June 12, 2020 4 min read

EVERY HOME should be a sanctuary: entering it you should immediately feel physically and emotionally protected. Inside there should ideally be two different, but equally important, kinds of space that metaphorically might be described as a cocoon and a cathedral. We all need space that offers comfort and security, and shelter from the cold, noise or darkness outside. But, paradoxically, we also need space that liberates us from terra firma, allowing our spirits to soar and our imaginations to take flight. 

All my work is based on this precept; it is the foundation stone of my design philosophy. It does not follow that only small rooms can be cocoons, or that only huge spaces can elicit a feeling of liberation. The opposite is often true: a tiny, exquisite bathroom can be as transcendent as the most glittering ballroom.

Before I have even begun to think about the design of house or garden for clients, I ask them to bring me three lists -- of "musts," "hates." and "maybes," and a box of "dreams." In this box I ask them to put visual references -- magazine clippings, photos, books -- of the things that they feel most passionate about. This box is as important to me as all the items on the three lists put together. Good design is about turning dreams into reality.

Design, like other art forms, depends on a sequence of calculated choices. The principles that guide my design choices can be traced to pivotal personal encounters -- many of which date back to the time I spent in Italy as a young man.

I originally studied painting at the Yale School of Art and Architecture, then worked in various design studios in New York before spending two years in an architectural practice in Rome. Those years were seminal. I have often said that I am a romantic by nature, a minimalist by training, but by choice, a classicist. Rome released the romantic in me, freeing me from the inhibitions and guilt instilled in me by my catholic education, but did not suppress the minimalist. More importantly, it developed the classicist in me. Sometimes the debt to the classicist in my work is explicit, at other time it is implicit. But the influence is always present: in my linear thinking, in my love of simple shapes and symmetry, in my handling of scale, and in my obsession with light. The romantic side of my nature is perhaps most obvious in my infatuation with theatrical statements and illusion; but it is also evident in my deep attachment to our links with the past. Minimalism, the third influential strain in the plait of my work, is apparent in the strength of my urge to pare away unnecessary details, to edit my surroundings.

In the chapters that follow I explain how my guiding principles work in practice, illustrating them with examples from the houses and gardens that I have designed. Impossible to separate, because they pervade all aspects of my designs, are my predilections for classic shapes, for abstraction, and for allusion to the passage of time.

In understanding the power of shape and form, the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Vermeer is a model for me. He placed people and furnishings, windows and architecture, in the foreground of his canvases with such precision that he made still lifes of these elements. Taking lessons from his paintings, I challenge my clients to stop thinking about design as having to do with merchandise and furniture and, instead, hope that they will come to believe, as I do, that a room should be like a walk-in still life. By that I mean the space should demonstrate an orchestration of shapes in harmony with each other. At every step, decisions of shape and space must be made that will add or subtract from the overall design harmony: Is the chair beautiful to look at from the back as you walk into the room? Should it be open-backed because the room is small and you do not want it to steal space? Every decision narrows the options.

I see furnishing firstly as geometry -- as squares, cubes, drums, triangles, and rectangles, which also happen to be sofas, chairs, tables, lamps, and paintings, and this is reflected in the designs for my own collection. I dislike most modern furniture for its discomfort, vulgarity, and its short aesthetic shelf life, and always seek to design furniture that will not betray its age in ten or even thirty years.

An interior still life should be a room that is not only carefully furnished but also possibly even under-furnished. I like to think of a room as more closely resembling a drawing than a completed panting. In a drawing the possibility always exists of adding or erasing part of the design; and besides, the drawings are often more exciting than paintings because they reveal the artist's thought process.

One of the crucial roles of the designer and architect is to bring discipline and selectivity to bear, so that clients do not fill their houses all at once with everything that they own. We need to make our visual strainers finer and sift through the plethora of our possessions. After all, a discerning woman does not wear all her jewelry at the same time.

Designing environments is about editing. Editing is crucial to making beauty. In any design plan the objects excluded are every bit as significant as the objects included. Good decorating demands a developed sense of closure -- like good tennis, you win with fewer strokes when you feel confident.

Vermeer also showed that there should be a happy marriage between positive and negative space. In other words, the space in a room should not be conceived as simply a vessel waiting to be filled -- like the empty space between trees in a forest. In a successful design composition, the room has as much validity as the objects it holds. A wall, for example, can be a valid entity in itself rather than being merely the background and support for a picture.