CURATED BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
What drives excellence in interior design? How can you give your own home a quick decorative update? And what else can you glean from the experts to apply to your own place?
We went to an expert for answers: Chicago interior designer Jessica Lagrange. She’s been honing her craft for over 30 years and is widely recognized for creating compelling luxury homes for a diverse clientele with grace, wisdom, commitment, and wit. Posh and patrician, sophisticated and chic, quirky and kicky . . . she’s done it all with aplomb.
Here she answers some of our most burning questions.
How did you decide to go into interior design?
It was sheer fate and incredibly good fortune. Halfway through college I still couldn’t pick a major, so I came home and got a job at SOM with the help of my cousin Bob Kleinschmidt, an interior architect. They put me in the resource library, and I was seduced by the colors and textures of all the materials—especially textiles. So I went back to school and got an interior design degree at SAIC. Today, I always laugh when I hear that saying “Sometimes you don’t find a career; it finds you.” It may be cliché, but in my case, it was so true.
What do you like most about your job?
Luxury residential design requires you to wear so many hats besides your primary one as an interior designer. At the very least, you have to be good at sales, staff development, project management, psychology, and execution—not to mention knowing how to run interference if anything goes wrong. But that’s why I love being a designer: the variety and challenges are so interesting and force you to be a lifelong learner.
What are you working on right now?
Our team usually works on anywhere from 15 to 25 jobs at a time, and right now we have a really varied project roster that ranges from a magnificent historic Adler mansion in Lake Forest to a sleek two-bedroom condo in the Hancock that the owners are updating to make modernist 20th-century design relevant to a 21st-century lifestyle. This kind of diversity is really important to our team because it pushes us creatively and keeps us versatile.
Which one is your favorite project?
That’s like asking who’s my favorite child! I love them all. But we were especially intrigued when we were asked to do the model home interiors at Two West Delaware, a luxury high rise in River North by the renowned developer JDL.
A lot of strategy goes into doing model home interiors because you need to show all types of potential buyers how a space will live and suit their needs. So we had to deliver something that is stylish and smart so prospects understand all the possibilities as soon as they walk into the unit.
I’m so proud of my team on this one. The unit is an imaginative mix of bold patterns, cool colors, intriguing textures, and luminous metallic accents, and many of the major pieces come from retail sources. It’s playful and chic but also so obviously comfortable and functional that it shows off the versatility of the unit’s design.
What’s stretched your creativity?
We’re doing a 6,000-square-foot home in Lincoln Park for a couple who entertain a lot. He plays tournament-level poker and she’s devoted to yoga, so they also need their home to accommodate all sorts of activities. We stuck to updated classics but layered on enough cheeky twists to keep things engaging.
We upped the drama quotient in the dining room with really deep midnight blue walls and channel lights in the crown moldings that make the room’s perimeter glow. And in her office, we used Celerie Kemble’s Feather Bloom wallpaper and reupholstered a beloved pair of armchairs in a really kicky printed cotton velvet.
Now we’re finishing up the game room and a yoga studio, which will have a special area in it for her cats—they like to be nearby when she does her daily workout.
Do you have a distinctive style you like using or that might be identified with you?
There are so many luxury interior designers who are renowned for their signature style, from Elsie de Wolfe, America’s first decorator, and Dorothy Draper—who invented the concept of signature style, to the Celerie Kembles and Kelly Wearstlers of today.
I’m actually extremely outspoken on this topic because I don’t believe interior designers should have a signature style, and neither does anyone else on my team. We’re devoted to creating homes that are beautiful, stylish, comfortable, and functional but always reflect our clients’ personal vision and meet their wants and needs.
Where do you like to begin when you’re working on a whole house, with a certain room, color, treatment, collection, or something similar?
None of the above! You can’t do anything until you understand everything—and I mean every little thing—about your client. Besides interviewing them extensively, we try to see their current homes so we can understand how they currently live and what their hopes and expectations are for the future.
And when I go to a client’s current home, I peek in their cabinets and even look in their closets to see how they dress. That gives me great clues on what kind of colors, fabrics and accessories they like. Knowing your client first is so important that we have a structured process we follow on every project.
Do you have a favorite room that you like to work on?
We love to go high-power in powder rooms because they’re small but mighty. They’re the ideal place to take big chances because you don’t have to worry about overdoing it; people are in them for only a few minutes. But they’re also a space everyone usually sees, and they can make a major statement that can impact how you feel about an entire home.
We’ve lacquered walls in eye-popping hues, covered them with fantastical wallpapers, gold-leafed ceilings, used fixtures as fancy as fine jewelry, and more. It’s the best room in a home to push the boundaries, be outrageous, and reap great rewards for taking an imaginative approach.
What rooms are the most important or popular with homeowners?
It’s always the kitchen, and it makes sense because research shows that it’s the space where we spend the biggest chunks of our waking hours when we’re at home. We always strive to blend serious utility and timeless design in every kitchen we do because they’re such big-ticket projects, but it’s hard because clients want it all and don’t always have enough space to get it. We’ve become experts at maximizing every square inch, especially in vintage residences, because the kitchens were essentially service areas for household help.
If a person wants to make a few changes on their own to brighten up their surroundings, do you have a few tips that might really make a difference?
Paint, new lighting, and break a few rules! There’s solid research behind the way color and lighting impact mood, but it’s also obvious. Our favorite paint is C2 Luxe, and we’ve used Audacious (a rich red) to make dining rooms exciting and Cadeau (a dreamy blue) to give living rooms and master suites a tranquil vibe.
Lighting is a little more complicated, so we have a guide explaining our 11 best lighting tricks. But breaking rules is fun. Our blog post on “5 Interior Design Rules That Are Made To Be Broken” is one of our biggest hits.
How are second homes different than primary residences?
We have a lot of fun with second homes. People are more adventurous and willing to take chances because they want something exciting and different. But they’re also more budget conscious, so it’s a design challenge for us. We love beating their expectations. But bottom line, everybody wants their second places—be it a chic pied-à-terre, a fabulous country compound, or a quaint little cottage—to be comfortable, practical, low-maintenance, and turnkey perfect. There are always tradeoffs to make, but my fabulous team has this kind of project down to a science.
How do you work with your client’s collections? Can they sometimes be hard to incorporate?
Coming up with imaginative ways to showcase collections is an art, and our team really excels at this challenge. The trick is to find interesting ways to give them cohesion.
In the Lincoln Park house I mentioned earlier, the husband has a wonderful collection of about 60 antique cutting tools that belonged to his grandfather, who was a stonemason. We hung them in his game room above the bar, and it brings a historic and very sentimental touch to this clubby setting.
In my own home, I have about six different collections, but my favorite is my bracelets. They’re my personal trademark. I wear one everyday, so I need them to be organized and easy to see. I think jewelry stands are tacky, so I have them in six beautiful bowls on my dresser. They’re an accessory for my décor and my daily ensembles.
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