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Publication Date: 2011-12-05

Behind the Design

Q&A with Tim Clarke

He’s got the blonde shag, but don’t call interior designer Tim Clarke a surfer (despite what many a blog will tell you, he’s never hung ten). As the guy who wrote the book on the coastal modern aesthetic (literally—Clarkson Potter is publishing Coastal Modern next spring), Clarke’s signature style has graced the interiors of houses along both the Pacific and the Atlantic. With clients from Portia de Rossi to Ben Stiller, Clarke creates spaces that make their owners feel as if they’re on a beach holiday—without the cliché signifiers like anchors and seashells. While cruising along PCH, the Santa Monica-based decorator gives us insight into his “comfortable, lived-in look.”

Q: How would you define your aesthetic?

A: There’s something about the way you feel at the beach that informs my style: You feel relaxed. I’d say my style is easy to live with, it makes you feel like you’re on vacation. It’s not too manufactured. And it feels lived in.

Q: How do you achieve that?

A: It starts with the quality of finishes—whether painted or stained wood, they should all be very matte; almost as though they have a lack of finish, that nature aged them. This gives the room a softness, the opposite of slick. Then I stick with fabrics that are organic and textured. I would never use a chenille sofa or a lot of velvet, because you’d never wear a velvet suit at the beach. It doesn’t make sense. Instead, I’ll use a linen chair, like my San Onofre, that has leather trim and fits with the laid-back vibe.

Q: You’re a master at mixing styles—retro and modern, beachy and formal. How do you do that without making a space look dense or kitschy?

A: One trick I have is to choose fabrics with traditional patterns in large-scale repeats—their size gives a contemporary twist. And I like to start out designing a space with a simple form that doesn’t look like it comes from any time, then building around it. I approach a room almost like accessorizing an outfit: you start with khaki pants, your white shirt, and loafers, then you throw on that crazy necklace. Same with a room. Take the Del Mar Trestle Table. You can put any chair you want around it—a formal, high-backed leather one like the Huntington Dining Chair, or the driftwood Malibu Wicker Chair, which also works outside. The tension between the two aesthetics—rustic and formal, heavy and light—is what feels so good and so right.

Q: You collect a lot of interesting shapes: surfboards, ancient tree trunks, bicycles. How would you suggest people use them in their homes?

A: I love the shape of the Dano Vintage Surfboards. They are handmade and one-of-a-kind, and I use them as art, hung horizontally, or just leaned against the wall to add a pop of color to a room. Those Wood Stumps and Ancient Trunk Fragments are the perfect vertical items for contrast with a very horizontal setting, like a table, without being too precious or too fancy. They’ve got great texture: they’re made by nature! You’re not going to ever find that reproduced again. The Welded Steel Amish Scooter is funny because it doesn’t have pedals—you put one foot on the platform and then push! It’s made by hand, and it’s a functional piece, but it gives you this idea of a laid-back lifestyle right away.

Q: What would you say is your trademark piece?

A: I use the Pipeline Sofa a lot. It’s classically shaped and looks good in almost any fabric—I’ve done it in solids, in florals, and in stripes. Because it doesn’t have any curves, it isn’t imposing its own style on any one, so we can put whatever style we want on it.

Q: Do you have any tricks to help create an amazing space?

A: Use thoughtful details. I love our Treasurbite Pendant Fixture because the papyrus plant has striations, so when you light it from within it has a nice soft glow, like a candle. And I think that every room should have something living in it. I like to use plants more than flowers as an accessory.

Q: What about outdoor spaces—how do you make them cozy?

A: I often base a rooms’ color scheme on the views out the window—I think of the window as a piece of art. Not that I’m matching, but the view and palette is informing my decision. Outdoors, I try to make a space comfortable, with a sofa and club chairs and maybe the Big Sur Chaise Lounge. I also believe that outdoor space should be defined. I’ve even hung a sculpture from a hedge to create an end to the space, sort of an alternative to creating a wall.

Q: What are you loving right now?

A: Right now I’m all about quality and anything handmade. The Polka Dot Vases are made of salvaged steel by an artist in Healdsburg, CA, all my furniture is made in Los Angeles, and thephotographs of the ocean are by someone in Venice. Everything is one-of-a-kind, and I care about the artists. Even the candles that I sell—I know where the wax was sourced and where the manufacturer got the fragrance. Don’t we all like to know where something came from and the story behind it?

- Heidi Mitchell

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