Interview: Hutton Wilkinson
The interview is all about celebrating maximalist design.
I love all things classic glamour. I’m working on a few new projects for winter 2018 where the aesthetic is decidedly minimalist – with layered neutrals, great lighting, and lots of negative space allowing for sweeping city views from the high-rise windows. This is different for me as I’m usually working on renovations of antique Brownstone homes. I try to create one moment of drama in each interior, even in the most modern, discreet spaces. Drama has gotten me thinking about maximalist interiors and those who really live for the unexpected.
I have had the pleasure of interviewing iconic designer Hutton Wilkinson, who is basically the king of dramatic, maximalist, dazzling spaces. He mixes materials and furniture sourced across the globe. His career began with famed decorator Tony Duquette, who is responsible for some of the most iconic, classic Hollywood interiors. In this day of quick texts and clipped conversations, Hutton speaks with a refreshing mix of flourish and charismatic ease.
I hope that you enjoy,
Glamour and opulence transcends through all of your projects in such an innate way. Can you tell me about your upbringing and early influences that may have shaped your aesthetic?
My childhood was a fantasy life. We lived in a big house in Hancock Park, an upscale old fashioned neighborhood in Los Angeles, we had antique furniture, and what I considered important paintings in massive gold frames, and mountains of silver, and baccarat crystal and French porcelains, five servants and parties all the time. My mother wore clothes from the French Room at Bullocks Wilshire, and constantly changing jewelry, but on a regular day she had five carat diamond earrings on each ear. I thought we were rich and definitely privileged especially since my nanny, who had been my mother’s nanny filled my childish head with stories of vast wealth, gold mines, and French furniture, dressing for dinner, and ponies as she recalled “the good old days” back in Bolivia where my mother’s “legendary” fortune emanated from. It was only later that I learned the sad truth that that’s exactly what it was“a legend”! The truth was we didn’t have a dime, lived like kings, the servants were “old household retainers” who got room and board and no money, and the furniture, paintings and jewelry were all left over from “before the troubles” also spelled “1928". The extravagances came from my father, a hardworking, extremely talented architect who thought he had married a rich wife, and who had wonderful taste in clothes which he selected for her from the French Room at Bullocks Wilshire, a store owned by his uncle P.G.Winnett…but purchased retail without benefit of “family discount”! All of these combined circumstances instilled in me a knowledge of beauty, family pride, flights of fancy, southern hospitality, (my father’s family were from Alabama and my mother’s from South America… so I considered myself “thoroughly southern”.) My love of decorating, and jewelry was easily picked up from the surroundings at hand. All of this and the weekly visits to the local “Wiltern Theater” an art deco movie palace only five blocks from home which should the newest films from the last of Hollywood’s Golden Age instilled in me a desire and respect for what was to come later.
Your personal style is as iconic as your interiors, who are your style icons?
When I was little, and I mean, still in grade school, my heroes were; Tony Duquette, Cecil Beaton, Oliver Messel, The Baron de Rede, Arturo Lopez Wilshaw, Emelio Terry and Carlos de Beistegui. I was determined to meet them all (accept for Arturo Lopez Wilshaw and Emelio Terry who were already deceased). I was fortunate to meet them all except for Cecil Beaton who died before I had the pleasure and Carlos de Beistegui although I did meet his nephew Juan who invited me repeatedly to the fabulous Chateau de Groussay.
Parties, jewelry, lavishness and jet-set glam are personified in much of your work. It is so inspiring to wear a piece of your jewelry, it is like the perfect adornment—both elegant and modern. When you begin sketching your design, how do you find inspiration?
We work with a collection of stones and they tell us what they want to be. The trick it to listen…and actually hear them! Unlike other jewelers we don’t draw a picture first, like a picture of a butterfly for example and then have the stones “tortuously” cut to fit the picture. In fact we rarely if ever do any lapidary work, but rather take the stones “as is” and make them work for us. This can be an expensive process as most of our stones are not “calibrated” and therefore each setting must be made individually. Because of this each of our pieces are one of a kind. Because they are made by hand they have not been punched out by a machine and that is why our work is special. And different and has no correlation to what other jewelers are doing. I like to think of “one of a kind” as the definition of luxury something made only for you it doesn’t matter if it is expensive or inexpensive, if it is made just for you, that is the definition of luxury.
What is your favorite memory of Tony Duquette?
All the trips. We traveled around the world, the four of us, Tony, Beegle, Hutton and Ruth probably ten times together. Then there were the trips to Europe, Asia and South America. We never really “did” America although we often discussed getting three Winnegagos with drivers and shopping across the country, but that never happened. Those trips we took were amazing. Tony knew everyone, everywhere, and we were invited and feted and shown little known treasures and secret places. We shopped and shopped, and more importantly laughed all the time. The Duquette’s had wonderful stories to impart, and we soaked it all in. They were like our parents but better than parents because we choose each other so there was no baggage attached… just mutual respect and a shared sense of adventure and fun.
What is your favorite party moment?
There was a big night at the old Duquette Studio and all the stars were in alignment and for whatever reason everyone looked amazing there were no slouches the women wore couture. I remember Louise Good wore Dior… all beaded and sequined to the floor looking like an iridescent mermaid and Beegle wore Galanos couture which he had made for her and given to her as a gift and amazing jewels. I remember my first pink sapphires that night (worn by Mrs. Delmar Daves and Loretta Youngs diamond and Imperial jade deco earrings. I went up to Jimmy Galanos and said, “Jimmy everyone looks so fabulous tonight and so many of them are wearing your gowns and Beegle has never looked more beautiful” and he said “yes, she does look beautiful, but she has the dress on backwards!” and I said “well, it’s a backwards party” and we all took our dinner jackets off and put them on backwards and started walking backwards and just being plain silly…but it was amusing!
What project are you most proud of?
The interiors of the 12th century Palazzo Brandolini on the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy. These were done for John and Dodie Rosekrans and are now destroyed (my definition of decoration is “doomed to destruction”!) I did this job in partnership with Tony Duquette and it was our last project together before his untimely death at 85 in 1999.
Do you have muses?
My wife Ruth fills this role for me.
Tony Duquette is known for his work with Old Hollywood glamour, such as Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly. Can you tell me an anecdote about an Old Hollywood starlet?
Tony and I worked for so many (I even knew Mary Pickford). I think his most eccentric clients were David O. Selznick and his wife Jennifer Jones. Selznick bombarded Tony daily with “memo’s” about every single detail in the house from the trim on the lampshades to the type of “key hole escutcheons” on the door hardware. His wife, Jennifer Jones on the other hand could never make a decision and never was asked, she rarely attended meetings and rarely attended her own dinner parties because she could never decide what to wear or had decided herself that her makeup or hair wasn’t presentable…not even for her decorators to see. (I was ordered out of the living room once so that she could pass through because she didn’t want me to see her without makeup!). Tony needed to talk to her about something and she wouldn’t come down for the meeting so he went up to her room and found her standing in the middle of a mountain of Charles James gowns not being able to decide which one to wear to the meeting. Later when she was married to the industrialist Norton Simon we decorated her beach house and again it was the same old story!
What advice could you give to emerging designers who are influenced by you and your style?
Never compromise. Go from the gut. Listen to your inner voice and you cannot fail.
See some of Hutton Wilkinson's work below.
Images copyright Hutton Wilkinson, originally appeared in Upscale Living Magazine available in Los Angeles.