Thom Filicia is a masterful interior designer with an uncanny ability to connect with people and bring their personalities, quirks and desires into a space. An agile creative whiz, Thom is one part design ambassador and two parts flirtatious co-conspirator with a quick wit and love for life. His creative instinct is unbound by rules, and his very personalized designs consistently evoke a response as if clients are seeing themselves in the mirror for the first time. Though he’s widely known for his work with TV clients on Queer Eye, Dress My Nest and Oprah, Thom is also an ambitious businessman with some exciting new ventures — and probably a cocktail party — on the horizon.
Thom in his eco-friendly design for LEED-certified Riverhouse condominium project in New York City, photo from NYDailyNews.com
Here in Part 1 of our interview, Thom Filicia describes his creative instincts and process, his sources of inspiration, and his holistic approach to creating designs that are specific to the client, the architecture, the location and more.
In Part 2 of our interview, we discuss Thom’s work in television, his projects for the W Hotels, his upcoming home furnishings line, and how he’s managing a smart business in a challenging economy.
You do a great job on your show Dress My Nest and in your book Thom Filicia Style of explaining how you think through the design of a space. I’m curious how much of your vision for a space comes quickly and instinctually, and how much comes through a more methodical and analytical process?
Well, first, thank you very much for your kind words about my book and about the show — that’s really sweet, and I appreciate it. And I have to say, interestingly enough, I think as a designer working in different mediums — I work with private clients, big brands such as W, and also in television — the reason it actually translates the way it does is I walk in and I kind of see it and feel it, and I all of a sudden start to connect with the look and the feel and the point of view of what’s going to happen with the layout and the architecture.
And then I start asking questions. On the show you can watch what’s happening, because it really is the first time I’m meeting the person. And so I’m actually getting as much information out of them as possible but in a very casual, comfortable, familiar way just through conversation, laughing and having fun, and connecting with them. It’s the same thing I do with a private client and the same thing I do with a brand. It’s really about looking at the architecture, assessing the situation in terms of what makes sense for the space, the location, the architecture, and then, of course, connecting with the client or the brand or the end-user and really sort of figuring out what makes them tick. And I generally do it very quickly, and I enjoy the process. I really enjoy that sort of human connection and sort of figuring out what makes that person tick, or even in a hotel situation, what makes that brand tick. And whether it’s a private client or someone on television, it’s really about making that connection, talking with them and sort of extracting as much information as possible. And it’s something I really enjoy doing. And, therefore, I think given all the opportunities I’ve had to do that both on television and in real life design, it’s something that I’m enjoying learning more about and perfecting every time I do it.
Thom shows an eclectic mix of American motifs and craftsmanship at U.S. Pavilion at World’s Fair in Japan, photo courtesy of Toshiaki Nozawa
Thom uses industrial cogs in beach house foyer for sculptural appeal and to visually connect with upper level, photo courtesy of Eric Piasecki
I know your original interest was in architecture, and I’ve seen you use stripes and other design elements to give a room ‘architecture’ or to improve the flow of a space. If you could influence the world of residential architecture, what would be on your wish list?
I would say the first thing I would want to do if I were to influence the world of residential architecture is give clean, modern spaces a bit more architecture. Very often when I go into newly constructed homes that are sort of modern, they almost appear to be just sort of white boxes and are really lacking any great or interesting or smart details. And I think a lot of those great and interesting, smart details, even in a modern context, can derive from traditional architecture. The idea of having a room stop with a detail so that, if you wanted to paint or use a wall covering or something, there was a way to actually create a transition between one space and another space. Sort of a cleansing point for design. That’s one of the things I’d like to implement in modern architecture.
But also in traditional architecture, I think that some of the traditional mouldings that are typically used are a little bit played out and not very interesting. I think with just a little bit more restraint and a little bit more thoughtfulness, I think that traditional architecture could be a little bit cleaner and a little bit more restrained. And I think that the modern architecture that we’re seeing could be a little more rich and more sort of full-bodied.
I actually have to say, I think that’s what I would want to bring to them. You know, when I go into a traditional home, they tend to have a lot of store-bought traditional baseboards and crown mouldings and door frames, and they’re not really the most inspired or the most interesting. And by the way, when you’re buying things at that level, there’s a multitude of things to choose from, but it’s just that they tend to choose the most obvious. I think it’d be nice if there was a little more thoughtfulness put into it, because I think people would end up with a much more interesting end-product and something that felt a bit more authentic. And I think with modern architecture, when people tend to go with this sort of clean, crisp look, they tend to pull all the detail out — and all of a sudden it’s just sheet-rocked walls bleeding into sheet-rocked walls, with absolutely no details or no definition, nothing creating any kind of hierarchy of space or any kind of way to define an area and give it any integrity. So I think that’s what I would try to do, and it’s what I do on the show.
