Interior designer Michael Whaley brings a refined style to projects throughout the U.S.
By Lynne Lavelle
Photography by John Dolan, Phillip Ennis, Frances Janisch, Mick Hales and Durston Saylor
In 1977, Michael Whaley's parents hired New York designer J. Terry Brown to decorate their home in Darien, CT. In addition to Vidal Sassoon's apartment in Beverly Hills, Brown's resume included Dick Cavett's New York townhouse and the Stanford White-designed home in Montauk, NY. For Michael's father, who had transferred the family from Racine, WI, for his career in television, the Cavett connection was a good omen, and Brown did not disappoint: the design transformed a blank slate into an iconic contemporary family room, with a Karl Springer table, Brueton chairs and Hartmann lamps. The reception to the new room was extraordinary, not merely because hiring a designer was such a status symbol at that time. As he watched visitors' eyes widen, Michael Whaley became aware of the power of design, and was changed too.
"He had taken a white box of a room and transformed it into an amazingly sexy, inviting space," says Whaley. "People came into the house and stopped in their tracks. That's when I became interested in interior design. I experienced that transformation along with that room. I realized that design had the power to change. I wanted to be able to do that too."
Whaley graduated from Columbia University in 1984, with an education that would shape his future aesthetic. A proud Francophile, he majored in French and completed his thesis on 18th-century interior design while living in Paris for a year. As luck would have it, his thesis advisor was a curator at the Musée Carnavalet, which afforded Whaley backstage access to the city's greatest architectural landmarks and a deeper understanding of French culture.
"Paris is overflowing with palaces that have been turned into decorative arts museums. Each one is better than the next," says Whaley. "The history of decorative design is highly connected and attuned to the French national history. It is well documented and observed. That kind of passionate, attentive, academic pursuit of design barely exists today in America, except in smaller circles – for example, people who read this magazine or are members of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. We rarely experience it in the larger design media and commentary or conversation."
Upon returning to the U.S., Whaley was accepted to the Interior Design Program at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. Life had other plans, however, and Whaley's career fast-tracked when Albert Hadley of the renowned interior design firm Parish-Hadley hired him for a temporary position. As the fall of 1985 approached, Hadley encouraged Whaley to continue his real-world education at the firm, where he had spent the summer working four days per week at the office, while completing a side project in the Cayman Islands. Like many of Hadley's protégés before him, such as Mark Hampton, David Easton and Gary Hager, Whaley joined the firm.
"By working there," he says, "I was given a window into the rarified world of some of the most powerful and influential families in America. I saw that gracious living is just as much about the quality of the person as it is about the quality of their surrounds. If you don't care about design or the designer, then your rooms are going to fall flat no matter what you purchase."
Moving on from Parish-Hadley, Whaley opened his solo office in New York City in 1987. Today, Whaley works with a small, close-knit team, consisting of a design assistant, office manager, and a network of skilled artisans, and he splits his time between the city and North Stamford, CT, working on projects in Manhattan, Connecticut, the Hamptons and further afield, such as Florida, the Caribbean and Colorado. According to Whaley, "Taste is not subjective. You either have it or you do not. Very few people have good taste. They hire me because I do, and they know enough to realize that I have it. They use me to bring good taste to their lives."
The French connection is much in evidence in Whaley's work, which combines minimalist elegance, rich materials, rare antiques and attention to "backgrounds" – walls, floors, ceilings and architecture. He credits Georges Geffroy, who created some of the most elegant apartments of mid-20th-century Paris, as a frequent departure point, but with a modern twist. "Today's clients are looking for more comfort, but are still drawn to the effects of luxury," he says. "I offer them a balance to create homes that feel good to be in, but also include the highest quality materials, for an exclusivity that sets their homes apart."
Whaley's design sensibility is artfully expressed in a gut renovation of a 1930s brick-and-slate house in Darien, CT. After years of unsympathetic renovations and additions, the house was in need of an identity and interiors with the necessary warmth and functionality of a family home. The house is now reminiscent of a 19th-century Virginia Tidewater plantation home on the exterior, with boxwood mounds and a sweeping double stair to the new entrance. Inside, Whaley completed the transition as a perfect backdrop for the family's collection of English antiques. "They wanted me to create a house for them that is comfortable, welcoming, and youthful," says Whaley.
In the dining room, Whaley added Chinoiserie-style fretwork over antiqued mirror panels to create a high style wainscoting against contrasting chocolate-brown lacquered walls. An antique green glass Indian lantern and geometrically embroidered curtains in moss green and chocolate create an exotic atmosphere for large family meals and celebrations. At night, the room shimmers from the reflection of the mirror work, walls and mercury-glass candles and objects. The artwork appears to float on the richly dimensioned walls.
