Known for his meticulously researched, European-inspired style, Marshall Watson creates interiors that are rich in texture, detail, and simple luxuries. In his first book, THE ART OF ELEGANCE: CLASSIC INTERIORS, Watson shares his finest work, demonstrating that while each of these homes is as unique as its owner, they all adhere to principles that transform a mere series of spaces into a genuine, coherent home: warmth, light, peace,comfort, balance, proportion, appropriateness, and last but not least, livability.
Whether in an Italianate villa in Los Cabos or a family idyll on a Swedish island, a Gramercy Park apartment that blends shimmer and restraint, or a Newport Beach cottage warmed by walls finished in egg-yolk yellow, Watson explains how he translated each family’s lifestyle and aspirations, the house’s history, and the surrounding environment into a highly original form of elegance. We’re happy to have had the opportunity to sit down with Marshall, and see how to bring that old-world European aesthetic to American soil.
1. Based on your European-inspired interiors, what are some of the main differences you’ve noticed between how Americans choose artwork and Europeans.How does it play into their interiors? I.e does the art dictate the furnishings or vice versa.
Europeans inherited their art, Americans purchased their art. Americans are far more different deferential to the display of artwork and Europeans are quite casual, hanging their artwork gallery style or mixing high valuable work and low quality work. I have a European client who has a Calder sculpture next to a beautifully framed Calder sketch. The sketch is actually a 50 Cent postcard. Americans enjoy knitting the painting to the design of the room or vice versa.
The Europeans seem to care less about the relationship. The rather cutting-edge paintings in the Fifth Avenue apartment sit comfortably and rather effortlessly in the highly refined restraint of the neoclassic idiom. The strict geometry of the neoclassical design plays a generous supportive role and the lacquered paneling rests calmly behind the exuberant art.
- How do you define elegance? What does it mean to you?
Elegance is responding to the timeless, rather than the immediate. I embrace principles that transform a series of rooms into the true definition of elegance- my definition of elegance- through warmth, light, peace, balance, proportion, livability, and harmony. I aspire to create homes and gardens that are uplifting as well as comfortable, graceful as well as high functioning, and coherent as well as appropriate. This is my pursuit of the art of elegance. Elegance is also about a shared hope. I hope that we can indeed live a more civilized life; that there is enough time in the day for a more gracious, polite exchange. The cordiality, generosity, and kindness are qualities that we value.
3. A design project is a symbiosis of the minds between client and designer, how do you overcome a stylistic difference or preference that your expertise advises otherwise?
We have many tools in our design toolbox available to us these days- 3D imaging, virtual tours, sketch ups- that enable us to strengthen our visual concepts to convince the client that our direction or stylistic opinion is the best resolution of the client’s original overall concept. If it comes to the point that the client’s stylistic preference does not alter, my job is to make sure that his or her stylistic preference is oriented and expressed in the best light possible.
4. You mention in your book that a lesson you’ve learned is ‘not to privilege the object over the experience.’ What happens when you find an art piece for a room (that you and the client can’t resist). How do you design “around” it, so to speak, and finding that perfect balance?
A perfect example of this is the Elizabeth Murray painting. This piece was selected after the room was completed. The artwork had so much punch, that I felt the room needed to be balanced by introducing two electric blue ottomans, a vivid collection of hand blown glass, and pillows with shapes and colors that strongly echoed the artwork.
5.What are some questions you ask yourself, or you’d like to advise other design aficionados when commencing the design process? Specifically when it comes to art in a room?
I look at it and evaluate the scale and impact of the art, the proper lighting required to focus the viewer’s attention, and the scale in relation to the wall on which it is hung. Another example: one client discovered a magnificent glass sculpture that lost all its life and pizzazz in a darkened hallway. However, when I placed it in front of the Western window, it caught the afternoon sun, creating magic. Certain textures and backgrounds can also make an art piece sing.
6. Do you have any favorite resources you use for sourcing art? antiques?
My sources for art are reputable art consultants and a reputable broker to navigate. Our fears are wonderful to open your mind to the variety of what’s out there and educate your taste. I attend the Maastricht show, New York’s armory shows, Art Basel, etc. For antiques, I prefer to work with dealers whose eyes, passion and knowledge I trust or places such as 1st Dibs. Of course, Internet searches are always important, but only if I am able to see the actual antique piece in person and inspect it.
7. We’ve all had adventure stories with art/antiques – half of the fun is the journey! Can you recall one from one of your projects you talked about in your book and that venture? That ‘AHA’ moment.
All of my projects have been a voyage of discovery, both professionally and personally. But my experience in Sweden was really quite unique. My quest for truly unusual antique furnishings reached a zenith in Sweden. The days developed into a pattern in Sweden. I would be picked up by an antique dealer whom I had contacted via email, after telling them I was looking for pieces for my clients. They would arrive, pick me up at some country railroad station in remote areas of Sweden. We would drive for hours in a supremely awkward silence, interrupted periodically by my attempts to chat in pigeon Swedish. They would take me to Smaland or Dalarna —-regions in which the great furniture warehouses could be found, or else we would visit forlorn palaces and castles, places so cold you could see your breath, where dusty drop cloths would be drawn back and long forgotten treasures revealed.
I found remarkable pieces (by the boatload!!!) It was a particularly personal immersion in a national sensibility, one that, along with the craft-based construction process, taught me much about how the people I encountered worked, felt, and lived. Besides collecting volumes about Swedish country style, I visited many relevant places including Skansen, Stockholm’s remarkable outdoor museum of vernacular buildings where I wandered for hours soaking in the design and the sensibility.
8. What’s your own personal taste for art. What’s currently hanging in your home(s)?
I like the artist Hashimoto and I like quite graphic art. I enjoy so many of the greats from the abstract expressionist period. But sometimes I prefer just to hang beautiful mirrors in place of the art that I actually can’t afford. Abstract artists like Paul Klee, Franz Kline, the Rayonists, and the symbolist painters are all painters I would love to hang on my walls. I wouldn’t mind a sculpture by Canova.
9. Where does someone as established as you turn to for inspiration? I turn to nature, the performing arts, and the past for inspiration and for the future. I look to Sir Christopher Wren, Palladio, and the Vitruvian orders for proportion,
I turn to nature, the performing arts, and the past for inspiration and for the future. I look to Sir Christopher Wren, Palladio, and the Vitruvian orders for proportion, Rothko and nature for color. I like the great star architects of our period. I like New England and Southern architecture as well as interiors from the Greek revival homes. I like French neoclassicism, German rococo, Italian parquetry, Gustavia and design from Sweden the 17th and 18th centuries in Scandinavia. I love Russell Page, Le Notre, Gertrude Jekyll as well as local craftsmen I discover everywhere and their visions and capabilities inspire me and then, of course, the concept of “what if ” from Diana Vreeland.
10. What moment in your life helped to define your career?
My years in Denmark helped define my career because home decor seemed so essential and quite natural to the Danes. The transformation of my first apartment into a fantasy became an inspiration for me because I knew that I might actually have the chops to enter into this profession. What helped to define my career was my realization that comfort was the ultimate luxury and that I really did enjoy pursuing the art of elegance.