Five Top Designers Weigh in on the Best Design Risks They've Ever Taken

Hadley Keller
·13 min read
Photo credit: Genevieve Garruppo
Photo credit: Genevieve Garruppo


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"High risk, high reward" doesn't just apply to investing: Editorial Director Jo Saltz speaks to five designers (all know for their larger-than-life style) about conquering their fear of going bold—and why it's worth it.

Jo Saltz: Once we settled on the idea of risk taking for this subject, the list of participants sort of wrote itself. You're all known in the world for your creative risk taking. Before we start, why doesn’t everyone tell us where they are right now?

Photo credit: Allie Holloway
Photo credit: Allie Holloway

Sasha Bikoff: I’m Sasha, and I fled New York a couple months ago so I’m down in Miami, which has been great. It’s 80 degrees right now!

Breegan Jane: I am actually sitting in Austin, Texas, where the weather is rain or sun, every other day which I didn't understand until I got here. I'm out here filming for HGTV but I'm normally in Los Angeles, specifically Santa Monica.

Jonathan Adler: I am bringing the masculine energy to this panel! I’m on Shelter Island, which is like kind of a winter wonderland at the moment. My husband and I are just chilling on Shelter Island where there's no COVID 'cause there's no people.

Jenny Brown: I’m Jenny and I’m based in Chicago. It’s definitely pretty cold here but it's over zero degrees, so I'll take it!

Photo credit: BRIAN WINSTON FRASER
Photo credit: BRIAN WINSTON FRASER

Bailey Li: I’m a Jersey girl. I am in Jersey, where we just had our second snowstorm this week!

Jo: Yes, I feel you—we have three feet of snow! Okay, so you all are here because you are visionaries, and I know it isn’t easy to get there in the design world. So my first question is, can you pinpoint a moment when you realized you were doing something really different or risky and that you learned from or found success in that?

Bailey: The riskiest thing I did was to start painting wall murals into my projects. The first one I did was an 18 foot wall in a woman's living room. I really wanted to bring her personality out into the space. She had seen my smaller work and asked me to do a mural. Once I painted it, I was scared to death that she was gonna hate it because the colors were bold, and it was just crazy. I did that wall, and she didn't say anything when she first saw it. I was scared to death she hated it. But eventually she warmed up to it. She was like, "I can't believe that this is my wall and this is my home and I see this every day—I feel very inspired." And not only that, I posted that on Instagram and it got a ton of attention—and then Open House TV contacted me to feature that house. So just me taking that risk and saying, "Okay, I can paint this 18 foot mural that’s abstract and colorful and bold," it let me know that I was on the right path in my creative endeavors.

Photo credit: CouRtesy of jonathan adler
Photo credit: CouRtesy of jonathan adler

Jonathan: I think that just being creative is a risk. Probably the biggest risk and the greatest reward I ever took was sort of forsaking a conventional and bourgeois life as a person pursuing a job and choosing to become a potter, which was very much going against the flow of what my peers were doing. It was sort of before the Williamsburg maker movement, too. I think the lesson is that if your risk pays off—which it doesn't always, but if it does—it really kind of gives you permission to keep taking risks and it becomes addictive. So, you know, a rewarding risk becomes an addiction and I think that is germane to the topic of this issue, which is color: Once you take the color risk, you get hooked. And then the sky's the limit.

Sasha: I also feel kind of addicted to that risk taking and that adrenaline and excitement I get from being different, always striving to be innovative and breaking the mold. I was always risk taking, but it was inside people's homes so it wasn't really a public display of risk taking—I felt like I was doing something a little naughty between me and my client and their inner circle. And then when I did my Kips Bay staircase that really gave me a platform to say, "Okay, this is my moment for drama, let's take this risk to another level." Since I knew so many people were going to be entering the home, I decided to look at the design, not in terms of a livable space but more as an art installation, and more as a space that would inspire—and that kind of changed my whole perspective on the topic.

Photo credit: Genevieve Garruppo
Photo credit: Genevieve Garruppo

Jonathan: And that staircase is legendary and iconic!

Sasha: Thank you! But you know some people really were not fond of it. Some people were like, "This is too crazy!" And I think that, going back to that idea of becoming addicted to that risk, I feel like with that you become addicted too to being somewhat controversial in what you're doing.

Breegan: For me, risk comes from the innocence mixed with my passion. When I've made my best risks, it's because I don't understand how risky it is until I look back at it, but I was so passionate about the thought that I was like, of course I can do that! And I think for me, there is risk in art that translates to the fact that we all run businesses. One of the "riskiest" moments that just came to mind was bringing a design assistant along to a job at a big major warehouse with one of my biggest million dollar clients and I told her to bring her baby, and that if the client had an issue with it I would deal with it. I started this business out as my path towards my purpose, and one of those is being able to do this job as a full and complete human, who feels confident in what I can offer you, regardless of how you want to react to what that should be.

Photo credit: Sarah Hazlegrove
Photo credit: Sarah Hazlegrove

Jenny: I think when we're in such a visual industry and we're kind of looking around all the time—there are so many things that I’ll see and try to convince clients and they say, "No, it’s going to be too much." And you keep thinking about it. In my own home I just did this with painting all these doors different colors, which I had been thinking about and finally just had to do myself. And when it was finished, I was like, "Yes, this is the way it was in my head, this is the way it was meant to be." And now we can move on. So this creativity begets more creativity in a way—you have to keep pushing yourself so you can continue to come up with new ideas continue to innovate. Having a point of view is the most important thing. You don't want to be for everyone. If you want to make a statement so that kind of comes with the territory.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Versace
Photo credit: Courtesy of Versace

Sasha: Right. When I have a concept or I'm putting together colors or patterns and textures and materials in my head., I'm 100% sure, and confident that they're all going to look amazing together. I really am able to visualize in my head. I don’t feel nervous—I feel a sense of excitement because you know when you put so much energy and love and creativity—I don't know about the rest of my peers here but I don't sleep at night because I'm thinking about like silk velvets and Chantilly lace all night! I can't turn my brain off so when things finally come to life it’s just excitement!

