08.08.22

Designing Spaces for Living and Celebrating: A Conversation with Designer Debra Blair

Photo by George Ross

Since opening her eponymous design firm in 1990, Debra Blair has become one of New York most well-respected designers. She is known for her work creating swoon worthy spaces for her clients both residential as well as commercial including the Adelson Galleries; the new Members Reading Room at the New York Society Library and the executive penthouse apartment of Takashimaya, a Japanese luxury retailer. Rich, often regal, colors and a sophisticated blend of classic and vintage pieces are trademarks of her diverse range of work.

Photo by George Ross

The designer has a respect and appreciation for tradition while seamlessly blending modern elements into her designs. In addition to her work done through her own firm, she can often be found contributing to charitable events including “nine years as a member of the Board of Trustees at Lyndhurst, a National Trust for Historic Preservation site in Tarrytown, NY; six years as a board member of the Decorators Club, a professional club of all women interior designers organized in 1914.” We caught up with this in-demand designer to discuss the design process, how she achieves her desired aesthetic and where she turns to for inspiration.

Photo by Michael Biondo

While she is adept at creating a unique look in each space she works with, one of the threads that runs through all of her designs is the sense that the room has been thoughtfully, lovingly designed with an outcome that is both personal and polished. “I never want to feel I am branded to a specific look.  When that happens, I think designers work gets boring.   If I had to cookie cutter every project, I would be bored!  That said, I am definitely a classicist.  For me, every interior, no matter how modern, should have a few antiques or vintage pieces incorporated into the design.  I can’t emphasize that enough.   In my opinion, that is what breathes life into an interior and keeps it from looking like a catalogue wanna be.  A successful interior should reflect the client, their families past and present, and their personal taste, not the designer’s brand.”

Photo by George Ross

To achieve her unique results, she follows a tried and true design process. “When tackling a space, I always start with a layout on paper.  I do a quick sketch identifying traffic patterns ie; how does one move in and out of the room?  I then think about how the space will be used and who will be frequenting it.  Is it a high usage room or a space used mostly for specific occasions?  Once those parameters are determined, it’s time to add the furniture- upholstery and case goods.  When all the floor plans are complete, I then move on to textiles- fabrics, floor coverings and color schemes. A room is built in stages.  It needs good bone structure (furniture layout), and interesting furniture selection.  Each part of the room has to be balanced properly, not only the furniture but also the fabrics.  If you have a particular fabric on one side of the room, you will need to balance it in one way or another on the other side of the room.  One needs to understand scale and how the furniture fits in the space.  The last layer, the accessories and art is the finishing touch.”

Photo by George Ross

Of all the elements of the design process, Debra is particularly fond of choosing the color palette in a space. “Creating a color scheme is without a doubt, my favorite part of the design process. I think it is the also the most important as it is the first thing someone notices when they enter a room.  I try and approach interior color as if I were painting a canvas.  Just like a painter would, I try and create many layers and nuances of color using all the tricks in the decorating box.  If you think about how a painter builds up the color on a canvas, there is never just one shade of a color.   There are myriads of any color.  I am always inspired by the colors of James Mc Neil Whistler and John Henry Twatchman.  I personally prefer colors that have either grey or neutral undertones, preferring color to “sit on the page”, not jump out when you enter a room.  Then, in the last stage of the installation, I like to throw in a discordant color in small amounts such as a lamps, throw pillows or as an accent in an antique rug.  My favorite “go to” color for that purpose is chartreuse.  It seems to work with everything.”

Photo by George Ross

In addition to the stunning homes she designs for her clients, she is extremely skilled at creating bold, elegant, awe-inspiring design for events. “I have always loved entertaining and making an event feel celebratory is the icing on the cake (no pun intended).  It helps that I have several sets of dishes that I mix and match, so no event ever looks quite the same.  It’s my absolute favorite thing to do.  Changing up the linens, flat wear, glasses and thinking of something interesting and unexpected to use as the centerpiece is easy and fun.  Plus, it’s such a crowd pleaser, so why not?  When you work on projects for a year or more, pulling together a beautiful table within hours is instant gratification. My outreach as a board member at the Hudson River Museum gives me that opportunity on a regular basis.  I design seasonal tablescapes for the HRM’s historic house, Glenview.  Glenview is a late 19th century manor house and is being used as Mrs. Astor’s townhouse on HBO’s The Gilded Age. I also help design and decorate for the museum’s annual fundraising Galas in June.   I enjoy the fact that I can be so creative and it can be installed in a day!”

Photo by George Ross

The wide range of projects she works on requires a deep well of creativity and ideas, something she is rarely short on. When she does need a mental refresh, she turns to her love of art for inspiration. “I think it would be difficult to be a really good designer without spending hours and hours looking at art, architecture and the decorative arts.  Even if you are a modernist, you need to understand where design influences come from.  You need to know history. I am always frustrated with most design schools in the way they teach the rudiments of drafting, 3D imaging and other technical skills,  but yet,  they don’t teach how our design language evolved.  A designer needs to know the difference between Georgian and Empire styles, how to tell an antique from a 20th century reproduction, and  the proper names of the architectural moldings to be used in a project.  When I need inspiration, I go to a museum and look at art.   For me personally, it is so important.  I believe that ideas come subliminally.  An idea may be spurred on by something you saw weeks or even years ago.  Somehow, a connection is made and an idea seems to pop up just when you need it.   When inspiration comes, it is just the most amazing thing!”

Photo by George Ross

When the opportunity presents itself, she also loves to travel, which is an endless source of inspiration. Her favorite place? Venice. “My favorite design location is, without a doubt Venice.  The entire city inside and out is a museum.  Like an onion, you can peel through layers and layers of art and architecture. It is everywhere.  Truman Capote once said, “Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go”. I can’t say it better than that!”

Neither can we.

Photo by George Ross

Click here to shop Debra’s TLV Favorites.

Photos Courtesy of Debra Blair / Text by Liana Hayles Newton

Leave a Reply

SUBSCRIBE TO THE BLOG
THE TLV MINDSET
TLV is about sharing, supporting and discovering all that's great about the community we live in. We strive to inspire, enlighten and sometimes entertain. Our team of tastemakers are mothers, wives, sisters and friends, and together we share our musings about love, life and home.
BROWSE
Archives
I’d Pin That