At Home with Designer Madeline Stuart

Madeline Stuart’s inspiration board is filled with quotes from designers, architects and writers of the past, along with images of nature, travel and art. The detail of a pile of butter beans, a bird’s eye view of the Rockies, a close-up image of a cobblestone street, all combine to create and inspire her unique vision. Stuart is a leading American interior designer, based in Los Angeles who appears regularly on both the AD100 list and the Elle Décor A-List, but both her personality and design aesthetic lack pretense. She is approachable, friendly, and open, and this mindset translates to her work. Form and function are a crucial marriage for her, and she achieves this with an attention to detail that creates a timeless design. Stuart’s design firm, Madeline Stuart Associates is known for both interior design as well as architectural restoration and remodelling, with a focus on reversing years of neglect and damage to properties. I spoke with Stuart by phone from her home in L.A. about working through a pandemic and her design vision.

Photograph by Trevor Tondro

A Book Tour Diverted

Stuart was in the middle of her book tour when the lockdown happened. Her book, ‘No Place Like Home, Interiors by Madeline Stuart (Rizzoli, 2019) was published the previous September and her last talk on the East Coast was March 12th “half the people didn’t come,” she recalled. “It hit home in a profoundly clear way that this was now happening. It had taken hold, everyone was fearful, I couldn’t wait to get home. The next day we closed our office for three months; L.A. was on such a strict lockdown. There was something oddly, eerily blissful about L.A. with no people; something kind of captivating about it. It was not something anyone had every witnessed, it was serene,” she shared.

Living Room Details from Stuart’s Santa Barbara home. Photograph by Trevor Tondro

Designing in the Midst of a Pandemic

Working in isolation took some adjustments. “Ours is a tactile business,” said Stuart, “it’s such a collaborative effort. You can’t look at fabric, samples or trims online.” I have a project in Seaside, Florida that we pushed to September, and I finished it remotely. I have a great friend there and she and I Facetimed for 2 or 3 days. She did the styling while I directed her, and it worked! I worked with the art installer this way too; he was responsive and I was fully present and accounted for. Most of the work was already done before the pandemic hit. I re-designed all the interiors; the project had been ongoing for a couple of years. The installation and unveiling is my glory moment; so much of what you’re doing is in your head and when all the instruments in the orchestra reach the final crescendo—the installation is akin to that, so not being onsite is not my preference. We’re all willing to take certain chances, but how much of a chance? How far are we willing to go? I don’t want to test those waters,” she admitted.

Italianate Living Room by Madeline Stuart. Photograph by Trevor Tondro

A New Attitude

The lockdown changed Stuart’s view of her own home, a 1930s Spanish Revival house in the Hollywood Hills. “If I’m to be perfectly honest,” she said, “my house isn’t a collection of exquisitely curated furniture and objects–I’d say it’s more like an accumulation of stuff and things. There are antiques and vintage pieces, custom furniture that I designed, and a Dunbar sofa that was my parents when they were first married and lived in Manhattan in the mid-50s (needless to say, it’s been recovered many times since then.)  There are flea market finds, some contemporary things, and a few pieces I regret buying,” she admitted.

“The one thing lockdown has done is make me want to change every single thing in my house,” she said, “the more time I spent in L.A., the more I wanted a new look, I wanted to experience something different, I wanted to SAY something different. So, I think I’m committed to making incremental changes that will refresh and revive my house. We all bring things in and take things out–I want to start over. I’m a shopper by birth–and profession–and have found some beautiful things that are exceptionally meaningful to me: I placed an Arne Bang ceramic vessel next to an Edo period bronze turtle, which sidles up to a Jean Dunand vase, that sits on a monograph of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s work.  I have artwork that was given to me by my father and three 16th century Iznik tiles that came from the collection of Lockwood de Forest.  Without some of these highly personal objects, my house would lack its center and its soul. These are the pieces I see when I curl up on the sofa in my living room, which is like a tufted island in the storm. It’s always been a place of peace for me, but even more so now, during this challenging time.  Ideally there’s a pile of magazines and newspapers on the floor at my side, a cup of Earl Grey tea on the table, and my dogs at my feet.   The worries of the world are held at arm’s length, at least for a short while.”

