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Cy Winship's Quirky Design

What do whiffle balls, ceramic dogs, plastic grapes and old movies have in common? They all inspire designer Cy Winship.

Cy Winship is talking about Joey’s gigantic ceramic dog on Friends. That’s the kind of object that tickles the Minneapolis designer’s funny bone. "I love it! I loved seeing the dog when it showed up in Joey’s room. Everyone watching knew that it wasn’t meant to be good design. But it was fun."

In these days of serious big-ticket design, the notion of having a little decorating fun is refreshing. "I know, I know, we all get so serious about decorating and design," says Winship, who is a frequent guest on HGTV’s Decorating Cents. "But it isn’t rocket science. It isn’t curing world hunger. It isn’t about your home looking like you’re smart or funny or rich or looking like a magazine." So what is decorating about? "It’s walking through a room and feeling a little thrill in your heart because it’s beautiful and it means something to you. It makes you happy," he says.

And for Winship to be happy, there has to be a little humor in every room. Perhaps not ha-ha funny like Joey’s ceramic dog, but something. talked with Winship about his quest for the quirky, his love for retro and pop and why we all should stop putting the wrong kind of furniture into wonderful mid-century homes.

How does a former actor/upholsterer get to become a designer with a store called Swank?
I got tired of acting and I taught myself how to upholster furniture. And I studied mid-century furniture, and I became hideously opinionated. So people would want a chair done and then would be lost with the rest of their house, and I would tell them where to put color and furniture. So they hired me for design advice, too, and it grew out of that.

I got together with Annette Hager at Swank. She does most of the collecting of the stuff in the store and I’m out doing a lot of design work. The store is a mixture of original collectibles, crazy ‘60s kitsch, found fabrics and redone pieces we collect. There’s everything from oil paintings of Chinese junks in Hong Kong, mid-century photography and ‘70s chrome. It’s all about helping people inject some sass and color into their homes.

Why the love affair with retro/pop/mod?
I love retro because it’s fun. It’s colorful, it’s bright, and it doesn’t take itself seriously. And it’s also one of the best ways to update a home from the ‘50s and ‘60s with lots of impact and color and not a lot of expense. Whether you call it retro, pop or mod, the furniture, especially in the '60s, was really well built and long and low. So it goes great with mid-century modern homes. The furniture gives a room greater dimension and because it’s lower it allows you to put more interesting stuff on your walls. The problem is that people are moving into these wonderful mid-century homes and they’re sticking in big puffy furniture that is just wrong for the rooms. It’s big furniture that was designed for those big great rooms in suburban homes, not mid-century modern!

How does inspiration strike?
It’s interesting. Inspiration is not necessarily a tortured process. Some of my best work strikes when I’m quiet or calm. My most interesting ideas come to me when I’m doing the The New York Times crossword in the middle of the night. I’m not even thinking about design. And suddenly it’s "Woo-hoo whiffle balls! How would they look floating in the air?" Or you see terrazzo tiles in a magazine and start thinking about what you could do with them. Or groovy old linoleum tiles. It’s the classic idea: you get out of your own way and open your mind and your heart to something new. I’m constantly influenced by everything I see. And of course I steal and try to reinterpret what others have done!

Every room you’ve done for HGTV’s Decorating Cents has had some sort of humor or lightheartedness. Why is that important in design?
I really enjoy things that I’m not sure whether they’re ugly or beautiful. You don’t want your home to be clownish but things that are a little funny — little things that undercut the seriousness of design, whether it’s plastic grapes or strange little gourds — often add interest texturally. And the weird and the humorous can energize the truly beautiful things.

I don’t like hyper serious people or rooms. So injecting a little humor or oddity into a room says something about your willingness to take a chance, and that makes you seem like a more interesting person. You want to keep growing up at the same time that you stay childlike and full of wonder.

What are the biggest design mistakes that people make?
The number one mistake is that most people are afraid of color. They’re color phobes. They aren’t able to get an image of what they want the whole room to feel like so they give up. You really don’t need to know all of the details all at once. Start with a color and go from there.

I was just reading Jonathan Adler [the potter turned furniture designer] and he said that there are no bad color combinations. That may be arguable. But the point is people need to learn how to use strong color and not feel that it has to be muddied down or grayed down. Be daring in the use of color to express who you are and what you love.

Second, people make the mistake of going to a furniture showroom and picking out all of the pieces at once. The furniture gets plunked down in a room and it becomes a generic room. Or they get influenced by things or looks that have nothing to do with where they live or who they are. An example of that is that I keep running into people who have decorated rooms that look like suburban Italian restaurants. That may make sense for someone who lives in wine country, but not so much in Minnesota!

How do you help people open up to color and non-generic design?
In the U.S. we don’t tend to be brought up to value the creative impulse, the beauty of design and objects. I guess the old Puritan sense suppressed that. So, when I ask clients "What do you like?" they often give me a blank stare. They don’t even know what colors they like. So I help them do some soul-searching. We look through magazines. I try to find out what’s important to them. That’s the hard part. It’s not what’s important to me, although I’ve been tempted to imprint my ideas on many of my clients. It would be easier! But it’s just so much better when you help them find the way and steer them away from the most egregious mistakes.

Once you get them talking, you have something to work with. Oh, they like the North Woods. At least you can start talking about colors. Do they like green? Is it the autumn they like? Slowly you find out what excites them and then develop the colors, textures and patterns that will tell their own story.

Would you say what you do is eclectic?
Yes, I like the word eclectic. Because what’s great about eclectic is that rooms should look that they developed over time, even if they weren’t! Again, not everything out of a furniture showroom at once. Maybe you were in the South of France and you fell in love with something and had to have it. People who like to collect are interesting, inquisitive, passionate people. And things that people collect over time say something about them. And that’s what good design at home is; it’s rooted in you and what you love.

Favorite color: Orange, because when you get it right, it’s wonderful. "We have an orange bedroom and it’s delicious, with floor-to-ceiling white curtains and a white vinyl headboard."
Favorite design work: Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz’ makeover of Lenny Kravitz’ loft
Design philosophy: Take chances, have fun, look at the big picture
Inspiration: Anything and everything, from aquarium gravel to European magazines
Design background: Enforced childhood visits to museums. Studied set design and costuming, and attended London Academy of Music and Art. Mostly self-taught, from upholstery work to design.
Favorite Ikea item: Their floating shelves. "The price is right!"
Design influence: The pop art movement of the sixties that continued into the 70s. "I love pop, retro, mod."
Obsession: Fabric freak. "Everywhere I travel I throw in an extra duffel for fabric. I have fabrics from Madrid, Paris, Beijing, Acapulco. And weird vintage stuff from estate sales."
Movies that gave him design ideas: Down With Love (2003), Laura (1944), Far From Heaven (2002), Blow Up (1966), Imitation of Life (1959). "I watch movies and I’m looking at the chairs, the curtains with cherries on them or the play of shadow and light."
Where he hangs: Swank, a part fun house, part upholstery/part design shop in Minneapolis that he runs with partner Annette Hager.

Anne Krueger is a frequent contributor to She has written for In Style, This Old House, Martha Stewart Living and The New York Times.

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