There is always purpose, beauty, and an architectural sensibility in Thom’s use of stripes, patterns, and other design elements:
Patterns, scale, tonal values and more play off each other in this high-end project by Thom Filicia, photo courtesy of Paul Costello
Stripes and vertical elements disguise a low ceiling in Thom’s Dress My Nest project, photo courtesy of Dale Berman
You love a yin and yang balance in materials, patterns, colors and more. It’s funny that, between your high-end projects and your TV work, you also have a yin and yang of budgets and clients to work with. Are you a better designer for it?
I have to say, without a doubt — and I’ll tell you why. Because of what I do on television, I know everything that’s at the retail market. I know everything that every major retailer and every small boutique might have. I really know what’s out there, and I think I have a great idea of what makes sense in terms of pricing and what makes sense in terms of product, and what’s out there that’s really fantastic at the entry level and what’s out there that’s really one of a kind and really special at the high-end level. So there’s a nice synergy between the two. Because I think in anything, it gives you the ability to have a better perspective on, you know, like, ‘oh, my gosh, this is really beautiful door hardware, and it’s worth its weight in gold.’ And then you can say, ‘but, you know, if we’re going to do a home that doesn’t require that kind of refined detail, maybe there are some really fabulous things out there at the retail level.’
My office, because of what I do on television, is always surfing the internet and always looking and researching new products and new ideas and new things. So it feels very holistic. As a designer, I feel I can have a conversation with a client about a host of materials and what’s out there — and defend them. I can sit and explain to someone why I think Crate & Barrel is genius for what they do. And I can also sit and explain why I think antique pieces are so worth it in an apartment. And while their expense and their maintenance may be significantly more, it can be worth it as well — and there’s a wonderful relationship between the two. And I always compare it to fashion and say, you know, it’s really nice when you see someone who has a really great pair of shoes, and a pair of jeans, and then a fabulous belt and just a cool t-shirt, a great watch. It’s nice to mix high and low, entry level with one-of-a-kind. It’s really nice to have that mix — it’s really kind of the way we live. We eat that way. You know, we mix truffle oil with french fries! It’s all about a high and low mix, and whether it’s fashion or food or interior design, it feels very organic and very natural and very current.
There’s a yin and yang of Thom’s own style, seen here in photos of his SoHo apartment and his lake house.
High-end pieces mix with elements that reference the industrial heritage of Thom’s SoHo neighborhood apartment, photo courtesy of William Waldron
A stylish but unfussy design in Thom’s lake house, photo courtesy of Jonny Valiant
You do a good amount of research to design something that is very specific to who your clients are and what they say they want, but it seems your designs go a big step beyond this. It’s as if you see the potential in your clients for who they can be, and your design serves as a sort of catalyst in their lives.
Well, yes, I think that’s true. And I think what it really is is that what really inspires me is what inspires the person. So I really, really take my inspiration from their inspirations, and that’s the first step of what I do. Secondly, I’m very people-centric. I really love to be around people — I’m just that kind of person. So I really enjoy that connection and getting the information, and understanding them and thinking about ‘oh, well, that makes sense for you or for this situation or for your family.’ I love that — it’s like a Rubik’s Cube for me!
So I think what I do is I try to figure out what makes people tick and then what they would instinctually probably want to have around them, what they would most likely gravitate towards on their own. And then I like to sort of push it a little bit and take them to the next level, and just kind of bring them a little bit further beyond where they would normally go on their own so it feels fresh and surprising to them. So it feels that there’s a little bit of a risk, there’s a little bit of incentive to say ‘I know you love this, but what do you think about this?’ It’s really fun, because I just think it makes it more exciting not only for them, but it also makes it more exciting for me.
Thom does playrooms! A Dress My Nest design, photo courtesy of Dale Berman
You describe your aesthetic as being classic simplicity with unexpected modern flair, but that almost seems inadequate given the verve and versatility of your work. What are you doing that you’re able to absorb, understand, and reinterpret everything from a New Orleans-style parlor to a Nantucket beach cottage to a kick-ass Spanish-flavored urban loft?
I have to say, I think a lot of that comes from being respectful to the architecture, being respectful to the person that’s going to be there, and understanding that a great design is only a great design if people really want to be in that space and really want to use that space. And so to me, when I’m designing for someone on television — and I look at the architecture that they’ve chosen, and I look at the furniture they’ve gravitated towards instinctually on their own, and I know what artwork they like or what music they like and the fashion they like and what their friends are like — I think that is just being true to all of those things and then using my reference and my experiences and the expertise I’ve developed in terms of what I do and in terms of bringing that to life.
