Westport, Connecticut - based interior designer, Robin Henry
I first met interior designer Robin Henry a year ago, at High Point Market. She had been on my radar, and I had even bookmarked her website to reach out to her. Luckily, she was attending market with her friend, fellow designer Maria Crosby. I knew Crosby and was so excited at the fortuitous nature of our meeting. Both designers learned their craft from top NYC-based designers (they overlapped at Katie Ridder) ,and understand how the smallest, most wonderful details add up to a greater whole making a cohesive, elevated interior. Based in New York City and Connecticut near where I grew up, Henry, who was picked as House Beautiful's Next Wave and Trad Home's Rising Stars of Design, is an inspired colorist who works in a traditional vein. She blossomed under the mentorship of Katie Ridder and you will notice similarities in their understated elegant work, from the deft color use in unusual combinations to the careful selection and placement of interesting and unique antiques and vintage finds. I caught up with the extremely talented designer, who shared the power of cold calling someone you want to work for, what its really like to start your own design firm, and what is exciting about design now.
How did you start in design? Who did you work for and where did you learn the trade?
I have an undergraduate fine art degree from the University of Texas at Austin. Afterwards I moved to New York. After working several different kinds of jobs I was unhappy with, I was encouraged by a friend to take a class at the New York School of Interior Design. I cold called Katie Ridder soon after beginning classes, to see if she needed an intern. She told me to come in on Thursday and I stayed eight years! I began working for her a couple of days a week while still in school. When I finished with my associates degree, I worked for her full time. I went from intern, to designer, to principal designer in my years there.
When did you know this was your calling in life?
I definitely did the thing as a child where I drew furniture plans for my dream houses and mentally decorated them. I also had early exposure to interior design because my mother hired a decorator and I got to torture poor Brad while picking out just the right décor for my bedroom. But when I went to college I was accepted into an honors liberal arts program that had some prestige, I couldn’t very well leave it, or so I thought, and I had to get the art degree in addition to the liberal arts degree, which kept me pretty busy. I once explored switching to Interior Design and learned I would have to stay at university for an additional two years so I scrapped the idea. It wasn’t until after moving to New York and working for art galleries, non-profits, and running a clothing store that I finally let myself do this thing. What a relief to feel like at last I had found what I love to do. I feel really blessed to be able to say that.
How did you know you were ready to strike out on your own, and when did you?
Well I had just finished up my maternity leave for my second son, and my older son had just turned two, and that is a pretty overwhelming time of life. I had a friend of a friend who was looking for a decorator and I thought maybe this might be my only opportunity to rip off the Band-Aid and go out on my own. I was torn; working for Katie was incredible and we had such layered, glamorous projects and an amazing support team. Leaving all of that to send faxes from my living room while breast-feeding was bound to be a comedown! But I figured those early baby years would in some ways be the ideal time to slowly grow a business.
What advice do you have for others wanting to do the same?
I honestly believe that the right time is when you are ready. What I mean is, I had run large projects, decorated all different kinds of spaces, and I was confident that I could do it, plus the babies were overwhelming me and I felt I needed a change to make my life work better. PLUS a project miraculously came along for me to work on. It was just all good, it was right, you know? It wasn’t an easy decision and I don’t think it should be when making such a big life change. But it was natural, it was not by force.
Do you have a signature look and how would you define it?
My work is rooted in tradition, and in family life. I understand that it can be messy and I want to contain that and also inspire. There is an artistic bent to my designs. I rely on lots of artists and artisans to create bespoke furnishings and decorations in my homes, and I use a lot of antiques because I can’t stand interiors that look like furniture showrooms. I am creating an atmosphere, a mood—that is something other than just filling a house with furniture. I like humble, organic, quirky layers that feel true and old, mixed with inspiring colors and gestures.
Which do you find more valuable? Formal training, or on the job training?
NYSID is a great foundation in the decorative arts, hand drawing, autoCAD, all those tools, and if you don’t learn them in school, I am not sure you ever really do, so that background is invaluable. But everything else is on the job. The way that businesses run, which is the perfect shade of white, how to stay in budget, how to give your client what they want, what height to hang the sconce at—vast, endless stores of info—those are learned on the job. I was so lucky to stumble into Katie Ridder’s orbit. She was a natural teacher, and very generous.
What was the biggest surprise or challenge in starting your own firm?
Well it’s very solitary. Until you can afford to bring people in to help you, it’s just so demanding. There are so many details in this job. I always used to tell my husband, if I could share with you the number of tasks I complete in a day, your head would spin! There is so much work, you could do it forever. And you can get sort of isolated and in your head about everything and that is a challenge, especially when you are used to working with a team of talented people that you truly enjoy. To go from that to being alone is rough. And the budgets on my projects came down vastly! I had to find almost all new sources and rethink a lot of things based on that fact as well.
Do you have a design mentor?
Absolutely: Katie Ridder. And I have to also include her husband, the incredible architect, Peter Pennoyer. It was an honor and a privilege to watch and learn from them both!
What did they teach you that you can't learn in design school?
