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.
Here in Part 2, we discuss Thom’s work in television, his projects for the W Hotels, his new home furnishings line, and how he’s managing a smart business in a challenging economy.
Thom Filicia, photo courtesy of The Style Network
The designs you’ve done of interior and exterior spaces for several of the W Hotels are gorgeous, and part of what seems to be a major makeover of this industry. When you’re designing for a wide variety of short-term guests you’ll never meet, what’s your starting point for personalizing the W brand and each locale?
The concept for me was I look at them like a family with children, and each child has its own specific lifestyle and point of view and location where they live and kind of attitude — and yet they all share a common thread. There’s a common look.
And it might be that some look more like brothers and sisters than others depending on where they are and understanding the demographic of where they live and their personality, and also understanding the architecture and its point of view — and sometimes lack thereof. I just think that that’s what it’s really all about. It’s understanding the difference between a W in New York City and W’s relationship to the city of New York and to the people of New York and to the traveler that comes to New York.
As opposed to the W in Buckhead, which has a different relationship with the city of Atlanta, which has a different relationship with the town of Buckhead, which has a different relationship with the traveler that comes to Buckhead. So you have to understand the demographics of it. In Buckhead, you get, I think, a bigger cross-section of people that go to a W. In a place like New York City, it’s a much younger crowd. So it’s interesting to understand that and to know that. And it’s also interesting to understand what other W products are in that environment and how they represent themselves — and how are you going to design this to be unique and special and authentic? Again, it’s all about understanding there’s a W Midtown and a W Buckhead, and why are they different? Because Midtown and Buckhead are very different and have very different personalities in and of themselves before you get to the hotel.
So it’s like two brothers, or a sister and a brother — they can live close to each other, and one can be an artist and one can be a stock broker. And they can be very different and have a different point of view, different lifestyle and different aesthetic, but still share a strong common thread. And that’s really what’s important.
W Hotel San Diego design by Thom Filicia, photo courtesy of Angie Silvy
W Hotel Westwood suite design by Thom Filicia, photo courtesy of Roger Davis
W Hotel Buckhead design by Thom Filicia, photo courtesy of Elizabeth Fraiberg
Was there any particular inspiration for your design of the Backyard cabanas at the W Hotel in Westwood?
There totally was. What it really was all about was that it was a mid-century building that W turned into a hotel. It was originally built as a private, high-end dormitory for UCLA, and then it became a senior living facility, and then it became a hotel, and then it became a W. And I have to say, I wanted the poolside that was mid-century — it was all about being sort of white and fresh and clean — but we’ve seen that so many times. I wanted it also to feel unique and special and fun and have a personality that connected to the building. And that building has ivy all over it. So going with that organic element that was climbing up the side of the building, I thought, let’s have the interiors do just the opposite and have these interiors of these pool house rooms be climbing with the organic feel and then the lattice that sort of connects it with that floral pattern. But let’s do it with something that’s fun and fresh and feels like we took the idea and sort of turned up the volume a bit and made it more modern and a little bit wacky so it has its own personality. When you’re inside one of those cabanas, you know where you are. And if someone were to blindfold you and bring you in there, you’d go ‘Oh, W! I know I’m at the W in L.A. in Westwood.’
I think that’s really important. I don’t like to walk into a building and open my eyes and go ‘I could be anywhere. I could be in Chicago, I could be in in L.A., I could be in New York, Miami, anywhere.’ It’s nice to really sort of connect a design with a location and really connect it with the look and feel of that place. The W L.A. has a mid-century point of view because of the architecture. Also L.A. has a very strong Neutra influence, so we thought that would be really fun to sort of play that up. It was sort of Neutra meets mid-century meets Hollywood glam meets W. And that’s really what it was all about.
W Hotel Westwood cabanas by Thom Filicia, photo courtesy of Howard Wise
W Hotel Westwood cabana interior by Thom Filicia, photo courtesy of Howard Wise
W San Diego was all about city meets surf. It was all about connecting the city of San Diego with the surf culture. It’s not really a beach hotel, because it’s not on the beach. So it was really about city meets surf — and not so much meets surf as in the beach but surf culture and being out in the city, taking advantage of the food and the art and the nightlife.
