of appliances that she recently chose for a design project in the Bay Area. “The clients love the look of the stainless interior as well as push to pull feature of the refrigerator,” she said.

Diane Keaton’s Beverly Hills home designed by Stephen Shadley

How to spot the hand of an interior designer

Stephen says that he loves homes where he can’t tell if an interior designer has been involved in the project. But usually there are some tell-tale signs of a professional eye. He says that designers are able to bring an understanding of scale and proportion to a home project so that clients don’t end up with too-large sofa or too-small dining tables. Designers bring “scale and sense of editing,” says Stephen. Often people are afraid of going too spare, but a great designer can help you embrace white space.

With so many websites providing near-wholesale prices, Jordan works to educate clients on the value that a designer can bring to the scope of the project, “Its more than picking out a chair, it’s the overall product, its about creating an emotion that people want to live within.”

Diane Keaton’s Beverly Hills home was once owned by Madonna designed by Stephen Shadley.

How to create something new in a Pinterest-era world

For Nicole, Pinterest can be a slippery slope into recycled design. “I prefer to follow artists and fabricators on Instagram to see what they are producing and dream up ways to collaborate on a project,” she says.

Jordan puts himself on a Pinterest-diet when embarking on a new project, “I get an initial idea of a direction I want to go in and then I cut out outside inputs such as Pinterest in order to come up with a fresh and original product,” he explains.

On the other end of the spectrum, Stephen completely embraces Pinterest-inspired decorating and sees it as just another piece of the collaboration puzzle. (After all, friend Diane Keaton’s latest book is titled The House that Pinterest Built.) Stephen is currently at work on a Spanish-styled home for director Ryan Murphy. Ryan wanted the home to be simple and straightforward, and he sent Stephen an inspiration image of a stairs with a black and white pattern painted on the risers. So in keeping with the Spanish theme, Stephen found a company to produce classic Malibu tiles in black and white. It was the perfect marriage of Pinterest, client collaboration and designer insight.

Stephen Shadley for Diane Keaton.

Designers and budgets

Feeling like you’d love a designer’s eye on your own home, but worried that you’re lacking a Hollywood-sized budget? “Even people with larger budgets are not always willing to blow it all in one fell swoop,” says Stephen. “Even with a smaller budget, you try to apply the same principles of pairing down to what’s really important and staying cohesive with your material choices.” So if you’re using a material like black granite in the kitchen, you might also use it in the bathroom or entryway.

A modern dining room by Nicole Hollis. Custom table and chairs by Nicole Hollis. Pendants are by Piet Boon for Mooi. Photograph by Ben Mayorga.

Nicole suggesting hiring a designer to pull together a concept and materials selection along with a floor plan layout of the room(s) to be sure the scale is accurate. Then you can do the work to implement the designs yourself.

If you’re working with a smaller budget, Jordan suggests you focus on the goal of the project. “I think once you identify your goal, there might be just a specific focal point or room, or central gathering area that is the key to the whole project,” he says. “There might not be a need for a designer to do every inch of a house or space. If the areas important to you are done correctly, the rest can sometimes fade into the background.”

Feeling ready to tackle your own home project? Make your life a little easier and get that designer on speed-dial.

Amy Azzarito is the author of "Nest: The Secret History of Things that Make a House a Home" forthcoming in 2020.