An Hour with Designer Thomas Pheasant

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If you're familiar with Baker Furniture, you may have fallen in love with the elegant lines of Thomas Pheasant's collection. Thomas's career as an interior and furniture designer spans 30 years, and his inspiration and signature style has culminated into his first book entitled "Simply Serene".

At Design San Francisco 2014 last week, I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Pheasant and ask him a few questions about his early years and advice for our readers. Not only was he a delight to talk to, but I found his humble demeanor to be refreshing and his stories downright entertaining.

SS: I was reading another interview you did online and you mentioned "redesigning" your bedroom at age 9. Can you tell me more about that?

TP: Ah yes! Essentially I decided one day that I wanted to change my room. I had this gold-colored bedspread that I decided to dye, so I got some black Rit dye and I loaded the washing machine with it and just poured the dye in (I didn't read the directions), and turned the machine on. So of course I ruined the drum of the washing machine; it turned a brown gray... forever. And my bedspread didn't turn out black, it turned out kind of a muddy taupe.

I painted one wall black, and got this black fishnet from Pier One and I hung it behind my bed on the wall. I took record albums and some copper wire and I hung these records like a mobile.

I also had a dresser that had these wooden legs that screwed on but I didn't know that, so I snapped them off. You couldn't see the rip in the particle board, so it just sat flat, and it looked very modern, like campaign furniture.

When my mother finally saw it (I kept it a secret....except for the washer incident, which came out pretty quick), I remember her walking in my room and looking at it and saying, "Well, I hope you like it because you're not getting new furniture".

It was just that idea that you could change things, and what sparked that episode was a period where I was watching these black and white movies during the summer. They had Fred Astaire movies, and they had Auntie Mame movies. And I watched one Auntie Mame show, and I saw that she changed her apartment...I didn't know that you could do that! I mean, my house always looked the way it looked. My mom changed things but it was never a big deal. So then I realized you could change it and have Chinese modern, or early American, or something else. So I thought, I'm going to change my room! And it launched a ship!

A lot of my clients are families, and the kid room always comes up. The thing about kids' rooms is that they are constantly changing. I don't believe in investing big bucks and setting a room that the kid is now going to live in for 4-5 years, because kids need to express themselves.

SS: And they might snap those legs off.

TP: Exactly! So I always make sure there's one whole wall that's nothing but a bulletin board. We cover it with a fabric that the kid likes, but they can put their posters up, and kids love it. And the thing always gets covered immediately. But they can change it and there's no damage and they don't need to get permission. I try to do things that give them that freedom, because I wish I had had that freedom in that way when I was a kid.

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SS: Tell me more about how you got started in interior design.

TP: When I went to college, I was pressured to pick a major and I picked architecture because I really loved it and felt connected to it. In my second year I gave a presentation one-on-one to my professor, and at the end of it he told me that he thought I had a real connection to interior spaces. I was the only student that really presented the interior as strongly as the exterior even though it wasn't part of the objective.

So he said, "These are some classes that we offer at Maryland now. They're new but they're interior design classes. It would be to your benefit to take a few and see if that's something you are inclined to do." So I did it, reluctantly, but I really was worried that he was telling me to get out of his department! Of course that wasn't his message at all. When I took those classes, immediately a light went on and I thought, "This is what I want to do." And it was all through the direction of that one professor who was very sensitive and in-tune with his students and with me. So I was very fortunate. And my architectural studies have enhanced and changed how I look at things. It's made me a better designer.

What's interesting is that I'm from Washington D.C., which was a very conservative city at the time; it wasn't a design mecca. Nobody thinks of D.C. and thinks of design out on the edge. But it was interesting for me because when I was still in college I needed a job, so I got one at a fabric showroom. They paid nothing and all I did was fold fabrics in a back room, but I thought, "I'm going to do this because I'm going to meet all the designers who are going to come through here and they're going to see me and then when I graduate, at least I'll have a little edge on everybody else."

So I worked there for about six months in that back room and one day a designer came in and I overheard him talking to the manager. He said, "I'm looking for an assistant. Do you know of anybody?" and the manager says, "No, sorry, we really don't."

So I went to the Rolodex (*making a turning motion with hands*), yes a Rolodex, and looked him up, took down his number, went out to lunch a couple of hours later, went to a phone booth and I called him up. I said, "My name is Tom Pheasant. I heard through the showroom that you're looking for an assistant." And he said, "Oh really? Is there any chance you can come in later today and discuss it?" It was a Friday, and I said, "I'm busy but I can come by on Monday morning."

I spent the whole weekend putting together a fake portfolio. I bought one of those big zipper portfolios, filled it with all these room schemes, color boards, and drawings. And when I say "fake", I mean that I created it out of nothing. They weren't actual projects. So I had all these projects as if they were real, but they weren't.

I walked into his office and he flipped *bop bop bop*, through my portfolio really quickly and said, "OK, well when can you start?"