Hacienda Living Room by Madeline Stuart. Photograph by Trevor Tondro

Stuart’s Approach to Clients

Stuart takes a very different approach when creating a home for her clients, “designing for yourself and for clients is such a different approach,” she explains, “I don’t design for myself, It’s a process of accretion, accumulating things over times that might have struck my fancy at one time and now not so much. When I am designing for clients I am trying to design for a level of permanence; everyone changes their mind, their taste. My approach is to find, buy and install things that are timeless, and worthy. You can’t help but design in your own time and of the moment. I am always designing for them, their needs, level of comfort, how they want to live and present themselves to the world. It’s a very different process.”

La Jolla Living Room by Madeline Stuart. Photograph by Trevor Tondro

A Second Home

Stuart and her husband bought a second home in Santa Barbara, which gave her a new project. “Some designers design their homes to represent a specific style of how they want to present themselves to the world,” she said, “I’ve never been able to design my home that way. But in my Santa Barbara home, I was able to start from scratch. I was almost paralyzed because I knew it was going to represent me and my style and every decision I made would be analyzed. ‘Why did she choose that lamp? Why put that painting there?’ she pondered.

My former assistant forced me into a direction that I am glad I took. As designers, we are judged and the decisions we make are up for consideration by others, it’s interesting. I design because I have firm beliefs about approach. For a client you are designing for them and are also aware of others experiencing the home you have created for these people. There are judgments being made,” she explained.

Stuart believes a certain degree of insecurity is a good thing. “When designers get too cocky, they lose the ability to step back and see their work in a realistic way.  I don’t think of myself as a decorator in the truest sense of the word.  There are those who decorate at such a profound level (i.e. Mario Buatta), and while I admire that kind of work, that’s not my process.  I maintain enough insecurity that it causes me to think carefully about my decisions–I just don’t throw everything out and see what sticks. I think my approach towards designing a home is more restrained, more reductionist.  I never want my interiors to appear overly decorated.  For me it’s about acquiring beautiful things and putting them in a setting that feels cohesive and comfortable for the people who live there,” she shared.

Interior of Madeline Stuart’s house in Santa Barbara for C Magazine. Photograph by Trevor Tondro

On Collecting Antiques

Stuart is a collector and enthusiast of antiques and always tries to weave pieces from different eras into her projects. “I can’t imagine creating a room without furniture and objects from the past,” she shared. “Even when I design interiors that might be considered contemporary or modern, I always include something old alongside something new. Without that juxtaposition, I think a room lacks interest, depth, and soul. I’m not snobbish about antiques, I can find a marvelous piece at a brocante, an established dealer, or a prestigious show.  The item doesn’t have to be expensive to be worthy–some of my greatest finds are things I bought for a song,” she admitted. “For me, it’s not always about provenance or price–it’s about introducing an element or an object that brings with it a bit of history,” she explained.

Stuart has long been an avid shopper and is a past lecturer at the San Francisco Fall show and was invited to create a Designer Vignette for the Grand Entry of the 2018 show with the show theme “The Sun, the Moon and the Stars”. The result, ‘Moon’, with custom designed de Gournay wallpaper and panels inspired by the work of Japanese artist, Matazo Kayama, was magical and illuminating.

‘Moon’, Designer Vignette by Madeline Stuart at the 2018 San Francisco Fall Show.
Custom wallpaper by de Gournay. Photograph by Drew Altizer

Stuart is a champion of the show, “The level of satisfaction I have when walking through the show with a client, when we would see something and then see that thing in their home that we created together, it becomes not just an object but a thing of meaning,” she shared. “There is no show like the Fall Show. There is a level of excitement and energy at that show that I’ve never felt anywhere. Conviviality, people not jaded, not walking the show with a jaundiced eye. There is an enthusiasm and joy that I’ve never experienced elsewhere. It’s about the dealers, the history, years of tradition. It’s the level of connoisseurship that is on display. What you’re seeing is of such a high level and exquisite beauty and it shines and makes you excited. There is such a welcoming atmosphere. People dive in and want to have fun. I’ve spoken to so many dealers in the past few months about how much I’ll miss seeing them this year,” she reminisced.

