I'm very curious about the creative process. So I've been sitting down with creative people to talk about how they go about what they do. Here's the first one!
It's a little bit of a double-edged sword. It's interesting that the more notoriety I get, and the more things I do like this, the more people are interested in signature style or they're looking for the things that set you apart from other designers. But what I like with my work is that I've been able to do really modern things and then turn around and do traditional things. I find it more of a compliment when people say "Your work is so diverse". I find that to be a compliment rather than being pigeon holed into one style or one look that is recreated over and over. It doesn't interest me to do that.How long have you been designing?
It's been about thirteen years. When I really break it down it's been a long road but it feels like it's flown by.You started out as a choreographer. How did you make the transition? Did you always help people with their homes?
I feel like I've always had a bit of designer in me. When I was a kid I used to decorate my room in whatever I could afford and I'd rearrange my room on a monthly basis. It drove my mother crazy. I got into dance and started choreographing. I did mostly industrial shows. I would do the whole picture: I would stage it, I would select the product and style it. There were many times I did the set design and the voice-over and video backup as well. In that respect, I don't feel that it's dissimilar to design. They're both a matter of looking at the entire picture. At some point choreography didn't feel inspiring and I needed to make a change. I did an apartment for a girl who was an editor at a magazine. So i started doing the set design for that magazine. It was around that time I met the late Eleanor Mondale. She had just bought a new home and she wanted some help styling it and I ended up designing the whole house with her. We did four different homes together. She was my first client and the first person that made me feel that I could do it, that I had a talent to turn something normal into something spectacular. After that, one thing led to another. It's always been word of mouth. I've had a lot of repeat clients, which I really enjoy. If I had it my way I'd work with maybe 50 clients throughout my life. I'd do different homes for them and see how that relationship evolves and how the style changes and how they get educated in design and how they learn to appreciate it even more. So it's more of a collaboration. What about your own house? I guess you get your design yayas out by doing other people's homes?
Exactly. My house changes a lot but not as much as it used to. I've been in my home for a long time. There are a lot of things that come through my house -- accessories, pieces of art, furniture. Sometimes I fall in love with something I don't necessarily have a project for, so it'll live in my house for a moment until it finds a home. But I don't use my house as a testing ground anymore. I'm so busy with design, the last thing I want to do is to come home and redesign my own house. Now I'm just lucky to keep up with everything that needs to get done!How many houses are you working on at one time?
I usually have between four and six projects in different phases of design. Very rarely are there two in the same phase. I don't like to have too much going on and overcommit myself but, that being said, I've been pretty lucky that it's been steady. I'm doing a lot more projects where I'm building them from the ground up, which is nice.How does that compare to working on a space that's already there?
Renovations are time-consuming but I enjoy it. It's like a puzzle for me: figuring out how to change what's existing and turn it into something new. It's a really fun challenge, but then it's also fun to start from scratch. Of course so much depends on the architect, the builder and the client. But it's fun to design a home with somebody and then to build a home with them down the road.What element do you think every room should have?
There's a couple of things. I think every room should have a sense of humor, something that makes it not so serious, that adds character. Then I think every room should have an amazing light element. lt doesn't have to be a ceiling fixture, it could be a gorgeous lamp or sconces, but something that changes the feel of the room. And, very important, I think every room should have a really comfortable place to sit. Some rooms don't. They're beautiful and you want to look at them but you don't really want to stay in them. I think that's a problem. Every room should invite you in. It should have a welcoming feeling to it. It should make you want to come in and stay. So it has to be really comfortable and that makes it more livable and ultimately I think livability is one of those main keys to good design. People often forget about that. There are those scenarios you make up of how the house is going to be used -- if I have a dinner party -- but is it your life?Most of the homes you work on are so big! Sometimes too big! What's that like? What are the challenges?
