Designers Reveal Their Unexpected Sources for Decorating Inspo

And how to store all your photos!

Designer Amanda Pratt’s travels—in particular, a stay at the Four Seasons in Bali—led her to embrace indoor-outdoor design.
Courtesy of the Four Seasons

Joanna Saltz: Inspiration. We’re here to talk about inspiration. I want to begin with the question I get most often: When you’re designing a space, where do you start? Now, put aside for one second the real technical stuff of how much room and budget you have—I mean more from the universal perspective of how do you open up the doors and let the inspiration come in?

Michelle Cortizo: For me it’s very organic and it depends on the situation. Many things inspire me: nature, textiles, fashion, movies. But when I meet my client, I want that to be my first inspiration. I want to hear what they need and then take that and expand it into how I can tell their story best. And it all depends because they may have a fabulous rug and I pull everything from the ground up, or they may have some incredible light fixture and it works in the other direction. It’s just a matter of what I resonate with and what I’m connected with.

Jo: That's a great answer.

Lisa Tharp: I always say that I have three muses. First is the architecture—What does it feel like now? What is special about it? What can be enhanced? Are the proportions right? Or does it need to be abandoned and reinvented? The second is the setting—nature, what’s outside? Where is the sun exposure? What is the light quality that’s energizing the room or the space or house? How it’s sitting in its space. What’s down the street? The vernacular. And then, of course, the client—What are they dreaming of? How do they want to feel? Where can they be transported even in their daily life? Lots of different sources—fashion, art, history—but those three, for me, are always the starting point for a project.

Lisa Tharp
Little Outdoor Giants

Amanda Pratt: I spent a lot of years in Asia, and I think that’s where I discovered for the first time this real, kind of genre of design about integration. It’s integrating the outdoor with the indoor and creating a lot of living spaces that kind of cross. They don’t have an official threshold between those spaces. So I think Asia kind of really pushed the boundaries of how I like to approach design—even though it’s a very different vernacular, or a very different compositional realm when you’re looking at, say, Beacon Hall Townhouses or brownstones and things like that. In a way, my design and my creativity gets informed by still trying to find ways to make that connection between the indoor and outdoor spaces.

Another thing that I really lived through in Asia was the whole emergence of the contemporary art movement. And so I find that art inspires me. I save gazillions of pictures, as I’m sure all of you guys do, of things that I love and I’m inspired by, and sometimes I put them on and sometimes I just have pictures of them on my phone. I tend to go through my massive collection and try and find, you know, a piece or a sculpture or something that resonates, which is a starting point for a project.

Sometimes it’s about pushing a client’s boundaries a little bit and having them be brave enough and bold enough. You were speaking about kind of proposing ideas that are a little out there and you’re not quite sure how they’re going to turn out, but if you can find a reference point for it or sort of a way to create a visual around it, I think that’s been a technique that’s been really helpful as I try to push people outside the box and embrace creativity a little more in their everyday choices.

Vani Sayeed: When I’m invited to a project, my inspiration is people. What is their environment? What are they looking for? What makes them happy? We’re in people’s homes, we’re in people’s environments. Whether it’s offices or you’re doing or a restaurant, you’re creating environments for people. So my idea is: What is it that makes that space happy? What is it that makes them come to work and feel happy about their space, or get up in the morning and say, “I love my house. This is my temple.”

Dedar’s moiré wallcovering inspired Vani’s approach to this dining room.
Nat Rea

We did a home recently where this family had lived across the world but was coming home to New England. So she didn’t want to lose her New England roots, but also didn’t want to lose this lifetime experience that she had. So that’s what it is. It’s all about creating environments that make people happy, better people. And everything else just flows through from that.

Jo: It seems so rudimentary, but it’s something no one thinks about. People wonder, “What’s a hot color, what’s a cool piece of furniture right now?” But happiness comes before all of that.

Vani: Right, and talking to them to see what makes them tick.

Cheryl Rosenberg: The first thing I do with a client is have them walk me through their house. I want to experience their home and their space the way that they do, so that I understand, “Oh, you pause here to put your keys down, and what is that experience like? And how special does that have to be?” Maybe they’re juggling five kids and running out the door with a baby seat, so how can I ease that stress with design? Is there something that you can rest your eye on down there in the kitchen as you look down the hallway that makes you say, “Oh, I love that piece of art that we found!”

