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Publication Date: 2011-12-19

Behind the Design

Q&A with Peter Dunham of Hollywood at Home

It’s good to be Peter Dunham’s passport: It has seen a lot of cosmopolitan locales, including France, Spain, and England—where he was raised, summered, and studied, respectively. But the worldly designer has found his place in sunny Los Angeles, base camp for Peter Dunham Designs and Hollywood at Home, a shop where his handmade, upholstered pieces are the stars of their own high-style screenplays. We caught up with the man who blends multicultural influences with cinematic flair—right down to a fetching side chair from a Marilyn Monroe movie.

Q: Is there such a thing as the Peter Dunham style?

A: I do traditional and contemporary work, but with both I like a certain layering of new things, vintage things, books, art, and a variety of textures and materials.

Q: Has that look remained consistent over time?

A: I am consistent in my approach to strengthening the architecture of an environment whenever I can, and consistent in how I like to structure furniture layouts, as well as in my desire to give houses atmosphere—not just a look. But I think we all continually change in ways that reflect the times and our visual experiences. Also, as things become trendy, I like to move on.

Q: You tend to play with scale. What are some ways to inject dramatic scale into a space?

A: In a high-ceilinged room, use an oversized chandelier. De-electrify it and just use it with candles so it becomes a piece of sculpture rather than a glaring light fixture, and it anchors the space. In a small room, choose a bold, big-pattern print and cover everything in it, the French way: walls, curtains, upholstery, et cetera. It gives the room vibrancy and glamor. Also, use large, but fewer, pieces in a small room—like a sofa that may seem too big—so it feels luxurious. In a large room, use smaller-scale pieces to create several areas and bring the space more to human scale.

Q: What’s a favorite piece in your Dering Hall storefront?

A: The How to Marry a Millionaire Side Chair. I bought the original one at a Hollywood-memorabilia sale—it came from the set of the 1953 movie. It works just as well in urban as rustic settings, in contemporary or traditional rooms. It’s a very flexible chair, and super-comfortable. I am a big sucker for anything rush- or cane-seated. It really says “Hollywood” to me.

Q: How would you mix pieces from Hollywood at Home with things that are quite different?

A: I often pair the New York Athletic Club Armchairs or the How to Marry a Millionaire Side Chairs with a very sleek Saarinen dining table. They give each other complementary textures. The Portofino Coffee Table goes really well with a modern Italian sectional—it gives a bit more personality and a natural, handmade element. Put the Tangier Wicker Chair with a big-scale English chintz sofa: The wicker totally pricks the prissiness of the upholstery.

Q: You’ve designed projects as diverse as a dermatology office and a beach hotel. Do they share any design principles with your residential work?

A: They all require a lot of attention to the background. For me, it’s important to create a background that feels like it’s always been there—often a perfected version, but it should seem timeless and like it belongs to the site. I try and do this with all my residential spaces. Spec houses, in particular, are usually lacking in the special touches that give the spaces a grounded feel. Often they need a lot of bookcases, fireplaces, better floors, and more lighting sources to give them warmth and a lived-in atmosphere.

Q: You have your own line of rather worldly textiles. What are some new influences working their ways into your designs?

A: I work primarily in ethnic geometrics. After working with Indian and Persian designs, I am experimenting with African textiles. They are a bit gutsier and do really well in edgier, modern interiors, as they are more rhythmic and abstract.

Q: What are the three things that every room needs?

A: First, great lighting. Even a 7-Eleven can be made to look glamorous and sexy with the right lighting. I look to vary it as much as possible, layering the sources from sconces, lamps, and candles to floor lamps and ceiling fixtures so nothing glares out at you, and to create a warm balance. Second, great carpets. It’s the first thing you look at so it’s important to have good floor coverings. I use mostly area rugs about 12” from the outer edges of a room. Often I layer small, more-precious rugs on a large piece of sisal. Third, a great scent. Nothing is more of a sensual buzzkill than a stale-smelling house. You only have four major décor senses: sight, touch, smell, and sound. You have got to seduce them all.

- Rob Brinkley

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