It’s been said that great design is as much about the way a space feels as how it looks, and for designers like Cliff Fong, that idea is paramount. With interiors for Hollywood royalty such as “American Horror Story” co-creator Ryan Murphy, James Franco, Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, plus commercial designs for Michael Voltaggio’s Ink restaurant, Fong has become a celebrity go-to, even being named one of Hollywood Reporter’s “25 Most Influential Designers in Los Angeles.”
Fong’s juxtaposition of 20th-century design elements with antiques, seamlessly blending rare flea market finds, historically accurate furniture, contemporary art, photography and film-set-worthy objects, is one of the style maven’s signatures. The New York-born former fashion buyer and stylist has embraced the casual LA lifestyle while sheathing it in vintage sophistication. The resulting spaces are highly personal, with ego and pretension gracefully checked at the door. “I don’t want anything to be too precious,” he explains. “It’s important to be able to live and breathe and entertain.”
In between designing celebrity homes and high-profile commercial projects and readying his own new bedding line, Ville Noire, Fong talked to us about everything from art and fashion to movies.
When it comes to your curatorial process, what’s your motto?
I don’t think I have a motto. I try not to repeat myself. I think that if you ever get too comfortable with a certain kind of verbiage, it prevents you from growing as a designer. For me, it’s different every time. It’s not that I always want to create something that someone can look at and go, “Oh, I did that.” It’s more important to find an aesthetic that is unique to my client. I’m not the kind of designer who wants to create just carpets and curtains match. I look for the unexpected — the irony in a room. When I’m curating, I look for common threads that might not be associated with each other. Perhaps it’s different regions or different time periods. Perhaps it’s combining something that exists in nature with something that is industrial. I start with something central and build around it. If I can do that successfully, then I’ve created something special for someone.
From what do you typically draw inspiration?
Mostly, I get inspired by two of the things I love the most: nature and art.
How has your background in fashion informed your interior design aesthetic today?
I think the process of building a room is sort of like getting dressed in the morning. You decide who you want to be that day. You might feel like a cashmere sweater with a long skirt. Some days, you feel like putting on a suit. Some days, it’s T-shirt and jeans. When I look at how to dress a room, I ask a lot of questions. Is the client more casual or more formal? How does the client live? What would he or she wear for any of those occasions? What should the room wear for those occasions?
Can you recall a time when a celebrity client asked you to track down an unusual antique? What was it?
Yes, it was a Jean Prouvé chair, and it was quite rare. This was before 1stdibs. Because I had spent a good chunk of my early years in Paris, I was connected to dealers there. I called the right person and found the chair. We got it delivered in a week. I did not see another one of those chairs until Art Basel, and it was exponentially more expensive — about $170,000 more. When you’re dealing with esoteric things that have investment potential, it’s helpful to know which galleries and art advisors to call — in case you need them.
What have been some of your most memorable celebrity rooms?
There are no rooms that particularly stick out. Ryan Murphy and Ellen are both design enthusiasts and collectors with different inspirations at different times. There are some rooms we have reinterpreted several times over the course of ownership. With Ellen, I have redone one room three or four times. For Ryan, we have reconceived his house a few times, and we’re doing it again now. It’s fun to change a room based on your mood. The 1958 movie “Auntie Mame” is a classic example — she redecorates her home six times to represent new phases of her life. When the movie opens, there is a lot of Chinoiserie. In another phase, there is a lot of English Colonial revival. That, to me, is one of the greatest pleasures of interior design — to reinterpret a room based on mood.
Is that difficult for you — to change a room you worked so hard on?
In general, I don’t get emotionally attached to a house or a room. I might enjoy how that room looks, but I’m willing to change it. To me, it’s like changing your outfit from day to day.
When you were working on Ryan Murphy’s historic Spanish Colonial, which was restored by Diane Keaton, were you worried about finding the right balance between modern and being respectful of the home’s original character?
I wasn’t worried. I am always trying to design within the soul of the house, which might sound cliché. If I’m not doing that, then it’s just set decorating — like drag. It’s not clever. It’s not personal or unique.
The rooms in Ryan’s house seem very carefully edited. So, even though you are using antiques and traditional furnishings, there is a minimalism — almost a Scandinavian sparseness — to the rooms. Was that the goal?
A lot of that relates to the personality of the client. I do like minimal, but I also love maximal. For example, it’s fun to pack a wall with portraits. One thing I’m careful about, however, is making sure that the personality of pieces can be appreciated. Sometimes, when you have too many special pieces in a room, you don’t know what to focus on. It’s like having too many celebrities in the room. Everyone is fighting for attention.
What do you like best about designing in Hollywood?
Because Los Angeles is a growing and fertile design community, the clients tend to be younger, more inexperienced and more open to ideas. The fashion is loose, and the way we live is loose. It’s easier to etch out a place for oneself here. Here, I get to do a lot of interesting things with design.
Do you enjoy initiating your younger clients into the world of art and design?
Yes, although I can’t say it’s a college-level course! I’m not the kind of designer who has my own creative agenda. I’ve been around quite a few young people who have always liked Andy Warhol but have never known that they can own a piece of his work. Maybe it’s not an “A” piece, but it is still a Warhol. I enjoy showing them where the art could work in their space. I always ask my clients, “How can we do this at a speed and within a budget that you’re comfortable with?” I don’t mind a small project, say, for a young actor or a small family. It’s nice to be able to do that, and I can do that because I’ve had clients — like those in the financial sector — with much larger budgets. I like the low and high.
You’re like an actor who films a blockbuster every few years in order to pay for his or her passion projects, e.g., the low-paying art films.
Except they’re still getting paid more than I am [laughing]!