Fearless Romantic Summer Thornton’s Adventures in Decorating

Photo by Annie Schlechter from “Wonderland: Adventures in Decorating” by Summer Thornton

Designer Summer Thornton’s work is bursting with life. Filled with color, pattern, and personality, the spaces she creates are truly aspirational. It is no surprise that the woman behind such vibrant, bold, and boundary-pushing designs is such a force of nature herself. She has a seemingly never-ending source of unique ideas that she pours into each project. As a primarily self-taught designer, she has learned to make up her own rules that have served her well. From “Every home should have at least one thing from a flea market” to “Reference the past, don’t repeat it,” her design advice tends to emphasize the importance of originality, a skill she is exceptionally adept at.

Photo by Thomas Loof from “Wonderland: Adventures in Decorating” by Summer Thornton

These philosophies have taken her far. Her work has been featured in some of the most prestigious design publications, from Architectural Digest to Traditional Home and Modern Luxury Interiors. Summer, who is known for “decorating with the wildest abandon to create fearlessly bold and colorful interiors,” can be found on Sotheby’s list of the top 20 Designers to Watch, was named Chicago’s Best Transitional Designer by Modern Luxury, and a “Rising Star” by the Fashion Group International.

Photo by Thomas Loof from “Wonderland: Adventures in Decorating” by Summer Thornton

We chatted with the designer about her personal style and the current trends she loves and got some of her tips for mixing colors in the home.

Designer Summer Thornton’s well of creativity runs deep. One look through the blog on her website will reveal her current interests and inspirations, spanning from the work of Australian artist Meredith Wing whose mixed media work combines illustration with found items (often food or flowers) to the films of Wes Anderson. While she also discusses her love of patterned wallpaper and particular color combinations that speak to her, it is clear that her inspirations are vast and varied. On the topic of designers whose work she admires, she cites many of the greats. “I love finding inspiration from some of the design greats of yesteryear – Dorothy Draper, Sister Parish, Elsie de Wolfe, Albert Hadley, Lorenzo Mongiardino, Billy Baldwin, Tony Duquette…the list goes on. I’m actually having our entire design staff do a series on these design greats, studying their work and teaching one another about their impact on design styles so that our whole team has a greater understanding and appreciation for them. In an age of Instagram and influencers, I think many young designers would benefit from greater knowledge of design history, tradition, etc.”

Photo by Melanie Acevedo from “Wonderland: Adventures in Decorating” by Summer Thornton

Though despite her appreciation for the work of other designers, you won’t find her replicating their work. “To me, true creativity is doing something that’s never been done before and doing it well. I thrive on the opportunity to create something completely original that is a creative expression, unlike our other projects. I’m an avid design student to this day – I read (yes, including all the text and captions) every shelter magazine, and I have hundreds if not thousands of design books in my library and probably get a new one every couple of weeks which I read cover-to-cover. I never want to emulate or repeat another designer’s work, but I often find inspiration or elements that I’ll pull into my work. I also refuel with travel and exploration. I always tour some homes, take architectural tours, visit museums, and shop to refill my creative tank.”

Photo by Melanie Acevedo from “Wonderland: Adventures in Decorating” by Summer Thornton

Mexico is one of her favorite places to visit to refuel and become inspired. “Mexico is my happy place. I love the whole country and visit it regularly for design inspiration and leisure. I’m building a home in Sayulita, a little hippie surf town on the beach that I’ll use a few weeks each year and rent the rest. It’s under construction now and will open in fall 2023. Feel free to follow along here. “

Photo by Thomas Loof from “Wonderland: Adventures in Decorating” by Summer Thornton

In addition to her design-related study and travel, she also takes inspiration from fashion. From her ebullient use of color and textiles in her work to the profiles she includes in her blog on fashion designers such as Diane Von Furstenberg, her love of style shines through. Through this lens, she describes her philosophy on color and pattern. “The best way to succeed is to use color and pattern with reckless abandon! If you dip your toe, do an accent wall or a few bold pillows, it will look like you put on bold lipstick but forgot to do your hair, makeup and get dressed. It stands out in a bad way. You have to go all-in with color and pattern…the walls, the upholstery, the pillows, the rugs, etc. Layer it, do not blink or hold back; fear and timidity are the enemies of success when it comes to color and pattern. Once you let go and really go for it, it’ll come together and start to sing. I also think people should mimic nature by using a variety of shades and hues of colors rather than trying to match things perfectly. I intentionally do NOT match colors; instead, I blend ranges of colors because that creates a more layered & nuanced look.”

Photo by Thomas Loof from “Wonderland: Adventures in Decorating” by Summer Thornton

References to nature abound in her work, from the color combinations she chooses to the prints she gravitates toward, even in an abstract way. Learning that her mother was an avid gardener gives this tendency an even more endearing quality. “There are some designers who grow up around decorating, but that wasn’t really my childhood. Our house backed up to woods, and my mom cared more for gardening than she did wallpaper and chintz. But as my interests grew as I was in college, my parents were supportive and obliged me as my first ‘clients’ by letting me help them decorate their home.”

