Ep. 5: Dorothy Willetts 'Speaks' Art, Knows Where it Lives

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Dorothy Willetts

'Speaks' Art, Knows Where it Lives

episode notes:

“Art” can be perceived as one of those rare languages, spoken and reserved for translation by a discerning few, and meant for the “hallowed halls” of luxurious environments. Not so, says acclaimed interior designer, Dorothy Willetts, someone who speaks the language with fluency. With A-List clientele, and a background rich in art, antiques, and architecture, she’s east coast grounded, west coast spirited and a vibrant proponent of great art’s ability to “live” in diverse settings. Dorothy was a key contributor at Las Vegas World Market’s Art Expo, and panelist for Start With the Art, and 60 Tips in 60 Minutes. She is Founder of Willetts Design & Associates, based in the Coachella Valley. Transcript below.

LOCATION: Las Vegas World Market Center, Las Vegas, Nevada

DATE OF INTERVIEW: January 29, 2018

INTERVIEWED: Dorothy Willetts, Willetts Design & Associates



TDD: Welcome to The Design Daily.

DW: "I wanted to make sure that people understand that art's not just for the uber wealthy."

TDD:  If you've ever felt that art is a language to be understood by only a discerning few, or that great art belongs only in the likes of museums or mansions. You're not alone. Dorothy Willetts is an acclaimed interior designer based in the Coachella Valley, who not only speaks the language of art with fluency, but she's a vibrant proponent for placing great art in diverse, and often unlikely environments. Dorothy was a key contributor and panelist for two events at Las Vegas World Market's Art Expo: Start With the Art and 60 Tips in 60 Minutes.

TDD: So, we are here at Las Vegas Market with Dorothy Willetts, Founder of Willetts Design & Associates, who has not only designed stunning and luxurious residents from southern California and the desert to British Columbia, but she's also a key contributor and a panelist at Art Expo here in Las Vegas.

TDD: And Dorothy, I have to say that I knew I'd like you when I read that you "geek out over plumbing fixtures and door hardware." I felt affirmed!

DW: Are you a fan of door hardware and fixtures also?

TDD: I am!

DW: Yeah, you know what, it's the weirdest thing! I don't know if it's the simplicity of the design or the shapes of them or the utilitarian-ness of them. I love all of that stuff. I really do.

TDD: There's a certain satisfaction that comes from, even if you can't see it,  just knowing that it's the right piece . . . it's almost like the art behind the walls,  or I don't know, the "art within" or something.

DW: Structure. It's the structure of the building, the structure of the house, the structure of the plumbing fixtures, and then there's nothing better than an nice bath tub with a big bubbly bath in it.

TDD: That's exactly right.

TDD: You are able to speak rather uniquely to both the interior architecture and the design of a space and then marry everything together with the right pieces of art. Have you always had an instinctive ability to pair art with interiors?

DW: I started painting before I could write and draw or anything, or, write and talk, so I actually started painting as a kid. There are pictures of me painting. So I think that's always just been a natural inclination of mine, and then deciding that I probably wasn't going to make it as an artist, you know, to pay the bills, I decided to go into interior design and interior architecture, but it was still really art oriented. I went to the school at The Art Institute of Chicago, and I was surrounded by, you know, "artists" all the time, which is really energizing and really fun.

DW: So I've always, always had those two things together and it's just a natural inclination for me.

TDD: Your recent project, Living With Art, tell me how this came about.

DW:  Gosh, I just, honestly, I don't even remember what the inspiration was at this point, but I got it in my head that I wanted to do 12 different looks, and we did it in 24 hours, and we literally took a room about the size of this little area that we're sitting in and did 12 different looks based on different artists. So we worked in tandem with a gallery from Palm Desert called Heather James Gallery, and they represent Picasso, Calder, Brock. So we really had those pieces. We didn't touch them, we had handlers, and they would set up the paintings where I wanted them in the room. And then we had different furniture vendors that I work with, loan us the furniture to create these different looks. And it was really just to show people that you might not be able to afford a Picasso, but most certainly it doesn't have to look like a museum in order for the Picasso to be in the house.

DW: You know, even if it's just a simple piece of poster art, it can still be in a really fancy room. I wanted to make sure that people understand the art's not just for the uber wealthy. It's for all of us.

TDD: What are some of the ways that you can accomplish that, or how did you accomplish it in that setting?

DW: Well, we did use a little bit of street art, which is really popular right now. Street art is anything that's coming off of the street. A lot of homeless people are creating art. They're really creative and some of these people like Lee Godie, from Chicago. She's passed away recently. She was a street artist whose work became very, very sought after, after awhile, and then originally, you could buy it for maybe five, ten, fifty dollars. Now it's five thousand, ten thousand, fifteen thousand dollars. So as just a collector or somebody who's starting out, you could buy something for five dollars from somebody. If you love it and it brings you happiness, then why not?