And that’s how I structure our work. I’m constantly walking through the house in my mind as a client, getting out of their bed in theory and, you know, walking through their master bathroom and thinking, “Ok, what is easing the stress of this day?” Because we all work with people who live very busy lives. They’re not hiring interior designers because they can sit around all day and eat bon bons. They are busy...they have five minutes to walk down their hallway or get their kids ready for school. And it’s part of my job, I think, to make that experience of getting through the day easier or less stressful, more beautiful.

Jo: I want to know something surprising that inspired a room, a job, or something in your own personal house.

Amanda Pratt
Little Outdoor Giants

Amanda: The first trip I ever took with the man that eventually became my husband was to Bali, to the Four Seasons called Sayan in Ubud. You pull up in the driveway and you walk across this suspension bridge to this giant circular pool of water and you don’t realize it. It’s this visual, almost illusion. And you don’t realize that when you arrive across this bridge that there’s going to be a set of stairs to go down to. So you’re just walking towards this giant pool of water extended in the sky, surrounded by jungle. And it is the most compelling, beautiful experience. Then you descend down these stairs and you go into this lobby space where they have a bar. The entire thing is probably four or five stories high, all open to the outdoors and there’s this river that runs through it, surrounded by rice patties and this gorgeous jungle. To this day I’ll never forget what it felt like to walk into this truly breathtaking space that, for me, integrated nature and design so well.

Jo: Let's go there right now.

Amanda: Please! Since then I tend to bring a little more of that integration between the beach, the rocks, the shoreline, into my designs. I’m doing a project in Maine where we’ve completely opened the front of the house to the beach. We put in these bi-fold doors and everything is sort of seamlessly colored. We’re using like a very natural color floor because it looks like the sand outside, so we’re really trying to play with how that transition happens between the indoor and the outdoor.

I like to go sort of with palettes that layer texture more than color. So you play with tone-on-tone, or you play with variation in tone, but you use different elements like leather and bouclé and textures and stuff to create interest. I’m somebody who really resonates a lot with my environment, so sometimes when things get too colorful, I don’t find it calming. That doesn’t mean I don’t do that for my clients, it’s just my personal design preference.

Little Outdoor Giants

Vani: Yes, I think one thing that’s informed me to be a better designer is travel. Born and raised in India, of course, I traveled Asia, but also traveled Europe and America too. But living in the midwest, living on the west coast, and now living on the east coast, I really have a wonderful sense of the country itself. One thing I’ve noticed, people everywhere have the same desires, same feelings. Their basic desires are the same—family, happiness, whatever. But when they travel, they experience things and they bring that back to their homes, to their environments.

When you those stories with your clients who have also traveled, there’s this wonderful connection, there’s this synergy that then translates into a successful project. So whether I’m looking at their art or they’re looking to expand their art collection, what’s nice about having this travel element is you connect with them. You understand where they’re coming from, and then use that in making a successful space.

Jo: Totally, I think more and more people are now traveling for design. Stockholm, the Paris Flea Market, Morocco for rugs...

Vani: So I was at Deco Off maybe two years ago and I came back and I had an old client call me back for a new house he bought, it was builder grade but they’re going to bring it up to speed. And as we were doing the selections and colors and everything, I pulled out—I was so excited after my trip—this wonderful Dedar wall covering that has this moiré, it’s just so playful. It was black in their showroom, of course, we had gray in his house, but he had beautiful antiques that were in complete disrepair that we redid and used this eclectic mix of wild moiré wall covering, antique English furniture, contemporary rug. And that’s what he was craving. It wasn’t just a look, it was a collection of looks over a period of time.

Lisa: We were working on a project and the clients asked us to curate an art collection for them, but they had a couple of pieces. One in particular was a small portrait of a woman looking away, it was all in blues—all these rich, beautiful blue colors. She talked about it as if it was "the daughter of a seafaring captain." And it was just such an evocative image and everyone just gravitated to this small portrait that we made it the centerpiece in this dining room. And we did all shades of blues, we brought back the old, traditional cornice style window treatments, but we did a really fun, sort of, ikat type pattern of blues.

I had been just starting to watch Victoria and I just love the opening of that series where she’s on the blue damask, that dark rich indigo damask, and all I kept thinking about was that opening. So we did a traditional settee up at the round table in more of an indigo. It was fun to do so much color because, you know, your portfolio attracts more of the same, which is a lot of neutrals. Which I personally love to live with as well, but to have fun with color and to do the blues in different rooms, different shades, all jumping off from that one piece of beloved art from the client.

