An Interview With Mark Cutler

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It's hard not to feel at ease when you're talking to Mark Cutler. Aside from a momentary pause to reconcile his Australian accent, you'll quickly feel like you're talking to an old friend. The founder of Los Angeles-based Mark Cutler Design and NousDecor's Chief Design Officer carries with him a contagious aura of cheerfulness to the extent one might get the sense that life has simply dealt him great hands time and time again. Like always, things are never as simple as they appear. 

Who is Mark Cutler? Here's an Australian born and bred architect who blew off a job in the United Kingdom after what could only have been an epic vacation in New York some 25 years ago. He then built his business out on the opposite coast.   


I see in your background that you have worked not just in Australia and New York but also London and Paris. How have these experiences influenced you?

It's the same way I approach big projects, large-scale projects. There's a freneticism to huge processes but one of the keys to success for me has always been making the decision that's in front of you and from there, we'll make the next decision. It's really as simple as taking these seemingly insurmountable processes, breaking them, and making what you believe to be the best decision. Keep a constant curiosity so you're prepared to make the decision and, just as important, so you have confidence to trust the process. I'd say that approach has taken me to where I am now and has made me who I am today. It's been one decision, one step, one day at a time.

When you explain it like that, it makes a lot of sense. Still, it is pretty awesome small steps and singular decisions have literally taken you all over the world.  

Yes, I have been extraordinarily fortunate to work in so many places, but the thing I have learned is that no matter where in the world I am, the desire to create a home that not just provides for the family but elevates their lifestyle is something that doesn't change. A great part of traveling as often as I do is you get to see all the different ways that people live and how their history and culture affects the way they look at their homes.  

Having traveled so much, do you think that the Australian outlook is engrained in you still?

For sure! I don’t think that any of us can truly escape your heritage, and for me the relaxed, casual elegance that embodies a lot of Australian design can be seen in almost all of my work, and I love that. However, when I start a project, I think it’s important to put that aside as much as possible and draw upon my clients experiences and values to create a unique home for them. I often talk about Interior Design as Portraiture and I really believe that my job is to find a way to create a home that tells the story of the family that lives there. It makes the project more personal.

Interior Design as Portraiture is an interesting idea, can you give an example of what you mean?

Well I recently did a home for someone in the film production business who was a big fan of old Hollywood, as a surprise for him I sourced a series of photos of old Hollywood stars working out -- not an easy find! But he loved it, and now he smiles every time he goes into the gym. This is a great example of how simple gestures can turn a well designed space into a place that really has personal meaning. 

You left Australia after a vacation in New York and you've mentioned New York as your favorite city. How'd you end up in Los Angeles? 

There are very few cities in the world like Los Angeles. There's nothing quite like Los Angeles. Once you realize it isn't one sprawling city but a Pandora's box of a bunch of little cities, there's nothing like Los Angeles. As an architect and designer, there's always that question -- 'What is Los Angeles vernacular [architecture]?' -- while New York, Chicago, and other cities have their own architectural language, Los Angeles has a range of forms that aren't firmly defined. I think that's what drew me to Los Angeles. That and the weather. 

Why did you become an Interior Designer?

I have always loved good design, whether it’s interior design, architecture, or even products, so I have been drawn to the profession for a long time. The thing I didn’t realize until I was practicing was how much effect good design can have on a family. For instance a well designed breakfast room can create a spot for a family to sit and eat together, which can have a huge impact on the dynamics of a family. Or a well designed kids room can provide a great place to sleep, study and relax, which can lead to better grades and a better future. Simple changes can make huge differences.

You mentioned that you get inspiration from your clients and their history, to someone doing their own home, any suggestions on where they might find inspiration?

Inspiration is all around. You might want to start with the style of your home, or a favorite color, or even a region of the country like southwest or California. My strongest word of advice though is to not start until you have an idea. Now that idea might be about style, color or feeling, but once you have it, every decision you make in your room should make that idea stronger. For instance, if your idea is about a style, let’s say Southwestern... not everything in the room needs to be Southwestern but you might want to keep everything very simple and use one great Southwestern style piece that really dominates the room. It is an idea that will become stronger and stronger.

What are some things that draw you to a project? 

I'm drawn to the people in any given project. When people give me access [to them] and also when people are secure with themselves, I'm drawn to the project. At a fundamental level, if you don’t know who you are, I can’t create a space for you. 

Can you elaborate? 

Well, you can only design when you have people open up. The more you know about what's happened before, the more you can plot ahead. It’s like writers using references to become better writers. Knowing what led to the style you're seeing -- that's what draws me to a project and that's a big part of the design process for me -- getting to know who the person behind the project is.  

