A good eye is a good eye—whether you're an architect, a set designer, or a fashionista. So it's not surprising that an especially interesting subset of interior designers are those who come to the profession indirectly: through a related discipline or as part of a mid-life career shift. They can combine interior design with a perspective from another skill set, the two fields playing off one another to bring new insight and depth to their work—let's just call them "crossover designers." We went in search of professionals with these dual talents and found four great examples.
Film Production Designer and Owner, TAZ Designs Incorporated
When she was working on the Hallmark movie Moonlight and Mistletoe, set decorator Tiffany Zappulla was charged with stocking a house in Vermont with character-revealing details about its fictional owner, Santa Claus, played by Tom Arnold. She filled a spare bedroom with old electronics, a television screen, and parts from a vintage phonograph. "The stuff wasn't in the script," Zappulla says. "But it was a way of illustrating something about his personality, that this is a guy who tinkers with things."
Individuality is often revealed through clutter, and integrating a client's collection with a unified, aesthetically pleasing look is one of the greatest challenges interior designers face. Zappulla, who balances her interior design business, TAZ Designs, with her film and television production work, says that set design helps her understand interior design a little better.
"When people come in with the idea that their home should look like a show house, I say, 'It's your home,' and it has to reflect who they are and what's important to them," Zappulla says. As part of the design process, Zappulla will spread out a client's valued collections and possessions on the dining table. "It's like a flea market," she says. "We pick and choose what to reincorporate into the final look." She encourages clients to choose carefully. "I try to steer them away from the pompom animals that their kids made 10 years ago," she says. But at the same time, she adds, "It's their home, and it should look like their space."
The flea market trick is one she picked up from her production work. She'll often comb flea markets with a character in mind, picking out items she can imagine them accumulating over the years.
As an interior designer, Zappulla incorporates decorative painting into many of her projects. In the 1990s, she worked on show houses for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Historic Ellicott City. For one of the show houses, she designed a festive bedroom for an imaginary little girl, with twisted trompe-l'oeil yellow ribbons painted on the ceiling, and a quilt she made herself. "I must have sold that room seven times" after the show house closed, she says.
She got involved with production design after an episode of Homicide was filmed in the row house she owns in Little Italy. "I liked the energy of the film shoot," she recalls. "I thought the work looked like fun." So she sent her resume to the director of the Maryland Film Office, whom she'd met while shooting a film, who told her about a project coming to the area. She established film connections, and eventually was hired as assistant to the art director for Tuck Everlasting. She has since worked on Ladder 49, Syriana, He's Just Not That Into You, and other productions, both local and out of town.
Decorating a living room for a movie is not exactly like decorating an actual home, says Zappulla. While the fundamentals are the same, she says, "film really flattens things out. You have to add many layers to make the room pop." If you walked into a TV house, she says, "Your reaction would be, 'Oh my God, it's so cluttered.'"
Project Manager/Former Fashion Designer
Christopher Howarth imagines putting together a room. And an outfit. Say you have a budget for each, he proposes, what would you do?
Personally, he'd start with a great pair of shoes in the outfit column, and a great sofa for the room. There may be other classic additions: an Hermès tie, an antique mirror.
"If you build off a few key pieces," he says, "you can create a unified look."
Howarth never imagined that he'd work in interior design. He grew up in England and his family moved to Maryland when he was in middle school. He studied languages at the University of Maryland and in Germany, with the intention of working as a diplomat. But Howarth always had a creative side: He loved fashion and clothes since childhood. He moved to New York in 1998, and decided to take courses in clothing design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, eventually working as a pattern cutter for a small designer.
The similarities between creating a piece of clothing and creating a room have taken him by surprise.
"It's all about geometry and space," says Howarth, who works for the architecture and interior design firm Johnson Berman as a project manager for interior designer Henry Johnson.
Howarth is often inspired by Johnson's sensibilities, which, while grounded in tradition, often involve unexpected elements. "I've always loved color," says Howarth, who describes his boss as "a genius" when it comes to color.
Clients, says Howarth, "say they never thought I'd be able to pull it off," a reaction similar to what fashion stylists often hear. "You talk with them, you fish around for the areas where they will be confident, help them get over the hump, and just go for it."
Designer/Slob-proof Fabric Fanatic
Debbie Wiener's "aha" moment came while watching Friday Night Smackdown on the World Wrestling Entertainment channel with her two sons. She looked on in horror as a chair was brought into the wrestling ring and smashed to smithereens. "I realized, to my horror, that it wasn't just about me and a beautiful chair," she recalls. "It was about me and the chair and two teenage kids and a husband who walks into the living room holding a slice of pizza. In his hands. Without a plate."
The Montgomery County resident got to thinking, "There must be other people who started out with beautiful homes and ended up in a wrestling ring." So Wiener, already a designer, changed her focus to "designing homes a family can live in no matter who or what is in the family."
Her favorite fabrics come from a company called Crypton ("Yes," she says, "like the planet where Superman was born, but spelled with a 'C'"), and she recently wrote a book called Slob Proof: Real Life Design Solutions. Wiener brings her vast experience as a mother—and wife of "the world's biggest slob"—to her work, which includes projects all over the Mid-Atlantic, with many around Baltimore and the Eastern Shore. Because of her training, she says, "I have come up with problem-solving techniques for durable and affordable home style."
Architect Chris Harvey recalls an addition he once designed for a home. The new room was open and modern, with a blue stone floor and walls of glass.
"The client and I discussed it in advance—the goal was to bring in space and light," he says. Later, he visited the home to find the floor covered with carpeting that reached nearly to the walls and oversized furniture with skirts that touched the floors. Instead of an airy place that took advantage of the negative space and light in play, he found the room heavy and dull.
Harvey is director of design for Hord Coplan Macht, and worked for the Design Collective before that. He's responsible for such buildings as the Baltimore Visitors Center in the Inner Harbor, the residential building at 1209 N. Charles Street, and the Towns at the Crescent (the Fells Point development where Michael Phelps bought a home). But he also loves the décor phase and frequently works privately with clients on their interior design.
He created the spare and sophisticated interior of Red Maple, the hip restaurant and lounge in Mt. Vernon, for example, and was instrumental in not just the construction, but the interior finish of the Bloodsworth home in Canton (see page 126).
As an architect, Harvey says, "You have to let go. It's rare that an architect can have control over how the space will end up." But Harvey doesn't always want to "let go."
"I'm not a control freak, but when I design a space, I want to see the right scale in furnishings, and harmony in materials."
Among his favorite projects was an eating area he created for a residential client, a project that included built-in furniture.
The notion of an architect doubling as a designer is not without precedent, of course: Frank Lloyd Wright is known for managing his building designs down to the choices of light fixtures and upholstery fabrics. And modernist architects—both residential and commercial, including the likes of Eero Saarinen and Richard Neutra—designated furniture and decorative elements, often calling on a small circle of peers with shared aesthetic sensibilities.
Harvey says the link between architecture and interior design is natural: "When people think about the architecture of a building, they usually focus on the big idea, on the exterior," he says. "But for me, it's about how people move through spaces, and what their experiences will be. This goes beyond the carpet and the wall coverings," he says. "It's all about crafting the space."