Especially in newer homes, though the homes are big, the rooms themselves are not very large which can be an awkward design dilemma. How do you make it usable? You can only occupy so much space. So for example, in one project, what was supposed to be the formal living room was turned into a game room and there was a little bar in there so it made it much more usable than if it was a formal living room. A small bedroom can be turned into a man room or a study or a library. So you turn an unusable guest room into a room that somebody uses everyday. I think it's like that in every house. You have to make sure that the function is clear for how each space is going to be used or there will be unused parts.What's your design pet peeve?
I hate when rooms are over-decorated and I hate when rooms are under-decorated.How do you find the balance? What do you think most rooms are missing? What's a common problem?
I think the biggest problem is the inability to edit properly. I think that design is ultimately a decision making process. You have to be able to narrow it down to the things that you like the most, that are the most meaningful to you, that are the most beautiful, that are the most comfortable and work with those things. And the same thing can also be said for something that is too stark and too cold and modern. And that doesn't appeal to me because I don't feel there's a comfort level there though I might appreciate it in a photo. You can edit too much.What's the design element you feel like you're most guilty of falling back on?
Mirrors. I like mirrors. I like big giant mirrors in rooms.What are some ways that people can use mirrors?
I like to use mirrors when they're opposite a window because it's like adding another window, it bounces around the natural light. Obviously in small rooms it opens them up. I like playing with the angles of mirrors. What is it going to reflect in a room? I have done walls of lots of small mirrors and walls that are completely mirrored. Plus I think that people like to see themselves!What's your go-to room color?
My favorite color is a color by Farrow and Ball called Mouse's Back. So that and shades that are like that. Taupey brown grey with maybe a little bit of olive in it. And not just in paint but in wood tones, leathers; it can be both masculine and feminine depending on what you pair it with. And I'm also drawn to greens and blues. I don't like reds.Your palette seems to be very monochromatic, supportive even, if that's a word you can use in design. It's almost like performance, where the background and the other things are great but don't detract from where you should be looking.
I like when things are easy to look at. If a room has too many competing colors and competing elements it's a little more jarring and the energy is completely different. I like a monochromatic palette in varying degrees of texture and pattern. That way you can be in a room for a long time and still notice things that didn't hit you on the head when you walked in. It's more subtle. I think subtlety is key. It's interesting because when I was choreographing I did a lot of fashion. We would show the whole line but I would be able to present it how I wanted and I always was drawn to color stories and things being easy on the eye and moving smoothly from one thing to the next thing as different groups came out.What kind of music is playing in your house?
Adele. She's so inspiring. And I've been listening to a lot of classical. I really like Chopin. And then your requisite Madonna. She makes me happy. Everybody needs a little blonde ambition.Who's your favorite designer, not including yourself?
I like Billy Haines. I think he was a pioneer on so many levels. Fashion-wise, I think Tom Ford is really exceptional. Beyond that, I think I pull in little bits of things I've seen around my life. It's funny, outside stimulation -- books, magazines -- used to inspire me but now it's become more important to be inspired in my head. You've got to be your own inspiration. That's hard but important. And then a lot of my inspiration comes from clients. It's figuring out how they live, what their needs are, what their wants are, what their taste is like, how I can make it better and bring something to the table and really make their life different. Now that I don't have to prove myself anymore, it's so much easier. Of course, no one asks me to reproduce something but there will be things they're drawn to and that will tell me the story of who they are. And then I can turn that into something that's based in my own experience but that's also going to be new. I just don't like repeating.So, after all, do you think you have a design signature?
I don't think it's a look so much as a feel. There are common threads for sure. Color, texture, styling, lighting, the things that are important to me. But it's how it comes together. It's more of a serene feeling. That's the feeling a room should have.Thanks Jeff! (Images: Edward Duarte; Jeff's living room in Mt. Washington by Grey Crawford; Eleanor Mondale's Minnesota kitchen by Susan Gilmore; Jamie King's master bedroom by Grey Crawford; Powder Room of the Pacific Palisades home featured in the May Issue of Traditional Home by Grey Crawford, and used with the permission of Traditional Home.)