This image features pieces that represent myriad eras, cultures, and styles:  The chairs are 18th c. Italian, and the gilt bronze lantern in the doorway is by Caldwell, an American lighting company founded in the 19th century.  The screens are 19th c. Chinese, and the tables are fashioned from eggshell lacquer trays made in France in the 1930s. The carpet is an antique Oushak,  the brass palm tree lamps are mid-century, and they sit on a pair of Italian 19th c. bronze and marble tables.  The oldest piece in the room is the white porcelain vessel in the foreground.  It’s Chinese, from the Southern Song dynasty, which dates from 1127-1279, and was purchased from the Lotus Collection at the San Francisco Fall Show a few years ago. Photograph by Trevor Tondro

Stuart developed her taste and eye for antiques over years of exploration, education, and relentless curiosity.  “I relish the hunt, what I call the ‘seek and ye shall find’ approach,” she shared. “I learned most of what I know about antique or vintage furniture and accessories by seeing things in person, chatting with dealers, and appreciating the patina that develops only with time.  Besides, I’m an inveterate shopper, so even when I’m not shopping for work, I’m shopping for pleasure,” she said.

She admits her work isn’t tied to any particular period, “although there are some I favor and a few I eschew,” she admitted. “For me it’s all about how a particular piece can find its way into my life, or into a client’s home; whether those items or objects date to the 1970s, the 17th century, or 700 BC, these things are part of our collective history and shared memory, and as a designer, I treasure being able to incorporate something truly unique into a space,” she shared.

“I think the most beautiful homes are those that reflect the personality and lives of the people who live there.  An exquisitely decorated house may contain a collection of nice things, but I find it a bit sad when those things have no connection to their owner.  Find stuff you love–whether it’s of great significance or sentimental value–and surround yourself with pieces that remind you of who you are, what you care about, and where you’ve been,” she advises.

Jackson Living Room. Photograph by Trevor Tondro

With the pandemic closing out the year, Stuart is missing the energy of the design industry, “I love traveling and meeting people all over the country, being a part of an industry that is social and engaged,” she says. “I love hosting dinner parties, I miss having people over, I miss living!” She exclaimed. “You have to feel creative, and this current atmosphere is not conducive to feeling creative, I think there is a lot of unrest, discomfort, unease, so you have to work harder to be creative. I work and go home, and I am grateful and lucky to have a place in Santa Barbara to go. It’s a little house but I love every corner and it brings me peace and joy and that’s all we can ask for – a little spot where we can find joy at the end of the day. I still find wonderful moments in a day-I love pulling fabrics and collaborating with my staff, I’m still completely immersed and invested in that,” she shared.

Photograph by Trevor Tondro

“We’re all doing our best and making it up as we go along. Hoping we arrive on the other side with our sanity, humour, creativity and good will towards others still evident.”

By Ariane Maclean Trimuschat
Ariane served as Show Director for the San Francisco Fall Show for 7 years through 2019. She is now the show’s international liaison as Director at Large, living in London with her family.  Follow Ariane on her blog, Sojournest, where she focuses on all things home and travel.

Coast to Coast with Ken Fulk

Ken Fulk is not known for minimalism. One has only to visit his San Francisco Magic Factory, St. Joseph’s Art Society, or any of his restaurants, clubs, hotels or other myriad of properties he has designed to see the sheer breadth of his imagination. He is at once an old soul and a forward thinker and has become known globally as not just a leader in the design field, but a stylemaker across multiple platforms. He and his team of 75 designers, event specialists and architects are split between SoMa in San Francisco and TriBeCa in New York City conceiving, creating and producing for his namesake company, Ken Fulk, Inc.

Fulk is a longtime a supporter of the Fall Show, most recently serving as Chair of the exclusive Designers Circle, and, in 2018, designing a Vignette for the Grand Entry Hall of the Show. The theme that year was “The Sun, The Moon & The Stars” and in typical fashion, Fulk took it one further and dubbed his vignette the “Zodiac bar”, an imaginary 1980’s private lounge for Fulk and his jet-setting friends, lined with jewel encrusted custom-made de Gournay wallpaper. The vignette came complete with a story filled with scandalous activities, affairs, and courtroom drama, spun from his creative mind.

The ‘Zodiac Bar’, Designer Vignette by Ken Fulk at the 2018 Fall Show.
Custom Wallpaper by de Gournay. Photograph by Drew Altizer.

Fulk knows a thing or two about throwing a good party, so his take on the Fall Show’s Opening Night held some weight, “it remains the best party of the year” he exclaimed, – “everyone is dressed to the nines, you see all of your friends, and who doesn’t love mounds of caviar!” Indeed.

Ken Fulk with Diane Keaton and Ray Azoulay at the 2012 Fall Show Opening Night Gala, Photograph by Drew Altizer Photography

An active shopper at the show, Fulk shared one prized purchase in particular with me, “my favourite find at the show over the years has been a pair of 19th century Scottish urns (from Finnegan Gallery) shaped like trees that flank the entry to our home in San Francisco.”

