Ep. 12: Dorothy Willetts' Desert Showstopper


dorothy willetts’

desert showstopper

episode notes

From runway to giving Renoir a run for his money, Dorothy Willetts’ design prowess knows no boundary. Her latest work, a sixty five million dollar Coachella Valley showpiece on 37 acres, comes replete with furnishings and art which she fearlessly conceptualized. An eleven bedroom, 40,000 square foot residence boasts almost every imaginable luxury amenity, (think expansive guest quarters, golf course, horses, helicopter pad, pool & spa), plus a few imaginative ones like a date farm, canals, lake, petting zoo (every home should be so lucky), and Margaritaville, the large outdoor bar complete with custom surfboards which bear the property’s logo.

Read the full article here. Transcript below

LOCATION: High Point Spring Market 2018, Mill Village Collective, High Point, North Carolina


INTERVIEWED: Dorothy Willetts, Willetts Design and Associates.


TDD: Welcome to The Design Daily. The beautiful Mill Village Collective at Spring 2018 High Point Market is the location for my conversation with Palm Springs, Interior Designer, Dorothy Willetts. She's fresh from a stunning new build in the Coachella Valley, which by the way was featured in the April edition of the Robb Report and it's a project that takes scale to the level of its grand desert surroundings. We also hear her thoughts on current design direction and how she guides designers in the process of selecting art for their clients. 

TDD: Dorothy, we're here in this wonderfully unique setting of artists and exhibitors, known as the Mill Village Collective. Could there be a more inspiring venue? We're surrounded by beautiful handmade items and hand hewn, one of a kind furnishings, textiles and art and so forth, in a building with such a beautiful industrial flavor. And you've just completed this stunning project in the Coachella valley and I would love to hear more about it. 

DW: Good morning. How are you? It's so great to see you again by the way. You know what, this is just a very cool space. I love these large columns in here. I love it. I love that they're making things out of felt, we’re sitting in front of this great screen. This is amazing. It's all laser cut.

The project we just finished, man. That is a $65,000,000 build. Yeah. And, let's see, what can I tell you about it? It's got eleven bedrooms. It's got a two and a half acre lake, a four hole golf course, a petting zoo, because you have to have a petting zoo, right? You can say something. 

TDD: I'm kind of speechless. Did you decide to incorporate that? 

DW: No, no. The architect and the the homeowner were working with each other originally, and then I was brought into the project after the original concept had been created. And then I was brought in to do a lot of the specifications of the material selections and then all of the furnishings and we just finished, (which is not in the Robb Report), we just finished a large outdoor bar called Margaritaville. So I did custom surf boards with the logo of the property on it and (laughter) I know, so much fun. 

TDD: You've been a little busy since we last spoke! 

DW: Yeah, I've been really busy and I'm going to take a vacation that at the end of the month because I've been so busy. 

TDD: Well deserved. 

DW: Yeah. So what else can I tell you about that? You know, almost all the furnishings there are custom because the space is so big and he's a really tall guy. He's over six feet tall and he wanted everything to be extra deep. So all of the sectionals in there are the actual depth of a twin bed. So they're 54 inches deep. Which worried me. And so we ended up having muslin mockups made for him because I wanted to make sure before we committed to all this furniture, that it was going to be right for the space, right for him. 

DW: He knew what he was getting because you don't want to make a mistake with that kind of budget. And they actually were great in the space because the space is so large, 

TDD: So really, some extraordinary considerations going into this project. And I loved the theme, the South Pacific, the Caribbean, the Asian influences. Tell me about some of the artistic objects and the artistic elements you chose for this space. 

DW: Well he didn't want any artwork originally. 

TDD: Oh wow!

DW: I know, you've got these big walls that just scream for art, but the outside is so amazing. It's like you didn't want to fight with it. And plus, you want that kind of quiet Zen thing. So we ended up making art. So I ended up taking Kuba cloths and having them stitched onto linen and making an 8 by 10 foot piece of art out of that. 

DW: And then I took Chinese corn mill grinders and I asked the builder if he'd be willing to kind of install them for me up the side of one of the walls as kind of sculptural thing. And another thing we did was take old Moroccan pots, and I had those painted kind of in an ombre effect and had them installed so that they went from light to dark on the wall.

TDD: Where did you get inspiration for all of that? 

DW: That kind of stuff just comes into my head. 

TDD: Okay. Just the rest of us mere mortals out here. Dorothy just thinks up these stunning items. 

DW: No, it's the kind of stuff that when you're in the shower and you're like, oh, I know what I'm going to do. It's kind of, you know, you're thinking about it, you're thinking about it, you're thinking about it. You're like, oh my God, I don't know what I'm going to do. And then all of a sudden, thank God you get some kind of click.

TDD: There was one piece in particular I wanted to ask about and when I read about it and how it was being described, I thought, what did she do? Did she look at this space and go, hmm, you know, I know exactly what's missing there? And it was the 21 foot long carved wood panel. 

DW: Yeah. Okay. So I was actually at a friend of my client's house and I saw something very similar and I found out who created the panel, and he's a French artist and he actually makes these things in, you know, proverbial French farm house. I saw pictures of where he lives and like, oh my gosh, this is so beautiful, you know, all these weird old tools hanging, and beautiful light and you know, the grass behind the farm house and, he makes these things with a chainsaw. So he carves these things out of wood and depending on the size of it, he'll make like a puzzle, make sections of it, carves this thing with a chainsaw, and then blow torches it to bring out the color of the wood, and then if you want to, stain in a different color . . .

