A conversation with interior designer John Willey about people brave enough for red, blue and lime green, and “mixing them in a blender”(Translated from Hebrew)

Can you describe yourself as an artist?

I’ve had a lot of fine arts training — life drawing and painting — but I’ve always wanted to be an interior designer since I can remember. I always loved drawing crude house plans on graph paper as a kid, designing the house of my dreams, so to speak, and that was a natural transition into my current career.

What is the art of combining colors, textures, and furniture so perfectly and boldly?

I like to take unexpected color combinations and “put them into the blender”. I don’t like interiors that are too match-y. To me, what creates interest and energy is one or two disparate elements or patterns in a room, which gives a more youthful approach by not being too fussy or expected. I prefer to create a subtle rhythm with the color, so that there’s a thread of continuity between rooms as a whole.

If you weren’t an interior designer, what would you be?

Hmm, good question, and one that I have not pondered in a long time! What excites me about my work is that I can get to do many things: architecturally altering a space, problem-solver, designer of furniture, carpets, and lighting. At the same time, I become a client therapist and a bit of a dictator rallying the troops, which is what it takes to steer a large-scale project towards its final result!

Is there an artist whose work appeals to you?

Anish Kapoor. His sculptures are masterpieces in what I call “the perfect form” and everything he does blows me away, from his small, color-infused sculptures to his large-scale installations — especially “Cloud Gate” in Chicago’s Milennium Park. He creates true magic with simple forms, playful and mysterious at the same time.

How long do you work on a project until you feel it is complete?

Most of our projects take about anywhere from nine months to two years from start to finish, depending on the size and scope. We have a hand in all aspects of the architecture, finishes, and interior furnishings, all the way to artwork selections, including suggestions for china, glassware, bedding, and even the music playlists for their stereo systems. Often we give instructions on how to maintain the space, and have even made recommendations on great housekeepers for our clients. We want the interiors to look as good five years later as they do from the first day we hand over the keys!

Do you factor in your clients’ personalities when you design?

Well, all of our projects are true collaborations with each client, and every project is approached differently depending on their personality. We do have a good system in place by proving “look books” or design inspirations if a client is unsure of what they’re looking for, but they have a good idea of what they’ll be getting from me: polished, comfortable, and irreverent glamour. I also try to read between the lines to extract what the client’s not saying, as that can be just as important, to give them what they never knew they wanted. Nothing moves forward without the client’s sign-off, but I like to provide many surprises with the finished product. At the end, the goal is for a client to arrive and everything’s done: the champagne is chilled, the music is on, and the candles are lit. All they need to do is show up.

How did you become such a color fan?

No, I just have always responded very positively to color in many things, whether it’s interiors, fashion, or graphic design. It’s the easiest way to create a vibrant impact, though we are currently renovating a large Manhattan townhouse which is a celebration of all things neutral: cream, ivory, and tan with some chocolate accents. The materials and finishes are monochromatic, but luxurious and sexy.

What is your favorite inspiration?

Traveling and seeing the world. I’ve also been more inspired by European interiors magazines more so than American ones. They’re more provocative and playful with an edge.

What time of day do you like the most?

I’m not a morning person, so I usually hit my stride usually in mid-day, depending on how much coffee I’ve had.

What thrills you in your day and generally?

I’m lucky to be based in New York City, and there’s such a crazy energy to the city – sometimes overwhelmingly crazy – but it provides inspiration on a thousand levels. It’s non-stop.

What are your hobbies?

Well, it’s not a consistent hobby, but I recently tried skydiving and it was the most exciting thing I’ve done. There is nothing like dropping from an airplane 4,200 meters up to make you feel truly alive.

In this project you use a large amount of complementing stripes. What is it with that appeals to you about stripes?

I didn’t realize there are a lot of stripes in my design, but you must be right. I don’t know, I think it’s because of the sporty aspect of stripes. I think it’s modern and youthful, and there are so many variations to that keeps the look fresh.

When you design a space do you start with the interior architecture or with the color and inspiration – and how do they reflect?

You should always start with the shell of the interior. You can have the best décor, but if there are flaws or problems with the architecture, you can only disguise so much. The goal is to have the architecture serve the décor, and not the other way around.

Can you describe the process of choosing colors for a space?

For this specific apartment, my clients were immediately drawn to the sumptuous red wallpaper I proposed in the TV area. I continued this color throughout many areas in the apartment, which gives bursts of energy throughout the space. As for the other colors, I wanted to combine happy, vibrant colors like citrus green, pale aqua, and some orange accents. It just works, though there’s no real philosophy behind it.

Do you design each room separately and how do you combine it for the whole residence?

All projects are designed in their entirety, though I often begin with one room’s inspiration, and let the design for the rest of the areas follow. The inspirations begin with things I find in photography books, fashion magazines, or ideas on find on travels. I went to southern Spain this year and I’m always amazed by the brave color combinations.

Tell us about this special apartment – the clients?

The clients are two young NYC professionals with a small child and two rambunctious dogs. This was their first time working with a designer, and they were a joy to work with. The clients wanted a fun space they could kick back or entertain business colleagues. At the time she was anticipating the arrival of their son, so I designed the apartment to be beautiful and child-friendly.

What did the space look like before you renovated?

This was a new luxury residence building with a Manhattan skyline view, but was a blank white box devoid of character.

Did they give you free reign?

Completely, they let me bring fresh ideas to the table in every way.

Were there any difficulties on the way, and how did you solve them?

No difficulties, but we wanted to create a more open loft-like layout, so I removed the wall between the Living Room and Family Room, which was originally a separate area attached to the Kitchen. Opening up these two areas helped to greatly expand the space and bring in more light, but I wanted each room to have a separate identity, which was achieved by using mixes of color. I also created a division between the Living Room and Dining Room by using semi-transparent drapery to soften the transition from each room, allowing the diffused light to shine through.

Which room in the apartment do you like the most?

I love the Family Room, which has the rich red wall color. It’s just a great place for the client to hang out on the custom sofa, tuck into a book, and enjoy the apartment view from many angles.

If you had to give a name to the project it will be?

Style-wise? I call it relaxed playful glamour.

What are your plans for the future?

We’re currently overseeing the renovation of a landmarked six-story New York City townhouse, the renovation of a lakefront residence in Sag Harbor, NY, an update of a contemporary Soho residence in New York City, and an update of an estate just outside of the city. Other than that, I love traveling and visiting friends in other countries, experiencing the world outside New York. I’ll be exploring Istanbul this spring.

Will you be stopping over in Israel?

I have never been to Israel, though I have many friends who rave about the culture, the design, the nightlife, and especially the inspiration from past tradition mixing with the energy of today.

Would you like to design outside of New York?

We do design outside New York. I launched my own firm in 2006, but since then we’ve completed large-scale renovations not only in New York City, but also Los Angeles, the Hamptons, Connecticut, and Nantucket. Prior to that, I was project manager of renovations which included Miami, London, the Caribbean, and the Bahamas, so I’ve had a far-reaching design career so far.

Describe your relationship to the city?

I’m energized by New York. There’s nothing like it for the pace, the restaurants, and it’s definitely an international city, with the world’s curiosity and attention focused on it. Though my offices are located in Manhattan, I’ve recently moved residences to a neighborhood in Brooklyn — just over the river, if you’re not familiar. It’s like a whole new city has opened up: there are smaller neighborhoods and shopping districts to explore, and there’s a real vibrancy and sense of community. I still love Manhattan, but it’s nice to have a slightly slower pace on the weekends!


© 2011 Home Publishers
Cover Photography by Adam Shingleton