Top 40 Interior Designer, Exclusive nousDECOR Partner and Columnist
Listening to the insights of Australian interior designer Mark Cutler, you would think his fit for us would be no more perfect than if he had read our minds. Seriously—as our featured partner designer, and as the head of one of Robb Report’s Top 40 Design Firms in the country, Cutler’s philosophy aligns with ours so well we just had to get down on one knee and propose our love for him. Luckily, the feeling was more than mutual: as an advocate of design education, high/low styling, the personalization of interiors and his adamant belief that a piece is defined not by its cost but whether it is right for the design, he, too, could not have been happier to have found a home for building a community around our shared philosophy. Our match made in heaven begins here, in our exclusive interview with the Los Angeles-based designer and architect who talks about his growing roster of celebrity clientele, why he calls himself an “accidental designer,” and the strangest design requests he’s ever received.
I’ll begin with a question I think everyone would like to ask an interior designer. You’re in an empty room. How and where do you start? Well, I would say that first you would start with the architecture, by finding something you want to play up. For example, how does light come into the room? You start with the practical things, then move on to other questions. You have to get the “hows” and “whys” together, before you get to the “what ifs.”
Do you find this makes the creative process simpler?
I don’t exactly know. It’s important to get a big idea—one concept, not necessarily a theme, but some concept of how the room should feel, how the client feels and wants to feel when they come into the room. Then you start filtering ideas, and choose one big idea to balance all the rest. For instance, when I was doing the office [of a client our editorial staff got to tour]—the client wanted the room to emanate serenity and quiet. She wanted it to be the kind of room that would make people take her seriously, but not necessarily communicate that she’s only a serious person. We understood that we wanted it to be whimsical but stately, or vice versa. So we built from there, and balanced these ideas by keeping things monochromatic. That’s how the process went.
I find you start [the creative process] by understanding the client, by helping them find the answers to those questions. Because people don’t think the same way designers do. You become a good designer by getting clients to reveal answers they didn’t know they had questions to.
Like the dining room at The Preserve [a house he worked on]. The client had asked for a floor made of sand. After explaining that this wasn’t achievable, I understood that what she was really asking for was not a sand floor, but to make the room unique. She wanted something as different from, or as crazy from, flooring as you could get, but not that. [Pictured, the final result—woven leather belts across the floor].
Interesting! Where do you find the products you work with in your designs? Everywhere. Flea markets, the internet. Google image search. I found a woman in LA who makes miniature boulders out of balls of yarn which she sews together. That kinds of stuff. The unexpected stuff. As for upholstery and tables—they have a qualitative measure they have to reach, so we have a couple of vendors we always use. That leaves room in the gaps for lamps and lighting, which can be found on the internet. I go to flea markets, read blogs. I find that blogs are a wonderful crowdsourcing moment—it’s a million people writing and sourcing for interesting design and products and you get to pick their brains. What’s also great about a blog is that once it’s been written, it never goes away. You can mine it and use it as a resource for projects at any time.
Any blogs in particular? I usually go on the Etsy blog, CasaSugar, and Next.
What is your design philosophy and how did you come up with it?
My design philosophy is a story about portraiture—an idea that you can create rooms that are a true reflection of the people who live there. I believe a room’s design should create a harmony between the way a person looks at their life and the way that they live. It should diminish the negative, emphasize values, and reflect their history and heritage, aspirations and hopes. Their living space should act as a positive reinforcement of themselves.
My own story of becoming a designer is the process of molding this philosophy. As you know, I stumbled into design—so at the start I never had a set way of thinking “this is the way you design.” In architecture school I learned about the process of coming up with solutions. You develop a technique of lateral thinking—working from A to B. As you move through the process, first you have to think—what are the other A’s and B’s? [As an architect] you develop the ability to look at problem and sift through multiple solutions quickly.
My philosophy of portraiture came about later when I began to weave in that what you create has an impact on the people that live there. Design is not about creating a pretty room, it’s about creating a room that can change somebody.
You’ve called yourself an “accidental designer.” How did this come about?
So, I went to architecture school and when I graduated I had a job waiting for me in the UK. I ended up taking a vacation in New York, blew off that job and ended up, instead of doing architecture in the places I had thought I would go—New York, London, Paris—I moved to LA and took a job at a firm there. We were small, and at one point were hired by a family from the Ivory Coast. They said they would only hire us if we agreed not only to do their architecture, but their interiors and landscape as well. Since we only had three or four people, one of us became head of the landscape division, and I became head of the interior design division. At the same time as this was happening, we got hired by Vanna White through a dinner party to do a city block for a hotel. After that, Jennifer Lopez called. All of a sudden, a month in, I was this interior designer, and I still didn’t know how to pick fabric. I stumbled into it, but I kept going. I made lots of mistakes early on.
