Designer Spotlight: Tyson Ness

Living room (fireplace in Lilac marble)

Living room (fireplace in Lilac marble)

Fawn Galli Interiors’ Tyson Ness is a time-traveler. Better still, he builds time machines in his interiors, which have the ability to transport their occupants to innumerable times and places throughout the history of the decorative arts. The spaces he designs invoke strong emotions: a panoply of moods and, at times, a sense of the uncanny. But far from invoking the horrors of the Overlook Hotel of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, these uncanny environments are engaging, dynamic, unexpected, and exciting.

A true designer’s designer, he is unafraid to make bold decisions. We had a chance to sit down with Tyson and interview him: the idea was get him to talk about some of his inspirations and techniques, but we ended up taking a master class in the mechanics of the creative process, a portrait of the struggles and ambitions of a gifted designer who throws caution to the wind while navigating creative wellsprings of past and present, to produce bold, visionary work. Meet Tyson Ness, and have a look at some of his exquisite interiors!

ABC Stone: Who do you design for, and why?

Tyson Ness: I always design for the client. At Fawn Galli we have a certain “look,” but if you look at our projects, we work with our clients closely to give them a space they feel like reflects them. At the end of the day, I’m not the one living in the spaces, I want our clients to look back in five years and feel like their space is still totally them.

ABC: Are your interiors able to retain their aesthetic integrity after they’ve been lived in; are they, in this sense, fluid environments?

TN: We want our interiors to feel like they can be used and lived in, however, we also often choose materials and products that are durable enough to handle life. I’ve found most of my projects have retained their integrity over time.

ABC: What do you think or feel when you look at an empty space—or, for that matter, a space which you intend to renovate?

TN: It’s full of new possibility! I can think of a million different ways to treat a space. An empty space, or a space that has yet to be built, is even better, because there isn’t anything to cloud the vision. The beginning of the project is one of the most exciting aspects because it’s in its infancy and allows for us to dream big—without any of the reality checks that inevitably happen.

ABC: And what do you feel when you begin to work on it?

TN: By the time I’m able to work on the project, I’ve taken the emotional journey of the planning stage, so it’s the moment when I’m able to see ideas realized. To see something go from a 2D drawing or from a vague thought in my head is something I still get excited by.

ABC: Why is it important for you to work from sketches and drawings?

TN: I find that I can convey my thoughts and intent more accurately through a drawing than through verbal or written instructions. Images and drawings are somewhat of a universal language that I find most trades can understand. They also help me to prevent any mistakes, because we work with a drawing that is accurate to what the expectations are.

ABC: To what extent does research play a role in your creative process?

TN: I’m always researching, like… all the time. I live on Pinterest in my downtime. And even walking around I see details and items that catch my eye. My camera roll is filled with small detail shots and weird inspiration pictures, that really only mean anything to me. They spark an idea and, even if it’s not applicable to a project I’m working on, I store them away and revisit them later. It’s always weird to go back and pull an idea that I had four years ago and see it start to become realized.

ABC: You’ve described yourself as a history buff. How, if in any way, does this proclivity figure into your work?

TN: History offers very interesting ideas to draw inspiration from. The detailing and craftsmanship of interiors in the past offer cool ideas to incorporate into modern day interiors. I also love the color stories of the past. Things people lived with always fuel my fire and creativity. I usually always reference past images as sources of inspiration, whether it’s a pattern detail on a shirt to a Mod rainbow rug, I can usually always find something I want us to tackle and reimagine for use today.

ABC: Do you consider yourself to be a kind of “time-traveler”?

TN: I think it’s weird to say, but I have always had an affinity for older items. I would say time-traveler is an appropriate term. It sounds much better than saying I’ve had multiple lives… which I’m sure I have. If I believed in that sort of thing…

ABC: What are the most common obstacles you encounter in your work?

TN: NYC buildings are the biggest obstacle. Learning the building hours, rules and operations protocols is always the biggest hurdle. A house out in the Hamptons or in Jersey doesn’t have the rules and politics that you run into with the large apartment buildings in the city.

ABC: Can you talk about the process by which art objects are introduced into your interiors? Are they of your own choosing; do you find yourself working around the choices of others?

TN: The relationship of art to the interiors really depends on the project. Some of our clients have an existing collection that they want to incorporate into the interior, which we know about at the beginning of the process, and plan for. Others need some guidance and/or want to do it after the interior is completed. Art is extremely personal and we prefer to have our clients use pieces that resonate with them and are unique.

Kitchen in New Jersey.

Kitchen in New Jersey: “Taking cues from the rest of the house, we created a kitchen that is white, but far from boring.” —Tyson Ness

ABC: Many of your interiors could be described as “moody”: what sorts of visceral-emotional responses do you like your work to invoke?

TN: I want my interiors to feel sexy and unique. Obviously this depends on the client, but I’m lucky to work with a great firm and clients that allow us to have fun. Life is too short to play it safe, having fun with an interior and tailoring it to the personalities of the client is what we live for.

ABC: I was especially taken with the rooftop garden of your Tribeca Penthouse, and felt as though it took me to another time and place. How collaborative was that space? Where did the inspiration come from?