For the family room, the client requested a fun, playful living space, able to accommodate the whole family, as well as a multitude of friends and pets, for gatherings focused on the flat screen. "They didn't want the formality or cliché of a media room," says Whaley. A Moroccan-style banquet wraps around three sides, and is covered in a custom traditional Ikat in tropical colors of acid green, aqua and brown. Twin Moroccan lanterns and an assortment of 17 pillows contribute to the relaxed atmosphere. "The interiors are chic in color and feel, while retaining the warmth and welcome of good classic design," says Whaley. "I was able to bring the richness of classic design principles to create a sense of comfort combined with modern needs."
Among Whaley's favorite commissions are those for clients with whom he has previously worked. With second homes and vacation retreats, clients feel free to experiment, take risks and have fun. "Usually with the second or third home, clients are more willing to let me create something new and different for them," he says. "Because we have already worked together, I know what the clients like, what they want, what they mean, and most importantly, what they don't even know they want yet."
In what remains one of Whaley's pet projects, the clients put complete trust in him to design every detail of their Florida oceanfront home, from linens to china and glassware, ensuring a complete turn-key experience. "They live half the year in the Northeast, and had purchased this oceanfront home for use in the winter months," says Whaley. "They didn't want the typical Vero Beach look – instead they wanted color, fine antiques and high glamour."
Whaley assembled a collection of painted and lacquered pieces that bring brightness to the rooms, and custom- designed traditional style rugs to be woven in tropical colors. The living room walls were Venetian plastered and highly polished to resemble the pink interior of a conch shell. Whaley designed a custom woven stripe fabric in aqua and pink to use for billowing curtains, which give a sense of being inside a beachside cabana on the Riviera. "My instructions to my clients were to show up with their suitcases," says Whaley. "When they walked in the door, they were over the moon. I was able to give them everything they hoped for, while still creating a look that was fitting to the beach setting."
Watch Hill Summer Cottage
Another second home, a summer cottage in Watch Hill, RI, presented a rare opportunity to restore a previously neglected, three-story Queen Anne-style house. With seven large bedrooms, a wraparound porch and a turret, the house had all the requisite elements of a romantic summer beach house, but was in dire need of a sense of continuity. Whaley envisioned that the house had been handed down to the owners through the generations, with each subsequent family adding a new layer and leaving its mark. "I travelled to England to purchase on the clients' behalf furniture, lighting, china and accessories to imbue the home with authentic history," he says.
Whaley used a program of William Morris hand-block wallpapers as backgrounds for most of the rooms, which are furnished with comfortable, custom-made upholstery, English Victorian antiques, and Arts and Crafts pieces. Sourcing antiques is part detective work and part luck, and Whaley was fortunate – "Throughout the project, unique and special pieces that seemed to already belong in the house kept finding their way to me," he says.
Among them is a Victorian-era beaded needlepoint framed bird that hangs over the sofa; a set of hammered-brass windmill-shaped fireplace tools; 19th-century English servants bells, which Whaley found on London's Portobello Road; and a marvelous French Bamboo coat stand. "I especially loved selecting the antique gas light fixtures and sconces," he adds. "These one-of-a-kind purchases add genuineness to a new renovation. Sometimes we need to go back in time, to collect the old and place it anew to create the layers of depth and detail the home deserves."
Shingle Style Waterfront
Whaley's assertion that good taste knows no particular style is perfectly illustrated in a Shingle Style home on the Connecticut coast. Here, among the relaxed breezy palette, generous seating arrangements designed to accommodate numerous family members and friends, and detailed woodwork, exists one of the most unusual rooms of the designer's career, and a testament to his versatility – an authentic Japanese Tatami room.
"The client had lived in Tokyo," says Whaley, "and had asked the architect to create a Tatami room hidden behind a set of paneled doors in the library. When you are standing within the traditional library, with its finely built walnut bookcases, designed to house rare books, a collection of car-shaped English tea tins and the accumulation of trophies reflecting a rewarding career, there is no hint of what lies on the other side." But once within the shelter of this refuge, all the cares of the day seem to drop away and a sense of peace and serenity sets in.
Whaley visited New York-based Japanese art dealer Naga Antiques to find just the right balance of fine Japanese antiques and artwork. Traditional low tables sit beneath a pair of delicate hanging scrolls; the rice-paper screen doors cast a soft filtered light and hint at the meditation garden outside. The custom designed futon, covered in a soothing sage silk, sets the tone for this beloved haven for the client. "Great design can have a transformational effect on a space, and also on the people who inhabit it," says Whaley. "This particular client obviously has significant responsibilities and demands on his time. I am honored to have created a space for him to find sanctuary and renewal."
After almost three decades in the business, Whaley continues to inspire his clients to allow him to accomplish something special in the design of their home. As a designer, he welcomes a variety of aesthetics, and finds fresh ways to combine traditional with the best of Modern, the sleek with the Bohemian, and the tried-and-tested with the exciting and new.
"I am not a purist," he says. "I remain open to all possibilities – those contrasts are often what make a room pop. I want to help my clients articulate and then achieve their dreams for their home, and I want to help them get it right. Most importantly, I want to help them take it all the way to the finish, so that they can live and enjoy down to the last detail."