The entire palette of this dining room by Lisa was inspired by the portrait of a lady looking into the distance. ”We imagined she was the daughter of a seafaring captain,” she laughs.
Michael J. Lee

Jo: Not for nothing, television inspires a lot. When Mad Men was hot, everyone was dying for midcentury things again.

Vani: I wanted to be sitting around smoking a cigarette.

Michelle: Drinking bourbon!

Cheryl: I’m working on a master bathroom for a family that’s relocating from San Francisco. I wanted this bathroom to take them kind of back to where they came from. Back to where they started their family and moved in together. So I thought about Northern California, and I found this beautiful hand blown glass tile by Lunada Bay that I put in the shower. It’s the accent tile, and I’ve got some almost slate-colored, a background field tile, everywhere else. So it feels like redwood trees, it feels like the coast, it feels like the rocky shoreline, and there’s this gorgeous walnut vanity that just brings in that warmth. The client walked into it last week and gasped, “This is it!” I think that’s where the travel inspiration comes from. It’s the talking to the clients and it’s really coming to the core of what are those moments in their life that you want to connect them with on a daily basis.

Jo: It's really amazing when you can do that successfully.

“Sometimes all that imagery becomes an influence I don’t want. I have to slow myself down and have a

Michelle: You reminded me of a kitchen I was working on for two guys. They bought this home with a beautiful grand entrance, but not so big and pretentious because they’re very grounded people. This house had a kitchen—it was done in 1972, so tiny—and a big old porch in the back. And they had tape on the floor when I first met them of where they were going to put this island. It didn’t fit and everything was wrong about it, so they asked me to help them and I said, “You know what, I don’t know if this is going to work. But are you open to us converting the big porch into your kitchen that really like suits it?” And they said “Wait a minute, maybe!”

During this process, they had an old gate outside. And we kept saying “We’ve got to incorporate this gate post,” because they had found it at an antique trip like four years before. So we do the whole kitchen—barrel ceiling, beautiful cabinets—and those posts now sit at the base of their island. And that is the most special part of the kitchen for me. You can spend money, you can buy new things, but the post, because they went out and they hunted for it and it wound up at the hub and the heart of their home, it was great.

Jo: Do you ever feel over-inspired? Is it ever too much?

Vani: Not for me! I’m a person, I’m a designer, I’m an artist, I’m a mom, I’m a wife, I’m a sister, all of that, and so for me, there’s never enough inspiration. I’m constantly seeking. And there’s so much out there! You don’t have to love it all, you don’t have to store it all, you don’t have to have it all labeled and laid out in a board—you just have to soak it in. It’s all about visual memory that stays in your head. I still have a vision of this beautiful blue when we were flying to the Bahamas, you know what I mean? And I will use it at some point. I’m an artist. So for me I’m constantly creating, whether it’s a small line here or a doodle there or a relaxing time doing some watercolor sketches or prints, then what do you do with the prints? I’m now stitching on my prints. It’s just fun, there’s no reason why we have to be in a more mechanical way and have it all organized. My office is organized, but my art studio? Not so much and I’m OK with it.

Jo: I love the idea that you don’t have to love it all, you just have to soak it all in. Because it’s true. You should be allowed to put anything out in the universe and some things are for some and some things are not.

Jo Saltz
Little Outdoor Giants

Lisa: And to that point, if something is powerful enough to evoke a response, then you don’t need to pin it on a board somewhere. It’s never going to leave you. I can think of either a piece of art, or some lichen on a stone as I’m walking down a lane, and I have to put that color palette together somewhere. Or some movie set, a big expansive Out of Africa kind of thing. I want to put that together in a space or evoke that feeling. We do live in a saturated environment, especially design—my god, think about the last five years even. The explosive amount of incredible imagery that we’re exposed to every day.

I find as a designer I try and disconnect because I want to get away from the applied design—What’s the latest trend? What’s the color?—and get to the authentic: What is the heart and soul of what the design is trying to be? What does this room or home want to become based on all of the impulses we’ve already covered? Turning off and getting out, getting away from the digital world—as much as it’s a huge resource and we couldn’t do as well of a job without it—and getting really quiet and thinking back to those most powerful images.

Michele: I so agree with you. Because they become influences that sometimes we don’t want. I find I have to slow myself down and have a more organic creative process and not be driven just by, well, trend, which is basically a way to make money. You want to get back to what is the root of the design and what the creative process is for you. I also find I just normally filter things out because there is a lot and yes, I look at everything and I can enjoy it and love it. But, it’s only the things that resonate with me that really stick and that I want to hold onto. You don’t have to pick up a camera all the time to capture that.

