Baker Furniture is one of the most iconic furniture brands in the business. Their pieces last through changes in style and even generations. I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with one of their star designers, Thomas Pheasant, to discuss his thoughts on small spaces, investment pieces and of course, Paris. Thomas himself was warm, welcoming and happy to talk about his inspirations. Here is our conversation…
You mention being inspired by the past. If you could go back in time, which time period would you like to live in?
I actually wouldn't go back that far. I would love to go back to Paris in the 1940s because that was the beginning of the whole modern movement, of stripping away the past. There was a feeling of glamourous, sophisticated simplicity on a big scale. French designers leveraged historical designs and stripped it away in such a new way. At the time it was so revolutionary and I think that it would be so exciting to see the shift. It was a small group fighting the wave of tradition and creating almost everything you see in this design center.
Where in DC is your favorite place to go for inspiration?
As a kid the National Gallery, designed by Jean Russell Pope, was one of my favorite places to go. It's such a beautiful museum. When he designed it, he was actually sort of an outcast, creating this "aspirational classicism" sort of monument style. It was a time when the modern movement was coming in and he was kind of old world. For whatever reason that building got built. It is still so beautiful, so appreciated and it stands there long after he is gone. When I go there I always get the same feeling and see something new.
What is your favorite place to travel to for inspiration?
I am traveling all of the time and I take my camera with me. We have a place in Paris and that has been a source of constant source of inspiration. We were recently in St. Petersburg and Moscow and I was taken aback by their history and their powerful design language. When I was in Asia, there was so much simplicity and restraint, creating such an elegance.
I tell friends and designers that you really just have to train yourself to really look around you. Its about slowing down and really seeing things. Taking the moment to observe and build your own knowledge. Inspiration doesn't have to be a great building or a great table it can be a color, food or fashion. It is really endless.
What I really love about the French is the amount of energy and respect they give to modern design. They just celebrate it. In fact the further out there, the more they celebrate it. It comes from a reaction to the strong influence of history in France. They really scream loud to overcome all of the iconic beauty around them.
A lot of my readers and I live in smaller spaces. What is your advice for decorating in small spaces?
I think you need to be careful with scale. You go in stores and they have huge spaces and big ceilings and you think, "Oh this is perfect" but you won't even be able to get it through the door. So I think being careful with scale is very important. That doesn't mean that you can't have a large scale statement piece like a cabinet or artwork that takes up the whole wall. With those statement pieces you create great aura in a vanilla box. But in terms of furniture scale is really the biggest issue to overcome.
I totally agree. I also like neutral to make the space feel larger.
Or if you like color, commit to it. I talk about this in the book. You can turn color into a neutral. What I will do is exactly what I do with the neutrals--I'll bring in different textures of the same color to create layers so it feels like a unified space. You can do color and make it a neutral.
Your pieces are classic but you bring them in to a modern space. How you achieve the balance been classical and modern? Especially in San Francisco there are a lot of victorians and I find that when I put something more classical in my space it looks old instantly. How do you achieve that balance?
I think you are right, there is a balance. Victorian architecture is a really strong vocabulary. In DC we have a lot of Victorians. What I like to do is enhance the Victorian. If the asethic of the client is a modernist but they love the Victorian house, I would do really chrisp whites and playing up the moldings. For the furniture, I would hold back and do something that is just nice silhouettes and modern forms because they aren't going to fight the architecture. In my Baker collection all of the upholstery is very sculptural and clean. Like those chairs over there, you could put with a old Victorian table, or a Chinese table because the chairs or upholstery don't lock you into a certain style.
When you think about the big pieces try to go in really clean and classic styles that do dictate anything they keep your eye going on what is the focus whether that be the architecture or a special piece of art. By doing that it makes it look modern.
If you dont have the architecture and just have the vanilla box then you can still use the simple upholstery but introduce an antique chest to make up for the lack of engaging architecture.
In terms of investing and saving on pieces? What do you recommend?
I think that is tricky and depends on where you are in your life. If you are just starting out you probably cannot predict where you will be in 10 years or what will be attractive to you. You have to sit down and you have to sleep so those come first. Invest in key pieces that are really simple forms and could mix with lots of different styles.
And then if you wanted to buy some additional, let's say wood pieces, you could look at a flea market and buy a piece that is kind of cool for your style now. When you are ready financially, you can take out those pieces and replace them with higher quality or something that matches your new style.
The reality is that we all change. If you have the right essential pieces, like a good background, you dont have to keep re-investing in big purchases.
Since you have been designing for so long, what is your perception of in the change of design with the advent of social media?
Obviously there are pluses and minuses. The big plus is that there is global connectivity in design. Interior design is very much a fashion industry in that there are trends and there are key looks every season. It is interesting because there used to be West coast style, East coast style, European, Asian, that is fusing all together now because of the connectivity.
There are generations of people who use the internet as their educational tool, that is where they go to find things, where they go to shop, look at the picture and buy the complete look. I want the client that looks beyond what is now. I want them to look forward past the trends. I have encouraged clients to step away from the computer and go on trips to look at pieces in person, see them, touch them. To see where these things are created can completely change a clients perception of design. We have lost that because of the internet. There is so much more to creating your space, no matter if you have $100 or $100 million, that is far beyond just selling you on a screen. None of us can afford everything.
Getting out and going to the flea market I have found amazing things that are so cheap. My clients ask me "How did you spot that?" It is just understanding design and looking all of the time. Something that is beautiful is beautiful. It doesn't depend on the dollar amount. Thats where I feel like as a people, by only looking at what is online, we are not giving ourselves the benefit of learning about design and appreciating it.
I hope you enjoyed our conversation. I really thought that it was enlightening and inspiring. Make sure to check out Thomas Pheasant for Baker Furniture and his new book "Thomas Pheasant: Simply Serene"