Meeting Tim Clarke, it's hard not to be reminded of a young Robert Redford. Lightly bronzed and sandy haired with dusty blue eyes and wearing worn jeans, he reads more surfer dude than interior designer and he brings that same spirit of endless summer to the rooms he works on. His book, Coastal Modern is as much instructional as aspirational, and he shared with me his steps on how to achieve that calm, relaxed, beach house feeling in your space — even if the nearest thing your home comes to a body of water is your bathtub.
So tell me about the whole coastal modern sensibility.
I started to get hired to do people's beach houses, which tend to be people's second houses. I think 90% of people that buy second houses buy them by water. Why is that? I think there's something of that in all of us. Maybe in town, they're trying to prove something and at the beach maybe not so much. And I would get a list of things they didn't want. And most of it came down to wanting something easy. My clients tend to be young and they have kids and dogs and cats and you just don't want to have to think about it. And that's where the coastal modern idea comes from. It's easy to live in. It has references to the sort of palate that looks good around most ocean environments but things are placed in a modern, simple way. It's not so precious. So that's how it all kind of developed.
When you walk into a room where do you go first?
I'm all about where the space is and where it sits. What's outside is very important to what I do on the inside. As I say in the book, you should leave your distractions behind and take your camera and go walk around where you live and look out your windows and photograph it. I take a ton of pictures when I'm starting a project and that's what inspires my whole color scheme.
Let's take a theoretical. You're living in the middle of a city, like New York, and not even in the nice leafy part of it but more like midtown. It's grey and you're on a low floor so you don't have a great view. I want to be living on the coast but I'm not. How do I bring a little of this feeling into my home? Where do I start?
First, you need to consider the light because the light that's coming in is going to be sort of grey and flat. So you're not going to try to counteract that by doing poppy color because that's going to look weird in that light, you're probably going to go a little bit more tonal and try warm it up slightly and not make it feel so sad. I think it's tone on tone and texture and maybe a little bit of print slightly warming up the grey. Maybe add some warm yellow or amber color. The foundation of the room is very important to me. Structure first, pillows way, way later. Maybe we'll paint the walls. I use China White all the time. That's like the perfect white to me. It's from Pratt & Lambert and it's slightly grey, almost like uncolored plaster. It looks warm with creamy stuff and it looks grey with grey stuff. And then the floor. Hopefully it's a nice warm wood. And then what goes on top of that's important. You have that and you have what frames the view. So, the floors and the curtains are the two most important things to me. That frame as you're looking out the window is really important. Often I'll use something like a matchstick blind because the light coming through the matchstick is instantly warmed up and that really helps. Or a wood blind, like a two inch wood blind, because you can tilt that and if you use it in a wood color it sort of reflects the light back in more warm. And if you don't have a great view than layering is good because you're not depending on the view for your "art". So then maybe we've added a layer over the top, like a curtain, maybe a sheer curtain, so now we're getting a little bit more softness. Then hopefully the floor is a nice warm wooden floor. On top of that is a chunky woven natural thing, not seagrass but like jute, and then, on top of that, to sort of define the seating area, maybe it's a smaller antique rug, so it's affordable, maybe it's got a little bit of age on it, or some funky furry bit of rug, I'm trying to build up a few layers, because I think here you're decorating to compensate for something. Oftentimes in houses such as the ones in the book I don't have to compensate for anything. I can just put pretty furniture in and it's fine. But here I'm decorating to take your eye away from all of the dreary so that when you come in it it feels warm and cozy. Then to furniture. It's basic furniture, some sort of chunky linen woven upholstered furniture as a sort of basic floor plan, plenty of room to circulate around the furniture and then pillows, maybe three pillows on the sofa. Maybe there's a pair that match and maybe one extra one and maybe use vintage fabric so you're getting a little bit of soul, a little bit of wear, and good lighting. I absolutely try to avoid can lights and overhead lighting. By adding lamps in at middle as opposed to above your head, everyone looks better. Also consider what the lampshade is made out of. We use pattern paper which has a slightly yellow tone to it or natural linen which is creamy. I also think art is important. Hanging art on the walls is a good way to help a place that's dreary. That doesn't mean that you have to hang the picture of Hawaii. Hang things that mean something to you. A lot of times clients will say to me that the room doesn't really have any color in it. That's intentional. I'm not going to paint your walls bright green because you love bright green, I'm going to paint your walls something more subtle, but then we can pick art that brings the color into the room and that helps you feel like the room is colorful without it being in your face. Then you can move your stuff around if you don't like green anymore because the color's coming from something hanging on the wall and not the wall itself. I think it's not very relaxing to be in a brightly colored painted room and you have to have really perfect pristine environments to get away with that. I don't paint rooms strong colors very often except perhaps in a powder room. But there the door's usually closed and you're in it for a short period of time and somebody goes in and they're like whoa, that's crazy but it's small so you can change it if you get tired of it,. I'm not saying that you should paint your room khaki but the point of it is is that a room is a room and you're not going to change the colors. You can change the pillows easily, you can change the flowers easily, you can change the stuff that's on your wall easily. That's a little bit more timeless I think and easy to be in.
