The upheavals of the past two years are giving rise to fresh trends in interior design
BY GUSSIE FAUNTLEROY | PHOTOS BY ROBERT RECK
A couple of years ago, interior designer Victoria Sanchez of Santa Fe’s Victoria at Home began to notice a strong resurgence of client interest in antiques—what the industry calls “brown furniture”—as well as a return to jewel-toned, floral fabrics. With a busy practice in Santa Fe and on the East Coast, Sanchez is known for keeping her eye on the market and spotting emerging styles. With this shift, however, she guessed there was something more than a casual trend going on. In the midst of a pandemic, she concludes, “We’re all seeking emotional comfort, and these styles are like a memory of your grandparents’ house in the country with a lot of history and antiques, the floor that squeaks, coverlets on the furniture.”
The experiences of the past two-and-a-half years have had major reverberations in the interior design field, not the least of which is the greatly increased demand for design help as homeowners remodel to meet changing needs and lifestyle patterns or migrate out of large cities. At the same time, builders, designers, and homeowners have had to deal with an unstable production and shipping environment, often resulting in very long waits for deliveries. Yet even as the pandemic and its restrictions begin to loosen their grip, local designers predict that for this year and beyond, a sense of reordered priorities means some changes are here to stay.
Among these: the desire to reestablish and strengthen personal connections with family and friends after endless months of social distancing and Zoom calls. A home’s design and layout can either facilitate or discourage connections, and designers are finding ways to help clients live with those they love in a more interactive way. “There’s no better place to be than sitting in comfortable chairs at a round table, allowing the free exchange of ideas and inspiration in a conversation. Everyone is engaged,” notes Tonia Prestupa, a Santa Fe–based designer for more than 20 years.
Prestupa calls on her knowledge of fashion design to incorporate textiles, trim, and tailoring details into her interiors, as well as elements of the Japanese tea ceremony, which she has studied for many years. Through the ceremony’s focus on mindfulness, she has learned that beauty expresses itself “not only through objects themselves but also in their essence and placement. This instills a sense of tranquility in its purest form.”
To cope with the shifting priorities and new demands on our living spaces, Smith Interior Design’s Megan Smith and Janen Korth suggest “breaking the rules.” With living room furniture, for example, they encourage ditching the standard arrangement of sofa, coffee table, and two chairs in favor of flexible conversation areas. This could mean four oversized upholstered chairs by the fireplace or around a coffee table, for example, with “big cushy throw pillows and ottomans or a special antique chair that can turn the space into a private haven,” Korth says.
Prestupa is inspired by a sofa whose center section is backless, allowing someone to sit facing either direction, joining conversations in different circles. “All of a sudden it creates a fabulous way to bring people together,” she says. She adds that the traditional low coffee table requires bending down, so why not try smaller tables of an appropriate height that can be moved around as needed? As Sanchez puts it, “We’ve sat on our sofas for two-and-a-half years, and one thing I’ve seen is that clients are less willing to compromise with comfort and livability.”
When the pandemic began, its impact was felt first in certain segments of the industry. Heather and Matt French, owners of French and French Interiors, enjoyed a busy practice in hotel and commercial design prior to 2020. That came to a halt once the pandemic hit, and the firm’s business model, based on a showroom and walk-in clients, no longer worked. Pivoting swiftly, the Frenches closed the showroom and opened an office-studio space. As homeowners began lining up to remodel their homes, the couple’s residential business shot up. “In 2021 it was off the charts,” Heather French says.
What clients needed first, she explains, was creative thinking about homes that suddenly were required to accommodate multiple functions: homeschooling kids, working from home, carving out some workout space, eating in. Guest rooms could be repurposed as offices, while home exercise equipment could be camouflaged or hidden away in ingenious ways. Innovative furniture can help as well; Heather recalls a custom desk she saw in a House Beautiful showhouse where the desk legs were sturdy blocks that could be easily disassembled and converted into exercise steps.