And that’s really what it is. It’s about connecting the dots that really make sense for all of the things that really are in front of me. I don’t ignore any of the information that they give me, whether it’s something I love or something that I think is a little wacky. If you love that, if that is really what makes you happy, then I’m going to use that as an inspiration and I’m going to build from it. And I’m positive that we can find a really great and wonderful element from this, we can bring something really fabulous out of it — whether it’s a color, it’s a feeling, it’s a look, it’s an aesthetic, it’s a point of view. Whatever it is, I feel I can make a connection to it. And ultimately, at the end of the day, whenever someone goes into a home that’s been redone for them, I think if they feel like they’ve had an influence and they’ve inspired that space, they feel connected to it. And I think ultimately that’s really what you want — you want people to walk into that space and feel completely connected to it and have an understanding of it and have it feel somewhat familiar to them, even though it’s new and it’s fresh and it’s outside of their box a little bit.
In a lot of ways, it’s really just being very thoughtful about what you allow to be your inspiration so that you make sure it’s all very connected to the person, and to the location, and to the style and the architecture. It’s all about telling their story and connecting it to their world.
Thom uses faux-hide chairs and a beaded steer in design for native Texans on Dress My Nest, photo courtesy of Dale Berman
Detail shot of Spanish-flavored loft design by Thom Filicia for Dress My Nest, photo courtesy of Dale Berman
Thom marries design sensibilities for on-the-go couple Guiliana and Bill Rancic on Dress My Nest, photo courtesy of Dale Berman
It’s clear you’re not afraid to take some bold and playful ideas and run with them confidently. Tell me about the moments when these ideas — the ones that make you laugh, that turn you on, that even scare you a bit — first pop into your head and just won’t go away?
I would say when those things first pop into my head, that’s when I know that I actually get the person. The minute I can start to have fun with it and joke with myself and sort of be a little self-deprecating, that’s when you know you’re looking at it not just from kind of like scratching your head and going ‘god, what is this going to be?’ It’s kind of when you know what it’s going to be, and then you start going to the next level. You start thinking about the details of things that you could do, and then you go ‘oh, my god, that would be so funny.’ And, actually, when that happens, that’s really at the moment where you go ‘ok, this is starting to really make sense,’ and you can really feel confident about what you’re doing.
But sometimes that doesn’t always happen as quickly as you’d like it to happen. You kind of have the idea and you have the look and the feel, but maybe you can’t figure the colors out just yet. There was one episode where I was trying to figure out if I was going to do the walls in the pink and the flowers in the blue or the walls in the blue and the flowers in the pink, and I went back and forth and back and forth so many times. And I just couldn’t make the decision. And it all went back to I couldn’t figure out what was more her personality. I knew what I liked more, but I couldn’t figure out what was more her personality. Once I figured it out, it was really because I figured her out, and it wasn’t that I figured the color out. So once you see it and you get it and you start to laugh about it and have fun with it — and then go ‘ok, now I can do the little wacky things’ — that’s when you can say ‘ok, now we’re in the homestretch.’
Thom puts shower in the master bedroom to suit a bachelor’s needs, photo courtesy of Eric Piasecki
Thom replaces wall with industrial safety glass to open space and gain view through bedroom window, photo courtesy of William Waldron
Can you turn your brain on and off, or do some ideas come to you when you’re sleeping or eating or whatever?
I’m constantly thinking about it, but I can actually turn it off. You know, people will say ‘Oh, I’m afraid to invite you over to my house because I don’t want you to judge…’, and I say ‘no, no, no, I can totally turn it off when I need to.’ But for the most part, I can keep it on all the time. Like if I’m in the middle of a project or if I’m in the middle of shooting, I’ll have moments when I say ‘oh, that’s right, there’s that detail.’ And so it’s funny to actually see that happen, because there are moments when I say ‘oh, god, this is gonna kill me! I’ve gotta stop thinking about this.’
Greystone Estate ballroom design by Thom Filicia, photo courtesy of Jeff Clark
The language you use in talking about interior design — tension, harmony, ambiance, suggestion, intimacy, anticipation, seduction — is wonderfully provocative and tells me that good design for you might be as much a physical sensation as it is a visual one. To what extent can you tell in advance how a space is going to feel?
Without a doubt, you’re a hundred percent right. I mean, let me tell you, a great design is actually, you know, anything… A room that is beautifully lit, it actually affects the environment and creates a wonderful atmosphere. People walk into room that’s beautifully lit, and they calm down, they relax — it just changes the way that you feel. It also may even change what you’re thinking about, and it may change your pace, it may change your breathing. So I do think the look and the feel of a room actually can greatly affect all of those senses. It’s not just about the visual — it is about the way that you can feel it.
