Chicago Interior Designer: Summer Thornton

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Summer Thornton runs a full service luxury interior design firm based in Chicago. Given her textile background, it is natural that she would use color and pattern with much flair and enthusiasm in all her projects.

While her sense of design reveals a strong bond with vintage and tradition, there is a thread of expressiveness and joyful abandon in all her work.

Her journey in textiles and design brings with it a fresh perspective on interiors.

“I know there are people who say they’ve known what they wanted to do since they were little kids. I wish I could say that, but I actually didn’t decide I wanted to do interior design until I was in my early 20s. Looking back, it seems rather obvious though – I can still remember picking out wallpaper with my mom when I was a toddler, I always loved decorating for the holidays, and I always loved traveling and staying at different hotels to see how they were decorated.”

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I first learned about interior design at a time when I was more interested in fashion design. As a part of my high school studies I had the opportunity to take a fashion design course, but it was required that I also take an interior design course. At the time that sounded dreadful, but I came to find it interesting through that class. I moved on and set it aside, but regained interest again in college while studying art after noticing that I was one of the only people who had fully decorated every surface of their dorm room.

profile Summer ThorntonBeyond that, I could always find something interesting at flea markets and junk stores – so I’ve been a collector of things for a long time. I’ve always been artistic and interested in design fields, but I actually studied more ceramics and studio art than actual interior design while in college. Interior design just seemed to be the most natural outlet for my creativity.

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I actually didn’t have a formal interior design education. I studied art, and I also studied business. The two combined really well to help me in this field and I think it allows me to look at projects with an artistic mindset, but balanced with a business-minded background. It’s just a different approach than what some people may take if they’ve had a more traditional interior design education. Having said that, I did most of my ‘studying’ with real life experiences working for several other designers. That experience was the best training anyone could get. I also spent a couple years working for a textile company – Osbourn & Little – so that has had a huge impact on my knowledge about texture, pattern, colour, and fabric materials.

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profile Summer Thornton 3TEXTILES TO INTERIORS

My background in textiles was truly a means to an end – when I worked in textiles I knew I eventually wanted to do interior design, but it was a great learning experience. Textiles are the aesthetic starting point for all of my designs. I start by sorting through thousands of fabric choices first, and then I select a set of fabrics that have the right sheen, pattern, colours, and weight. Those fabrics really inform the style of all other choices of the home – furniture, lighting, flooring, etc can all be pulled from the feeling of those initial fabric choices.

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What were some of your most challenging/satisfying projects?

I get asked this question a lot, and I always have a hard time answering it. Projects are most challenging when we’re on a tight budget or tight timeline. I think that’s probably pretty standard for any industry though.

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Some of most satisfying projects are where I can bring together a couple’s varying perspectives into one cohesive design. For instance, sometimes a married couple may have very distinct taste preferences and blending those can be a challenge, but when we find the right mix that’s really satisfying because you’re seeing those clients find a mix that is true of both of them. It truly represents them, feels like them, and yet they appreciate the aspects that represent their spouse or significant other as well.

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My most satisfying projects are where clients allow me a great deal of creative freedom, or where they bring a project to me that is unlike anything I’ve done before. I did a little fashion boutique store last year and that was refreshing because it was different than what I normally do. I love variety in what I do, so when clients come to me asking for something that is different or hasn’t been done before, that gets me excited and usually yields a really great result. In the end, usually those clients tell me that they never imagined it could turn out as good as it did – that’s the most satisfying moment of all.

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One aspect of my firm that has been important is always keeping the design process unpretentious, fun and fresh. That’s something we’ve stood for since I started the company in 2007. So in all our meetings we try to have fun, we try to ensure that our customers feel relaxed and don’t worry about the small things. Clients are there to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’…hopefully more yes than no of course. They aren’t there to meet contractors, source options, etc – that’s what they’re paying us for. As far as the actual design process – we take projects in 3 steps.

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This is an initial style meeting where we look at inspiration – be it artwork, fashion, photography, books, etc – our goal here is to find out what is exciting to our clients.

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Here we present a rough concept – examples of the types of fabrics we might use, sample furniture for their general shape and scale, initial colours, and some pattern examples. Here we’re making sure that the way we interpreted their inspiration matches what they were hoping for the home.

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We present a full design plan including final layout, all finishes and furnishings, and all pricing. Trusting that they approve the plan, we then move into implementation where we order and install the design.

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As I mentioned before, a lot of my goals and aspirations revolve around doing things that I haven’t done before. I’m hoping to explore other areas of design and working with a more diverse group of clients. In particular, I’d love to do more international design over the next few years.

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I’ve been working throughout the US for the past few years, and I’d love to get clients in other locales…particularly warmer climates! Ha! I think international projects would allow me to push my work further creatively and continue to do new designs in different architectural styles, with different local accents, and a wider range of taste preferences.

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For me, I’m most interested in always doing something that I’ve never done before – that’s what keeps it feeling fun and fresh. And beyond that I love to travel, so to be able to do more of that as a part of my job would be amazing.

Quickly, a few other goals are to do a restaurant, a hotel, and perhaps have a fabric line and line of accessories down the road. Those are probably several years away though as we’re still growing our design practice. And then there’s always decorating the White House…maybe in 2020…

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My trip to India had a huge impact on my design aesthetic. While in India I visited a textile mill, saw fabric weaving, and came back with a greater appreciation for the skill and labour involved in creating great fabrics. I also came back with a passion for block-prints. In particular, I used them in a pool house that I designed for a couple that lives in Atlanta, but you’ll see Indian influences in many of my designs. It is such a beautiful country and I loved its unique blend of urban culture and rural history. It has great contrast, and that’s something that I love to weave into my designs.

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In addition, I loved Indians’ unabashed use of colour – marigold yellows, deep reds, vibrant greens and oranges. It was unrestrained and gorgeous. There is bravery in the way Indians use colour that Americans could learn from! I also love their use of ornamentation and detailing – it’s a culture that lives by the motto ‘more is more’ in terms of aesthetic design, and I love that!

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The people with the best style are inventors and not followers, so here are some tips to be style-setters.

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Better bold than boring

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If others are doing it, you probably shouldn’t (because it is already out of style)

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Do at least one thing your mother wouldn’t – it keeps your designs fresh

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Impracticality is romantic

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A quirky home ensures fun friends