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Expert Advice: How to Achieve a Low-Key Luxe Look at Home


Expert Advice: How to Achieve a Low-Key Luxe Look at Home

May 30, 2014

Richard Ostell is a British-born, NYC-based designer with impeccable taste. His interiors manage to achieve that fine balance between being understated and luxurious–and calm and comfortable too. We asked Richard to share his basic design principles for creating simple, calm spaces. As he explains, “It’s all about balance. I love technology and am constantly curious, I just feel we have lost a sense of tranquility in our lives and our homes can be that place.” Here are 10 principles that Ostell lives (and works) by.

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Above: For a West Village townhouse, Richard mixed luxe elements (custom Belgian-linen-covered sofas from Dmitriy & Co.) with casual notes: an artwork nonchalantly pinned to wall.

Form follows feeling.
I’ve always believed that form follows function, but when I read this quote–thank you, Illse Crawford!–it captured my own design philosophy. It’s an empathetic and sensitive approach to designing objects that’s about knowing when something works, when the proportions are right, when what isn’t there is as important as what is. This also applies to my interiors. It’s important to me that a home doesn’t look too done, that it isn’t just a showpiece frozen in time. A home should reflect the people who live in it and the way they live; it has to feel right to them.

Trust your intuition.

There is a fabulous TED talk by my old boss, Angela Ahrendts, former CEO of Burberry and the now the head of Apple’s retail business, in which she talks about human intelligence, of going with your instincts. She says as a society we value logic and facts more than feelings and that we should learn to trust our intuition more. So often we’re too quick to dismiss going with how we feel.

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Above: A vase by ceramicist Matthias Kaiser is placed on a rough-hewn wooden shelf. 

Design for now.
I’m an Aquarian, so I’m always looking forward, but I believe it’s important to design for now. I think design should be representative of the time in which it’s made and interiors should reflect how we live today. That said, I love objects and spaces that have a sense of history and the marks of time: again it comes back to balance, of knowing or feeling when something is right.

Mix different textures. 
For me this is instinctive. You never want anything to be one note. Hard and soft, old and new, rough and refined; you need balance and layers. The happy relationship or tension between objects, textures, and space is what I am striving for in all my work be it furniture or interiors.

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Above: Richard creates a simple palette in natural tones by mixing linen, wood, and weathered brick. 

Use humble materials.
I have always believed in an honest approach to design, I like to see the craftsmanship in a simple wood joint, I like things to be clear; nothing fake or hidden with extraneous detail.  This quote from Leonard Koren’s book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers sums up my ideas very well: 

“But how do you exercise the restraint that simplicity requires without crossing over into ostentatious austerity? How do you pay attention to all the necessary details without becoming excessively fussy? How do you achieve simplicity without inviting boredom? The simplicity of wabi-sabi is probably best described as the state of grace arrived at by a sober, modest, heartfelt intelligence. Pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry. Keep things clean and unencumbered, but don’t sterilize. (Things wabi-sabi are emotionally warm, never cold.) Usually this implies a limited palette of materials. It also means keeping conspicuous features to a minimum. But it doesn’t mean removing the invisible connective tissue that somehow binds the elements into a meaningful whole. It also doesn’t mean in any way diminishing something’s ‘interestingness,’ the quality that compels us to look at something over, and over, and over again.” 

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Above: In a West Village townhouse with en suite bedroom and bath, worn wood floors are juxtaposed with a Briona Pendant designed by Adolf Loos in 1914.

Surround yourself with the real deal. 
When I talk about humble materials I also mean honest, natural materials: wood, stone, plaster, cotton, linen, etc. Materials that age well and develop patina over time. Scuffs and marks on a dining table are a history of all the meals you have shared there. Too many people live in homes that are almost hermetically sealed, filled with synthetic materials and toxic chemicals. (This is true of the food that too many people eat as well.) Open the windows, throw out stuff, and eat real food! Surrounding yourself with honest materials allows your body to breathe and relax.

Balance the old with the new. 
People become obsessed with keeping things looking like new, but this is not how the world works; everything ages and I feel we should embrace the beauty in the marks that time makes on objects and our homes. It’s the juxtaposition of old and new that makes things interesting. A sense of history grounds us and ties us to our people. 

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Above: Richard’s white oak dining table and benches are his own design. Handmade in the US, the simple form epitomizes his restrained approach. See A Brit in Milwaukee for a look at the table and bench in Richard’s former loft.

Stick with a natural palette.
Natural colors and restraint go together in my mind. I have never liked bright colors just as I have never liked clutter or ostentatious decoration. The world we live in (and my mind!) is so fast paced and chaotic that I want the things I surround myself with to be quiet. For me that means fewer things and subtle, harmonious colors.

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Above: A parade of pebbles displayed on a table.

Mix styles.
Mixing periods and styles adds interest. But don’t do it for the sake of decoration; everything in your home should have meaning and be personal. One of my favorite things is a collection of tiny pebbles a dear friend collected on the beach on Fire Island. Each one was carefully chosen and arranged in a line, and seeing it means so much to me. I dislike decoration to fill a space or a wall; that means nothing.

Practice restraint. 
I love the word restraint. It’s about a light touch, knowing when to stop, living with less, buying fewer but better things that will last, and keeping only those things that mean something. As I said before, when I am designing a piece of furniture, an object, or a space, it’s as much about what isn’t there as what is. 

To learn more about Richard’s approach to design, see our previous posts: The Quiet Man, Slow Design from Richard Ostell and Steal This Look: Richard Ostell’s Westchester Cottage

Richard Ostell has his own online shop and design business: go to Richard Ostell. He is currently collaborating with a Oaxaca pottery collective on an exclusive line of ceramics using traditional techniques. The pieces will be available on his website and also at his new, by-appointment-only space in the city in the fall. Stay tuned for details. 

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