Veranda: Color Coded: John Willey

Like many new homeowners, John Willey could not wait to move into his new Brooklyn apartment: more space, modern amenities, great city views. If only, he thought, he had time to decorate it. But that’s not always a bad thing. Since opening his firm in 2006, the New York-based designer has been working non-stop on projects and large-scale renovations in Manhattan, the Hamptons, Connecticut and Nantucket.

Known for mixing classic and modern elements with bold colors, Willey Design brings an elegant blend of sophistication and irreverence to interiors. Says Willey, “My projects aren’t cookie-cutter. Each one is like a new painting to be painted.”

Growing up in Chicago, Willey was inspired by the city’s prominent architecture and at an early age began sketching houses and floor plans. Although he considered going to architecture school, he decided to pursue interior design and enrolled in Chicago’s Academy of Design.

After a six-month internship with the award-winning design firm the Gettys Group, he was hired upon graduation and spent the next three years managing large-scale hotel projects that included the Hyatt, Sheraton and eventually Four Seasons hotels. Despite this invaluable experience in hospitality design, he yearned to transition into residential work and eventually move to New York City. In 1998 that opportunity came when he landed a coveted job with celebrated designer Vicente Wolf, followed by stints with Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz and Sharon Simonaire.

Later, as the first in-house designer for architect Steven Learner, he rounded out his oeuvre by learning more about construction and how to solve architectural problems to enhance an overall interior space. After four more years as a senior designer for Jeffrey Bilhuber, Willey began to secure his own clients, starting with an Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan. His client list has been growing ever since.

With an office in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, Willey works with two employees on three to five residential projects each year. Current projects include a house in Brentwood, California, a lakefront property in Sag Harbor, New York, and ongoing projects in Manhattan. Although Willey’s design sensibility continues to evolve, clients have already identified him as a colorist. A daring palette punctuated with pops of bright, bold colors on walls and fabrics remains a common element throughout his work. “Color is one of the most effective ways to easily express yourself in an interior,” says Willey.

He uses modern, custom-made furniture mixed with vintage pieces from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. Interesting accent pieces such as black lacquer cabinets, bone lamps, stone sculptures and fossil-like coffee tables add texture and visual appeal. His affinity for modern art prompts him to steer clients toward sculptural lighting, more abstract paintings and graphic artwork to further augment interiors. He describes them as “things that have a real explosion of color or emotion that can be seen from twenty feet away.”

Willey draws inspiration from the everyday landscape and urban culture of New York City, as well as from fashion, travel and design books. Whether it be a dilapidated wooden pier or a Mongolian fur collar from the pages of a magazine, he finds a way to interpret it into an interior or piece of furniture. As Willey builds more confidence in his abilities, he plans to experiment with his own design style and incorporate bohemian elements such as beautiful found objects, vintage kilims or blankets and rugs that can be used as upholstery.

Next on his “to do” list would be the development of a collection of furniture, lighting or rugs as a natural extension of many of his existing custom pieces. But Willey does not want to get ahead of himself. For now, he feels content and excited by his recent success and looks forward to creating more innovative work in the future. “I love how your ideas can become reality, limited only by your imagination. It’s like whipping up magic.”


Hilary Adorno