Michelle Workman is a darling of the interior design world, and with good reason. While some may know her as the designer behind two of Jennifer Lopez’s homes and a variety of other A-list celebs, Michelle actually works with a wide variety of clients — with varying budgets — and is now permanently settled far outside of her former Los Angeles home, having chosen Chattanooga, TN, to raise her family. We caught up with Michelle at her room at the Junior League Designer Showhouse in Chattanooga to find out why she moved to the South and to get some practical advice when it comes to interior design and life. And Michelle is so personable that we all left feeling that we had a new best friend. Welcome today’s FACE of the South, Michelle Workman!
You were living in Los Angeles, CA, for years and made the big move to Chattanooga, TN. Tell us how that came about?
I’m from L.A., and I grew up there, but my husband Justin and I came to the conclusion that we needed to raise our boys elsewhere when our oldest was about 5 years old. It took us about three years to make it happen, and it involved extensive research of cities in the South and several visits to Chattanooga as well as a few other cities. We were looking for something small but still somewhat cosmopolitan, and Chattanooga fit the bill.
Wow! You took quite a chance moving across the country to a city where you didn’t know anyone. Was this out of character, or have you always trusted your inner voice this much?
I wouldn’t say that it was out of character for me; I have always been a bit on the adventurous side. I firmly believe you have to create the life you wish to lead. It took three years of planning, and the whole time people were telling us we were crazy … but we did it, and now we have everything that we ever wanted for our family!
“I firmly believe you have to create the life you wish to lead.” – Michelle Workman
What is one of your favorite things about living in the South?
People are genuinely friendly. When someone invites you over for dinner or to stay with them, they absolutely mean it — Southern hospitality is a real thing, and it is an open door policy. It makes me happy to think that there is still a culture here in the United States that isn’t too big and bustling to be warm and inviting.
How did you get on the map as a celebrity designer?
Was there a lucky break? Early on in my career, I had done some work for a charitable organization, and at the grand opening, one of the celebrities who came loved what I had done and hired me to help her with her vacation home. One of her celebrity friends saw the vacation home, and she shared my info with them — they then shared my info with some of their friends, and so on and so on.
It is a rather small community in Hollywood, and I have always been incredibly discreet; I had worked for seven to eight A-listers before I ever published a single celebrity interior. Additionally, I have always demanded the highest quality from our vendors and workrooms, and we deliver top-notch service. Those two things make for repeat clientele as well as referrals.
Being dubbed a celebrity designer must have had some perks, but were there any pitfalls?
There are two pitfalls in being a celebrity designer. The first is you become known as “so-and-so’s” designer, and not necessarily for your work. The second — and more dangerous one — is that people assume that they can’t afford you, or that they aren’t a big enough name for you. Of course nothing could be further from the truth! My fees are in line with what most designers charge, and I love working with people who are not celebrities. One of my most favorite clients thought both of the above things about me but decided to reach out anyway. We did a beautiful design for her, we stayed within the budget she had, and she tops my list of people I have loved to work with!
What excites you the most as far as working with Southerners on their homes?
I think Southerners love color. L.A. has been doing the grey, beige and taupe thing for so many years now, and I am excited to get past that hum-drum look and work with color again. I think the world is ready for — and needs — happy colors! As Dorothy Draper said (after the depression years), “The Drab Age is over. Color is coming into its own again.”
What sets you apart from other designers?
I think two things set me apart. I am very interested in finding out about my clients and showing their personality through their home — the home should be a sanctuary and gathering place, and it should represent the people who live there, not the designer. In that way, I do not have a “style” or “look.” What enables me to create this for my clients is my ability to mix styles and periods, old and new, pattern and texture. I am able to successfully create balance with incredibly disparate elements. This results in a home that always looks very personal and curated.
Do you have any product lines for our readers who want your special touch in their home?
I have always had at least one item in my clients’ homes that I have designed specifically for them, and recently I licensed two different collections, so I am getting to design furniture for everybody right now!
The company I am creating the furniture collection for is French Heritage, and it will launch next April (2017). I have just started to see photos of some of the prototypes, and I am super excited with how it is coming along! It is inspired by the Art Deco movement and has some beautiful inlays and finishes.
I am also now designing a trim collection for Pyar and Co. that will launch this October. It is all the trims I have always wanted to see and have never been able to find. It will be an opportunity for designers and homeowners to have fun with trim without being too stuffy or precious.
Let’s just dream a second. A reader gets $5,000 to invest in their home and wants to make a big impact but has no particular “need,” per se. Where do you suggest they put it?
In the foyer. This is the place to make a statement and set the tone for the rest of the home. A fabulous wallpaper or a gorgeous statement piece of furniture will tell people whose home they are entering.
Do you have a piece of advice that you rely on regularly that you would share with us?
Two things: don’t be afraid to show people who you are with your home. It should look completely different from friends’ homes. It should very clearly tell people who lives there and what their interests are. And … do what your designer says! If you have gone to the trouble of researching for and hiring a designer, then you shouldn’t waste your time or theirs by fighting with them. Would you argue with your dentist, doctor or lawyer?!
How did you know you wanted to be an interior designer?
I knew I wanted to be an artist of some sort but was not interested in starving, and I thought … I can be a designer! Later on, I realized I had something that so many other designers fight for, and that was a strong confidence in my abilities and vision.
How does being a mom influence the way you decorate your own home?
I try to create a few family spaces where the boys can be a little more careless, but really I believe if you create a beautiful space from the beginning of their lives, they will be more apt to respect it. I had no trinkets or breakables within their reach until they were both old enough not to be careless with them. Both boys are very respectful of the “adult” spaces; they use them but don’t horse around or wrestle in those spaces — that happens in their rooms or outside.
Tell us about Sherman.
When we first moved to Chattanooga, I told Justin (husband) that I wanted a pig. He said no way. Now we have a pig … I win! Seriously though, Justin loves Sherman more than I do, which is saying something! It is sort of like having a third child, who constantly eats.
Are there any books you’ve currently read that you can recommend?
It’s funny that you ask. Right now I am reading Old Money, New South, which is a history and tell-all about the city of Chattanooga. A very interesting read.
Do you have a favorite color?
Hmmmm, pink. And green … and blue, and gold too!
Is there something our readers would be surprised to find out about you?
Even though I am quite gregarious, I don’t love talking about myself — I prefer to hear about other people’s lives, hopes and dreams.
What are three lighthearted things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
Shermie! A good cocktail ring. And YSL lipstick. Oh, and my vintage clothing collection! I know that’s four, but …
Thank you Michelle! You can see why we’ve fallen head over heels for this amazing designer who chose the South to lay down roots. To find out more about Michelle (and yes, she does travel for projects!) check out michelleworkman.com.
Special thanks to Leila Grossman of Grannis Photography for today’s fabulous photos.
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