Monday, August 15, 2011

In Conversation: Houston's great interior designer J. Randall Powers

Timeless Values, a Classical Approach 

Texas star designer J. Randall Powers (Randy to his friends, colleagues and devoted clients) has built his extraordinary design career on a cornerstone of restraint. Working with a highly controlled color range, a superbly edited décor, pure lines, and opulent fabrics and materials like silk velvet, rich leather, fine wood, marble, and luxurious open spaces, he shapes rooms that are as inviting and lovely as they are comfortable. 

Sit down with me for a chat with Randy—and let’s take a look inside his head. 

We discuss his pure design beliefs, go-to fabrics, antique sources, favorite paints, great basic fabrics to use every time, and his palette of materials, along with travel inspiration. 

You will be surprised and inspired. And you’ll have a new design hero.

I was fortunate to be introduced to Randy Powers over a decade ago by the great editor-in-chief, Holly Moore. Holly, the founder and editorial power behind PAPERCITY, in Houston and Dallas, is a longtime admirer and friend of Randy, and I instantly became a friend and admirer, too. I’m an editor with PAPERCITY, so Randy, a contributor to the magazine, is a dear colleague as well. Join us for a chat.


DDS: Randy, so wonderful to talk to you, as always. Tell me, from all your years in the design business, what do you absolutely know is essential for good design? 
Editing is the key to everything. Regardless of the style of your interior, it is essential not to over design or over decorate. Keeping a space filled with wonderful interesting objects is always the goal, but too many is just chaotic to the eye and can make a room feel cluttered and un-thought-out. 

Simply removing a single chair or one too many items on a table can "clear the air". Never be afraid to leave a space blank. The void will feel refreshing and allow the other objects to have a life. 

My advice: There is strength in repetition. Don't be afraid of pairs. Symmetry gives rooms and spaces credibility. A pair of beautiful consoles or good simple chairs is pleasing to the eye. Personally I prefer tables and upholstered pieces to be individual. But a doorway or window flanked with a pair of chests, or the like, seems regal and makes a statement.

DDS: What one element is always necessary to a well-designed room?
Collections of objects grouped together can instantly unify a room. I strongly encourage my clients to start a collection or tell me of something that they are attracted to and I will source items for them. It does not always need to be a serious object, like Ancient Chinese porcelain, It can be baskets, boxes or interesting found objects. Nothing can make an interior feel personal and not "done" more than objects that are meaningful. 

DDS: You are generally not a fan of printed fabrics. 
JRP: (laughing) Well I've come full circle. For years I avoided prints and patterns as I found them to be disruptive to the interiors I created. I searched for texture and interesting colors to create the warmth I was looking for and to let the other pieces in the rooms make the statement. I guess as my tastes have evolved and styles have changed, I now embrace the interest that they can add.

But usually if I do chose a "statement" fabric I will use it over and over in the same room until it almost becomes a neutral. A room done in a killer Ikat fabric used for curtains, sofas, pillows, stools, can really be something to behold and timeless in its own right.

DDS: On a very limited budget—say a first apartment—what is the one item on which you would lavish the most money. 
JRP: Hands down a good quality, well-made sofa with classic lines. It should be a hardwood frame, screwed and doweled together, hand-tied, and have great fill in the cushions. Over time, you can reupholster it. You can restyle it, change the pillows. It will become central to your décor. It will last you a lifetime. 

DDS: On the other hand, where can you always be satisfied with a truly budget piece? 
JRP: Lighting. There are AMAZING resources for high quality and terrific design out there for even the most modest budget. Even on my biggest "no budget" design jobs I will almost inevitably look at companies like Visual Comfort / Circa Lighting or Robert Abbey. I’ve designed lamps for Visual Comfort. Adding a simple cord trim to the shade or having it painted a pale matte color can really take an inexpensive lamp up several notches. 

DDS: Your rooms are usually quite tailored, certainly very restrained. Are you against trim and tassel? 
JRP: I actually love trimmings and passementerie. But I like them to be very subtle and hidden, Added luxury that does not scream out. Flat tapes, flanges made of pin stripes, welting in leathers, contrasting string cording. I am known for hidden details that go unnoticed. I love to add details that only the homeowner is aware of, such as, contrasting curtain linings, taffeta lined sofa and chair skirts, lamp shades with string trim on the INSIDE of the shades and other "surprises" like those. Sometimes the hidden details are the most luxurious.

DDS: Great old classic fabric you adore? 
JRP: Mozart linen velvet from Brunschwig & Fils. The colors are incredibly subtle and the hand and texture or amazing. Nothing wears and shows its age more elegantly than a good quality linen velvet. It’s timeless, noble, elegant and beautiful to the touch. 

DDS: Great versatile new fabric you love? 
JRP: Mokum Textiles' "Amalfi" in the color Sea Salt. It’s the perfect neutral texture with a small fleck of tan in it. I have a standing reserve on this fabric at all times.

DDS: You have told me that like many top designers you are 'self-taught' and 'self-educated'. It should be noted that John Dickinson, Michael Taylor, Jean-Michel Frank, Suzanne Tucker and Michael Smith and other designers I admire did not attend design school.

I believe in formal design education. And I believe in hands-on experience. What do you think are the key elements to 'self-educate' and create your own design education and in-depth knowledge? 

JRP: Book, books, and more books. Reading. Studying every design book. There is not a single design book, major auction catalogue or magazine I do not own, subscribe to, or pre-order. 

My home library has well over 3,000 design related books currently and always more on the way. I am a voracious reader and study all periods and styles--whether my taste or not.

Learn design history, starting with the Greeks and covering two millennia. Learn what has gone before. Learn the work of the great architects. Study Palladio. Become an expert on Modernism, Regency, Louis XIV, Shaker, and Classicism. 

