Design Chicago



A few weeks ago I attended Design Chicago at the Merchandise Mart, a residential design conference to the trade that brings together suppliers of everything from fabrics to faucets and furniture. Veteran and newcomer designers and editors from top shelter magazines converge on Chicago to discuss and explore the changing face of our industry during the current technological revolution, and explore the new opportunities and products on the market.


My decorator friend Amanda Reynal and I got comfortable at the John Rosselli showroom.

Altogether it’s a lot. While I spent almost two whole days at the mart going from showroom to showroom, I confess I only sat through one of the lectures (and had a brief panic when I sat down to write this article as though I was sitting down for a test I hadn’t studied for, even though I’d been living at the library). That being said, I tend to steer clear of “trends” in design in general, so without further ado, here are my top five takeaways from Design Chicago, for the public and professionals alike:

Color is making a comeback. It is kind of hard to understand how muddied the palettes have become until you look back to where they were. Pick up a copy of House Beautiful from the ’60s, and you will see kitchen after kitchen filled with technicolor cabinets. For my entire childhood in the ’80 and ’90s it seemed the vast majority of kitchens were white, with the occasional kitchen in a stained wood. The grey scale has entered the picture in the last 15 years with the black kitchen and every possible shade of grey in between. Only in the last handful of years have we seen bold colored kitchens becoming the new norm.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love a white kitchen but also recognize the value of stepping back and rethinking its largest design element, the cabinetry. I recently worked on a kitchen and after multiple tweaks, we ended up with the most lovely blue cabinets that quite honestly take my breath away every time I enter. And yet, the color envelops the room so nicely it feels almost neutral. I think there is an association with color and drama, but color does not have to be loud—it can be a quiet whisper or a silent storm (and it does not have to be grey, either). From custom-colored kitchen appliances at Dacor to a rainbow of leathers, pleathers, and vinyls, now is the time to close the book on neutrals and embrace the colors you are most drawn to. Everyone’s doing it.


Colorful leather. Photo by Amanda Reynal.


These colorful tubs would make a splash in any bathroom.

Change. Let’s face it, reality TV and online retail have changed the way our industry is viewed, and people are more inspired than ever before about the many possibilities for their houses. With that, though, comes enormous pressure, confusion, and false expectations about the realities of building and decorating a house from costs to timelines to quality. As design professionals, I feel it is our responsibility to help our clients navigate these exciting times, avoid fads, and invest in quality.

Growing up we lived in a lovely house. I don’t remember my mom ever decorating the living room—it was always the way it was. While she would tweak things here are there, like change the powder room wallpaper or bring in a new table or lamp, she was not changing it every season. The world today is telling us we should buy new throw pillows the way we buy a new pair of shoes. If fast fashion is bad for the environment, psyche, and pocketbooks, fast furniture is even worse.

That being said, we cannot ignore the many innovations at our fingertips designed to make the process of designing your house more streamlined and the companies that are disrupting the industry with lower prices and faster turnaround times. Remember: anything you bring into your home is an investment in your life. There is a saying in the business that the best clients have time, taste, and money. Proceed with caution when pursuing products from any pop-up promising “taste” quickly at a lower cost—quality takes time. However, the old guard fabric, fixtures, and furniture manufacturers are finally embracing the new normal and introducing products at lower price points with faster delivery to attract and accommodate this budding breed of enthusiastic, educated, and impatient homeowners and renters.


Chest at Century Furniture.

Performance. Long gone are the days when children are raised to speak only when spoken to and play in the unfinished basement or attic. We are so overly obsessed with our little offspring that we not only hang on every word they say but post it to Instagram too. Of this I am guilty. With the joy of their constant presence comes the definitive need to batten down the hatches so our little monsters, I mean darlings, do not burn down the whole house. The most significant way I’ve seen this play out in the industry is the rise in performance materials, both fabrics and carpets.  

The idea of performance recalls to my mind a mousy brown poly-chenille you might find on a Lazy Boy or a charter bus, but companies are going to great lengths to give you the look of natural fibers with the durability of Teflon. It seems now not only can you spill an entire bottle of red wine on your sofa, but you can follow it with a bottle of straight bleach, then take it outside and hose it off. While the logistics of this might get a bit complicated, you get the point.  

Craft. With all this talk of innovation, now more than ever we must support the specialty arts on which our industry was built. The John Rosselli Showroom, for example, had an artist in one corner hand painting the details on a dresser while in another corner, someone was hand blocking fabrics. Famed potter and lamp fabricator Stephen Gerould was there in the flesh handing out bud vases in one of his many jewel tone hand glazes. We cannot underestimate the value in quality and must support those who have dedicated their lives to creating beautiful future heirlooms. 


With Stephen Gerould.

Granny chic. I do not know if that is the official title of the movement, but chintz and china are back in the spotlight, and I, for one, could not be more excited. It was not long ago that our options were quite limited to the classics when looking for colorful cotton floral fabrics among the sea of greige linen. A presentation at Lee Jofa confirmed that flora and fauna, embroidery, and crewel in a rainbow of colors are coming back into the mainstream, and boomers and milennials alike are embracing the nostalgic prints and patterns favored by the greatest generation.

Of course, this trend does not stop there. Both brown wood and rattan furniture are having a moment, making the set of the “Golden Girls” seems downright right cutting-edge and reaffirming the old adage that if you wait long enough, everything will come back in style. 


Pattern play with William Morris by Style Library. Photo by Amanda Reynal.


Cane chair.

The world is changing and I certainly identify myself as a product of the old school. I am still not used to the idea of buying my antiques online or purchasing a sofa without sitting in it first, let alone dumping a bin of bleach on anything, but the landscape of our industry is evolving and we can either get on board or be left in its dust. My biggest takeaway from Design Chicago is that these days, anything goes, and the only thing to concern yourself with when designing your house is to make it your own. It is perfectly acceptable to have a ping pong table double as a dining table and paint your millwork day-glo yellow. Whatever you do, it should be timeless to you.


Exquisite marbleized wallpapers by Zoffany. Photo by Amanda Reynal.

Our lives should not be spent keeping up with the latest trends in interior design, though you should take time to research what is available. Do not be fooled by the world suggesting that top quality design can be acquired and delivered overnight, let alone via an impulsive Wayfair purchase at 2 am. Make your house the way you want it knowing you can always change it later. And do not stress if it gets lived in or worn—that is what is supposed to happen. Quality and beauty will always endure and, in fact, get better with time. Surround yourself with things you love and make your house a happy home. Take risks and have fun, after all, it’s only decorating.