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BuildChat: Chicago interior designer Summer Thornton

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Interior design Summer Thornton

Take a glance at Chicago interior design Summer Thornton’s portfolio and you’ll see daring interiors that carefully blend modern elements with classic sensibilities. Thornton’s fearless design exists in a housing market where safety sells, but check out all the press coverage she’s received and you’ll understand how her bold designs have filled up her pipeline.

On your website, your design style is said to mix “high and low, rough and polished, classic and irreverent” and your interiors are “traditional at their core but injected with of-the-moment elements to add personality and energy.” What inspires your style?
I get inspiration from all sorts of things – fashion, travel, art, magazines, pinterest, movies, nature, blogs.  The list goes on.  But broadly speaking a lot of my design style is about contrast – new and old, stately and humble, silly and serious – you get the point.  I love traditional design, but I also want to keep it fresh, fun, and youthful so that’s where I’m looking for that whimsy, personality and energy to liven up a more traditional base design.  As far as my inspiration goes – it’s really about finding something that is simple and seeing it in a new way.  Perhaps its the texture of bark on a birch tree, the paper-like peeling and little flecks of grey.  I may notice that and then develop a whole room around that color and texture concept, but of course I don’t want people to feel like they’re living in an actual birch tree, so I’ll find a way to reinterpret it so it feels fresh and current.

As someone whose designs often feature an eclectic array of accessories and accents, what’s been the biggest payoff from using Pinterest?
Pinterest is a great resource for visual stimulation.  As odd as it sounds, I’m often pinning from my bed late at night or while taking a 10-minute break at the office.  My only hesitation or fear is that oftentimes I see people knocking off what they see on Pinterest, doing what appears to be a direct copy.  I’d like to see more interpretation and original thinking that is inspired by things found on Pinterest.  As far as accessories and accents – I’m a ‘more is more’ type of gal.  So when I find a great accessory whether online or in a store, I buy it.  At the Summer Thornton Design office, we’ve got an entire walk-in closet as well as a nine-foot armoire full of accessories that we use for projects.  Great accessories are what make an interior design project feel complete.

You’ve developed a signature style which has earned you a considerable amount of media coverage and, I imagine, has been great for business. What advice would you offer to up-and-coming designers trying to find their style while still meeting client demands?
I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve had clients who have been generally very trusting of me, and have also had good taste on their own.  I think the most important thing is to ensure that you’re attracting the right clients.  I’ve worked for some clients who were a great fit aesthetically, and others who were less so.  The design projects on my site are the ones where we were a good fit, those are also the ones that often times are published, and those are the ones that lead to future clients.  Usually within one or two meetings I can tell if a potential new client is going to be a fit, and if we aren’t, I will usually walk away from the project so I can focus on others which are a better fit.  I’m also thankful that I like to work on a wide range of styles, so when clients come to me with an idea or an aesthetic that is a different bent than what I’ve done in the past, I’m often times open to it and happy to weave their style with mine in a new fashion.

Who are your design icons?
In the world of interior design I love Miles Redd, Kelly Wearstler, and Steven Gambrel.  Outside the interiors realm I’m always impressed by fashion icons Tom Ford and Karl Lagerfeld as well as a photo editor at Vogue, Grace Coddington. I’d say those people are the most ‘iconic’ of the people I’ve really been inspired by.

What’s your favorite design trend right now?
You know, design ‘trends’ are a funny thing.  Once they are a ‘trend’, I tend to be tired of them.  It’s when they’re new and rare that I’m more excited about them.  With that said, I am excited that people are enjoying more pattern and boldness in their designs than was used in the past few years – an increasing use of bolder pattern, contrast, color, and so on is fantastic.

Judging from photos, your interior designs give a sense of coziness. Is that something you strive for?
Coziness is important – I like intimate moments, small vignettes, little places for couples to share secrets, hiding places for kids, and somewhere to curl up with a glass of wine and a blanket.  Those things interest me, and they give my interiors a sense of humanity and realism.