Hutton Wilkinson, probably best known as the head of Tony Duquette, Inc., started out as the legendary designer’s protégé before going on to gain fame on his own as a decorator to the privileged class.
He’ll be appearing as featured guest speaker for a June 19 luncheon at Saks Fifth Avenue to benefit the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog.
I recently had an exclusive interview with Wilkinson, who, of course, tells his story best.
Clearly, design is a part of your DNA. Having a father and grandfather who were architects, along with your early admiration of Tony Duquette, had you ever given thought to any other career path?
I was always supposed to be an architect. I grew up in my grandfather’s and father’s architectural offices, where the draftsmen called me "the little architect." I loved to go through their library of architectural books. There was a moment when I thought I might like to be a costume designer, but that lasted about a week. I was forever playing with my mother’s jewelry, trying to wire it all together into something more substantial. Anyway, I didn't have the mathematical skills for architecture; and as a teenager, I realized that the decorators were the ones driving the Rolls-Royces and getting all the attention in the magazines. So, I made my choice at about 17 years old to be a decorator, and that was that.
Being part of Tony Duquette's world must have been overwhelming to a certain extent for a young, impressionable gentleman.
It wasn’t for me, at all. I grew up in a proper home, filled with wonderful things; and although we were not rich, my parents entertained all the time and dressed beautifully. I always thought we were rich, and more importantly, privileged. It was only as an adult that I realized we didn't have a dime. Being with Tony and Elizabeth Duquette was just like being at home—only better. We had the same aesthetic, but unlike my parents, the Duquettes had the means to satisfy the needs of their imaginations. My parents and their friends drove Cadillacs and Lincolns; bought their clothes at the French room at Bullocks Wilshire; wore tiny, perfect emeralds and diamonds, had their houses decorated by Cannell & Chaffin; and lived in Hancock Park or Pasadena. Tony's friends drove Rolls-Royces, Mercedes and Jaguars; bought their clothes in Europe; wore enormous cabochon stones set by David Webb, Seaman Schepps or Tony Duquette himself; had their houses decorated by the likes of Bill Haines and Jimmy Pendleton; and lived in Bel Air, Beverly Hills or Holmby Hills.
Like you, I began my career as an independent interior designer at age 21. Do you think that it is possible for a young person to do that today?
Yes, but I'm afraid it will be an uphill climb! The problem today is that we have so many choices in materials and decorations. I am talking about Crate & Barrel, Restoration Hardware and Ralph Lauren Home, for example. The question is, how do you make it your own or individualize it to express your client’s aesthetic? This is the battle of the creative individual wanting to enter the design field today. First, you have to figure out that it is a luxury business. Leave the Crate & Barrels to the do-it-yourselfers. If someone is going to hire you to do an interior, it needs to be custom. And if you can offer this to your clientele, then you have something that others cannot copy or put a price on. My jewelry, for example, is the perfect example of a luxury item: hand-made of precious and semi-precious stones and all set in 18k gold. But more important, each piece is one of a kind.
You have worked with the wealthiest and perhaps the most demanding of clients. As you have often said, money does not always relate to taste. In your design process, do you show them detailed room renderings of the final plan or do you simply say, Trust me, it will be fabulous.
I'm the luckiest guy in the world; I’ve attracted the best clients anyone could ever want. And, for the most part, they have hired me because they want what I have to offer—and they trust me. Each client is individual, and each one also has their own collections of things or favorite paintings that need to be considered, or a hated color. One client hated blue and would not allow one drop of blue in her house. She was what I call a ‘professional client’: She knew what she wanted and she knew how much she wanted to pay for it. It doesn't matter how rich or poor a client is, they all have a budget. When someone says to you, Price doesn't matter, you know they aren't being honest. You have to have some boundaries; otherwise it would be an impossible task. I once asked Tony Duquette why his clients hired him and not someone else. He answered, “My clients could have anything in the world, but they wanted me because I could make them something that they couldn't find anywhere else." That summed it up: The rich want what other people can't have—it’s the last luxury anyone has left, to have something made just for you.
Much like parents, many designers would say they love all their clients and their projects equally. However, did you have a favorite project that you worked on either on your own or with Mr. Duquette?
I've had so many, but the Palazzo Brandolini in Venice had to be the best. Tony and I took the job, but Tony was not at all well. In fact, he died shortly after the palazzo was finished. I really had to do the job on my own, for the most part. Living in Venice off and on for eight months was a dream come true; and being able to use the house any time over the next 10 years that my client (Dodie Rosekrans) had it before her death was also unbelievable.
If you could do the interior design work for any structure in the world, what would it be and why?
I would like to do a Frank Lloyd Wright house because I think his interiors are so hideous and I know just what to do about them. I would like someone to offer me a job decorating one of the apartments in the Enright House, the building designed by Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead. I would love to do an amazing gingerbread, bird-cage, Victorian house like the one in Meet Me in St. Louis...(Heck), I'd like to do a house in St. Louis!