Summer Thornton’s love of color, unapologetically bold aesthetic, and penchant for mixing old with new are on full display in her newly decorated home in Chicago. We caught up with the designer to talk about her inspirations and find out the secret to developing personal style.
Samuel & Sons: How do you define your personal style?
Summer Thronton: I think my work is transporting and experiential. At our firm, we like to take people on a journey when they enter a home that we’ve designed. That’s why I named my book WONDERLAND: Adventures in Decorating because we take our clients on a magical journey that’s unexpected and surreal. It’s beyond reality… it's dreamy.
S&S: What role does trim play in your personal aesthetic?
ST: I use a lot of trim because it helps elicit a deeper mood and adds layers to a design. I generally have a more is more aesthetic so I live for trim!
S&S: Where do you find inspiration?
ST: I love to travel, and I think exposure to art, culture, architecture, foreign cities, and cultures, etc really broadens one's viewpoint. It helps us to see new things, or see old things in new ways. I just returned from a trip to San Miguel de Allende and I’m in the midst of planning a trip to Marrakesh. Those excursions fill my soul, and my mind, with inspiration and ideas that get reinterpreted into my projects.
S&S: What sets your work apart?
ST: It’s unapologetically bold while still feeling welcoming. When people enter homes that I’ve designed they always feel like they’re comfortable, they can put their feet up, they’re enveloped, but it's still a surreal over-the-top sensory experience. I think lots of designers can make bold statements, or can make comfortable homes, but it’s tricky to do both.
S&S: You are known for your use of color, how does that influence your work?
ST: One time someone asked me what my superpower was, and I answered them with one word “color”. I mix and match 100s of colors & patterns into combinations that surprise and delight and always feel fresh. It feels layered and complex and allows the eye to dance around and discover new things while they take in a room. I love color and life without it feels sad to me.
S&S: Your work often mixes old and new, what do you love about ‘the mix’?
ST: There’s nothing worse than a home that looks just like a showroom or a catalogue. It’s expected and dull. Instead, I want to create homes that feel curated, as if they had been put together over decades, even though in reality we do them in a short time frame. Vintage and antique pieces help add more layers to the design, more originality, and help set them apart from others. But a home of entirely vintage feels like a time capsule…it doesn’t feel fresh. So I’m always incorporating that mix with new things too. The mix makes it feel both fresh and historical, timeless and current.
S&S: How do you make traditional elements feel fresh and new?
ST: I typically approach this with color. By looking to art and history for unexpected color combinations you can take traditional design and turn it on edge. This way it feels new and familiar at the same time. I think the combination of newness and familiarity is the best recipe for success. It gives you something to be excited about but yet comforts you with the familiar at the same time.
S&S: For you, what makes a design project special?
ST: The most special design projects to me are those that are really creative, original, and still inviting. I want to go and just linger. They usually have lots of layers and interest so that your eye dances around and finds new things the more you look.
S&S: Is there a designer or project you keep going back to for inspiration?
ST: I love many historical designers but I especially love women who forged their own path. Dorothy Draper was that type of designer. She was bold, theatrical and yet knew how to create not only a powerful space that people would remember but also one that felt inviting and weirdly familiar.
S&S: Do you have a favorite project of your own?
ST: My favorite projects are always the ones that are the most different from what I’ve done in the past. Right now I’m working on a beachfront home in Mexico and everything I thought I knew is turned on its head and I love it!
S&S: What advice would you give to young designers looking to develop their personal style?
ST: Be an avid student of design. Read every design coffee table book, of both current and past designers, subscribe to every design magazine, visit every design store you can, and find cool shops and designers on Instagram and actually read what they write. Then go down the rabbit hole to understand what makes each unique, how they defined their style, figure out what you like or what you would do differently. Be a sponge. After you are familiar with the greats of present and past, then you can start to define your personal style.
S&S: If you could only use one of our trims for the rest of your career, which one would it be?
ST: The big bold fringe trim that is on my living room sofa!