That’s so funny that they never knew. As you said, you’ve had several A-list clients. Which celebrity client is still on your list that you’d like to work for?
Well for me it’s not about working with celebrities, it’s about people. So maybe a more useful question would be my ideal celebrity to work with.
I’ve worked for about two dozen, and I find the ones I have the most successful rapport and work with are the ones that you can just pick up the phone and call them. The ones where you don’t have to go through tons of personal assistants and the like. Because when this happens, you have tons of other people filtering your view as you go, which lessens your ability to getting the answers you really need. I find those projects are particularly problematic.
My ideal celebrity is young, fun, and happy. I like people who give me access [to them], and also people who are secure with themselves. Because if you don’t know who you are, I can’t create a space for you.
I imagine designers often get bombarded with strange requests. What is the most memorable one you’ve had so far? Oh God, we’ve seen so many unusual things in our day. There was one client who had us pay attention to the size of the pool cues—they insisted on making their cues oversized. We’ve had weird allergies, feng shui experts, ghost people, electromagnetic wave people. We had one obsessive feng shui lady who made us bury a mirror in the ceiling to get rid of bad juju. Speaking of mirrors—we’ve had requests for mirrors above beds, beside beds, two-way bathroom mirrors. My palms begin to sweat anytime anyone bring up mirrors.
What is your most creative solution to a design problem to date?
I mentioned the client with the sand on the floor—our solution was to weave worn leather belts across the floor like a rough fabric. We’ve done wallpaper ceilings to introduce texture in a room. We’ve taken pages of a book and scattered them across the floor then coated them [pictured at left]. We’ve covered a ceiling in cow hide to give it a marbleized quality a client wanted.
I remember one house that had an English sensibility where we worked from the master bedroom down the hallway to the foyer. We got prints of wallpaper patterns from the William Morris Museum in London and painted them on the floor, then found a handmade rug in China with a kind of chalky limestone pattern that was similar but still obviously different and incorporated it as well. The final result was a sensibility that was English yet modern, with classic prints used in unexpected ways. We took the concept of this English wallpaper pattern and reinvented it for modern times.
You’re an Angeleno now, but you originally hail from Australia. Do you think that offers any kind of perspective on your designs? Absolutely, I’m the the designer I am because of where I came from. I find design magazines reflect the culture from which they come. In American magazines, it’s all about size and wealth. In Australian ones, you get this light, airy quality. Vogue Living for example. You see the homes of these really successful people, but there’s a lack of seriousness about them. You see a relaxed, casual elegance, which I think is a cultural trait. It resonates with the lifestyle in Australia.
So do you see similarities between Australia and Los Angeles?
Yes, definitely. It’s always raining in London and New York. And there’s an indoor/outdoor lifestyle in LA that’s also a hallmark of Australian design, so creating indoor/outdoor rooms is second nature for me, it makes sense. I think it also has something to do with the age of the U.S.—it’s only like, what, 215 years old? I find California has a young freshness about it. It lacks the historical restrictions you see in other, older cities. There’s a freshness of outlook on the west coast. A kind of harmony.
What are the best parts about working in LA?
Sunshine. The kinds of projects you get from people from all over the world who come to LA. The creative feeling.
What is one design trend that you’d like to never see again?
It’s funny—I don’t have one. Lately I’ve been obsessed with 80’s, and gotten over my 70’s phase. You have to have humility in style. Things get so quickly recycled and become the new style again. There aren’t any styles I don’t like, or styles I’ve seen that haven’t been seen in some form before.
So you’re into the retro, vintage…
Well think of it this way—you can only design pieces when you know the past. The more you know about what happened before you, the more you can plot ahead of you. It’s the same with writers using references being better writers, and painters being better painters when they work from what came before—it’s the same with design if you know what not only stylistically, but culturally, led to the style you’re seeing. You have to understand the past zeitgeist to understand how that led to now.
What advice would you offer to someone just starting out in the field?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Track down people you admire. In the early days I would not hesitate to call up designers I admired and say, “I know you don’t know me, and in fact I’m kind of a competitor, but I’ve got a few questions.” No one ever says no. I find people in our field are generous and have a lot of opinions—and this is how you build a community of support. Designers are only as good as the resources they can harness. I would say to make a list of ten to fifteen designers you can trust. Then, don’t be shy about reaching out and asking people. Keep looking at magazines. Keep a constant curiosity.
Thank you so much for your insights! We have just enough time left to play “favorites.” What is your favorite…
Designer(s)? John Saladino/Vincente Wolf
Era? The 70’s and 80’s
City? New York, maybe Rome
Writer? Gerald Manly Hopkins
New Trend? There are no trends! The new trend is to not be part of a trend.
Stay tuned for Mark Cutler’s new columns—“Master’s Class” and “Five Things”—in the upcoming weeks