What other things do you think about when you're designing a room?
I try to think about what time of day I'm in the room and the amount of time I'll be spending in a room With bedrooms I always ask if you're a morning person. Do you hang out in your room or do you wake up and leave? Do you spend time in your bedroom at night? If you're a nighttime person and you're in your room when it's dark all the time then you can be a little bit more moody, a little bit more saturated, the colors don't have to be as pale, they can be a little stronger because it feels really nice and cozy and comfortable and you feel like you're in this amazing womb. But if you're a person who's in your room in the morning, when the light is bright, you probably don't want your walls to be strong, you would actually like them to be clean, a little more paler, a little bit more like morning light. One thing that's so beautiful for a morning person is to paint the ceiling slightly lavender. It's the most beautiful thing to wake up to especially if you pick one that's sort of more towards the red. The one I like is from Pratt and Lambert and it's called Souvenir. You would almost not know it's lavender unless you put it against white but when you paint it on four walls and/or a ceiling, it really feels amazing. You just really feel comfortable in that color.
All of the rooms in the book feel very calm but when you look closely they're not all one color. How do you add color in a way that remains calm and doesn't look jarring?
I think it's about nature and tone and getting that right so it doesn't feel jarring like if you see orange flowers in a green landscape. It's the particular tone of green that would allow this orange flower to be there. And to think like a painter. I don't take the fabric of the sofa with me, I'm not planning like that. I just start to layer and play around until it looks good. You can't plan it in your head. The rooms I don't like are the ones where there's three colors and as long as I stick to that it's going to fine. If i throw something in there that's odd, it won't work anymore because everything is all perfect, it all matches perfectly, I prefer to leave a few things to chance. That's how it becomes layered without feeling overdone. And I think that that allows for restfulness because everything doesn't feel perfect. It's just a little bit more eclectic somehow. The foundation of the room is really simple but then we start layering with the color.
A lot of people have the idea that calm means bare or beige. How do you go calm without going bare or beige?
If the basic foundation of the room is somewhat symmetrical I think that helps. Symmetrical room arrangements feel very calm to almost everyone. If you start there then you can throw things in and it still feels calm.
What about furniture?
The upholstery is the foundation for everything and everything gets layered on top of that. Very seldom do I do a crazy pattern sofa. I use a lot of natural linen. But there's texture and you can actually see the texture so that it doesn't look boring.
So how do you take an inexpensive piece, like a basic sofa, and incorporate it into a room? I noticed that in one house you used a dresser from Ikea!
The first thing is just don't buy everything from one place and chose things that look good on their own no matter what. This Ikea piece has really nice lines, it's really simple. It's a beautiful color and it has a really pretty leg. And then it's mixed in with some vintage and a piece from a local artist, something more personal. And that takes it out of the Ikea world. Also I didn't buy the whole thing from Ikea. In this room, the one nightstand and the dresser were both Ikea, same line, but then we made this bed, we did this painting, so we personalized it.
What element do you think every room should have?
I think every room should reflect the person that lives there whether it's a collection of something that you love or a color that you really love and that you look really good in or a stack of books about things you're interested in. Also we have this thing about not letting things age and I think a little bit of age helps rooms feel more comfortable.
What do you think your design motto is?
The sense of place is always the thing that I'm talking about, that things feel appropriate for where they are and that being inspired by nature is always a part of what I'm doing. Appropriate for the house, the people and the place that it's in.
(Images 1-7 by Noah Webb, used with the permission of the photographer: 1 - Interior decorator Tim Clarke; 2 - The cover of Coastal Modern; 3 - The interior of Tim's store, Tower 20, on Main Street in Santa Monica; 4 - A neutral living room is livened up with colorful pillows; 5, 6, 7 - In this bedroom, an Ikea dresser and nightstand share space with a custom headboard, art from a local artist, and vintage touches. Both Ikea pieces were upscaled with antique hardware; Image 8 by Timothy Ragan, used with his permission To coincide with the book, Tim created candles with Makana which evoke the different moods of the day.)