Big Think Interview With Thom Filicia
Thom Filicia is an interior designer, most famous for his role as an interior design expert on the television program "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" on the Bravo network. Filicia established his own design firm in 1998 and since then has completed residential and commercial work around the country, as well as designing the U.S. Pavilion at the 2005 World's Fair in Japan. In 2006 he was chosen as one of House Beautiful magazine's Top 100 American Designers and House & Garden magazine's Top 50 "Tastemakers."
Thom Filicia: Hi, I'm Thom Filicia. I'm a designer, and I also host and produce television shows about design.
Question: How would you describe your design aesthetic?
Thom Filicia: I think it’s interesting because my design aesthetic is a real extension of my personality. It’s approachable, it’s fun, it’s pretty traditional, or classic at a certain level and very modern, and fresh in another point of view. And it’s really just kind of a really strong balance. It’s a very good balance of understanding architecture, environment, location. I think of interior design or what I do as a more cerebral thing than... I think a lot of times people think of it as simply decorating. I see it as really more of an idea. Sort of a concept of layering and telling a story. There’s a narrative to what I do and generally I base it on, whenever it’s possible, on my client or the brand that we’re working with, really kind of tell their story through their interior.
So it’s a direct extension of their life, their lifestyle, and so I would say mine is really about personalization, and authenticity, and having fun.
Question: What designers have inspired you?
Thom Filicia: I think the designers for me that have always... I think David Hicks is really a great example of a designer that I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from. Billy Baldwin, Albert Hadley, who I’ve worked for and he did the intro to my book. He’s awesome. There’s... I mean, I have to say my... I’m actually... I’m asked the question like, “What inspires you?” And my response to “What inspires you,” is really when a client asks me that or when I’m doing a lecture and people ask me, “What inspires you to do television and interior design, commercial, and residential, product, like where does your inspiration come from?”
I always say, “What inspires you, inspires me.” And the concept of that is that I’m inspired by people. I mean, at the end of the day we’re designing spaces for people and we talk about what’s good taste, at the end of the day good taste is a response. It’s an emotion. It’s a connection and so I really think at the end of the day you have to almost be inspired. You have to constantly be inspired. If you want to be current and you want to be really connected to what makes sense... because what was tasteful 100 years ago has nothing to do... well it has something to do with but its definitely evolved and changed.
So you have to understand where things have come and how they’ve gotten here so I would say almost... I’m truly inspired by anyone who’s doing something that I find fascinating. I would say interior designers, those are probably the three interior designers, you know, then I can probably listen, you know, Phillip Johnson. You know there’s a million architects and then of course there’s my mother. So you can... I think anyone you has maybe one or two people that inspire them are probably only have one or two ideas.
Question: Is there an analogous trend in interior design towards sustainability as there is in architecture?
Thom Filicia: There’s definitely a trend which not a word I love to use but there’s definitely a move, let’s say towards... people that are thoughtful about their space and their interiors are now even being thoughtful about, you know, sort of the amount of chemicals they’re putting in their space or amount of... just the surfaces and what they’re made out of, and offcasting and volatile organic compounds is what people are thinking about and so when someone says something is low VOC, that’s what VOC means.
And generally when we think of environmentally friendly interiors what I’m used to seeing are these very kind of like, very sparse, very kind of clean, very, you know, I call them hemp-world kind of interiors. And they’re cool and I actually love the look of that, very minimal but one of the things that we were discussing with the client that I design this apartment for in River House in New York City was that environmentally friendly interiors don’t have to necessarily be anethstetic, they need to be your aesthetic. And even going back to what I was talking about before where I try to design spaces that are very personal so the idea was that I wanted to do an interior... design an interior that was filled with the personality of the project of the client and tells their story.
But does it in an environmentally friendly way so this – the photograph you’re looking at right now of this living room, this is the living room at River House, it was all... every single piece of furniture from the curtain hardware, recycled metal, the dining table was recycled zinc and paper stone top. The chairs were made from... all the furniture, the coffee tables are made from certified woods with low VOC finishes on them. The rug was made from vintage [...] that were tattered and worn that we cut up and then we connected them locally with organic felt and then put them on organic pads. The finishes or the glues for the wall covering were low VOC, the wallpapers themselves were sustainable. The fills for the furniture are organic.