Michele Cortizo
Little Outdoor Giants

Amanda: I have a very opposite framework for how I focus on design. I actually do put things in pockets. I don’t know, maybe my memory’s not as good because I’ve had the mommy brain for too many years, but there are so many things that I come across that I will put away and then I go back and I reference them. Because what did I love about that? Or I’m looking for a really interesting piece that does this. So I have my is organized by rooms, by categories, and some overlap. But I am somebody who goes to Milan and I go to Paris once a year and I go to New York and I participate in New York Design Week and I go to studio visits with a lot of the designers and makers that I work with—I’m always looking for what’s new and interesting out there. I don’t know.... If I spend five days in Milan and I don’t document every single thing, it just becomes a blur, no matter how amazing it was.

I find that clients do get overwhelmed, and I think often that’s why they come to us. They’re like “OK, I was on and I have this board” and there’s like 50 different genres of design that go into what they think their kitchen should look like or their living room should look like. I think sometimes why they come to us is because it’s our job to be able to like wade through that and come up with some overarching theme, or look or try to drill down on what is it that they’re actually trying to achieve.

Jo: This is exactly why this conversation is great. Because I think there are people who are habitual pinners and people who can’t get enough and then there are people who are just like, “I can’t take it anymore. I need to turn it off.”

Lisa: Don’t get me wrong, my pin boards are far and wide! I have to turn it off, because most of the day I am on. Every project we are pinning—we have secret boards, you probably do the same, for every project. has actually been a revolutionizing tool. You can save everything.

Cheryl was so moved by California’s Muir Woods that she channeled it into a green tile–and-mahogany bathroom.
zrfphoto / Getty

Cheryl: Having access to so many digital images is overwhelming. A lot of it is crap! People, designers, we know that you have to get out in the world and experience a space and see something in person and touch it and feel it. There’s this trend now toward e-design, where you can hire a designer who can put together a whole room for you but who’s never met you or walked in your space and you never touch any of the things, you never sit in the sofa. That’s not how design works!

Amanda: That’s not how we design, but you know, I think there’s a place for everything in this world. Not everybody has the budget to hire somebody like us, so I think making it more accessible to the masses is never a bad thing. Just because it’s not the way that we work doesn’t mean that it’s a negative.

Jo: Totally. I’ve heard from designers, someone will be like, “Oh, what was that paint color, I want to paint my living room that color.” And designers say to me, “You know, it’s always so challenging for me to just be like, ‘You should paint it blah blah blah blue.’ I don’t know what your space is, I don’t know what the light is there, I don’t know how it feels!”

Cheryl: I think that at any budget, though, you can find the right designer. People aren’t getting off their screens to go into a store. I don’t care where you’re shopping—you can shop at IKEA!—but go there and touch it and feel it, and know how that’s going to translate into your home.

Michele: You know we are sitting on an IKEA sofa.

Cheryl: Oh yeah!

Amanda: Have you guys found that a lot of people often get confused between online images that are renderings versus real?

Jo: It’s funny... In my last conversation, somebody was complaining that these renderings companies are actually making their jobs harder, because in a lot of ways they prefer showing mood boards. There’s no real way to prove what your space is actually going to feel like, no rendering can actually give you the real, defined feeling of what that space is going to be, so they end up hating it before they’ve even given it a chance.

Left to right: Michele Cortizo, Jo Saltz, Lisa Tharp, Cheryl Rosenberg, Amanda Pratt, Vani Sayeed
Little Outdoor Giants

Amanda: The thing that I find is that some people will say, "I want this." And I'm like, well you know that's not real.

Vani: We’re designing for a client who has no visual sense, none. We had materials, we had mood boards, we had simple Sketchups, 3-Ds, but they wanted a full rendering. So thank goodness we have a wonderful intern who is great at Revit and I’m like, “Can we just show them something.” It’s a time suck. I don’t want to spend time doing that.

Lisa: That brings up a good point, though. A lot of times the clients are hiring us because they cannot visualize. They’re very literal, and it’s difficult, so we often think about, “What is the best way to represent the concept?” And sometimes less is more because then you don’t get hung up on a particular detail.

Vani: Now they know exactly what they’re getting and there’s nothing left for imagination, literally.

Lisa: In fact, what we’re trying to do is something custom for them. That’s another reason why the “less is more” approach, so we don’t get locked into a specific look.

Jo: What is the essence of the thing.

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