Balancing act: A well-traveled designer helps clients find the intersection of individuality and eloquence

In horse country, the kitchen table comes with pasture views (Photo by Getty Images).

Many designers have a trademark style that informs all of their work, whether an Alpine penthouse or a waterfront estate. Patrick Sutton isn’t one of them. While his interiors are undeniably elegant, they are as different as his clients. Page through his book, “Storied Interiors” (Images Publishing, 2018) and you’ll see classic French elements in a charcoal-and-cream living room, a great room furnished with overstuffed lavender sofas, and a lounge outfitted with a mirrored wet bar and blood-red rug.

Sutton spent much of his childhood seeing the world with his father, travel writer Horace Sutton. That experience, combined with a gift for 3-D visualization and training as an architect, formed what he calls the “perfect storm” of factors that led to his career in luxury interior design.

Sutton’s eponymous firm, based in Baltimore, takes on projects from Manhattan to the Wasatch Mountains. We recently spent some time talking about achieving visual balance, getting into a client’s head, and discovering your own aesthetic.

Travel, if only to your library

When you grow up staying in five-star hotels and touring the world’s most celebrated destinations, you learn a thing or two about style and structure. Sutton’s knack for balancing old and new comes from early exposure to a “vast visual library of the world’s most beautiful places.” He says that when he encounters a design problem, he does a mental inventory of places he’s seen, then synthesizes those that help achieve a solution. His advice to designers and homeowners alike: “Get out and travel and see as many things as you possibly can. Open as many books as you can. Then dissect what you’ve seen to understand what makes a design successful.”

Lay neutral groundwork

Though Sutton isn’t a fan of beige, his interiors showcase a symphony of neutrals. “I think good design, just like music or food, relies on having some background elements along with moments of risk or crescendo. My work uses a range of neutrals as a backdrop or canvas but I am careful to fold in color, contrast and texture to act as a counterpoint. It’s like adding acid or seasoning to an otherwise bland dish.” And why not beige? “To me beige is just bland and I have seen too many rooms where it’s all the same monotone use of it. I think it is often used when homeowners are afraid to make a wrong decision so they pick something that is non-committal and it just ends up without interest.”

Conduct a forensic investigation

Sutton says that identifying a client’s design preferences involves a bit of detective work. “It’s rare that a client mandates a blanket statement about what they want in their home. Instead, I’ll ask them to show me pictures of things they like. A client will show me five rooms, and I’ll realize what they’re drawn to is natural materials and daylight. That person is seeking calm, tranquility and stillness. Alternatively, if a client shows me rooms full of black-and-white floors and bold art, I know they are seeking out energy.” That’s when Sutton brings in high-contrast elements such as glossy black doors and inky fireplaces. 

It’s not always easy. “Some clients will say ‘I love this room,’ but I’ll soon realize it’s not really the room they’re drawn to, it’s the coffee table.” How to figure that out for yourself? Gather a stack of design books and magazines, and mark the rooms you like. “Then cover different pieces of furniture with your hand and, one by one, ask yourself if that piece is what’s making the room feel good.” Another tactic: “Spread out those images on a table. Then have a conversation with your partner about what those interiors have in common.”

Understand your aesthetic

One of Sutton’s primary tasks is “to really understand our clients, who they are and what their lives are. There are a lot of designers who have an aesthetic and apply it to every project. We do the opposite. The project should feel as though it’s truly yours.”

At times, reconciling a client’s personality with their home’s architecture is a challenge. Sutton describes a woman who had purchased a dark, ornate mansion full of heavy molding and woodwork. “The client told me that at heart, she was still a 12-year-old girl who wanted to put on a party dress. Her favorite color was blush.  We kept the bones of the house, painted a backdrop of white, and introduced sparkle with modern art pieces that brought in her own vibrancy.” The key is finding the junction where the client’s aesthetic and their reality happily coexist.

Play the long game

Sutton says that the multitude of home improvement TV shows may have given the public a heightened awareness about good design, but that, “They can be very misleading as to time and budget for creating interior spaces. One cannot create a quality interior with a hot glue gun, $5,000 and a paintbrush. I’d be curious what some of those spaces look like a week or two after the camera crews leave.” Having said that, Sutton adds that there is one surefire trick that makes any room look instantly more polished and doesn’t cost a cent. “Edit out the clutter and let the space breathe.” If you find this challenging, bring in another set of eyes. “We get very attached to our things and often are so close that we lose perspective. Sometimes it helps to step away from your space and get advice from a third party.”  

Trust your instincts

Sutton is a proponent of displaying the physical memories accumulated while traveling, whether it’s a wall sconce from Morocco or a chair from a Paris flea market. He also acknowledges that investing in major pieces on the fly can be intimidating. “One needs to take a minute and make sure you aren’t just getting caught in the moment after several bottles of wine at lunch. You need to really love what you are buying and can imagine it in your home.”

But equally dangerous, he continues, is being too rational. “Generally speaking, I regret not buying things that I saw and loved. If I see something while traveling and I think that’s really cool, or that’s a beautiful piece of art, I tend to rationalize why it doesn’t make sense. And later, I’ll be working on a project and I’ll think, ‘why didn’t I buy that?’ ” The advice he tries to follow nowadays: “Walk away for a minute, come back, and if you still love something, get it. You will have a space for it eventually. Go with your gut.”  

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