Some clients working from home for the first time wanted private nooks or a room with closable doors. “We’re seeing fewer wide-open interiors, lessons learned from parents working from home and kids doing school by Zoom,” Sanchez says. Many homeowners without children, on the other hand, were ready to ditch the office/cubby concept and set up a workspace at the kitchen island or in other open areas amidst the relaxing beauty of their home.
Migration from large cities is nothing new to Santa Fe, as its quieter pace and merging of architecture and art from Native, Spanish Colonial, and European-American cultures have drawn people for centuries. But the pace has quickened over the past two years. Smith Interior Design’s clientele today is cosmopolitan, yet more than ever seeking escape from the crowding and stress of the city. “We call it ‘suits to cowboy boots.’ They’re looking for the laid-back lifestyle but still want an elegant, artful, peaceful place. Santa Fe has that vernacular,” Korth says. Whether within the comfort of Santa Fe or elsewhere, clients want their home to feel like a safe haven. Even at this point in the pandemic, Korth says, there’s still a “strong trend toward nesting and cocooning.”
Today, as clients look ahead to society’s “new normal,” some trends that gained traction over the past couple of years are likely to endure, local designers say. One is the value and popularity of performance fabrics, whose effectiveness was mightily tested when everyone, kids and pets included, spent so much time inside. Durable, easy-to-clean fabrics for upholstery and rugs have come a long way since the days of outdoor-use materials in a few basic colors or stripes. This almost-indestructible quality can be built into a range of high-end materials including velvet, linen, and mohair, with elegant touches such as tassel trims, a variety of colors and patterns, and woven bouclé.
French remembers one client who had three kids, dogs, birds, and cats. In the living room was a beautiful tufted ottoman made of high-performance mohair. After climbing onto the roof to patch a leak one day, the husband sat down and put his feet up on the ottoman—with tar still on his boots. “I had sworn to the wife that this was great fabric,” French says. “And she just cleaned it right up.”
Bringing the outdoors inside—in less literal ways—has long been a central element in New Mexico homes, and this preference has been further strengthened by the pandemic. Integrated indoor/outdoor spaces include large windows with less-fussy window treatments to allow in more light, fully outfitted outdoor living areas, and the use of similar colors and upholstery on both indoor and outdoor furniture. “Clients want to be able to seamlessly walk out onto the portal to enjoy the view with a glass of wine,” notes Korth. Colors in general, both indoors and out, moved several notches up the cheerfulness scale from the once ubiquitous gray.
Another thing clients increasingly demand, and which designers predict will also be a lasting trend, is the use of sustainable, non-toxic, and eco-friendly materials and manufacturing processes. And with the unreliability of production capacity and long delivery waits caused by supply-chain snafus, the focus has shifted to local and domestically made furnishings and accessories. “We learned a hard lesson with COVID, with everything made in China and sitting on docks in containers, not unloaded,” Sanchez says. She carries a number of lines of American-made upholstery and furniture.
Santa Fe designers have actually been aligned with this approach for decades, incorporating local art and artisan-crafted items, including elements in hand-forged iron, reclaimed wood, Spanish Colonial antiques, and Native pottery and rugs. Many of these objects have been around for centuries and will outlast future social changes or passing trends. As Prestupa puts it, “The provenance of a quality piece, its story, the history of the time it was made, and the artistry involved bring with it an uncontrived consciousness, a quality reflecting the combination of sophistication and indigenous techniques.” The bottom line, she adds, is “to bring out an authentic experience for clients in their space.”
Heather French concurs. Her approach to design was greatly influenced by the time she spent in Nepal as a student of medical anthropology. In remote villages where almost nothing could be purchased new, she says, she was struck by how handcrafted objects were valued and handed down through generations.
With many of the “new trends” thus incorporating qualities and styles that have long been part of Santa Fe’s distinctive aesthetic, local designers are well placed to lead the nationwide movement toward design that reflects and accommodates rapid social change.