This Washington, D.C.–based designer is anything but neutral when it comes to creating rooms that blend old and new with fearless style.

Text: Karen Carroll
Photography: Gordon Beall

Southern Home (SH): Your backstory is a bit unexpected: You were working as a lawyer when your own house that you had decorated appeared on the cover of a national magazine. Clients—and other magazines—would soon come calling, and the legal career would be history. But what was your first inkling that creativity was part of your DNA?

Darryl Carter (DC): I’ll tell you this—my first word was not mom or dad—it was light. So I think I was genetically programmed from day one. When my parents would get frustrated, they’d send me to my tiny bedroom. I’d take pleasure in that punishment because I’d find creative ways to move the three pieces of furniture around. Much later, while working for my father as a lawyer, I was also flipping houses with great success. After the article on my house appeared, my father got to the point that he said I needed to choose. I think he assumed I’d go for the sure thing—working for him—but I’ve always been a bit of a rogue. I took on my first couple of design clients, and both were huge commissions. I had very little skill, but for some reason the clients had a belief that I could produce, and so I did.

SH: You were labeled a “new traditionalist” from the start for your ability to combine antiques and modern furniture. The New Traditional even became the title of your first book (Potter Style, 2008). What does that label mean for you today?

DC: Well, I think now it’s a little hackneyed. There’s another word that’s also overused—eclecticism. They’ve both become licenses to put all things together in all places. But there’s more precision to it than that—I don’t think you can just put anything in a room together. There’s some science to shape, form, and geometry, as well as how things relate to each other. However, I’ll always love very linear modern forms in concert with patina and more curvaceous antiques.

SH: What draws you to a piece of furniture, whether new or old?

DC: It depends on what I’m thinking or working on at the moment, but it’s often about what it might become. I have a tendency to reinvent things. I might take a very beautiful marquetry round top, take it off of its base, and mount it to a square pipe so it’s basically a hybrid of modern and precious. Anything that can be removed or can reinvent itself is a fascination for me, which is one of the reasons that I particularly love campaign furniture.

SH: Are there design risks you take today that you might not have in the beginning stages of your career? Is there a rule that you like to break?

DC: I am definitely a risk-taker, and I like to break all the rules. It may have been fortuitous that I didn’t have design training to start with because I don’t really know what the “rules” are that I’m breaking. It’s instinctive. As my work has evolved, I’ve gotten more daring. I’ll put an extremely ornate piece in a room that I might not have years ago, and then I’ll place a Mies van der Rohe daybed in front of it for counterbalance. I’m very contrarian but not with a vengeance—it’s just my nature.

SH: Where do you look for inspiration?

DC: I have a great respect and affection for architecture, and when I’m walking the streets—whether traveling or at home—I see such talent everywhere. In Washington, I. M. Pei designed the East Wing of the National Gallery, and there’s a point in that building that is cut like a knife and is absolutely magnificent. It juxtaposes a very historical, classical building, and as I look at these two structures—one across from the other—I find them equally compelling. In my own projects, I’m very much about engaging authenticity in architecture. I’ll bring in reclaimed doors and reclaimed fireplaces. I think these things make a house soulful. I tend to under-embellish spaces and let the walls talk. If an architect has built a beautiful room and there’s not a reason to obstruct a window, I’m not going to hang a drapery just for the sake of having drapery.

SH: While you’re known for your mastery of neutrals, your rooms never look cold or sterile, even though they might be minimalistic or edited. What’s your secret?

DC: Some of my palettes read monochromatic, but if you look at them, they’re nuanced and complex. I’ll typically take the least pronounced color in an antique rug, for instance, and that may inform a wall color. And I’ll often use rugs on the reverse, because I’m not prone to a lot of graphics. I’ll also upholster with patterned textiles on the reverse because that makes them seem calmer and more timeworn. So there’s a lot more tonality, texture, and pattern going on than what may appear at first glance. But I do prefer rooms that are serene and restrained.

SH: Is there a particular color you consider a “guilty pleasure”?

DC: For my own house, I’m making a modern daybed, and I’m going to cover it in a sort of Hermès orange velvet. I’ll usually pull color into rooms through rugs and art, but in this instance, it will be the center of gravity in my living room. I do like color, and I’m tending to have a little more intrigue with it of late but always in a spare fashion.

SH: You’ve just introduced furniture, fabrics, and rugs for Milling Road. What’s the philosophy behind the collection? With over a hundred pieces, is there a common thread that weaves throughout?

DC: The inspiration of the collection at large is art, and the thing that is most profound is the mixed media. You will find metal and marble together. Some pieces are very modern with hints of antique adornments. There’s also a graphic play on pattern. For one of the rugs, I was inspired by an Aubusson, but I took a ¾-inch piece of the rug and enlarged it to an 8 x 12. In the fabrics, there are some brocades that I blew up out of proportion. Basically, I’m taking small details and making them larger in scale to make them feel more modern and abstracted. Ultimately, the collection nods to a whole bunch of different things. The hope is that people can put all these things that don’t match together, although they are thoughtfully designed to go together, to create an original expression of themselves.

SH: And finally, how would you sum up your perspective on living with style?

DC: To quote Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true.” Do not follow anything you see at your neighbor’s house. Don’t do things because your mother-in-law says so. Don’t do things competitively. Just be organic and honest in how you articulate the place you spend most of your time.

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