Tobi Fairley: Putting the Eye Candy in Classic Style

An Exclusive Interview

By: Julie Garrett VanDolen • May 02, 2010 • 0 Comments

Tobi Fairley is this year’s breakout interior designer. She was named one of Traditional Home’s Top 20 Young Designers of 2009. The March 2010 cover of House Beautiful featured her signature look. HGTV recently listed Ms. Fairley’s blog as one of their favorites. Tobi’s Tips is a bi-monthly column in AY magazine.  And, come September, Tobi Fairley will be the keynote speaker at New York’s Designing Profits Conference. 

Latique Magazine is thrilled to have Tobi Fairley as our featured interior designer this month and we think you’ll love what she has to say.

 J.VD.  Tobi, thanks for taking time from your hectic schedule to share your point of view with Latique. As you know, our magazine is written for people who are comfortable with tradition and classic style but may or may not have had experience incorporating antiques into their décor. What we ultimately hope to learn from you is this: do antiques have a place in today’s home?

 T.F. My favorite way to use antiques is to refurbish them and give them a new look. I often paint antique pieces in fun, bright colors and add new hardware for an updated appeal. My rooms are typically about 20% antiques.  

J.G.VD. Your rooms always have an element of the unexpected. What is it you do that makes them pop?

T.F.  I use a lot of color to make spaces young and interesting. It helps me and the owners not take a space too seriously. And if you can’t laugh and have fun in a room, what’s the point, right?

J.G.VD. And your formula for fresh and simple? Tobi Fairley headshot

T.F. The simple comes from clean lines and edited surfaces (not many accessories.) The fresh is achieved by taking classic pieces, styles or patterns and reinterpreting them in a new way.  I often experiment with new and trend toward color palettes on classic pieces, which keeps my spaces exciting and current.

J.VD. At what point does your vision for a room begin to jell?

T.F. I immediately get a vision for a space upon seeing it. It is like a sixth sense and more often than not, that is the vision I actually build upon.  I know it may seem strange but I get a certain calling or vibe from the space and it isn’t something that I can really ignore.

J.VD. Do you feel that English Country is still the inspiration for traditional settings?

T.F. I think that many historic interior styles including English and French have a great influence on today’s traditional interiors. But we are seeing a lot of Swedish and Belgian influences of late.

J.VD. So it’s broader?

T.F. Yes. Today’s traditional is a mixture of any and all of these influences paired with modern and vintage accents and art for a very interesting and unique outcome. This is what makes “new traditional” so interesting and personal.

J.VD. What about your own personal influences?

T.F. Well, I am completely inspired by color and pattern. I also get many of my design ideas from my travels. As far as other designers who have influenced my style, I would say Dorothy Draper, David Hicks, Jamie Drake and Kelly Wearstler.  On the fashion front, Oscar de la Renta, Dior and Coco Chanel are among my favorites.

J. VD. Fascinating. Were there earlier influences?

T.F. During my childhood my parents worked with several designers including Khaki Hockersmith, designer for Bill and Hillary Clinton. I also have family members in Fort Worth that I used to spend time with during the summers.

J.VD. When it comes to color, what guides your selections?

T.F. I LOVE experimenting with unique color combinations. Nothing makes me happier and more inspired than creating fresh color combinations that are both energizing and serene at the same time. Some of my favorites are coral and jade, spearmint and lavender, sage and orange, charcoal and yellow, and the list goes on!

J.VD. Is there a unifying element you rely on to pull the rooms of a house together?

T.F. I like to have subtle transitions of color from space to space. I might have chocolate and yellow in one room, in the next room might be yellow and cream with a pop of navy, and then the next space navy and cream with Kelly green accents.  There are unifying elements from one space to the next that makes for a cohesive design but it is not something that a visitor would be able to put his finger on.

Color Story / Blue & Red RoomJ.VD. Could you describe your process?

T.F. I start with the fabric and color story without even knowing what each fabric will go on or what room it will end up in. It is just a totally free and creative expression of the client’s personality derived from my initial vision. Then I go back to square one.

J.VD. And what happens at square one?

T.F. I analyze the architecture and traffic flow to make sure it is interesting, functional and a complement to the architectural style of the building, the color scheme I created and the style of the fabric scheme I designed. I add moldings for interest and impact. I adjust any openings or walls for added function. I design a lighting plan and I create a furniture floor plan that meets all the needs and wants of the clients.

 J.VD. Go on please.

T.F. Next, I take each individual space and apply the fabric scheme to the furniture plan. I complete the project with art, accessories, rugs and drapery for a “total design” and then present the completed look to the client in one detailed presentation.

J.VD. Do you find that most of your clients already have an art collection?

T.F.  Most of my clients these days do have a fine art collection. If they don’t, I begin a conversation about collecting unique and one-of-a-kind pieces because I believe this is what makes an interior truly interesting.

J.VD. What are some favorite elements to incorporate into a room?

 T.F. I can hardly do a room without drapery. I am a fool for textiles, especially in large scale prints whether floral or geometric. I am also a huge fan of custom rugs as an alternative to traditional oriental carpets.

J.VD. Rugs. Often overlooked but so important.

T.F. Unifying several conversation areas into one space with a room-sized carpet makes an interior comfortable, inviting and functional.

J.VD. If you don’t mind, I’m going to hit you with a question you probably haven’t heard before. Years ago, people collected more oddities and souvenirs-- what do you see as the equivalent to that today?

T.F. Well, the whole deal of “natural curiosities” is as hot as ever these days. It is very much the old apothecary look with items ranging from old bottles and vintage containers to specimens like bugs and butterflies to other vintage and antique accessories like gears and instruments.  I really like this interesting and conversational approach to collectibles. They are especially impressive when displayed as a collection or group-- even in a cabinet as they were in days of old.

The lady with the eye for eye candy knows which trends are hot. 

As Tobi mentioned in her Traditional Home spread, if she could suggest one traditional item to clients to purchase it would be fine art.  "I also encourage clients to always splurge on fine art. Original does not necessarily have to mean expensive but it certainly means unique. I suggest clients buy the most expensive art that they can afford. Investing in a piece of art that you really love is never a bad idea because unlike furniture and fabric, original artwork never goes out of style."

I’m sure the Latique audience will love this fresh and bold design approach, epitomizing “Classic Décor for Contemporary Living”. Many thanks to Tobi Fairley for sharing her insights.

For more on Tobi Fairley, please check out Latique's blog or visit