Scottish Urns flanking Fulk’s San Francisco home, from Finnegan Gallery

With homes in San Francisco, Napa, New York City and Provincetown, and clients around the world, Fulk is not used to staying still. As with us all, 2020 changed all that for Fulk who was in San Francisco when the lockdown started. “We spent the first two months in San Francisco and then decamped to our home in Provincetown, MA.,” he shared. We make this annual pilgrimage and it felt important to uphold the tradition this year.” The home is charming and one can see what draws him to this summer fishing village and artist colony. His favourite room in the house is his library, “it has been adopted by the dogs as their room – so we tend to all gather there for naps, fires, and reading,” he says. It’s painted a glorious curry color and glistens in the morning sun and glows with candlelight in the eve.” Books, history and stories are important to Fulk, who is drawn to creature comforts, “I think it’s important to be surrounded by things you love that provide comfort, tell a story and anchor you in a place. Books, objects, furnishings – layered or minimal  – all help craft our own personal narrative. There’s nothing better than a deep comfortable chair by the fire and a great novel – oh and a nice glass of wine doesn’t hurt,” he adds.

Library in Provincetown Home

His favourite piece in the house is a painting. “We own a seven foot tall self-portrait of Charles Hawthorne from 1898.” he shared. “He painted it just a few years prior to founding the Cape School of Art establishing Provincetown as the foremost artist colony in the U.S.”

Self Portrait of Charles Hawthorne, 1898

Work does not halt while Fulk is summering in P-Town, “I am fortunate enough to have a studio space across the street in a home we recently restored. It’s a 1780’s sea captain’s house and later was home to Mary Heaton Vorse a key figure in the labor and civil rights movement and founder of the Provincetown Playhouse. It now houses the Provincetown Arts Society an extension of our non-profit arts hub – the Saint Joseph’s Arts Foundation in San Francisco,” he explained.   “Thankfully we have never been busier so there’s little free time – but it is nice to balance all the work with more time hiking and swimming with the family.” 

Mary Heaton Vorse House, Provincetown, MA

The pandemic has curtailed his schedule, but Fulk has found a silver lining. “Certainly I agonize over the immense tragedy and tumult we’ve experienced during this time – but simultaneously this period has been filled with great beauty for me; months spent with dear friends, my dogs & husband cooking, laughing and holding on to one another. I am deeply grateful to be healthy and safe, sheltered in a crooked house by the sea with creatures I love.” 

By Ariane Maclean Trimuschat
Ariane served as Show Director for the San Francisco Fall Show for 7 years through 2019. She is now the show’s international liaison as Director at Large, living in London with her family. Follow Ariane on her blog, Sojournest, where she focuses on all things home and travel.

David Phoenix at Home, and on the Move

David Phoenix

A master at combining modern and traditional design elements and creating interiors that are thoughtful, well designed and, most importantly, liveable, David Phoenix is one of America’s most influential interior designers. His firm, David Phoenix Interior Design has won numerous awards, and his interiors have appeared in, and on the cover of, the major national design magazines and industry publications. In addition to his full-service design firm, he has created a line of furniture, lighting and decorative accessories for Hickory Chair and a collection of fabrics and trims for Kravet.

I chatted by phone with Phoenix, who has attended the San Francisco Fall Show almost every year since 1994 and has been featured in the Lecture Series. He is a devotee of the show, “it’s the best of it’s kind” he shared. “The quality of the dealers–the Show has trusted dealers–which is nice; everyone puts their best foot forward. It is incredibly well run and has the best speakers. If you want great antiques, it’s where you go.”

Photograph by Jean Rendazzo

A Cross Country Move

2020 has been anything but boring for Phoenix who moved in the midst of the pandemic. “I wanted a new chapter,” he said. “I was in Los Angeles for the beginning of the lock down but I moved to Palm Beach in June. It’s a different vibe here, the light is different. It was something I had been wanting to do, and the pandemic brought the opportunity for looking at things differently. I’ve never been happier; it was time. I had been in L.A. since I was a teenager, for 35 years. The reasons I moved there were different than the reality of today, but this whole thing forced me into it. I felt like once I made the decision to do it, everything fell right into place. I was able to use the quarantine time to go through storage and lighten my load,” he shared. “There is something very freeing about letting go of things; being a designer I always want to redo rooms. When you start becoming controlled by your things, it becomes cumbersome. It’s cathartic to get rid of stuff, you learn what’s important to you. When you have things in storage-it’s impossible to remember what you have. I encourage people to purge,” he advises.