DW: So, that was kind of our base from which to start showing people that you don't have to be a millionaire to do this.

TDD: For so many people, choosing art is often so daunting. The process of balancing and incorporating it in their environment. How do you demystify that? 

DW: It's an education process and I tell everybody this. It's an education process about area rugs, about art, about furnishings. People don't know anything about any of this stuff. Why would they? Unless that's their field of expertise, right? And so you start them off with things that are familiar to them. So, realism. When it comes to art, everybody knows a picture of a bridge is a bridge, and then you move them into abstract, and you move them into modern, and all along you're you're educating them. And you do it with a carpet too, you show them broadloom carpeting. Then you show them maybe a custom computer-generated carpet, and then you show them something beautiful that was handwoven in the Berber mountains. But if you start off with that abstract piece, painting, or the abstract art or carpet, they're not gonna understand what they're looking at and it's going to turn them off.

TDD: So, they find an object or a piece of art that they just really love, that they have some attachment to or affection for. Is that a great place to start?

DW:  Heck yeah. That's exactly the place to start.

TDD: How do you design a room around a piece of art? What are the considerations?

DW: We just did a panel yesterday called Start With the Art, and if I had a client who started with a collection or if I have a client who has a particular piece of art that they love, we would use that as the basis from which to design the room.

DW:  I don't necessarily design the style of a room around a piece of art. If it's a modern piece of art, it doesn't have to go with modern furniture. You can go with midcentury modern or it could go with antiques. In fact, I think it's more interesting using modern art with antiques. I love that look, so using the style of the art isn't necessarily what I would start from, but maybe the colors that are in the in the piece, and using them as accents in the room.

TDD: Is there a trend right now? Are there particular genres or media that you're seeing that people are seeking?

DW: I think that art is becoming more and more available to the general public because of social media, so that in itself is a trend for sure. I mean, you're seeing images now on a daily basis that you weren't exposed to before.

DW: Within the art world, there's a trend toward street art, which again was what I was telling you about before.

TDD: Apparently for 2018, we're hearkening back to romantic and realistic art.

DW:  I think that's great. I love the fact that we're always changing, and I think because of the social media and the computerization of everything, we're seeing a transition into not only just more romantic art, but we're also seeing that in furnishings, fixtures and appliances too: more bespoke, more handmade, more handcrafted. So that's going to go into all the home furnishings and the art world.

TDD: It is interesting how it's playing out: the detail, the color, everything is more than blending. It's all melding together beautifully.

DW: It's a reaction to the computerization of everything.

TDD: What have been some of the inspirations that you've pulled from your travels, that have affected your perspective, how you see things today, and how have you pulled that into your work?

DW:  One of the things I love about traveling is seeing what other people are doing. I mean the Europeans are always so stylish and anytime you go to Italy or Paris, I'm walking around with my mouth open all the time because everything, from the way they dress, their food presentation, their art, their homes . . . But then I've also gone to places like Ecuador or Morocco, which are are just an explosion of color and culture, and it visually stimulates you, and it just kind of helps get you excited about things again.

DW: That's so true, especially since we've seen so much of a Moroccan influence in the last several years. Speaking of fashion though, I understand that you have made some strides in that direction, and quite uniquely, bringing in some fabrics and trims and so forth, that we would normally see in the interior design world, into fashion.  How did that come about and how's that working out? What are your plans there?

DW: Oh Gosh. I would love to do something with that. I actually grew up sewing. I grew up in the sixties and seventies. My mom's a fifties mom, so I learned how to cook and sew, and so I've always made my own clothing and yeah, it's a craft that nobody does anymore.

TDD: I agree.

DW: So, I've always loved fashion design and again, because I went to the Art Institute, I was surrounded by people doing this stuff all the time, and when I was presented with the contest that we were going to do, I created this dress and we took first place with it. It was just a really fantastic design. It was using some Jim Thompson fabric and I'm a big fan of Jim Thompson, and it was actually a reproduction of a Tony Duquette design that he had done previously.  And I don't know if it was for Jim Thompson or if they've purchased the rights to that.

TDD: I must admit I saw it and it was stunning.

DW: Thank you so much. Thank you.

TDD: So, tell me, what is on the horizon for you?

DW:  Well, we're going to be doing a panel at High Point this year. I'm also going to be doing a window at LCDQ in LA. So I'm really looking forward to that. And I'm just getting more work and traveling around!

TDD:  A lot on your plate already!

DW:  Thank you so much. Nice meeting you.

TDD:  It was nice meeting you as well. I really appreciate your time.