It just, you know, at every level basically measured like how green... and I always talk about it being shades of grain took and said, “Okay how green can this piece be?” Some things are more green than others and, you know, the lamps that flank the sofa are made from vintage wine bottles that are sitting on certified walnut plints with handmade twine... natural twine lampshades, locally made. The light fixture of the dining room table is made from recycled jet engine parts. The light next to the dining table, there’s a pair of floor lamps that are made from recycled plumbing parts. So there is an element at... almost each piece has a real sort of lineage that connects it to being environmentally friendly. But over all I think when you walk into the space you wouldn’t look at this and think, “Oh this is definitely eco-friendly interior.” It just feels like I think an interesting space that’s kind of fun. It’s sexy. It feels fresh. It feels stylish. I think that it employs taste to a certain level and I guess that’s subjective but I do think that it, you know, there’s a balance. There’s all of the elements that I think sort of define what is tasteful or pleasing to the eye. I think it employs those elements.
So I think it’s a very well-rounded space and I think when you look at it evokes emotions that I hope are positive. And I talk about it in my book about the things that I look for that I sort of incorporate into all of my designs. I want them to be fresh. I want them to be inviting. I want them to be unpretentious. I want them to be stylish. I want them to be sexy. I want them to be inviting.
So you’re... at every interior and some depending on the spaces, the client, or the situation are more fun than sexy or more comfortable, or less comfortable, or less inviting, or more inviting. But they have to be there at some level and be part of the collective. And I think that, that ultimately that balance and how you balance those emotions are really what kind of defines how people emotionally connect with a space and I think that is what that emotional connect is what people are... use the term taste in terms of relating that experience.
Question: What are some of your favorite interiors in New York?
Thom Filicia: I would say one of my favorite interiors in New York is the Four Seasons Restaurant. I love it because I think it’s just... glamorous. It’s fun. It is definitely; you know the moment, if not the week it was designed based on the interior. It’s a very cool... it was cool from the beginning. It’s been cool ever since, you know, it never. It’s just always been an interesting, fabulous space and design. And when I’m in there I feel. my emotional reaction to it is like I just think it’s really awesome. So I think in New York that’s one of my favorite interiors.
I would say my other favorite interior in New York is my apartment. I think you have to really like your space. I think you have to really be comfortable in your space, you should really like it and should always be kind of challenging, you know, and adding and it should always organically be evolving. But I do like my space and I think you always... and I fall in love with so many interiors. And a lot of times it’s not even just the whole space, you can call in love with pieces and think "That’s a really interesting concept and idea." And sort of put that in your, kind of like your file cabinet of good ideas.
I would say, God... through the world, I mean, the U.S. there’s... I would, you know, New York City is such a international city so there’s so much. There’s so many influences which I think is really fabulous. I would say as a city I love Chicago because I think it’s an amazing American city and the architecture is really incredible. I think it’s a great representation of, you know, I always say when people come to the U.S. and they say, “Oh I love New York,” it’s their first time here.” I say, “Well, you know this is like an international city, Chicago is a true example of an American city I think. or the best example of an American city.”
Phillip Johnson’s Glass House I love but I have to say on the property I also love the old farmhouse, on the same property. That’s a difficult question for me. I mean, I think that worldwide, I would say some of my favorite interiors are very humble spaces that are really not designed in their kind of reaction to making things work. I spent a lot of time in Greece, on Greek Islands, and a lot of my favorite spaces are really just kind of very simple, very clean, open, and kind of utilitarian at a certain level.
Question: Did "Queer Eye" make Bravo?
Thom Filicia: When I first started working with Bravo on "Queer Eye" it was a very small network that was owned by NBC and it was kind of a... it was a small network that had the
"Actors Studio" and a few other things that were pretty smart programming but not amazingly popular. But well-respected. I think "Queer Eye" was definitely a huge risk for any network but Bravo took that risk and they... I think yes, "Queer Eye" really defined their point of view. I think before "Queer Eye," I think they were just an interesting network that was trying to kind of find their sensibility.
And I think that "Queer Eye" coming onto the scene and being sort of a bit outlandish but also smart I think defined them as a network, so yeah I would say without a doubt it was a defining moment in Bravo’s history. And I think that they’ve really stuck to that programming model pretty strictly. They’ve... I mean, I think... it’s been probably five years since I’ve worked with them. I’ve been with Style Network for four years I think so yeah four years since I’ve worked with Bravo. And I would say that yeah their platform for programming is pretty much still a derivative of kind of what we did there.
Question: Does Bravo need to find a new formula?