And then W Buckhead was all about country club chic and turning the volume up on that. Taking the silhouette of a wing chair or taking the crescent sofa or taking those kinds of classic elements and really turning that into something that was a little bit more W and fun. When you go into the men’s room, it’s all these birds in flight like you’re hunting. And when you go into the ladies room, it’s all chinoiserie and these really powerful colors. So it’s something you might see at an old country club but just done in a way that’s definitely not old. So that’s where we came up with country club chic.
The new season of Dress My Nest recently started on the Style Network, and now Queer Eye is in syndication on the Fine Living Channel. What kind of world has this work in television opened for you, besides showing off your on-the-fly, caffeine-fed design prowess?
I would say that really what it’s done is given people the opportunity to see that I actually enjoy connecting with people about design — and that I’m not just a TV host but that I have an interior design firm, and I’ve studied interior design. I think what it’s really opened up for me is that it’s broadened my horizons in terms of people like Starwood coming to me and saying ‘hey, it’d be really great for you to come and design hotels for us, because people know you and would know who designed the room they’re in.’ And not just know them by name but also know their personality and feel like they have a connection with that person — and I think that was something that was very important. It also allows me, when I’m doing a book, for people to sort of feel comfortable, like ‘I know this person and I get them, and so I’m interested in hearing what they have to say.’ It just gives it a personal connection.
You know, I play myself on TV, I’m really myself, I speak the way I speak, I think the way I think, I do the things I normally do. And so it’s given me a personal connection to the people who enjoy what I do, as opposed to just this sort of distant, little bit standoffish relationship that I would say designers generally have with the people that like their work and that read about you in a magazine. It’s kind of fun to see them on the fly and running and answering questions. And being human and actually making an effort, and challenging themselves and also the person they’re working with. So I think it’s given a lot of life to having a personal connection with me.
The following video clip does not reveal the final design but shows this in-process project on Dress My Nest for a beach-loving, bohemian couple and Thom’s fun-loving approach to working with all clients:
In your book, you give credit to your mom and dad for their encouragement of your interest in design. How big a role did that encouragement play in your career path, or do you think you would have found your way into design regardless?
No, I would say absolutely. When you’re growing up, I think anything you do that’s encouraged, even if it’s something like ‘oh, my god, we didn’t think of that’ or ‘I had no idea, that came out of left field.’ I think any time a young person expresses an interest in something that seems instinctual to them, it’s really great to know you have that opportunity. Because some kids express an interest in something, and a year later they have an interest in something else. And so I think it’s really important to encourage those moments, because some of them come and go, and others stick around for a lifetime.
I find that even now, in return, I’m very supportive of my family — and my dad especially. My mother, unfortunately, passed away, and my dad’s been going through other relationships. I’ve been very supportive of what he’s doing, because he’s always been very supportive of what I’ve done and what I’m doing. So I think you just treat people the way you want to be treated. So I do think it’s really important, and I do think the reason I’m doing a lot of the things that I feel confident enough to do is because my parents trained me to be confident in myself and to know how to feel comfortable making decisions and being responsible for who and what I am about.
I just did a big fundraiser for a breast cancer charity that I really feel connected to called Positively Pink. It’s just one of those things where you never know where you’re going to get your inspirations from, and you never know where your life is going to take you. So it’s interesting, because sadly and tragically, my mother died of breast cancer. But now breast cancer has kind of become something I feel I’ve been able to be helpful with in hopefully being able to move closer to a cure and closer to more education and more understanding about it. It’s helped me, and, in turn, I’ve been able to help other people and certainly other charities and other organizations that are involved. So it’s a good thing at that level, and I think turning lemons into lemonade sometimes is a great way to heal.
Thom’s baby room design for a NoHo loft, photo courtesy of Eric Piasecki
You were a senior designer for some well-known interior design firms before striking out on your own. How did you know the time was right to make that leap, and what were those first years like?
