I discovered in my conversation with architect and interior designer José Solís Betancourt and interior designer Paul Sherrill that this gallery space with the Peter Fox painting (notice the “dripping” bottom) was almost the cover image of their first book, Essential Elegance.
The equally stunning and opulent living room focal point, in fact, graces the cover. Both are from their complete renovation of a grand estate in San Juan and are a tantalizing preview to the “couture” design work of their firm, Solís Betancourt. While their stunning high-end interiors featuring master works of art are a signature of their more than 20-year career, I cannot help but fall for designers on the AD 100 (the Oscars® of the design world) who also see value in framing the art works of their client’s children.
AM: José, you’re quoted as saying, “Designing a residence is like designing a set for an opera.” Elaborate on that in terms of one of the houses featured in your book.
JS: The main purpose is to achieve a house that serves the clients as they entertain and interact in daily life. Like an opera, you use lighting, fabric and colors to create a background that elegantly facilitates the way the client lives. Every client has a different way of living and each project should reflect that.
PS: The chapter Tropical Montage, it’s a glam and dramatic project which reflects the way they entertain.
AM: How does one avoid going glam and ending up in the wrong.
PS: It all comes down to quality. Big is not always better. We work on very large homes, but work toward quality which may mean scaling back on square footage. I hate homes where the emphasis is put on public rooms, but you go to a bathroom that is so poorly done. I believe in elevating the whole quality of the home, even if that means you work with less square footage for a better product.
JS: We avoid trends which make things dated. Our work it more timeless –the combination of high quality, high drama and elegance without too much glitz.
PS: It’s a mixture of certain traditional elements, contemporary artwork. Layering quality into a project makes it timeless. We try to add some things that tone it down, too. If there’s shine, we mix in some matte. If there is refinement, we mix in rustication.
AM: This is your first book. What do you want your readers to take away from Essential Elegance?
PS: The diversity that we enjoy experiencing and working in differing styles – a rustic farmhouse or elegant Manhattan apartment. It’s great fun to experience these different design styles. You may not have thought about this one way to do things, but your client has some sort of collection that inspires you to do something different. It gets built into the project.
JS: We tailor every project to each client. It’s very couture – every dress made special for each lady. It gives uniqueness to each work and becomes a special project. The clients walk around and see themselves in the house. They are happy and content – never alarmed or surprised. They were so involved, so it fits them perfectly. It’s like a dress fitting. When it’s done, she’s seen it in every stage, and it fits her very well.
AM: Paul, you’re credited as saying that the soul of the home comes from its display of paintings, sculptures and decorative objects that have meaning for the owner. Elaborate on this in regards to pictures featured in your apartment in DC.
PS: Everyone has their own personality and that should be reflected in their home. Not one cookie-cutter or applied design principle works for everyone. A lot of designers have that one style and one look that they use, but we look to create more individual spaces through the art and the personalities of those that live in it. My apartment is really a collection of art and objects I’ve gotten over the years through travel. And some things that remind me of the special places I’ve been, like France and Italy. My minor in college was ceramics and am infatuated with them. They are throughout my home.
AM: Like on Page 85?
PS: Yes, a mix of ancient pieces, some Asian pieces from a shipwreck. I like things with wear, a stress, a life before. In terms of spirituality, we take care of things in our time on earth, and if they are good quality, they’ll last longer than us.
AM: If someone has an impressive collection of art, artifacts and decorative objects, you two are the go to designers. And the way you incorporate those works into your designs appears so effortless. How did you come to be recognized for this?
JS: We have clients that have great personal collections and some who don’t. We help everyone out. Collections are a focal point, and it’s great to work with people who have them.
AM: And what is a design secret you can share with HGTV.com readers about collecting and displaying great works of art in your home?
JS: Art is not for decoration. It is powerful and important to each client. The personal attachment is important.
PS: We’ve gone into projects where they didn’t have the pieces we needed, but their children were bringing home great works they made in school. We created ways to display their art, and it was so special to the client. Compared to the art of Blue-chip artists who make lithographs in mass-production, I’d rather have a handmade special piece. It evokes a conversation and is so meaningful.
JS: You don’t have to have fine works of art, but it needs to be interesting, Kids’ sculptures can be fantastic and really beautiful.
AM: One might assume that ancient artifacts and older paintings belong in a more traditionally designed interior, where as modern art and sculpture only belong in modern dwellings. But your work proves that’s not always the case.
PS: That’s what I like. The energy of mixing is pulling in a 16th century piece of furniture into a big, open, modern space. Or vice versa. I like to mess with scale – a large piece of furniture in a small space can make a statement, too.
JS: We have some pieces where the interiors and type of house are very in sync, like a Tudor with art work form the masters, but I love to mix it up, too. It’s so interesting to play with the design.
AM: What’s your favorite example of this?
PS: I love page 195. We almost made that the cover of Essential Elegance. I found that artist at Georgetown in DC. It reminds me of the Washington Color School artists like Gene Davis and Thomas Downing. This is a play on a Gene Davis. The paint is dripping off the canvas. It’s a large scale modern piece mixed in with traditional elements.
AM: It’s an interesting tension…
JS: …without being shocking.
PS: We never go for shock factor. That can get old.
AM: There are many unexpected design elements in your work, too. A cheetah inspired carpet. A tree trunk table. I love them.
JS: Layering is important. We layer with interesting elements. Sometimes the client brings in unexpected pieces we must add in.
PS: Sometimes they want to throw it out, and we beg to use it and give it new life. We see the energy in it. Then it has a history, and they become proud to talk about it.
AM: I’ve read that the most unusual space you’ve designed is a mausoleum. What kind of space have you yet to design that you are most longing too?
PS: I’ve served as a judge for the International Superyacht Design Awards. I’m amazed at the quality of the craftsmanship. These superyachts make the interior of a Bentley look so sad. While some technology used in these boats is so far ahead of residential interiors, there are also some elements lagging behind. So, I’d love to do a private yacht.
JS: They are much smaller. You have to be so creative. It’s like a jewel box. You want it to be so special.
PS: It would definitely be complex. They have bathrooms made entirely of stone. They’ve engineered the stone to be so thin, so as to not weight down the boat. That’s technology we’ve never seen in residential design.
JS: I’d love to do a private jet. It’s so confined. The space constraint can lead you to create something truly special.
AM: Thanks for talking with us.
JS: Thank you.
All photos by Marcos Galvany.