Photo by Thomas Loof from “Wonderland: Adventures in Decorating” by Summer Thornton

From her first experience designing her parents’ home to the work she does today, be it renovating a Tuxedo Road estate in Atlanta, a private club in NYC, or remodeling an Indian Hill home in Winnetka, her goal is the same, “My spaces should transport you from the moment you walk in the door, and they should take you on a wonderful journey with surprises and delights around every corner.” To achieve this, the designer often turns to vintage and antique pieces to complete the look. “I’ve always loved vintage and antique pieces, even when they weren’t popular. I actually prefer to buy vintage and antiques over new furnishings whenever possible…my personal home is almost entirely vintage and antiques except for a few upholstery pieces. The beauty of vintage and antique pieces is that they help your home feel curated over time rather than picked from a catalog. My advice is to take inspiration from the past but put a fresh spin on it so that it feels fresh. I love using antique lighting mixed with bold upholstery and layered on collected Turkish rugs.”

Photo by Thomas Loof from “Wonderland: Adventures in Decorating” by Summer Thornton

Her love of layering, both literally and in terms of blending styles, eras, hues, and patterns, is referenced frequently in her many pieces of sage design advice she is known for espousing: “More is more,” “Colors don’t clash” and “God’s neutral is green.” This type of thinking is echoed in the current trend of embracing a variety of styles in the home. “The one trend that I do like is that people are getting more and more comfortable with expressing themselves and with maximalist interiors… that’s something I am glad to see!”

Photo by Thomas Loof from “Wonderland: Adventures in Decorating” by Summer Thornton

Her outlook on design serves her well in her own home as well as those of her clients. “I’m truly a romantic at heart. The chapter in my book about my home is titled “Fearless Romantic”, which I think is a pretty accurate way to describe my style. I’m bold, fearless, colorful, and maximalist, but I still appreciate and incorporate tradition, classicism, and comfort.” Some of her most beloved items are sentimental in nature and, despite being eclectic, blend together seamlessly. “For a couple of birthdays, I asked for antique fireplace mantles as my present! One is a 17th-century mantle that we incorporated into our renovation and is now in my kitchen. I designed the entire kitchen around the fireplace rather than designing the kitchen and then finding or fabricating a fireplace that would fit. It is that sort of backward thinking that I believe yields some of our best work…we always start with a fantasy or a dream and then find a way to make it a reality, no matter how hard the task. I also have an inexpensive pair of vintage lamps that flank our bed…I bought them when I was maybe 24 years old, they didn’t cost much (and aren’t worth much either), but I love them and will probably take them to my grave.”

Photo by Annie Schlechter from “Wonderland: Adventures in Decorating” by Summer Thornton

Earlier this year, Summer put out her first book, “Wonderland: Adventures in Decorating” published by Rizzoli. In the process of putting it together, she explains: “It was very educational, I learned so much about not only writing a book and publishing, but I was also forced to dive into why we do the design work we do. I had never really spent much time on the why before writing the book, so I learned a lot about why we design the way we do and how that impacts the end result.” To celebrate its great success, The Local Vault has partnered with the Greenwich Historical Society to host a special event later this month.

The event, which takes place on October 19th (9:30 – 11:00AM) at the Historical Society Garden Market, is the ultimate power breakfast and will include an opportunity to have a copy of “Wonderland: Adventures in Decorating” signed and to participate in a Q&A with the talented designer. For more information or to buy tickets, click here.

Click here to shop Summer’s TLV Favorites

5 Questions with Designer Summer Thornton

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

ST: Full of Life.


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

ST: Art, artists have great palette ideas.  I’ve based entire design schemes off a few pieces of great art.


TLV: Do you have a go to color combination? Or most beloved pattern?

ST: I specifically try not to repeat patterns or color combinations.  I do love warmer colors and tend to gravitate towards pinks, reds and purples…I’m a huge fan of Pierre Frey and I have their Braquenie Tree of Life Pattern in my bedroom which I am and will always be obsessed with.


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

ST: I love periods from art nouveau to art deco but I also LOVE LOVE LOVE the 1970’s.  I love to be inspired by the past and pretty much live in it.


TLV: Most memorable keepsake from (or piece) purchased trip or found at a vintage shop or flea market?

ST: I always bring back a suitcase full of treasures, or sometimes a crate! One that is special to me is an antique 17th century settee I bought at the St Ouen flea market in Paris 15-years ago. It has needlepoint upholstery, that has to be 100+ years old, and it still looks great to this day. It is in my daughter’s room and it holds a special place in my heart.


Images Courtesy of Summer Thornton / Profile Photo of the Designer by Thomas Loof / Text by Liana Hayles Newton



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