Louisville native Christopher Welsh used his musical theater degree in the most entertaining of ways: he was a cruise ship entertainer and later a cruise director for more than five years. In between cruise ship gigs, he would return home and work at The Colony in St. Matthews, an interior design and retail shop. Here he was exposed to the interior design business and decided that this career — not acting and singing — was his true calling. He moved to New York City in 1993 and worked two jobs, waiting tables and working as an assistant for designer Marshall Watson. A couple of years later, he was the Vice President of Marshall Watson Interiors. He worked with Marshall for 20 years, where he was fully immersed in both the design and the business aspects of the company, and he helped build the business to eventually encompass clients all over world. Three years ago, Christopher and his partner were burned out on New York and longed for somewhere where they could be part of a community and make a difference. They decided to come home to Louisville, which has been the perfect choice. Christopher started Christopher Welsh Designs in spring of 2014, and he has already started to leave his mark all around town. Be sure to take extra time when reading his industry mentors and role models; they are all amazing designers from many different time periods. And welcome Christopher Welsh, this month’s Interior Designer Crush!
What is your design aesthetic, and how do you translate that to a client and his/her space?
I didn’t really think about this when I was in my 20s and 30s. I always thought I was going to be a strictly contemporary guy back then — but I really am a classicist at heart. I like for every space I design to have some nod toward good classic design. I hate to say “traditional,” because I feel like that word immediately conjures up red dining rooms and hunt prints over the sofa. The sense of symmetry and good proportion that you find in good classic rooms from the past — that never goes out of style. A modern classic look is my favorite – good bones, nice moldings and lots of light, layered with fresh, modern fabrics and colors and a comfortable mix of old and new furniture. To my way of thinking, there’s nothing better than a Georgian-period console with two modern lamps on it and a mid-century modern abstract painting over it. Flank that with two clear lucite chairs, and THAT would be a great entry hall! You’ve got to mix things up like that to keep things from being too staid.
You asked how I translate my aesthetic to my clients: I really pride myself on interpreting what look each client wants. Through the years, I’ve done some really cool, straight-lined contemporary spaces. I’m working on a purely traditional 1920’s home in St. Louis right now, and I love traditional work. However, I find that most clients want something in between — a tailored, clean, somewhat eclectic look, perhaps with some bold graphic details thrown in. Always with good proportions and balance.
Is there one design element that you use over and over again, in some type of capacity? Why?
For me, one thing that I really believe gives a room great style is decorative painting. It’s been interesting moving to Louisville and having some local painters tell me that decorative painting is just not happening anymore. I completely disagree! It’s alive and well on both coasts, I know that for sure! And when I see the beautiful work of local artists like Sandy Kimura, Tania Vartan, Ron Mercer, Stephen Wesley, I could go on and on — the art of the painted finish is alive and well in Louisville.
I think people got really sick of Venetian plaster and faux marble from the past, and they think all decorative finishes are a bit over-the-top. But, if you see a beautiful, quiet crosshatch linen painted wall, or a softly rubbed stenciled pattern that whispers across a ceiling, or a piece of painted furniture with some great striping, you realize that decorative painting really adds another dimension to a room’s design.
Are there any trends you’re loving at the moment, and alternately, any timeless aspects of design that you cling to?
Well, I kind of try to stay away from trends as a rule. I figure if it’s a trend, it might look dated in a couple of years. I like design that lasts a while.
But, since you asked, I do really love what’s been happening in the world of all-weather fabrics in the past several years. It’s absolutely mind-blowing how that industry has changed since I started working in design. There are so many soft chenilles and velvets, and incredible wovens with great texture — things like that simply didn’t exist in the past for outdoor use. It’s gotten to the point where we designers can specify indoor/outdoor fabrics for family rooms and sunrooms and other hard-working areas, and you’d never know that we’ve used all-weather fabrics. The same thing is happening with carpeting; there are great indoor/outdoor options on the market now that are beautiful.
As far as timeless aspects of design go, there are tons. A couple of things come to mind:
1. Beautiful wood grains will never go out of style. No matter whether you like antique or new furniture, stained woods can add a lot of depth and character to a room – walnut, burled rosewood, tiger’s eye maple, zebrawood … they’re all gorgeous. Quarter-sawn oak is beautiful, stained the color of bourbon. Nature provides a lot of great patterns and colors for us to enjoy when it comes to wood.
2. Also, I’m a big fan of using what you have whenever possible. Get out that family silver and use it. Same thing with quilts, accessories, linens and dishes. All those sorts of things can be used in fresh, stylish ways in a modern, classic home. There’s no use in leaving all that stuff in drawers and cabinets forever. (And if you don’t use it, donate it – I’m also a huge fan of divesting … )
Where do you get your design inspiration?
All kinds of places, as I’ve picked up so many ideas in all my travels through the years. When you experience other cultures and other places, you can’t help but take away aesthetic ideas. I’m also a gardener and a huge fan of botanical gardens. I see all sorts of patterns and colors in nature that inspire me.
