Lee W. Robinson knows everyone in this town — and it’s probably not originating with his interior design business. Lee Robinson used to be a banker here in Louisville, and a very popular one, at that. This is someone who started a second career midway through his working life, going with his creative instinct and turning in a completely different direction from banking to interior design. Those same personality traits that made him a successful banker have made him a very successful interior designer as well: trustworthy, affable, friendly, smart, approachable and wise. You would trust him with your money, just like you would trust him to design your home. We seek Lee’s advice whenever we need an opinion about how to blend old with new, or what is trending in the design world and how we can realistically incorporate them into our own homes. Today, we’re coming clean with our interior designer crush and are excited to get to know Lee W. Robinson better.
You started in banking and completely changed career paths. What was the impetus for this change?
I was a business major and an art minor but I always wanted to be an architect. I suppressed that creative instinct and, by the time I realized that I really wanted to do something with design, I was 35 years old and a banker here in Louisville. I quit my banking job cold turkey. I didn’t know how to pursue this creative angle but knew that I had to trust my gut instinct. I let go and the doors started to open. After I quit my banking job, I moved to New York City for the summer and took practical classes in interior design at Christie’s and Parsons School of Design.
I returned to Louisville and I bought Sarah McNeil Few’s company first, and then bought A.G. Denzinger (Interior Design) Inc., which was an interior design firm located on Frankfort Avenue. I bought their hard assets and their fabric samples but I did not buy their book of business. They introduced me to a network of people and clients that was invaluable.
Were you always interested in design?
I was always interested in design, since I was young. I loved to play with Matchbox cars and build buildings and cities. I could draw and build to scale as a young child — it was an innate thing. I was never taught how to do it. I used to devour home magazines at my grandmother’s house as a little kid, as well.
What is your design aesthetic and how do you translate that to a client/homeowner?
Quality would be my word. At any one time, when you buy quality things with intrinsic value, that value will penetrate through any trend du jour. Quality endures through every trend through time throughout the world. I always look for authenticity and the real deal. I encourage clients to buy things that are taken from architectural history and from classic decorative arts and furniture design. These things do not have to be expensive but they must have architectural integrity and design history. I am not against modern furniture but it has to have a purity and an integrity to it. You don’t want a piece that is an amalgam of styles, such as a chair with Chippendale legs and a Louis XVI back. There are wonderful examples of modern design that are pure in nature, such as a Barcelona chair or Eames chair; I am not solely looking for antiques.
Do people tend to associate you with only one type of look?
They did but I think it has changed. I used to be associated with a more “fancy” aesthetic, such as black and white marble floors. Now, I think I’m an expert on modern glamour and transitional quality. Now, to achieve this modern glamour, I look for elements with clean, reflective qualities and textures. Modern tastes are uncluttered with less things everywhere — from the table to the bookshelf — which means less maintenance of the home. Textures are highlighted with wallpapers, rugs, fabrics and lighting — think lucite, glass, marble and chrome over heavier, darker looks.
How does Louisville’s design scene differ from that of the rest of the country?
Louisville is a strong community minded town, having people here with very deep roots. Because of that, they tend to conform to what they see in their friends’ houses. Urban environments do not necessarily have such deep roots, and people have more confidence to step out and express themselves. Here, so many people have their families’ furniture and decor that they want to incorporate in their own homes, which is complicated. There are ways to use more modern color palettes, fabrics and design techniques to successfully incorporate these family antiques. However, it is crucial to use a professional to achieve that current look with their pieces. You can look at Houzz all you want but you need someone with a good design eye to make it all flow together.
What brings you the most professional joy?
Making people happy by giving them what they want. I love to be able to take what is in their mind’s eye and allow them to visualize what the end result will be. Then, after determining that end result, I can make it all come to fruition with a successful installation — thereby making their vision and their dream a reality.
Are people starting to embrace color again, or is the movement still strong with a canvas of white?
People are embracing color but they are looking for ways to make their spaces look clean. The wrong use of color can look like a rainbow but the right use of color can still be clean and uncluttered. I still use color in such things as color-lacquered rooms and shantung silk wallpaper. But people want to establish calm in their homes. You can still use color and have calm by curating, refining and culling down their collections.
What’s one of the most misunderstood aspects of interior design from those outside the industry?
Two things: sense of space and the logistics of installation.
With spatial sense, most people don’t realize how size makes such an impact with design. There is a sense of scale and a sense of balance to everything, which is why it is important to seek professional help when decorating and designing your space. It is very difficult to do yourself with an untrained eye.
With the logistics of installation, oftentimes there are upwards of 20 trades involved in just one room. You might need a manufacturer and an installer for each piece: drapes, paint, mover, light fixtures, electrician, shipping, upholstery. The list seems endless. You could have 30 different proposals just for installing a dining room. I think people misunderstand how much effort goes into each and every project by many people.
Would you share one designer secret with SB readers?
Every room needs a touch of black to add grounding and integrity to the room. Black is always going to be sophisticated — it adds sophistication to each and every space.
Who have been your industry mentors or role models (your personal interior design crushes!) and why?
Mario Buatta because he does not take himself seriously. He’s never had an employee and has had more interior design jobs than anyone. He is based in New York City and does work for everyone. Why? He has deep, lasting relationships — and he is fairly priced.
Celerie Kemble, who is based in Palm Beach, Florida, and New York, has a wonderful take on the current modern glamour movement. She has such a look of restrained elegance that is not too shiny or glossy — but distilled down to where it is so modern and glamorous.
Sarah McNeil Few was one of my mentors. I am still constantly learning from things she’s done. I have a lot of her photographs and her things and always look back on them. She was based in Louisville, educated in New York, spoke fluent French and was a world-class woman and friend.
Is there one design element that you use over and over again, in some type of capacity? Why?
Wallpaper, because it adds depth and dimension that you cannot get from a flat paint color.
What are your predictions for interior design in the next 10 to 15 years?
Interior design will become a total service industry with no product pushing. People will pay interior designers for their brains and not something they bought at market. Interior designers will move away from the showroom and clients will interface with interior designers directly, looking for their creativity and knowledge rather than products. People can buy products online or elsewhere. Design will be a pure, unadulterated service industry.
Thank you Lee for all of your advice and wisdom. We cannot wait to see what you design next.
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