TDD: And so we went back and forth with different color stains until I found the one that I wanted for that area and the whole thing was designed. I wanted to do something with the Zen sign and so I did a bunch of drawings and sent them to him and said this is kind of what I'm looking for. And we worked together to create this 21 foot long Zen piece of art. 

TDD: It's a statement, but because it's a piece of art, it's a quiet statement, it's imposing. But it's wow. And I want to let everybody know too that if you care to go and check out this entire project, it’s in this month’s Robb Report, correct? The April edition of the Robb Report, and see the entire project there. It was incredible. And what I also loved about the property too, of course was this growing trend we have toward indoor-outdoor. Of course, we get to do that in California and in the southwest. Other parts of the country as well. But this definitely blurred the lines between indoor and outdoor. 

DW: Yeah. I made a conscious choice to use almost all outdoor fabrics on the indoor pieces too, and most of the other materials that I chose are materials that are going to be okay if the doors are open 24 / 7 because like you said, the doors are open all the time down there and so you have to contend with the wind and the sand and the sunshine most especially. 

TDD: Well, shifting gears just a little bit. When we met in Vegas in January, you presented on a panel, and you talked about how clients can often feel lost when they're approaching their art choices. And you are speaking here in High Point about helping designers become more comfortable in guiding their clients’ artistic choices. Do most designers feel inhibited when it comes to suggesting art for their clients? And if so, why? 

DW: I don't know if I can speak for other designers. I know I did, and I know friends of mine that are designers that feel uncomfortable with it. I think it's kind of like being a sommelier. You know, you have a specialty. And there's so much knowledge to that, and you cannot as a designer have so much knowledge in just one particular subject. Let me say that a different way. 

DW: I think a designer is more like the general manager of the restaurant. He knows a lot about everything but he's not the specialist. And so you're not the sommelier. And I think it comes that way with art too. It's its own monster, and so hiring specialists or making friends with the gallery owners, or bringing in an art consultant. It just helps you increase your breadth of knowledge and increases your bottom line. It gives you more value to your client. So it's just a great way to bring in more services for your client. 

TDD: So how are you encouraging designers to make that process less daunting? 

DW: Just making friends with the gallery owners in your area is the first step, because then you start learning what galleries are representing, what type of art, and then you can have a conversation with your client or you go to your client's house and you see what they do or don't have. And then from there starting to go to the art shows and you know, finding art consultants that specialize in particular genres of art also helps a lot. 

TDD: So you don't necessarily have to have your masters degree in Renaissance art or anything like that. 

DW: Exactly. 

TDD: Do your clients ever challenge your art choices? 

DW: You know what, I don't mind if they do, because I want them to be engaged and it's actually more difficult to work with a client who says that they don't care. I want you to care. I want you to be invested. I want you to be excited. So I'd prefer that they actually gave me some input on that. 

TDD: That's fair enough. I would never personally challenge you. 

TDD: I have rather a strange question for you, if you could transport yourself to a specific design era or a place or a time, when or where would it be and why? 

DW: Ooh, that's a good question. Um, to different places. I always wanted to go to Egypt to see how they built the pyramids. 

TDD: Okay. Fabulous choice. 

DW: I want to know how they did that. And just the artwork and the drawings and the paintings and the makeup and the jewelry and the clothing. Hello? Right. And then my other one would probably be to go see Michelangelo, the Renaissance. Yeah. I'm sure I'm forgetting something else.

TDD: So we've started kind of small . . .

DW: But you know me! 

TDD: Exactly. Just the society that kind of started it all and yeah. And coming from the gal who just decides to take fabrics meant for interiors and make award winning runway designs

TDD: So what do you think then is the greatest influence that's driving design right now? 

DW: I think that there's a trend toward maximalism again, which I'm thrilled about and, not that I like a heavily decorated room, but I also like something more layered than just midcentury modern or minimalism. I want it to be more thoughtful. My personal style, my personal look would be something where there is mid century modern and Biedermeier, and some really cool modern pieces of art, and maybe a concrete floor and some beautiful pieces of wood. Something a little bit more eclectic and more curated I guess. And I do see a movement toward that and I also see a movement back toward a little bit more color, which I think is great. I'm kind of over the whole grey thing.

TDD: So we're, we're really taking more of an interest in all things. And people it seems, are taking more of an interest in educating themselves, to what you were saying earlier about art, about materials and services and so forth. Then we get this beautiful blend. 

DW: I agree, I agree. Which in itself can be a little challenging because on the one hand the clients think they know more and they think that they can do it themselves, which puts you in a little bit of an awkward position when you start out because they realized that they can't do it all themselves.

TDD: Tell them they should just listen to Dorothy and let that be that. So what's really catching your eye this market? 

DW: I'm liking all the texture that I'm seeing. I mean, we're sitting under a felt lamp that's been what looks like, you know, it's not hand-stitched, but it's got these kind of faux hand stitches on it, which is just great. And it's made with what looks like a wrought iron frame of some kind and it's fantastic. 

TDD: And it's acoustic!. 

DW: Exactly. And then the screen too, it was a laser cut screen made out of felt, which again is super cool and different. So I'm really liking that. And then I'm also seeing the jewel tones, I'm seeing some of the jewel tones coming back, which again, I like seeing that. 

TDD: Like you were saying earlier, it's a nice departure from all the grey. 

TDD: Well, I'm delighted to have had the opportunity to talk with you, to catch up with you again this market. And maybe we can do this again very soon again. 

DW: I don't know if you'll be in LA for LCDQ, but we'll be doing LCDQ. We're doing a window this year! Yeah, we’re doing the window at Woven Accents.

TDD: Fantastic! Maybe I’ll get to see you there!