Text: Karen Carroll
Photos: Images courtesy of Rizzoli
Southern Home (SH): Tell us a bit about your background. Who first fostered your love of beauty?
Ashley Whittaker (AW): I grew up in Florida; both of my grandmothers were very stylish with beautiful houses, and I think it was as much about a lifestyle as it was about decorating. My mother, too. They understood how to live in a house, use it well, how to entertain. A friend and I remarked recently that not everyone feels comfortable entertaining on a regular basis, whereas I’ll say something like, “Come over the Saturday after Thanksgiving; we’re making turkey terrifics, and please bring a leftover,” and suddenly it’s 30 people around the backyard fire pit with kids running wild. It’s just a way of life. I can set an elegant table and then order in pizza and Greek salads. Or I’ll prepare a wonderful dinner, put a fern on the kitchen table, and we’ll eat there. I don’t always have the bandwidth to do it all, but I think choosing something and doing it well is generally a good way to go through life. That’s also my goal in decorating—make it beautiful, but also relaxed and worry-free.
SH: How else did growing up in Florida influence your style?
AW: I think it instilled a sense of freshness in my design. Even if it’s a serious room, there’s still a brightness and lightness to it. I’m always looking for a white point—white grounds to provide contrast to darker fabrics and colors. Natural light is also important. When I’m working with architects, I try to get several exposures in a room so there will be light throughout the day. It makes such a difference.
SH: When did you know you wanted to become a designer?
AW: I think it was a natural progression, rather than one standout moment. I started working in public relations for Ralph Lauren after college, and he was a huge visual influence. It’s not necessarily that his style is my style, but that’s where I really learned to see and to appreciate the level of detail that went into creating his world. After a number of years at RL, I joined a leverage buyout firm to manage their special events. We put on this big conference in Colorado each year, with everyone from Bill Gates to Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart, Nelson Mandela, and Henry Kissinger in attendance. I organized the whole thing, but what I loved most was picking out the flowers and linens. At one of the lunches, Evelyn Lauder came in and said it was the prettiest party she had ever seen in Aspen. That was the biggest compliment possible for me. I decided I should leave solving the world’s problems to the experts…I’d work on the tablecloths. I left shortly thereafter and began working for Markham Roberts, who taught me so much about interior design before I eventually hung out my own shingle.
SH: You’re often described by others as a neo-traditionalist. How would you define your aesthetic?
AW : Although someone else came up with that label, I don’t think it’s wrong. We take a youthful approach to traditional decorating. But we’re always evolving, which is the most important thing.
SH: Could you give us an example or two of how you interpret traditional decorating in a youthful manner?
AW: We’ll use a well-known documentary fabric such as Lee Jofa’s “Hollyhock” on the walls, combine it with a Muriel Brandolini geometric pattern, and hang a contemporary photograph of a garden. I’m always looking for the counterbalance. If it’s a very contemporary fabric, I’m asking where’s my traditional furniture shape. When somebody says these are my grandmother’s table and my mother’s chairs, I’ll want to know which one is least valuable, because we may paint it white.
SH: We love this quote from your recently published book, The Well-Loved House [Rizzoli, 2021]: “If the sofa arms are not worn through and the rugs are still pristine after 10 years, then I have not done my job. But when the rooms show the marks of family life over time, I know I have achieved my goal.” How do you take the intimidation factor out of living with fine things, particularly when there are young children and no rooms are off limits?
AW: It’s just a reality; life, particularly when it includes kids and pets, gets messy. Often we’ll do custom lampshades and light fixtures, something fabulous on the walls, and then use a forgiving rug or fabric on the sofas. When you walk in, you won’t say, “This room is childproof,” because there might be a de Gournay scenic wallpaper and Galerie des Lampes sconces with Fortuny shades. Those are places that kids are not going to jump up on or reach with sticky hands. And finishes like metal, concrete, and marble are both sophisticated and indestructible. As far as fabrics, linen velvets and leathers actually get better with age and a little wear and tear.
SH: With a 7-year-old son, we’re guessing you have lots of personal experience in this area.
AW : When we built our house in Millbrook, New York, we put in some unfinished pine floors. They were so soft, they scratched like you can’t even imagine. We had to have them refinished, and now, with those scratches, bumps, and dents, everyone asks where we found our reclaimed floors. Get a 70-pound Lab, an active child, and some inexpensive pine flooring, and you’ve got instant patina. Maybe my son should be on our payroll.
SH: Let’s talk about wallpaper—we can’t envision one of your houses without it.
AW: It’s addictive. I’ve even always wallpapered my rental apartments in New York. But it’s not so much about wallpaper; it’s about the walls. When people ask how I start a project, it’s two ways. First, a furniture plan, and then a wall plan. What’s going to be lacquered? What’s going to be paneled? What will be a scenic paper or a grasscloth? You’d be hard-pressed to find a white-painted wall in my work that wasn’t paneled or shiplapped. Even with young families where the sky’s not the limit, it’s a great way to have your house feel finished.
SH: What is the element that really takes a room from good to wow?
AW: Artwork. My favorite day of a project install is when it all comes in. I love it when we can guide clients in the right direction and help them select paintings and sculpture that speak to their tastes, as well as work with the architecture and environment. But then there are times we inherit an existing collection, and we’ll reframe it or hang it in an unexpected way, such as taking an important piece and putting it a less important room or the reverse.
SH: Do you have an art pet peeve?
AW: Ill-proportioned artwork. It makes me crazy. People often place a painting because the color works. But if the scale isn’t right, nothing works.
SH: Finally, what’s the finishing touch that no well-loved house should be without?
AW : Plants—they’re everywhere you turn in my own house, even in spaces that aren’t used often. When I’m watering, it’s a way of getting into those rooms and checking to make sure everything’s looking pretty and ready for guests. Something as simple as a fern or orchid will totally bring a room to life.