Your clients have included some of the most famous names in Hollywood. Working at this level do you think that your designs are relatable to the average person on a more moderate budget?

(Laughs)

Everyone has a budget, sure, some are bigger than others, but it's truly not about that. The designs that I do are about finding the right pieces for the right home, and for me the mix of everything from expensive one of a kind antiques to Ikea finds and even DIY projects is what makes the ultimate design work. But I think that my experience of working at that level has given me opportunities to experiment and explore, and I can now reap the benefits of those experiences and apply them to projects of all different scales and budgets.

I'm going to fire off a few questions to get a sense of the scope of your work. What's the biggest project you've worked on?

We had a massive 75,000 square foot residential property with multiple buildings on the property a few years back.

The smallest? 

A card room. Recently, we designed an 8' by 10' card room for a client who loved Mahjong. At the end of the day, really, it's about finding a great idea and then making that idea stronger.  

Does your approach differ when you're dealing with a Jennifer Lopez or a Steve Carell or a high-profile client?

Yes and no. There are certain things you have to be more careful about with a high-profile client because people are going to be much more interested in those projects. The project might need to have a codename or something to that effect. Another challenge is that certain celebrities don't want to be seen in public or can't be seen in public and that creates an access challenge. We'll have to pull samples and bring them to the house and it becomes a much more bespoke project. But at the end of the day, celebrities and high-profile clients are still people. The philosophy doesn't change. 

What's a project you're proud of or excited about right now?

Right now, over in central California, we're working on a project with 132 houses -- it's an entire subdivision really. There's going to be five different types of houses and then subcategories of those houses, and there's also the clubhouse. It's an exciting project and exciting process.

How big is your team? 

Five. It doesn't seem like many people but it's enough. We're very careful about who we hire and we only hire the very, very best people. Naturally, there are a lot of responsibilities that are allocated but there's a senior designer, a drafts person, an assistant designer who's maybe one project away from being a senior designer herself, a bookkeeper, and me. It's the five of us.

Describe your level of involvement for each project. How hands on are you?

Very hands on. I'm a big believer that you need to teach the people under you as much as you need to delegate. A large part of leading is teaching. I use a decision tree model, a model of management I read about years ago. There are root decisions, trunk decisions, branch decisions, and leaf decisions. The root decisions are the ones I make -- they're going to be the early decisions in a project. The leaf decisions are decisions my team makes without any consultation at all. Then, there the trunk decisions, which are the ones we make together, and the branch decisions, which are the decisions they make and then consult with me. But all decisions are from the same tree, so to speak.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face? 

There are different kinds of challenges for every project. There's emotional challenges. Those involve getting access to people and having people open up enough so that you can get inside their head and create their vision. There's practical challenges and those involve things like dimensions and just about everything else. The biggest challenge to any project is making sure all the little details are accounted for -- you'll never know which tiny misstep or small miscalculation is the one that'll set an entire project back by weeks or even months. Most of my designs are very detailed, so staying organized is critical.

One practical challenge from a consumer's perspective is the financial challenge that comes with design. What advice do you have for someone who might not have a celebrity budget? 

Be realistic. Don’t torture yourself by buying stuff you can’t afford. Be very clear about what your price range is. We want a realistic budget right from the start and we never show you beautiful pieces and then say 'Hey, these are the things you can’t have.' Instead, it is always about the bounty of things that you can have. Also, be strategic with your budget. Know the things that are really important to you. If you love to entertain, maybe your dining table is really important while the end table in your bedroom is less important. Plan your strategy and you'll be able to recognize and emphasize your values from the beginning to the very end.

What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of your job?  

One of my favorite things about being a designer is when I show clients their home for the first time. When we pull up outside of the house for the first time, it's an emotional experience. From our end, we understand you only get one chance to see your house the way everybody is going to see it. So that one moment when they see their home for the first time. You can feel the emotion. That's when I know I've accomplished what I set out to do. That's one of the most satisfying aspects of my job. Without a doubt.

What brought you to NousDecor, and how did you get involved with their premium decor service?

I met Heather and Dorothee, the founders of NousDecor through a mutual friend, and the moment I heard their mission of bringing a quality design experience to the world, regardless of size or budget, I was hooked. The premium service is a great way for me to reach out to people who are passionate about design so that I can help them create their own perfect home.

Click here to start a Premium Project with Mark Cutler

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Mark Cutler is a celebrity designer, television personality, and NousDecor's Chief Design Officer. He has been featured on A&E, HGTV, and The Discovery Channel and his client list includes Jennifer Lopez, Steve Carell, Vanna White, and Cippriani Hotels. For a limited time, Mark Cutler will offer his design expertise through NousDecor's Premium Design Package. 

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