I’ve always loved the Period Rooms at the Met Museum; I still walk through them whenever I’m in town. Studying those rooms is a whole design symposium unto itself.
Spending a day in the trade design showrooms in New York, Chicago or Atlanta, especially when the new collections come out, is incredibly inspiring.
On a more practical level, I learned long ago to ask new clients if I can see what’s hanging in their closet. By seeing what colors a client likes to wear, you can often discern what colors they’d like to be surrounded by in their rooms. It can give you some good guidelines. Although it was never quite as effective to do that in New York, because everyone there wears black 24/7!
What brings you the most professional joy?
I can’t believe you asked that; I just got that question a few weeks ago when I gave a lecture at The Woman’s Club down on Fourth Street, and my answer sounded so corny that I apologized for saying it. But I’ll say it again, to you. I get the most satisfaction in knowing that there are families living in spaces I’ve designed, specifically kids growing up in environments that I’ve designed. I think it’s so very important, the space in which we develop as young people. It makes me happy to think that maybe I’ve helped a few young people along, with calm, cohesive spaces, with good lighting and imaginative design – places they can imagine their own dreams and grow into themselves. I warned you that it was going to sound corny!
Are people starting to embrace color again, or is the movement still strong with a canvas of white?
I don’t think people ever really stopped embracing color, especially in the South. When I really think about it, I think monochromatic rooms have been a thing for decades. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when everyone broke out of the avocado green and gold looks of the past, great designers started doing very neutral interiors. I mean designers like Michael Taylor and Sally Sirkin Lewis on the West Coast and Jay Spectre and Angelo Donghia in New York — they all started doing mainly white interiors. Those looks caught the eyes of the editors at Architectural Digest, and the white room was born. I have to say I love a neutral or white interior, and there will always be rooms where that look is totally do-able and practical. But look at the pages of Elle Décor and Veranda and House Beautiful — they’re all saturated with color for a reason — it’s incredibly uplifting and livable, especially for families.
What’s one of the most misunderstood aspects of interior design (from those outside the industry)?
Lighting. Good lighting placement is so important; mixing light sources and fixture types in a room really can move a room from good to great on the design scale. There are so many different bulb options available now, it’s dizzying. That’s where a good design professional comes in extremely handy.
Would you share one designer secret with SB readers?
A secret? Well, I don’t know if it’s a secret, because it’s so obvious, but, don’t forget your ceilings. I see the ceiling as another design surface that should compliment the room, whatever the room may be. A painted border, a soft wallpaper pattern, beadboard, old-fashioned stamped tin, a whispery painted glaze, words of inspiration — all sorts of things can enliven a ceiling and make it an integral part of the room. Otherwise, you just have a big, flat white space hovering above you. A ceiling can be a great finishing statement in a room.
Who have been your industry mentors/role models (your personal interior designer crushes!) and why?
Of course, my mentor was, and still continues to be from afar, Marshall Watson – I was so fortunate to have landed with him, to soak up his knowledge. He truly is a master at what he does. As far as other designers I admire, there are so, so many, but a few come to mind as particular favorites – Mary Douglas Drysdale in Washington, DC, for her incredible use of color and light; Victoria Hagan in New York for her great sense of scale and texture; Michael S. Smith in LA, who’s a brilliant mixer of styles; the late Jed Johnson, who understood comfort and luxury so completely. Those are a few. But then I can’t leave out Nancy Lancaster, John Fowler, Sister Parish and Albert Hadley, and of course, Mark Hampton. They all left behind incredible work to learn from. And lastly, I can’t get enough of my three favorite Englishmen — Christopher Wren, Robert Adam and John Soane. Those three set so many standards for great architecture that live on today.
What has been your most challenging project to date and why?
I wouldn’t say challenging in a negative way, but twice while I was working in New York I got to re-design houses I had already designed, for new owners. In one instance, the home was a 1920s house in New Jersey that was featured in Architectural Digest after the first go-round. So, it was a little strange to re-decorate that house, it had been such a labor of love the first time around. Also, in St. Louis, we did a very traditional house with lots of French and English influence. It was purchased by a very young couple with a toddler and a newborn. We completely re-designed it in a much more modern way for younger lifestyles. That was an incredibly fun challenge!
What are your predictions for interior design in the next 10 to 15 years?
One thing that I think is going to happen eventually, maybe in 15 to 20 years, is that the trend for open floor plans will die down. I feel that surely, sometimes, families living in houses with combined living room/dining room/kitchen spaces need someplace else to go besides a bedroom or a windowless basement rec room. People need alone time! I suspect that the children who are currently growing up in open-plan houses will want more traditional layouts when they start having children of their own. Hopefully, I’ll still be around to decorate all those additional rooms!
Thank you to Christopher Welsh for sharing his wealth of knowledge with us today. We look forward to seeing more of your work here in Louisville.
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