Tom Britt

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We asked designer Tom Britt if, as he claims, a room can really make you feel “important, sexy and confident.” Of course he unhesitatingly said it could—hesitating is just not something Tom Britt does. He is known for his dashing, confident, colorful rooms skillfully emboldened with an opulent flair, as well as for his big, flamboyant personality, his booming (former) smoker’s raddled voice and his perfectly tailored suits. But to caricature him as a larger-than-life figure does him a disservice—underneath all the theatrical, if sincere, pronouncements about “swagger” he has a serious and conscientious mind.

Click to order Fabulous!

A new book, Fabulous! The Dazzling Interiors of Tom Britt (Rizzoli, 2017) reveals just how hard-working, well-traveled and widely-versed he is in so many aspects of design and design history and showcases a richly-varied selection of projects spanning his remarkable fifty-year career, including his revamp of Doubles and his own beautiful summer home in Water Mill, New York.

So can you tell us what inspired you to do a book?

Because I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to have a thorough representation of my career. And Rizzoli asked me to do it.

You’ve been a designer for over fifty years. What are some of the highlights of your career?

The main highlight has been all the travel I’ve done—for projects, for developing new designs, and just for the joy of experiencing the new. I’ve had rugs made in India, fabrics in Thailand and Italy, furniture in South America and France, wallpaper in China. One has to travel to see colors and patterns and combinations in ways that are different from our own vocabularies. Never stop traveling. Never stop learning and being inspired.

What is your trick to pulling together vastly different frames of reference and making them work?

You have to have a thorough knowledge of design history. All aspects of design, throughout the world. It sounds daunting and of course you’ll never know everything. But, travel! Open some books! Look! Absorb!

Above: The living room, called the Oval Room, retains its original Regency-style wood boisserie.

Left: The Brighton Pavilion served as a major inspiration when Thomas designed this pair of double-faced pagoda bookcases cases. All the magazines and books on its shelves were re-covered in white parchment paper purchased from Dennison’s stationers.

A view of the Oval Room. The bust sitting atop the marble mantle was purchased from Garvin Mecking in New York. The upholstered furniture by DeAngelis is covered in fabric by Brunschwig et Fils. The pair of busts on pedestals were purchased from Christopher Hobbs in London.

Reflections of the Oval Room.
Right: The bleached wood and gilt chandelier originally came from a source for garden ornaments.
Below: Light streams into the oval room from sets of curved French doors

New additions to the bookshelves contrast against the parchment covered books.
A view from the Oval Room toward the staircase leading to the Grand Salon. The bust is from Christopher Hobbs in London.
The bleached wood and gilt chandelier.
Relief and molding working hand in hand.

You’re quoted as saying, “You either have it or you don’t.” Does this imply that good design can’t be taught and is instinctual?

Yes. The history can be taught, but a good designer has a purely instinctual sensibility, deep within. You got it?

Do you ever second-guess yourself?

Not really. Maybe on rare occasions—when I look back on my design work. But, I don’t look at it thinking that I could have done something better . . . maybe that I could have done something differently, creating a different solution. So, the answer is no.

Would you say you are a risk-taker? How does this play out in your design?

Risk-taker in life, yes. In my design work, no. I just did rooms that I liked and that were instinctually successful to me.

Left: The Tent Room is covered in its entirety with khaki-colored canvas and black-and- white striped trim.
Below:Front and center in the Tent Room, a sculpture of The Winged Victory stands atop a round Empire mahogany table with a black marble top and gold leaf-topped columns as legs.

Recessed wall mirrors give the Tent Room a feeling of endless space.

What is it about bold color that appeals to you so much?

I never think of my colors as being bold. I just look at them as being what I like and what I feel is appropriate for a room, the client, and the geographic location of the project. For instance, if a client has houses in California, Florida, and New York City, the palette would change based on the location.

You said you like rooms that make you feel “important, sexy, and confident.” Do you really think a mere room can make you feel those things?

Absolutely—if it’s decorated in a manner that inspires those responses. Aspects such as lighting and fabrics and color can have an immediate and visceral effect.

And you like a bit of “swagger” too. What’s good about “swagger”?

Swagger to me is confidence. I go into my projects with a clear vision of what each space should be. You have to have confidence. Look at the room you’re sitting in [Britt’s New York dining room]. This was just a long corridor. I added a huge Chippendale mirror and black papier-mâché urns atop the Atlandides. They have the right scale, weight, boldness. You can create anything out of nothing, if you know how to do it.

Above: A garniture of peacock blue China porcelains purchased in Hong Kong sits atop of a mother-of-pearl black lacquer inlaid side table in the dining room

Right: In the dining room, Biedermeier chairs surround a stunning tortoiseshell table that Thomas had made in Colombia. The oversized urns standing atop the statues that came from Paul Martini, were acquired from Michael Taylor.

Another view of the dining room.
Tickets to the Opera and Arch Digest stacked on a ledge in the dining room.

How did growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, influence your design approach?

It’s more the people than the location that was the influence. I grew up around houses that were very beautifully decorated. There were some accomplished decorators there at the time—Altaire & Crawley, Peggy Sloan, Jack Reese, Lucy Drage, and Frederick Emlyn Fender. The one I found without any question to be the most talented was Emlyn Fender. He painted furniture. I had some of his work at my house in Water Mill, including a lit de repos painted in a neoclassic way—shades of gray. Emlyn had an antiques store in addition to being a decorator. He had a very offbeat color sense, which intrigued me.

I loved the apartment you designed in a tenement for your contractor. What is the key to creating style on a budget?

Strict simplicity. High imagination.

A set of 18th century neo-classical engravings lines the stairwell.
A pair of Choppas from Thailand stand on either side of the entryway to the Grand salon.
Blue satin upholstery shimmers throughout the second floor Grand Salon. The crystal chandelier is from Paul Martini.

Mirrored French doors line the south wall of the Grand Salon. The crystal objects on a coffee table designed by Thomas, serve to play up its modern lines. A view of the north wall of the Grand Salon.

A commanding group of engravings from Rose Cumming dominates the north wall. The slipper chairs are from Billy Baldwin.
On the marble mantel a pair of raspberry-colored Chinese vases from Charles Heilemann flank a Ming Foo dog from Nuri Farhadi antiques.

Another view of the Grand Salon.
The frogs are from the estate of the legendary Tony Duquette.

“Do you really want to play it safe?” That’s your question. I mean it would seem that for many of today’s interiors, lots of people want to play it safe. Do you think that’s always been the case or do you think we’re just becoming more and more boring with interiors that are empty of personality and panache?

In all respects, playing it safe is BORING. There’s a proliferation now of access to so-called style, but it’s mostly banal.

Were there design elements in your own living space that you wouldn’t use in your clients’ homes?

No. Of course, that depends on who the client is.

How do you edit this overwhelming array of influences that are available into a cohesive design approach?

Look at where the project is geographically. Don’t mix too many references. Keep to a single aesthetic.

Taking a pit-stop in the guest bathroom.

What influence did Rose Cumming have on your career?

A lot of people had influence on my career, and Rose was one of them. She had a fabulous sense of color and scale. She was a great experimenter. We hit it off the minute we met, when I walked in to see her shop at 515 Madison. Later when I would visit her there, she would say, “Lock the door. I don’t want to be interrupted when I’m with young Mr. Britt.”

Others who had an effect on my eye: Tony Duquette, Georges Geffroy, Billy Baldwin.

And what gives you pleasure now?

Talking about design in any aspect—art history, fashion, interiors, books, you name it.

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