Turning a House into a Home

Phoenix believes the definition of home is different for everyone. “It’s about making it comfortable for you,” he says. “Some people are big into bedrooms, the right linens, pillows, etc. For me, I have a big collection of books: I read real paper books, and I like paper magazines and newspapers. I just like holding them, it’s easier. Once you look at a story online it’s hard to find again.” Phoenix finds his bedroom to be a place of quiet and calm. “I like to read in bed,” he admits. “I like to linger in the morning and ease into the day.” Home is also about food and Phoenix is an avid cook. “I spend a lot of time baking, I find it relaxing,” he says. “Then I bring it to someone.”

Photograph courtesy of David Phoenix

Running a Design Firm During Lockdown

Having just moved in the midst of a pandemic, Phoenix gave up his brick and mortar office in L.A. and has yet to open a new one in Palm Beach. “I like going someplace,” he admits. “I feel like as a designer, it’s nice to go to an office. I like the discipline of it and having a library of samples. Designers accumulate a lot of stuff,” he admitted. But business has not slowed. If anything, given how life has changed this year, for most people spending a great deal of time at home, says Phoenix, “I think everyone is in the redoing mood. When people are on the treadmill of life and have kids and work and life at high speed, they aren’t noticing things that were looking tired. Now that everyone is at home all day for school and work, people are looking at their homes differently, and they say, let’s redo this room now because its tired looking, or now that I’m cooking at home more I don’t have enough space. People are revisiting those rooms.”

Photograph courtesy of David Phoenix

An Active Dining Room

Phoenix is a great believer in dining rooms. “When I grew up you had dinner at home every night; going out was a special treat,” he says. “There is something to be said for eating at home: people gathering, coming together, whether you are single or in a family. (Pre-pandemic) many people were eating out seven days a week. Dining rooms are coming back in; people need a place to eat. We’re going to see a resurgence of dining rooms,” he predicts. “I have a library table/dining table in Palm Beach. It’s nice to get out of the kitchen, to set the table, making dinner special with flowers and music.”

Photograph courtesy of David Phoenix

On Shopping for Art and Antiques Online

The 2020 Fall Show, like many others is online this year, due to the pandemic. We chatted about buying art and antiques online versus at a show or gallery. Phoenix loves meeting dealers, developing relationships which then gives him peace of mind when buying from them online. “People need to touch and feel,” he admits. When buying online he offers some sage advice: “Ask a lot of questions” A few smart questions and requests he advises people to make before purchasing online:

• Ask for a photo of someone standing next to the piece, to get a sense of its true size
• Ask them to tip it over to see the bottom
• Ask them to hold a tape measure to it
• Double check how it is being shipped—who is paying for shipping?
Is it being white gloved delivered? Is it going to a receiver? Will the delivery person bring it in to the house or leave it on the curb?
• Is it insured on the trip?
• Is it blanket wrapped? Crated?

These questions are very important because you don’t want to get into a situation where you are finger pointing” he says. Sage advice.

A passion for Baking: Cake by David Phoenix

Life in the Era of a Pandemic

Now deep into 2020, we’ve all been through the ringer this year. “the first three weeks I did not leave the house,” Phoenix admits, “I would watch a movie in the middle of the day—if not now, when?” he laughed. “My diet went out the window with all the baking, I was definitely off my food game, it was hard. It got a little depressing from an isolation standpoint. I bought a bike and started bike riding, which I love and do everyday. It’s great to get outside and explore.”

“I’ve been very diligent about washing hands and wearing a mask–it’s not about taking a stance, it’s about being thoughtful—you wouldn’t sneeze on someone’s face or cough on them, it’s the same thing. I feel, especially now with everything going on, I have a new sense of gratitude: to be grateful that you are healthy. When you’re grateful, it’s hard to be angry or sad—when you switch your mindset from focusing on what you don’t have to the little things—I am grateful for my desk, good coffee, my Zoom meetings—it’s easy to add to that list.”

Such a simple and profound point of view.

By Ariane Maclean Trimuschat
Ariane served as Show Director for the San Francisco Fall Show for 7 years through 2019. She is now the show’s international liaison as Director at Large, living in London with her family.  Follow Ariane on her blog, Sojournest, where she focuses on all things home, design and travel.