Leslie Newman has been designing for over four decades, and not one of her client’s homes look the same. She has an admirable, soulful approach to design, letting every single one of her client’s unique personalities shine through. We asked Newman to talk about her organic design sensibility and how to achieve it.
How long have you been in the design industry and what made you get started?
In some way or another I have been involved in design for 46 years now. I recently found an old “floor plan” I drew for my childhood bedroom at age seven! Throughout my childhood I was always thinking of how to change spaces by moving walls, furniture, or changing fabrics. I designed and built my first house when I was 18, and it was a learning process then, and through the next few houses I renovated in New Orleans, Nantucket, and a home that I built in Mississippi. I always helped friends pull their homes together, and so, in a very informal way, I have always been doing this for as long as I can remember. I formally opened Space Interior Design in Chicago after I moved here in 2005, and I now work in New Orleans and Chicago.
I am very affected by the “vibe” of the space I live in, and the flow of a home from room to room, so I could not live in a home that didn’t “feel” right. And this is not about how much you spend, just the way it feels. It is easy for me to want my clients to “feel” good and “at one” with their homes, and for the home to have their vibe.
How has living in different places influenced you?
I grew up in New Orleans and lived there for 30+ years starting in college. As a child I traveled all over Europe. My family had a home there and I went to school in Europe, and that certainly affected my sensibilities and opened up my eyes to the infinite variation of homes, interiors, and lifestyles. Also my work in retail display and the art gallery I started, as well as my own experience supporting and dabbling in creating art, all contributed to my eye and how I see things.
The high ceilings in parts of Europe and New Orleans, the large scale and ornate plaster work, and light streaming through gauzy drapery just makes life feel elegant and dreamy. The modern urban homes in the Midwest and in parts of Europe have a totally different and grounded feel, and a very different proportion. The grey light of the urban cityscapes, the light of homes near the oceans, and higher up in the mountains, all have to be taken into consideration when designing. All of this is very much a part of what makes a home to me, and I like to mix the elements to give a lived-in feel.
What your definition of “style”?
There is a certain style that stands out to me in a measured, thought-out interior. It is layered, yet well-edited, so as not to be frenetic or overwhelming. The layering is delicate. Small, collected, personal, meaningful things that your eyes can land on are exciting. In a base of tempered, grounded color tones and furniture shapes, the artwork and beloved items shine. To me this is style. And it is timeless.
The initial thing is to try to figure out what is the client’s personal style, even if they do not seem to have one. I am proudest of the fact that none of my client’s homes look the same, and none of mine did either. I think this is critical. In a good working relationship you sort of “mind-meld” and become one. Often clients say they want something that really will not make them happy at all.
The next step is familiarity with the products that are available to create the home they want. With the umpteen vendors today it is important to be on top of most of them so that you can find products in all price points, and know when to spend a little more or a little less. It is simple to reproduce the same look over and over, like a stamp of the designer’s style. It is much harder to interpret and represent your client’s style in a way that stands the test of time when it may not be your own personal esthetic.
What’s the best part of a design job?
Easy! The joy of on my clients faces and in their voices when you nail it! You just know. They can’t fake it.
What is it about antique furniture and objects that you love?
Without antiques, a home tends to look like a showroom floor. The home lacks depth and personality and will never look like something someone is truly happy living in. You can actually feel that flatness of that sort of a home. Even the most modern homes need the break of an antique chair, or box, or collectible to give the modern something to bounce off in the same way a good recipe needs a little spice. Antiques add heart.
Any secrets on how to exude luxury and staying on budget?
I would always recommend a few sumptuous fabrics, soft throws, beautiful pillows, and, yes, a small antique or two, whether the home is modern or traditional, or a mix of both. I also like to just make sure the lines are quality. I am currently doing a first home for a young money manager, and we are purchasing many things from West Elm, and Crate and Barrel, but we added a wonderfully priced Milo Baughman dining table and are looking for a few other real vintage items to make it feel “real” and “his”.
What’s a staple in your overall design toolkit?
Tact, a sense of humor, and a dogged perseverance are musts for all designers! We are buffers and our client’s advocates with all sorts of subcontractors and vendors, and often enter our client’s lives at very stressful times. We are collaborators, not dictators, and it is a delicate job that does require pushing sometimes. The other crucial design tip is to remember how we walk through our own homes everyday—the flow from room to room and the sight lines—and make it simple and inviting so the design is durable no matter the style. Intangible, but critical.
We asked Leslie to choose her favorite items from The HighBoy. Here are her top picks: