07.06.22

Design Takes a Lifetime: An Interview with Designer Ruthie Sommers

Photo by Coral Von Zumwalt

In her recently released book “A Newport Summer,” designer Ruthie Sommers partners with photographer Nick Mele (you can read our interview with him here) to reveal the unique and deeply personal, heirloom-filled spaces of some of the most beautiful summer homes in Newport, Rhode Island. The culture and style found in these storied homes, which are not typically on display to those outside the inner circle, is one of genuine elegance, a quiet and exclusive beauty meant for its inhabitants to live in and enjoy. The homes are filled with pieces passed down or chosen with love rather than with any trend in mind.

Photo by Frederic Francisco Lagonese for Schumacher Magazine

“The book started with an idea I had to shoot kitchens and pantries in Newport. Our society in the design world was shifting to massive kitchens, with double islands that are unable to carry lemon juice or a red wine stain. This felt off to me as kitchens are for cooking. I also felt the move towards glorifying storage was, well, weird. The kitchens in Newport, much of New England, and some in the southern states with fabulous old homes have remained intact. The kitchen is for cooking. Normally these kitchens had plenty of sunlight and were also very user-friendly. Nick and I started racing around Newport, shooting these wonderful spaces. However, the more we shot, the more we realized we had a book. And when the publisher saw Nick’s portraits, the move was to make a book on Newport and its community. Nick already had a wealth of photography, and we filled in the blanks.”

Photo by Coral Von Zumwalt

The combination of Nick’s wit and sharp sense of style, both as a photographer and as someone with a long-standing appreciation for design, with Ruthie’s artistic eye (she is not only a designer but a painter trained at Parsons in Paris) makes for an incredibly special and eye catching book filled with images that one easily gets lost in that will surely earn a coveted spot in many a home library or coffee table.

Photo by Coral Von Zumwalt

Among the many gorgeous images in the book, one in particular is a favorite of the designer and co-author. “My favorite photo is of the blue kitchen at Beaulieu. This kitchen is massive and colorful and feels and smells like home. They serve from their garden and it feels like slow living. Eating seasonally, using flowers from the garden, making simple meals and not catering to what each person wants feels luxurious but it is actually how the world operated before industrialized and fast food production.”

Photo by Nick Mele from “A Newport Summer”

Forming a deep connection to a space and having an appreciation for the details that make it unique and outside the world of passing trends is something that Ruthie has brought with her to her work as a designer as well.

Photo by Coral Von Zumwalt

“For the last eight years or so, I only worked with three clients. I designed all their homes for them as they grew up and acquired second homes or moved. I feel most of the houses that are published reflect the clients far more than me. The house we designed in Newport, RI, is very Newport -ish.. .. We will do an upgrade but not a redo as nothing we designed was trendy. It was more of a nod to keeping family heirlooms and using what we had. I love the clients I have been working with because we are not in the game, so to speak. There is no rush, no final design, voila!.. I have passed that need for speed, publication, or an end game. Design takes a lifetime. And when you let go of expectations, the house kind of designs itself after a while. Usually, things come back in style, so when I refresh clients’ houses, we laugh at what we thought was tired one year, and then we adore the next.”

Photo by Coral Von Zumwalt

Her love of distinctive style began with her early style influences. “My best friend and former partner’s mother Luli Mallard was a painter and always painted elaborate murals – her staircase was a divine Chinoiserie-styled mural with Chippendale fretwork. She painted over doors and had the most exciting home as she was constantly reinventing her style. From a chocolate brown sponged living room in the early 80s to recovering ottomans in old Serapi rugs … I also loved visiting my childhood friend Billy Cooper’s parent’s home, which was modeled after many of Thomas Jefferson’s influences.”

Photo by Coral Von Zumwalt

These early experiences have remained with her in her own design journey, one that, as she puts it, “is always changing.” Yet, despite changes in preference as time passes, she continues to have an appreciation for vintage and antiques.

Photo by Coral Von Zumwalt

“Nowadays, catalogs offer such incredible pieces. Catalogs and covid and unconscious consumption all did a number on the smaller stores, especially vintage and antiques, and I hope people will find their way back into antique stores. That being said, I love how many various styles are happening – even if some are ubiquitous, like Cape Cod farmhouse, etc. Who cares? This allows all socio-economic strata to find great design and emulate it. I feel all ships rise with the tide, and someone, somewhere, is creating new designs. I find the new Domino is highlighting younger people who are designing their homes themselves and with such bravado.”

Photo by Coral Von Zumwalt

Click here to shop Ruthie’s TLV Favorites.

 

5 Quick Questions with Designer Ruthie Sommers

 

TLV: What are three words you would use to describe your style?

RS: always changing and growing – I have no words to describe it !

 

TLV: Where do you look for inspiration when you feel blocked?

RS: I rarely feel blocked these days because I am dipping my toes in many pools – I am a fledgling writer, I read books voraciously in science and nature – lately I am obsessed with coffee table books again and relishing in all the insane talent in the world.

 

TLV: Do you have a go to color combination?

RS: Now it’s creams and shades of white – however anything I see a color combo in nature that I am drawn to I am in awe of the intelligence of plant design.

 

TLV: Is there an era or a design style that you are particularly inspired by?

RS: I can find something I like in every style – as long as it’s done right.

 

TLV: Favorite way to pass the time on a flight?

RS: Podcasts and meditation- believe it or not, being on an airplane is the best place to stop the internal chatter of the mind- it’s easy to become so small and understand the glory in our little we are and also how we are all connected by this one planet – may sound hokey- but the concept is real- we all share one planet in an infinite solar system- and life keeps unfolding and changing – whether you like it or not, and whether you are in it or not -enjoy the small wins and the little things.

 

Photos Courtesy of Ruthie Sommers/  Photo of the Designer by Coral Von Zumwalt / Text by Liana Hayles Newton

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