You know, some rooms are seductive even though they’re fun and silly — they don’t all have to be sexy. Some rooms pull you in because they’re just so playful and fun, and some rooms pull you in because they’re tactile and there’s a kind of sexiness to it. Some rooms pull you in because of their beauty, some rooms pull you in because of their lighting or their sounds or their smells. So you never know — I look at it as a collection of all of the above. It’s just about a really great space, it’s about a balancing act of all of those elements.
And, you know, the other thing is sometimes a room can repel you because all of those things are too controlled. It might be too much, it might be too decorated, it might be too designed, it might smell too good, it might be too sexy. So it is a balancing act. I think you have to be realistic about the way you approach it. It’s just like a person — someone who is decked out head-to-toe, who just is so perfect and speaks of being perfect and looks perfect and talks perfect and is perfect — sometimes those people are not very appealing. Someone who is fabulous but also has some flaws is approachable. I think the same qualities you look for in a best friend are the same qualities you should look for in your interior. They should be approachable, they should be fun, they should be interesting, you should be attracted to them — the same things you look for in a best friend. That’s ultimately what you want in an interior space. If you were to describe your favorite interior, it should be almost the same way that you describe that person.
A sexy mix of materials and lighting for a gentleman’s retreat by Thom Filicia, photo courtesy of Eric Piasecki
Thom’s own multi-use dining table with soothing water backdrop, photo courtesy of William Waldron
Are there any places you’ve traveled that have expanded your ideas of what is beautiful or what makes for good design?
There are always the obvious. Of course, Paris is the kind of place where you can’t turn a corner without being inspired. There’s the classic lines and design that we’ve learned from English and Irish architecture, and all the sexiness that you see from the Mediterranean. There are so many different things. But I have to tell you overall, at the end of the day, I go onto a new boat, an old boat, an expensive boat, a cheap boat, a fabulous car, an old car, a very affordable car from the ’50s that was made in Italy — really, the list goes on. I think you can learn from all of it. I’ve found lighting in banks, I’ve seen lighting in old hotels, I’ve been inspired by dashboards of cars. I’ve gone into dilapidated barns and have been inspired by the colors of the wood or the patina or just seeing the beautiful metals standing out on the washed wood. The beach, sunsets — I mean, everything. I mean, if you limit it to just the finer things in life, I just think that you limit yourself in terms of your inspiration. I’ve been inspired by old light switches — ‘oh, my god, look how fabulous these old light switches are! why don’t they look like that anymore?’ You know, it’s so funny, we have a new espresso maker in our office — and we all love the look of it — and I said ‘you know, it looks like E.T.’ Every time you’re looking at something, you’re inspired by it.
I was at dinner the other night with my friend who is a jewelry designer, and we were looking at some of her bracelets. We were picking out our favorite bracelets, and we picked out two colors. And when she stood up and she went to the bathroom, I looked out at the harbor, and there were two lights in the background that were the same two colors as the two bracelets we picked. And I thought, ‘Coincidence? Or inspiration?’
So I just think to be truly inspired, if you’re a visual person, you should be constantly learning and constantly looking and constantly absorbing visually what’s around you. And you’re interpreting it in a way that feels unique and fresh and specific to you. So I just think there are so many ways to be inspired that it’s never-ending.
You must sleep hard!
I do, I do! But you know what the funny thing is? I actually even have dreams where I wake up, and I’m like ‘oh, my god, that was such a cool idea,’ and I’ll write down ‘don’t forget to draw that chair that you saw in your dream.’ I mean, it’s a funny thing — I know I must be thinking about it. You just don’t know where your inspiration is going to come from. And people always say, ‘you never know who you’re going to fall in love with,’ and I always say ‘you never know what you’re going to fall in love with.’ It could be an old rusty tractor, and the colors are just phenomenal, and that could be an inspiration for a whole look and feel of something. And it could be something as shiny and brand new as a Bang & Olufsen stereo. It’s just that you don’t know what is going to inspire you. But hopefully, hopefully, your inspirations come from every walk of life and every level of design.
I mean, I have to tell you, going to IKEA is inspiring. Going to the supermarket and looking at some of the packaging on food is inspiring, especially when I’m in Europe. I love the way they package food in England — it’s just incredible in the U.K. So it’s really fun to see all those kinds of things. Fashion is inspiring. The textiles in men’s fashion can be very inspiring — the colors both of very classic and avant garde.
I always say that design is a real balancing act. And it’s about really being sort of plugged in and enjoying it, and not plugging yourself in because you feel like you should but because you like being there. And I think, ultimately, you’re really inspired when you’re in environments where you’re very comfortable and very happy and very interested. So as long as you’re interested in what’s going on around you, I don’t think you’ll ever stop being inspired.
Thom Filicia, photo courtesy of Jonny Valiant
Go to Part 2 of my interview with Thom, where we discuss his designs for the W Hotels, his work in television, his upcoming home furnishings line, and how he balances a thriving business with his personal life.
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