TN: That client was from Texas, originally, and split her time between Texas and NYC. She really missed the open, private outdoor spaces of her Texas home, and wanted us to help her recreate that feeling in the city. The terraces (there were three) were a major reason why she purchased the apartment in the first place.

ABC: What sorts of factors do you consider when choosing a light fixture for a specific room? Does a particular kind of bathroom, kitchen, dining room, necessitate a particular kind of bathroom-, kitchen-, or dining room-lighting fixture?

TN: Whenever I start choosing lighting for a room, I take into consideration what the room is going to be used for, and what other light sources are available. I typically like to do “layers” of light. An overhead light to generally light the space, sconces and tall floor lamps to light the middle of the room, and task lighting and table lamps for more directed spots. In bathrooms, kitchens, and utility rooms, I tend to “over-light” the space, as I find that I can never have enough light. We always put lighting on dimmers to really add another layer of adjustability to the space.

ABC: In designing dining rooms and kitchens, to what extent are you influenced by restaurants?

TN: More so in dining rooms than kitchens. I find that restaurants are able to take more risks on a larger level that help to inspire spaces that are usually very standard. Some of my favorite restaurants, from which I’m pulling inspiration lately, are: Le CouCou by Roman and Williams; The Durham Hotel by Commune Design; Monsieur Bleu by Joseph Dirand; The Gallery at Sketch by India Mahdavi; Llama by BIG and Kilo Design; The American Restaurant by Warren Platner.

ABC: To what extent do advancements in the technology of the present influence your work: is there anything you’re able to do now that you might not have been able to do five or six years ago?

TN: I think that technological advancements have really made major differences in interiors, with items becoming thinner, wireless or cordless, we are really able to clean up the technological “clutter”—think multiple switches on a wall, bulky televisions and entertainment centers—to really allow the interior to shine. I don’t have to center rooms around a major built-in, that houses the television, stereo and entertainment consoles, because everything is neatly tucked away into A/V closets and accessible via iPad. In terms of product or furniture design, the advancements in CNC (computer-controlled) cutting have really allowed us to create interesting shapes and cutouts that are more precise and take less time—and less money.

ABC: Your graduate project was a re-imagination of the Kemmerer Hotel: what attracted you to the Kemmerer, what do you find interesting about it?

TN: Kemmerer, Wyoming is my hometown! The hotel was a downtown landmark that fell into neglect and was eventually demolished. It was one of the first buildings built there, and was actually older than the town. It was something that had been woven into the fabric of who I am, and when it was torn down (to become an empty lot) it really struck a chord with me. I think it was at that moment that a spark was ignited that would eventually lead me to the path of becoming an interior designer. Taking spaces that have been forgotten or abandoned and bringing them back to life is always something very rewarding to me. My graduate project was done to help show members of my community what could’ve happened with the hotel. Though it was very idealistic.

ABC: And you started work as an assistant, and later project manager, for a stone company, and have said it was there that you learned the in’s & out’s of stone. Was this experience influential upon your design ethos and aesthetic?

TN: My first job in the design industry was working with one of my professors for a marble and stone fabricator in Utah. I later became a project manager. This experience was extremely beneficial to and formative for me as a designer. Since I was a salesperson and in the fabrication side of stone, I really was able to learn what was possible with stone, and its different attributes. I think this experience really allows me to speak intelligently and give my clients the confidence to take a chance on a stone that isn’t typical or standard.

ABC: Did it inspire a pointed interest in or preoccupation with stone as a decorative material?

TN: I think that it did, in a way. Stone offers something totally unique and one of a kind. A quality that I think all projects can benefit from. I like to try to push the way that I use stone in my projects, whether that’s from an unexpected location to a different application or installation method. I think the natural qualities of stone lend themselves to any style of interior. I also know that stone is all about the context in which it’s used and how it’s fabricated.

ABC: Could you elaborate more on your stone experience as formative in your evolution as an artist?

TN: Working on the fabrication side of stone really gave me an advantage in knowing what was possible. I worked in a place that utilized technology and classic techniques for fabricating stone. While most people continue to do the same thing, and are exposed to the same thing, I know of a completely different world in terms of what is possible. I think this knowledge really helped me approach stone as a puzzle, to help unlock its full potential.

ABC: Complete the sentence, a well-designed space has to__________.

TN: Feel like it wasn’t designed at all, but was an evolution over time.

ABC: Who/what are some of your “design muses”?

TN: Current obsession is Dimore Studio, anything they touch is magic. Gio Ponti will always hold the key to my heart along with the architecture of McKim, Mead and White.

ABC: What are some of your favorite decorating sources?

TN: 1st Dibs, Pamono, Vintage Stores, Dering Hall, Pinterest, and Etsy; also, Instagram has been killing it lately with people/artists for me to follow.

ABC: Who/what is inspiring you right now?

TN: Ilse Crawford and India Mahdavi (have you seen India’s bishop stool in stone? I just… can’t).

ABC: Do you have any parting words of wisdom?

TN: Interiors are, first and foremost, for the person who lives there. Who cares if everyone else says it’s ugly. If it’s something that speaks to you and makes you happy, do it.

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