In design school, no one ever teaches you what is ugly, if I can put it that way. Yes, you look at examples of the finest decoration and furnishings throughout history, but how do you make a room attractive when you start from scratch? I suppose you could try ‘channeling’ a decorator whom you admire. But you also need this skill: to look at something and know it to be ugly, without comment. And know what will make the room sing, by contrast. There is a wonderful thing that happens when you get a room right: it sizzles. I can’t explain it, but THAT is the moment when you have done it correctly. Until then, it may not be ‘ugly,’ but it ain’t beautiful.
What is the most practical knowledge you learned from working for a great designer?
I suppose that you learn how to marry the room in your head or in your dreams with the desires and needs of your client. You learn not to show them what is not practical for their family, too expensive, or just not ‘them.’ Don’t even go there. Give them what they have asked for, what they need, do it within their budget, and, crucially: make it fabulous, beyond what they could have imagined. Many times Katie or Peter would tweak a floor plan with simple changes that would vastly improve the way the room would work, or the looks of the place. It’s hard to even put a price on that kind of knowledge and input that a good professional designer can offer. I learned that and more from Katie and Peter.
What is the biggest challenge of being your own boss?
Has that evolved from when you began? There are a couple of challenges. First, when things are slow you can go out of your mind hoping for new projects to come in. When that has happened to me, I have looked back and realized ‘gosh, I really sweated that and if I really think about it, it was a period of two months that I was so worried before X job came in, and I already had 3 jobs anyway,’ but you just get so crazed about it and it’s the pits. Second, the job never really gives you a rest. There is always something that needs your attention, and it’s crucial, and you have to take care of it immediately even if you are busy with other things, don’t feel like it, or have zero time.
Whose work of the past do you hold in high regard?
I truly love David Hicks, his interiors, whether modern or traditional—he did both perfectly—and his gardens and the emphasis he placed on their relationship together is inspiring. I think about him a lot, I might be driving past a house with hanging planters and think to myself, ‘Oh, David wouldn’t be happy!’ He was a snob but he was funny, and his views were so firm and natural to him, and he was always right, and I just love him. (Although personally, being from the South, I love a couple of ferns hanging off the porch, sorry, David!!)
What books do you constantly refer to?
There is a wonderful book called “The Way We Live,” by Stafford Cliff, that I absolutely love. It shows dwellings of all types from all over the world, and juxtaposes them with one another. There will be pages and pages of doors, or kitchens, or house exteriors. It is lovely.
Where do you shop to get inspired?
For me part of the key is to get out there and go to a lot of different places, take opportunities to travel and shop absolutely everywhere that you go. I get tired of seeing the same sources over an over again. That said, I am so inspired by shops like John Rosselli, Gerald Bland, RT Facts in Kent, CT, L’Antiquaire in Westport; the list goes on and on. The people who curate these collections are visionaries and I can always find inspiration in a gorgeous store.
What do you think is next regarding trends in color, material, style, influence, historical period and locale?
I think celadon is going to make a comeback, even, dare I say it, mint! I am also loving a darker mid-tone green, more of a bright jade color, veering away from turquoise a bit but not getting dark and murky. I really hate that swampy green you see everywhere. I especially like these new tones mixed with pale, pale pink, cinnamon and rust. I am very inspired by Venetian and Japanese colors and patterns and ideas right now. In one project I had a decorative painter mix blue and green and swipe it across the walls to achieve a kind of Italian-end-papers-meets-ikat look, very gorgeous, and another big Victorian house I am doing has Japanese fretwork, tatami mats and sudare blinds mixed with chintz and tassels and bright colors. The Japanese Victorian period, if I can call it that, is so incredibly rich and beautiful. Venetian-Japanese-Victorian? Is that a thing?
What material do you love?
Linen, leather, wallpaper, plaster, mirror, tile, colored glass. I am really into Indian chik blinds and have used those on several projects; I also love tassels and was lucky enough to find beautiful ones made from horsehair recently for a project.
What design material or movement will never go out of style?
Classic English design seems to work in absolutely everywhere and I think it’s because there is plainness to it, it sort of brings dignity wherever it goes. I have to say, though, that I recently saw the Manus x Machina fashion show at the Metropolitan Museum and they are doing such amazing things with 3-D printing in fashion right now, it makes me wonder at the amazing applications ten years down the road for furniture design and even the shapes of our rooms! Will a classic George III tea table still look right in such a world? I guess I am hoping so.
How do your clients find you?
Mostly word of mouth, and I am also very fortunate that Katie Ridder has referred clients to me when projects weren’t right for her office, and that has given me such a boost. When I told her I was leaving, she said something very kind to me, which was, “I know that it seems like you’ll never get any clients, but you will. You will get clients.” I always remember that.
What are useful apps and Instagram feeds you are following?
I like the Live Auctioneers app to follow myriad auctions in real time and bid from anywhere, that is addictive though so watch out and bid with care! There is an app called Photo Scale that I am excited to try, it can take measurements from your photos! On Instagram, I follow the biggies like Miguel Flores-Vianna, Ashley Hicks and Cabana Magazine, also Gene & Doug Meyer, Nicky Haslam, Ben Pentreath and Charlie McCormick, lots of fashion designers, jewelers and magazines. I always check in with my design friends like Katie and Lizzie over at Katie Ridder’s office, tons of other decorators and vendors, and of course, Stylebeat Blog for all the latest news!