We caught up with L.A.-based design guru Mark Cutler recently to chat about his personalized approach to antiques, his best design advice (hint: to thine own self be true)—and the surprise high / low move he in a Facebook founder’s home.
You’ve said that to be a great designer, you have to understand the past cultural zeitgeist. Can you elaborate on this for us?
Yes, I think that for any good designer—or anyone who is looking to plan for the future—understanding the past is essential. You look at the great art movements of all time—like cubism and surrealism, all based on classical themes interpreted in new ways. So unless you know what those things are, you’re just sort of shape-making, not telling a real or compelling story.
We know you’re a master of pairing contemporary pieces with antiques. What’s the trick to making this combo work?
Don’t think too hard. Trust your instincts first. I find that the first impulse is usually your best. And I think that people get too worried about piecing things together. We did a house recently in which we did a collection of about 12 little tables instead of one big coffee table. Some are contemporary tables and some are antiques. The client asked us to bring some more over to play around with the collection. After about 10 minutes, she told us to put the extras back in the truck. The lesson is that when you work too hard, when you fuss over it too much, you lose the effortless look. It shouldn’t be perfect; it should be interesting. That’s perfection to me.
We totally agree. We also share your love of the high-low approach to design. Give us an example of how you’ve using this approach in a room you’ve designed.
We recently did a house for one of the founders of Facebook, and we designed this spectacular table out of marble and fresh stainless steel. Then I found these chairs at Ikea—a contemporary take on a Windsor chair. With one of my furniture designers, we developed a lavender-chrome paint to use on the chairs. It looks like a million dollars. And I just love the fact that our client is this fancy-schmancy woman who has meetings in this space, and no one has any idea that they’re sitting on Ikea chairs. To me, that’s good design.
Can you tell us who the Facebook founder is?
No. But good try!
Give us another high-low trick.
I like repurposing stuff. I like old vintage stores, crafty stores, and finding stuff, repainting, changing hardware. We buy stuff from big-box stores and try to change it up just a bit. We will change out the cabinet knobs, or we will replace the top—modify it just enough to make it not so identifiable. The problem isn’t so much when people walk into a room and say, “You got that from Crate & Barrel,” but when they think, “Oh, I’ve seen that before.” It’s about the experience, not the source.
What’s your favorite all-time antique or vintage find? Where did you use it?
I like pieces that instantly create meaning for people. We did a house with a famous comedian. As you walk into the entry, you see a series of old carnival knock-ems, like little clowns. And in the family room, I put a wall of framed shadow-puppet prints. So there are all these comedy references around the house that are all vintage—and things that the client wouldn’t have bought for himself. That’s my favorite way to use antique and vintage elements.
Before you go, what’s your best design advice?
Trust your instinct. Go with your gut. And design for who you are, not for who you think people think you are. Some of the worst clients we have had are the ones who are designing because they think they need to live a certain way. You need to embrace who you are. A lot of what we do is teach people to be comfortable in their own skin. We have this phrase we use: the luxury of enough. You don’t need everything. There’s a luxury to being satisfied with your own style and the things you really love.
The HighBoy salutes Mark’s new digital adventure, nousDECOR, where design enthusiasts—pros and amateurs alike—come together to solve each other’s design challenges and find perfect furnishings, fixtures, and accessories to fit their styles and budgets.