July 28, 2016
As evidenced by a legendary career, the designer Roger Thomas provides a thoughtful and refined perspective when sharing his work. We sit down in his Marin County hills home to explore more of his interior world.
What first made an impression on you to enter into the design world?
Since I was a very little boy, I rearranged rooms and accessories in the family home. Whenever I picked up a book, it was always a book about art and design. In school, I was drawn to all the departments and majors in painting, ceramics, metal-smithing, sculpture, and textiles. Also, growing up in beautifully designed environments that caused delight, inspiration, and a sense of well-being made a significant impact.
How did living in well-designed homes form your perspective on design?
I lived in rooms that were informed by some of the most important mid-century modern designers that truly enriched the history of American design. I curled up in an Eero Saarinen chair whenever I read in the library; and in such a manner I was influenced in the way I think about chairs. It began the thinking process early on about how good a chair can be and how bad a chair can be.
It also gave me an early prejudice that I had no room in my interests for design from other periods. I was only interested in modern design. I felt that since the modernists had solved all the design problems, why look backward? That prejudice stayed with me until I started in the world of hotel design and I began looking at the design history of great hotels.
What changed your design perspective?
So many of the hotels of my early career were inspired by the great period hotels, including The Plaza in New York, The George V in Paris, and The Ritz (in whatever city I was in)… I became enamored with the history of these great hotels and the objects that inhabited them. Other historical buildings and interiors equally held my interest. For example, when examining the history of the Palace of Versailles, I began to understand what it looked like when it was completely furnished, and realized that many things as simple as sofas weren’t invented until the 17th century and the 18th century. We humans, for most of our history, went without large upholstered chairs and sofas…those kinds of historical curiosities began to inform me as to how furniture developed through time, and this became my true passion in my life and my work. And such, everything I do now in design – whether a room, a vase, a chair, or a table – is influenced and informed by my passion for the history of the object. I always look back to where the origins of an object started and find somewhere along the line the information that can inspire the design of a single piece or an entire collection.
What was the first object you designed?
Well, the first object I designed was from my first 3-dimensional metal class and it was a box. I was being trained in the art of raising forms, which is essentially taking a flat sheet of metal and, by the simple use of hammer and anvil, making it into a 3-D vessel or form. One of the first assignments resulted in a 6-inch diameter bowl that I turned upside down and set it on a pedestal to create a mushroom box.
Where is that box now?
I have no idea where that mushroom box is now but it was a great lesson in using form, thought of as one thing and then creatively turning it into something else. One of the echoing themes throughout my history as a designer is to do what’s contrary. If it’s supposed to be small, make it big. If it’s supposed to be black, make it white. If it’s supposed to be simple, make it complex. I often take that route.
Do you have a favorite design?
That’s like naming a favorite child. And I have only one child, so I would never be challenged with that unwelcome task. My favorite design today is the one I’m working on right now.
You’re currently working in China. When you travel, do you take a little time to immerse yourself in foreign inspiration?
Yes, Arthur and I do. The last time I was on a really long trip to China, we traveled and met friends in Bangkok, and the group went on to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. It was so inspirational and an amazing experience. I think that people who are involved in creative endeavors and careers are constantly emptying the well and filling it at the same time. We’re inspiration junkies and we’re always searching for that next inspiration. I’ll go down the darkest alley if I think there might be something inspiring or unique or unusual to experience in its deepest reaches.
What is your favorite city?
I adore Paris. I think Paris is for most American designers the epitome of inspiration, because so much of the heritage of the decorative arts comes from there. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the whole French government, mostly because of the efforts of Louis XIV, decided that France was to be the source of great art and architecture for the world. They accomplished that, not only in art and architecture, but in food, carriages, luggage, and other types of luxury goods that we still enjoy today. It’s really hard to find a part of Paris, an interior in Paris, a person walking down the street in Paris… that is not attractive. It is absolutely glorious. I also adore Venice where Arthur and I own an apartment. Venice had two great advantages in its development that make it unique. One, it never had to build fortifications. So all of the money that usually went into fortifying a city went into making the city beautiful. And two, it didn’t have a land or the aristocracy that went with it. There was no land! So, you reached the levels of aristocracy and success through merits. And that meant that lavish design, great architecture, and luxury goods were available to more people. So there are more beautiful buildings, I think, in Venice, than other leading European cities, and they are spread more evenly all over the city. And because they didn’t have to invest in other things, they could invest in their own delight, and that is exactly what they did. And because of this, it’s a beautiful, delightful city.
Where’s your ideal place to spend downtime?
Paris or Venice. I also spend a lot of downtime here in Marin with Arthur. It’s a very nurturing environment and I’m so glad we’re here.
To be continued…