I am a firm believer that even if something is not to your liking or your taste you should still study it to see why it was deemed good. Be open-minded. Learn, study, ponder. 

The history of interior design and decoration is always invention and re-invention. The handful of great designers and decorators I admire the most are always "with me" as I have studied their rooms at such length that I know what works and what will not. Having a good knowledge of furniture and its appropriate scale can save you hours of searching for pieces as you can scan a shop in a matter of minutes. I believe a good base knowledge of 50 years of outstanding rooms can l take you farther in your career than hours of Design 101.

DDS: You are such an art connoisseur and you’re passionate about paintings and sculpture. You always loved Cy Twombly (and went with me to the Twombly galleries in Houston). You loved Lucian Freud. Sadly we must bid 'adieu' to these masters. Which of the young-ish figurative artists could...if they paint every day with great devotion for the next forty years...become the next Twombly or Freud? 
JRP: I really like the work of New York artist David Row whose fluid gestural brush strokes with vivid bold colors are really fresh. Works by the Texas-based artist by the name of David Alsworth who paints in the abstract form, are VERY sophisticated.

And an English painter by the name of Simon Casson. Each has such a different style but a really terrific approach and virtuoso style of painting. They’re talented, disciplined, devoted, inspiring. Simon's reinvention of classical painting is just intoxicating to me. 

DDS: With $1,000 to burn what would you buy for a room? 
JRP: A collection of 40-watt light bulbs (I hate an over-lit room), plus a cashmere throw in a bold color like orange or shocking pink or acid green from Williams Sonoma Home, and a ridiculously expensive scented candle. And if I had any left over, a crazy unusual and wonderful orchid in a simple terra cotta pot. 

DDS: Where are you traveling next? 
: I am headed out to the Maine coast on my annual jaunt and then over to Essex, Mass. to forage for antiques and unusual objects. Essex is a MECCA for Antiquing. Not to be missed. Andrew Spindler Antiques, Margaret Doyle Antiques and Eccentricities and Alexander Westerhoff

DDS: Randy, bon voyage and thank you so much. 


All photography courtesy J. Randall Powers, presented here with express permission.

3411 Richmond Avenue, Suite 600
Houston, TX 77046


Splenderosa said...

Diane, what a beautiful interview with Randy. His interiors are perfect to me. I love what he said about editing & collections. Great piece, my friend. As always. xx's

The Devoted Classicist said...

Truly great advice!

The Peak of Chic said...

Randy is certainly one of today's great young designers. His work is sophisticated and lacks any gimmicks that seem so prevalent in design today.

Trish Donnally said...

This is such a wonderful interview with Randy!
Your work has always been lovely, but it's evolved to be absolutely exquisite. So well considered, I especially love knowing about the secret luxuries you integrate into designs for your clients.
Wishing you both the best,

columnist said...

I'm enchanted by all the work depicted. His style is right up my alley.

Robert said...

I've just recently found your blog, in a deep sea of offerings, your pages are relevant, sophisticated and a pleasure to peruse. This conversation, as previous chats, was most enjoyable.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Welcome, Robert--and thank you all for such positive and cheerful and wonderful comments. I love them.

I wish you could all meet Randy (well, Trish, you have, and Harris...)...
I once had a booksigning at his Houston shop--and the chicest guests arrived, each one handsome and beautiful and superbly dressed! The most elegant precious jewelry...for a cocktail party.
Randy has magic--and an adoring family and great great longterm clients.
Please be sure to go back and spend time looking at the details of the interiors shown here--STUDY the collections, the materials, the subtle colors, the classical approach, his light touch.
Randy-you're the greatest.
cheers to all and be sure to stay in touch, DIANE

mary said...

I have always loved J.Randall Powers neo-classical aesthetic. Seeing so many of his rooms at one sitting reinforces my appreciation of his taste. He definitely has trained his "eye" to select only the best. Great interview. Mary

cotedetexas said...

love him and his aesthetic. loved his comments on sofas and lighting! he's at the top of his game and still so young. he's got a great career that will last for years and years and years.

Great interview!!!


Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Mary and Joni-

Thank you so much for your lovely comments on Randy.
I've had such a powerful response to this story--phone calls from friends and lots of comments on FACEBOOK where I posted a link.
Joni-you know him well and have written about him.
He is based in Houston but he is a world-class talent, and a truly cosmopolitan talent.
Happy you liked this story.
very best, DIANE

*Chic Provence* said...

Hi Diane, as always an insightful interview with one of the design world's super stars! I always learn so much from your posts...

xoxo Kit PS overdue for un cafe?

A Super Dilettante said...

My dear Diane, it's absolutely wonderful. So many tips for a young beginner like me!! And your interview technique! It's absolutely spot on. You know exactly what to ask and sometimes you ask the questions that the designer might not notice it's there!! It's so effortless. I wonder how you do it! Years of experience, I suppose. I like Mr. Powers' designs very much. His rooms look so exquisite that I don't think I would dare to dwell in it because I don't want to ruin the perfection.

I share his interest in Cy Twpmbly's paintings. I recently learnt that he was also favourite artist of the great John Stefanidis ( you know how much I admire his interiors).

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Hi Kit-

Hi Griffin-

Loved hearing from you (and look forward to seeing you soon, Kit).
G--wish you could come to CALIFORNIA for a vist.

Randy Powers has been such a favorite! He is full of direct information--we can all learn from his 'edit!' exhortations. He is right. But he is down-to-earth and wise. His rooms would translate anywhere in the world...would look fresh in London or New York or LA.
Cy Twombly: died recently, of a good old age. I've admired him for much of my life...since I first discovered art, perhaps. I've been to every exhib he has had...and have many books on his work. I am so affected by his death--but especially of his life and art and daring.
cheers and do stay in touch, DIANE