I had such fun jobs. I worked for Parish-Hadley and then Jeffrey Bilhuber and Robert Metzger — and they were all wonderful places to be, and I had so much fun working where I worked. And I gave a lot to all of the people I worked with. I really enjoyed being there, and so I was really gung-ho about what I was doing. And they also, in turn, were very supportive of what I was doing. I made a lot of great friends through all of those years working in the industry, and it was a wonderful foundation for me in terms of just really learning. I’m still very close with my professors from college, and I’m still very close with the department I graduated from at Syracuse University in interior design school — so it’s very much a part of who I am today and what I’m doing and why I’m doing what I’m doing. So, I have to say, I think it was perfect, and I loved it. And I think I did exactly what I was supposed to do, and I really enjoyed working with the people I worked with.
And how I knew it was time to go off on my own? To be honest, I don’t think you ever really know when it’s time to go off on your own. From what I understand, I don’t think you ever know when you’re supposed to have a child or when it’s time to get married. I don’t think you ever know about all those things. You never know if it’s the right house that you bought. I think sometimes you just have to say, ‘well, there’s no better time like the moment!’ If you have confidence and faith in yourself, and if you’re up for the challenge, then I think you’re ready. There’s never going to be a right moment. If you’re waiting for the right moment, you might as well just sit back, because you’re probably never going to do it! I think the right moment is just making that decision.
Miami loft design by Thom Filicia, photo courtesy of Jason Schmidt
Thom’s eco-friendly design for Riverhouse project, photo courtesy of Eric Piasecki
I understand you’re launching a new home furnishings line this fall. What can you tell us about it? And was this about creating something you’re not quite finding in the marketplace, or just a new creative challenge for you?
It’s a furniture line with Vanguard. Fabrics with Kravet. Lighting with Visual Comfort. Residential rugs, both exterior and interior, with Safavieh. We’re doing a line of cradle-to-cradle green rugs with Shaw, and we’re also starting to do environmentally-friendly wood flooring with Shaw Hospitalities Group. We’re doing appliances with Amana, which is really exciting. So it’s just been a really interesting launch, because we’re bringing pattern and color to appliances and having a lot of fun with the products and trying to keep them affordable and fun and fresh and smart and very design-oriented.
I think it is about creating something that doesn’t quite exist in the marketplace. It’s not even so much about something that doesn’t exist, but it’s about finding things that first of all are very, very interesting and stylish but also affordable. That’s really the key to our collection: we’re being very smart about our price points, how you’re going to be able to purchase things. They’re going to be accessible, they’re going to be exceptional, they’re going to be fun and timeless. And so, yes, it doesn’t exist. Sometimes when you go from a retail store to a to-the-trade store, there’s kind of this big gap between the two. So that seems like a really good place to be!
Update: With the launch of his new home furnishings line, the following images have been added below showing Thom’s trademark ‘classic simplicity with an unexpected, modern flair.’ For stores in your area where you can purchase Thom’s line, go to the Vanguard Furniture site here.
Thom Filicia with his new sofa and table designs for Vanguard and rug for Safavieh, as seen in Soho Mews showhouse
Thom’s furniture designs for Vanguard and rug for Safavieh
Thom’s bed, bench and side tables for Vanguard
Thom’s dining table and chairs for Vanguard, as seen in Soho Mews showhouse
It seems like your career has been going full throttle for some time, and now on top of everything else, I hear you may be opening another design office overseas. Do you ever feel overwhelmed trying to maintain a balance with your personal life?
It’s been full throttle, without a doubt, because I’m filming the show, and I’m traveling between the east and west coasts, and I’m also working with private clients — from private residential clients to large commercial projects — and doing licensed products that we’re developing. So we’re definitely keeping ourselves very busy and really trying to enjoy the process as much as humanly possible considering what we’re working on. So, yes, without a doubt, we’re moving full throttle and feeling very fortunate to have the ability to do that and also have the interest from all of the different licensees and our clients. We’re very fortunate, and we knock on wood every day saying ‘ok, it’s a tough time, and we’re excited to be able to do as much as we’re doing.’