Bailey: I would say typically three quarters of the way through the project, I have this weird thing that happens to me where I'm like, "Oh my god, what did you do, you’ve gone too far, they’re going to hate it." It’s just so ridiculous because I do it every time and I'm like, why am I doing this again? So, fear definitely creeps up on me. But now I'm starting to see it as a friend—it's like, oh there you go again, you're always gonna pop up, because I'm doing something different each time, I'm doing something I've never done before.

Jo: You all certainly have a fearlessness—do you feel fear?

Photo credit: COURTESY OF JONATHAN ADLER
Photo credit: COURTESY OF JONATHAN ADLER

Jonathan: Probably in the beginning of my career I felt fear but now, not so much. I'm very self critical and I think that I would be angry at myself if I made something that was bland because I really wouldn't see the point. So I think that, you know, I just push myself to try to be original and even outré—whether that means making a pot covered in breasts or doing a room in mint and lavender, whichever it is. I always kind of want it to be memorable and I would be angry at myself if I created something that lacked swagger.

Jenny: Certainly there have been plenty of times—I think even just in starting my own business there was fear. And then when you get a new client or you get a really big project just that—especially at the beginning of my career—that moment of like, oh my gosh they're asking me to do this and now I've got to do it. I love the idea of fear as a friend and getting uncomfortable with that discomfort. And even with hard conversations! I definitely regret the risks I didn't take much more than the risks I did the, even if they fell flat.

Photo credit: Ryan Garvin
Photo credit: Ryan Garvin

Breegan: I think my confidence masks the uncomfortableness of fear. So, because I'm so stubborn minded, even if I'm terrified inside the need for me to prove that I can do it outweighs the fear that I have creating it.

Jo: How do you get a client to take a risk?

Bailey: I assumed that anyone who's looked me up knows that they're going to get pushed. But I've made that mistake of assuming that because I've had clients that have come to me and said, "Yes, I love your work," but then I start giving them ideas and start showing them the stuff and they freak out. I had this one woman whose entire house was like a Manila envelope, all beige. So, trying to introduce her to color was really a challenge. When I did her bedroom, she cried—and not not tears of joy. She called me and said, "I want my money back." I felt myself panicking, but I just said, "Let's wait a few days—I'll be there Wednesday." I knew by then she'd be okay. When I went over, she said, "I feel so much better—I just had to live with it." Suddenly those tears of fear turned into tears of joy.

Sasha: When I’m trying to push my clients to do something bold or take risks, first I say that you're hiring a professional for my professional opinion and my expertise and your project is coming from a deep historical reference. Then, I start to go into rooms that are inspiring me in the past. You know, maybe I'm pulling up Marie Antoinette's room at Versailles or Nancy Lancaster's yellow living room. I always say, “Imagine your home is a bouquet of flowers; if all those flower colors work together well, they will in your home too.” I think of myself as a teacher—a lot of designers say they’re therapists, but I think I'm more of a teacher.

Jenny: The idea of the trees and the barn and the yellow I agree with completely. I don't know why I attribute so much of this to being from the Midwest, but there's this idea that everything has to like match within an inch of its life, but actually when there's a little bit of a mismatch, it makes your eyes kind of do more work and it's a little bit more interesting. I always think of a forest full of trees: The greens all don't match but it all works together.

Photo credit: ryan garvin
Photo credit: ryan garvin

Jonathan: The the way I see this: If you're doing a painting, the big gesture is going to be here, there'll be a little echo here and a little echo there then there are other layers and levels that come in that's that are supporting players that might echo or engage with the composition. And I think the same applies to color, you know, you might choose your main colors, and then there will be little sort of a dance of the main players and the supporting actors. At its best it kind of becomes like a really successful musical where you have, you know, the stars, and then you kind of have the chorus boys and girls who are supporting players with making it all come together.

Breegan: I feel like we are called to solve emotional problems—problems, or opportunities for clients with visual and functional means. Usually when people find me it's because they want to become the best version of themselves, and we are sort of the middle fingers to traditional norms in a lot of ways. Every client's comfort level with being their best self is very different. Bailey, I think that's what you were speaking to—you get the client something that pushed her past what she knew her capabilities were. And yes, we do pick paint colors and couches, but there is so much more to that therapeutic and teaching process with your client relationships.

Photo credit: Sarah Hazlegrove
Photo credit: Sarah Hazlegrove

Jonathan: Hearing everybody talk about what it means to be a decorator is so interesting because it's a unique relationship. I think people are always sort of trying to define it and sort of coming close to defining it because we all are part teacher and part therapist and part bestie and part accountant and part dominatrix. I'm not a dictatorial decorator—I really think that I see my relationship with my clients as being very much a collaboration. I try to create a portrait. I think being a decorator is sort of being a portrait painter, perhaps, at its best. I think it's like being a slimming mirror for your clients, reflecting them at them at their absolute most glamorous and finessed and most beautifully lit moment. When I succeed I think I've been a slimming mirror, in addition to being a teacher, therapist, lover dominatrix, best friend, husband, wife, parent...

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