Thom Filicia: It’s generally not my, you know, a lot of the programming that they have isn’t really my bag, so I don’t know if I know enough about it give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down. But I definitely know about Snooki or I mean, I think she’s on that network. Maybe she’s not. Oh she’s on MTV. Oh see, I just assumed she was Bravo, but that’s the kind of thing that I associate with Bravo, a Snooki. You know what I mean?
And so just the Real Housewives of everywhere, so I don’t know, I just... I kind of think like the "Real Housewives," Snooki, I don’t know. They’re kind of all the same thing to me in differently character types but kind of the same thing. So yeah, I mean, I definitely think they’re riding a wave and I think they’re doing what they do well. I think at some point they’re going to have to redefine it. You know, I would assume or people are just going to be, you know, I think they’re just going to go somewhere else for a new idea but, they were a great network to work with, actually.
Question: What’s your coming out story?
Thom Filicia: You know, I will tell you I think as a young boy I definitely knew that... even before it was a sexual attraction, I just knew that I was being trained to... I was being raised as boy so I was doing all the things that little boys are supposed to do. And, you know, when you challenge that with another idea you know—I mean, I did, I knew—that other idea was intriguing to me. I didn’t understand it and I wondered if everyone thought that but it just wasn’t sort of talked about.
So I remember as growing up I definitely... I recognized that there was that layer, but I also wasn’t 100 percent, I didn’t understand it. So I just... I kind of kept it in a place that felt comfortable for me and tried to sort of look at it at all different sides and then kind of evaluate it and figure it out so that I could decide if I was comfortable with it or I was not.
And so I think that was a process, you know, growing up. I don’t think it was one day I was like, “Oh my God, I’m attracted to the same sex.” I think it was kind of a learning experience for me. And I had girlfriends, I dated women so it was not like something that wasn’t uncomfortable for me. I’m.. my whole life... I think going through my eduction, through college, it just started to become more... something that was not as part of my every day sort of thought process. It started becoming more and more so.
And when it finally got a place where I felt comfortable with it and I understood it and I had a good enough foundation to say, “You know what? I think this is... I made a decision.” I probably was about my senior year of college. I told two of my best friends, guy friends and my two my best girlfriends in college. And they were totally cool with it. And about a year after I graduated from college after I had not been dating in a year, my parents asked me: “Why are you not dating anyone?” Just kind of like in conversation. That’s kind of how it started and they were pretty cool about it.
I mean, my mother said, “I can’t believe you’re gay, you’re such a slob.” That was pretty uneventful. I mean, my parents were pretty cool about it. They were friends with... they became friends with a lot of my friends and I was able to... it was a pretty positive experience. It was a very positive experience and it still is to this day. My mother is no longer alive but my father actually was there when "Queer Eye" came on the scene and I remember calling him and saying, “So there’s this project I’m working on. And I just want to let you know about it because I think you’re going to hear about it. Maybe.” I didn’t know, you know at that time. We didn’t really know how it... it could have just been like a TV show that no ever heard of or a few people did or whatever.
So I told him and he was like, “Oh my God.” He was like, “That’s quite a name.” So that was actually... I would say Queer Eye for all intensive purposes in my life was really when I came out because I mean, that’s when I came out to every single person I ever went to school with my entire life, teachers, professors, friends, family. I mean, it was... that was a real coming out for all five of us.
And I have to say it was a lot of fun and it was cool. It was really interesting to see people be really comfortable with the concept. And I was actually... I wondering where it was going to go and when the show really took off I thought, “Wow this is crazy." It took me a while to wrap my head around the show moving, the momentum that it moved at. I wasn’t... I was moving at a much slower pace than the show was. I was like, “Wait a minute.” All of a sudden we were on like the "Tonight Show." It was just kind of crazy and every single time in you’re in that situation we’re talking about "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and so it’s right there. And you’re talking on prime time television. You’re talking on cable. You’re talking at the Emmys. you’re talking at the Music Video Awards and so all of a sudden it just became, it was like coming out every day. It was really kind of... it was a little crazy. But I have to say it never was an issue. So it was actually a lot of fun.
I don’t think out of the five of us any one of us had a really negative experience with it at any level. I always thought "We’ve got to be careful, you know, where we’re going and what we’re doing because you just never know." And we just never... it never was an issue so it was a pretty powerful experience. It was like coming out for like three years every day.
Recorded August 4, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
A conversation with the interior designer.
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