In terms of opening a design firm overseas, really we work all throughout the world. When we were working in Japan on the World’s Fair, we kind of had a little satellite office there, and when we were starting to work in Dubai, we were doing a little satellite office there. And, really, anywhere in the world we’re working, as long as we have enough going on in that one location, having a satellite office there is just a really smart way to do business, and it’s also a great way to cultivate business in that other area.
Thom’s design for the U.S. Pavilion at the World’s Fair in Japan, photo courtesy of Toshiaki Nozawa
And do I ever feel overwhelmed trying to maintain a personal life? I would say I have a very strong constitution. And in many ways my personal life is overlapping with my business life, because the people I work with I’m also friends with, and we travel together and enjoy that process. I also do have a personal life that I’m very committed to and that I have fun with — I have dogs, and I’m in a relationship, and I have friends I’m very close with. And I’m fortunate to have a fundamental group of friends that I can kind of just kick back with and feel very comfortable with and confident and sort of recharge my batteries with. So I think I’m lucky that I’ve been able to maintain that — it’s not easy, but, you know, what is? I haven’t found anything that is easy — and even things that look easy after a while become difficult, so I think you just kind of have to buck up and move forward.
In an economy when most businesses are contracting, have you had to rethink how you expand yours?
Yeah, we’ve had to rethink the way that we’re doing business, because we have so many things that are going on. And it would be so easy for us to say ‘well, we need a person for this, and we need a person to help me work on this.’ But we’ve been smart about hiring people that are good and that are multifunctional in terms of the different qualities that they have and how I can work with them, and how we can go from different projects to different projects. So we try to build our office in a way that keeps it lean and tight so that we are not overwhelmed even just with the infrastructure of the office. But also we’re trying to keep it so it functions efficiently and so that also there’s a nice sort of little family or community that we’re creating — and almost a little bit of a design culture so that we all know what we’ve done and we can reference that and bring that into something else we’re working on. So I think a lot of people are contracting, and we’ve contracted as well, but we’ve always kind of kept it clean and lean. And as we’re growing these days, we’re growing very, very thoughtfully and very, very slowly so that it’s very specific to what we need and what we’re doing, and so that we feel it’s an efficient and smart way to be.
Thom’s SoHo kitchen, photo courtesy of William Waldron
How do you recharge creatively, and what do you love?
As a creative person who really can’t escape it because I’m just programmed that way, my creativity is recharged by just kind of moving and going and living. I like to be stimulated constantly, and I like to be out and about and talking and socializing and seeing and eating and, you know, smelling and tasting and running and jumping. So that’s what really recharges me creatively — just living life. And living life with people and the complexities of people and their personalities and all of that is really what recharges me creatively.
Thom’s lake house escape, photo courtesy of Jonny Valiant
What recharges me personally is escaping New York with my friends and going up to my house, whether we go up to the lake and it’s winter and little ski trips here and there, and in the summer it’s waterskiing and sailing and just swimming and playing and stirring a cocktail and kicking back and having a good time. I have two dogs that I absolutely love. I have a great boyfriend and am in a strong relationship, which is nice. You know, I think all of those things, those are the things I really love. The most important things to me are my friends and my family and my dogs. So I love design, but design is something that is a luxury in my life and that I love to do. Ultimately, design is a part of my everyday, but also it is my business. And so there are times when I like to say ‘ok, let’s just go get on those bikes and ride around the block.’ Then, of course, I get on the bike and start looking at every house and analyzing what house is my favorite, and what hills do I love, and ‘oh, my god, look at this fence’, so I guess it never really does end! So it’s kind of full circle — it’s very holistic, let’s just put it that way!
Thom Filicia and Paco, photo courtesy of Jonny Valiant
In this video clip, Thom discusses his book Thom Filicia Style and his belief that everyone deserves great design.
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For those readers in parts of the world where Dress My Nest and Queer Eye cannot be viewed on television, episodes of both shows may be previewed and downloaded from iTunes.
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