So he hired me and I worked in his back room basically folding fabric. Returning things to showrooms, etc. I stayed with him almost four years and it was a great education because he did get me out of that back room. It was a high-end firm, so I traveled to NY and I saw how he dealt with clients and I saw how he worked a space and created confidence in his clients.

Design-wise in terms of styles, he was the opposite of me. He was more traditional and very theatrical. He was an incredible personality, very outgoing and funny and enjoyed the social aspects of the business. He wasn't so committed to design, but he loved pulling things together and creating a great dynamic with people. His partner was the opposite and was a straight by-the-numbers, by-the-book, no playing around, calculating profits, and running a very tight ship kind of guy. So I really learned from the designer how to deal with different kinds of people and get them on your side, and I watched the bookkeeping and the management and learned how crucial it was. If the designer didn't have that other side, he would have floundered. I realized very quickly that this is a business and not just "everyone is going to pay me a lot of money because I'm creative." So that really paid off.

Then somebody approached me personally about a project, and at the time we weren't allowed to take on side jobs, so I had to decide to either turn it down or quit. I was making a big deal about it, but a friend of mine said, "You're an assistant. You make no money and you don't even own a house or a car. What are you protecting? You have nothing to lose. You can always get another job. Later it will be hard once you do start getting things like a house and a car, and making all these payments. Then you'll be afraid." It was such great advice and so I just went out and took the project. It wasn't easy, but it was a great road.

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SS: Would you say that first client launched you into what you are now?

TP: No, that client fired me! So now I had gotten my new briefcase and I show up at this project. We had already signed a contract, which I had just copied from my old boss and changed the name because that's all I knew at the time. When I showed up the very first day, the client says, "We have a cousin in NY who is going to buy all the stuff for us, so we just want you to be the designer and specify the items and she'll buy them. We'll pay you for your time." I had never worked that way. I mean, I had no idea how to put a value on what I was offering, so I said, "Well, I can't work that way." They said, "Why cant you?" and I said, "Well I'm just not set up that way." (And at the time I'm thinking to myself, not set up? I'm not set up in any way!)

So he said, "Well then we can't work together. I really don't understand." And I said, "Well I can't." So I got up and walked out. And then I had nothing to do.

I share that story a lot with students because it's such a long road and I'm still learning new things and taking on projects where I have to change my fee structure. You have to be open and understanding that there's not just one way. I was too young and too inexperienced to be able to take that opportunity. Of course nowadays I would think, "Oh, great! I don't have to order anything! I'll just bill you for the creative part!" That never occurred to me.

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SS: What advice would you give to aspiring designers or even people wanting to design their own space?

TP: The reality is that you have to be passionate, like any profession, in the long term. There are a lot of people who are creative, and there are a lot of people that think "you know, I want to be an interior designer," and certainly they may have the creative talent to do it, but you have to reeeeaaallly love it. It's hard emotionally, and you're constantly second guessing yourself and proving yourself to other people. That's why I talk about inspiration so often. I think what's made me so continually passionate is that I've been able to channel my personal vision and keep myself inspired, looking and appreciating other people and other places. We're getting interviewed for another project in SF tomorrow, and it's like you'd think I'd never done a project before, I'm so excited. I can't wait to see his face, I can't wait to meet the people.

Everything's expensive, no matter what your budget is, it's all relative. And money is important to us all and wasting it is emotionally crippling. I think the best thing you can do is educate yourself, and by that I mean seeing what's out there. Right now it's so easy because of the internet and there's so much information out there...maybe too much. But I really tried to get people away from the computer — you need to get away and see things in person because it will really change your perspective. The most important thing is to only buy things you really love. Sometimes it's the price, but a lot of times people just buy what they need, but they don't love it. Really invest the time to find things you love. A lot of times I say that if you're going to spend money, buy something that is non essential, like a side table, or paintings. Something that you are crazy about, that excites you and shows who you are. Then at least you can start creating your signature in your space through art and collections. There are always things you can experiment with like paint and accessories, but with the big objects, you have to be careful.

Mistakes really train you faster than success. Success you take for granted, but when you make a mistake and you have to pay for that mistake, or eat some cost, or accept something that you know isn't right, that really burns into your mind. And of course a normal consumer that is buying for themselves, they rarely get multiple chances to get it right.

SS: Can you tell us about a time when you made a pretty big mistake?

TP: One of the things that I did do that was really stupid, was the first set of chairs I ever bought on the internet. There were four of them and I thought, "Oh these will be great game chairs!" So I bought them....they were children's chairs. I didn't see that when I bought them, and you couldn't tell in the photos.

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SS: If you could only give one piece of advice to our readers, what would it be?

TP: Well, I usually say to buy things you love, but in this case I would tell them to hire a professional to give them advice, even if it's just a few hours of consultation. Mistakes are so expensive, and if a designer can help you avoid them, then it's money well spent.

More of Thomas Pheasant's work can be seen on his website, or at Baker Furniture. Thank you, Thomas!

(Image credits: Courtesy of Thomas Pheasant, LLC; Courtesy of Baker furniture)