An Interview With Willson Powell

By: Julie VanDolen • Apr 01, 2010 • 2 Comments

Willson Powell is a New Yorker with Southern roots who infuses even casual settings with a dash of sophisticated charm. He has created looks for American condos, over-the-top European villas and classic country homes. With a fondness for what he calls “comfy” rooms, Willson's work always reflects the personality of the people who live in the homes he decorates. 

When he worked on collecctor Frederick Koch's Monte Carlo penthouse, the look was Art Deco. In Mustique, where he was a collaborator on David Bowie's home, each room was designed to offer a surprise. Powell says there's always a way to introduce a bit of the past's charm to any decor and often places antique pieces where you would least expect to find them 

Having worked with some of the biggest and best firms, Willson Powell is now an independent decorator in Columbia, SC where he is finding life a bit “kinder, a little more gentle.” His new enterprise, Eastshore Design, combines the best of cutting edge ideas—think a Japanese inspired oasis in the middle of New York City—with the realties of growing families and their needs.

Whether you're a new homeowner working on a budget or empty-nesters looking to downsize graciously, you will find yourself approaching your own decorating schemes a bit more systematically after reading my interview with Mr. Powell.  Willson Powell and Karen Brosius

J.VD.  Willson, a lot of the folks who visit often have never used a decorator. What is the first thing you would tell them?

W.P.  When I work with a new client, I like to sit and talk with them to find out what they like. Sometimes a wife and husband have very different ideas.

J.VD. Can you give me an example?

W.P. One couple I worked with, the wife had a pair of Victorian chairs she inherited. Naturally, she loved them. The husband hated them. So, I suggested covering the chairs in black horsehair to give them a chic, contemporary look.

J.VD. How did that work out?

W.P. It was a huge success. The black horsehair made the Victorian chairs look smart and blended with his modern aesthetic.

J.VD. That’s a great idea: update the antique chairs with modern upholstery.  What do you say to people who just "don’t like” antiques.

W.P. There’s always a way of introducing a nice older piece into room. For instance, a nice bombé chest can give a warm, sensuous feeling.  A corner chair is a good acquisition too; they’re great conversation starters.

J.VD. What do you tell first-time home owners who can’t afford to redecorate right away?

W.P. I say start with patio furniture for the living room. That way you don’t lose anything. When you can afford upholstered furniture, the patio furniture goes out to the patio

J.VD. At what point do you generally enter the picture?

W.P. With new homeowners, it’s at the point where they’re ready to move the patio furniture out.

J.VD.  And then where do you start?

W.P. The first room to tackle is the family room or the living room. Whatever they use the most, that’s where the upholstered furniture goes.

J.VD. And what antiques would you suggest they buy first?

W.P. I like a nice chest or chest-on-chest for the bedroom. There’s never enough drawer space and the English and American chests-on-chest have plenty. And, their lines are usually clean.

J.VD. That brings up the question of “brown” furniture.

W.P. Generally speaking, one piece is enough.

J.VD. Go on.

W.P. I like painted furniture too, and Chinoisserie. And that’s always a good place to start thinking about antiques. Chinoisserie is still so much fun; it works anywhere.

J.VD. There are so many items from the past that you just don’t see being used much anymore, like sideboards.

W.P.  Beautiful Hepplewite, Chippendale and Sheraton sideboards. I started using them in family rooms and libraries a long time go. I’ll tell you why—they make great places to lay out projects and leave them until you’re ready to fuss with them again.

J.VD. What’s your take on formal dining rooms?

W.P. Formal dining rooms are great to have but they don’t get used very often. Recently, I’ve re-done dining rooms with bookcases for three different clients.

J.VD. That sort of repurposes an under-utilized room?

W.P. Yes. It becomes a work/study dining room. And gives people room to spread out, to do their taxes or build a photo album. It’s fun to change rooms around a little bit.

J.VD. It sounds like you like houses that are comfortable.

W.P. Comfort. That’s the most important thing.

Powell Design

J.VD. Does that mean you would suggest adding chairs and other furniture to bedrooms?  

W.P. (laughter.) You’d be surprised. Oh, I always put a smaller-sized English club chair with loose cushions in a bedroom. Because it is the one place that’s private and you might like to spend time in.

J.VD. Anything else that’s good for the bedroom?

W.P. Yes. A small table that will hold a drink or coffee. So a marble or glass surface is good. And I finish the vignette with a reading lamp by the chair. 

J.VD. Very cozy.

W.P. I make every room really livable. Good lighting helps. It’s a must.

J.VD. What is your idea of good lighting?

W.P. Lots of different lights in every room really makes things interesting. Small-scale wall sconces with shades and portrait lights above all the pictures, they’re important. These get mixed with down lighting, chandeliers, and uplights in corners.  When they’re all turned on, you get a medley of lights.

J.VD. Would you add candles to that mix?

W.P. Absolutely.  That reminds me of a story I heard about a room Parrish-Hadley did. The room had a wave form chair rail inlaid with faceted rhinestones. When the candles were lit, they reflected in the rhinestones.

J.VD. It sounds a bit over-the-top?

W.P. Over-the-top.  But what an aura.

J.VD. A lot of people avoid antiques because they have kids and they’re afraid of damage.

W.P. I think it’s important to teach kids to care for everything, from sports equipment to the car to the furniture.

J.VD. And family pets?

W.P. Love animals. I have a dog and I’m very lenient on him. In fact, right now there’s a gold and black lacquer stand in my house with a dog gouge in it. I just used some black shoe polish to cover it up. Sometimes, you just have to do things like that.

J.VD. Tell me something I don’t already know about you.

W.P. I guess it would be that my wife teases me about my idea that the world would be better if everyone just went home and cleaned up their room. It would solve a lot of problems.

Contact information:

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