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Staying at Home with Designer Patrick Sutton

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For Patrick Sutton, good design is based in desire and a little bit of impulse. Trained as an architect, Sutton has focused more recently on interior design. He believes in centering an interior space as a reflection of the planned occupants and works closely with his clients—from hotels like Fells Point’s Sagamore Pendry to restaurants and private homes throughout the DMV—to understand not just who they are but who they would like to be. Mindfulness and aspiration are deeply embedded in his layered interiors which mix materials, antiques, and modern aesthetics with influences from all over the world.

The son of the travel journalist Horace Sutton, Patrick Sutton is a world traveler by birth, having accompanied his father on trips from a young age and appreciating the beauty of international architecture before most kids finish high school. But despite spending much of his life on airplanes, his home base since 1985 has been Baltimore, a city he calls a “special place” ripe with “a rich history, a vibrant waterfront, neighborhoods with historic charm and interest [and] a growing food culture.” Sutton has lived in his current Fells Point home with his wife Tracy Sutton and their dog Stella for twelve years. He first saw the home, a modern five-story waterfront townhouse, while riding the water taxi to a Ravens game and was taken in. Since moving into the home, Sutton has given it his full treatment, combining the work of Baltimore artisans and international celebrated photographers with family heirlooms and pieces he has picked up on his travels to places as far-flung as Aspen, India, and Italy. 

For the committed adventure seeker, sheltering in place has been challenging but Sutton has found some escape into the sanctuary of his home and his personal art collection which adorns much of his space. Sutton’s deep appreciation for photography is, in some sense, a form of escapism. He explains that for him, “great photographs start with balance and proportion” which are relaxing elements, then have a layer of “intrigue or mood” which are open-ended and allow for daydreaming. Sutton and I discussed what it’s like to create design based on personality, giving yourself permission to follow intuition, and how he assembled the space to dream of his next project.

 

Detail armoire from Alfonso Marina with antique urn and Justaposing modern steel chair. Photo by Jennifer Hughes
Kitchen with chairs constructed with seat belt strapping also seen in the movie The Hunger Games. Painting: "Bermuda" by Sabine Maes. Roger Davies

Suzy Kopf: In what ways has your personal style evolved or changed while living in Baltimore? What is Baltimore style to you? Or should we not think about style as being tied to place?

Patrick Sutton: My tastes have evolved as I’ve been exposed to things I’ve seen in my travels. As I get older I tend to gravitate to less cluttered, more modern aesthetics. Baltimore, as a location, has not influenced my style interests. As I wrote in my book, people often ask me about my style but I don’t think that way. I think about how people live and develop a design direction based upon their hopes and aspirations rather than how a place might influence my aesthetic in totality.

Did you have a plan for your home before you moved in or are you someone who moves in with very little furniture and lives with the space first before filling it?

I had some overarching plans that we executed right away but then tackled different projects over time. We had a leak and water damage that prompted a renovation of the kitchen and our master bedroom several years after we purchased it.

Stella the dog in the living room, with waterfront view of Baltimore Harbor and Fells Point. Ottoman is velvet tufted, painting is Scripted by Charles Marksberry. Wallcovering by Phillip Jeffries. Photo by Jennifer Hughes

You’ve spoken before about how your childhood as the son of travel journalist Horace Sutton allowed you to see a lot of the world and experience luxurious and beautifully designed hotels all over the world at a young age. That, coupled with an architectural drafting class you took as a teen and a summer class studying architecture at Harvard, helped you decide what you wanted to do by the time you were sixteen. Can you speak to your life as a creative and how knowing, in essence, your life’s work at a young age specifically shaped or impacted other choices and decisions you’ve made since? Do you have any advice for young people interested in the fields of architectural and interior design?

I think being exposed to the world’s most beautiful spaces at a young age clearly influenced my interest in architecture and design and gave me a leg up when I engaged in my architectural studies because I was able to draw on so much visual imagery that had been put in front of me. What gave my work depth and interest, however, was being around a storyteller father. Many designers and architects develop a look or aesthetic that defines their craft but for me, I had been raised to look for the narrative that gave each place its soul and identity. It took a while for me to realize this is what I was doing because at first, especially early as an architect, I was working on mastering form making. When I was able to put the pieces together and understand why I kept looking for the stories in my projects in order to give them richness and that it came from tagging around a storyteller as a kid, then my creative process coalesced with my intellectual one as well and things became so much clearer.

I advise young people to travel, seek out beauty, and learn to look and see intently. A designer’s ability to solve problems comes from drawing on what you have seen before and synthesizing that information to suit the situation. The more you have seen, the more depth of your visual library—down to the smallest of details, the greater your ability to process solutions will be. I have two sayings in our office that speak to this: one is “how deep is your toolbox?” and the other is “how big is your snow globe?” You can tell those designers who have a vast range of aesthetic ability versus those who regurgitate the same look over and over. I find the ones that have seen more things, have traveled and filled their minds with as much beauty the world has to show, are the ones who offer their clients more options that suit them.

I read that you were born in New York City, attended college at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, and interviewed to work in Washington, DC but you weren’t happy with the spirit of the city and felt something was missing. You moved to Baltimore in 1985 for a change of pace and stayed—do you identify as a native at this point and what is it about Baltimore that makes it a great place to live in your opinion?

I absolutely have made Baltimore my home city and am proud to call it my home. I will tell you it was definitely a challenge when I first moved here as there wasn’t much value placed on world-class design and much of what was being done was lackluster. But that has changed in the last decade or so as people started to believe we had the right to want the qualities other great cities had. It took some people with the guts to invest in design and quality here. We certainly have our social and economic problems, but I am so thankful for the opportunities Baltimore has provided me. There is so much potential here: a rich history, a vibrant waterfront, neighborhoods with historic charm and interest, a growing food culture, etc. and we are so close to so many other great cities. It is a special place.

Do you work from home typically or have you been working from home during COVID-19? Has your relationship with your home changed at all during shelter-in-place? For example, many people now hate their couches because they’ve spent so much time on them! Do you still love your space or is there anything you would change now that you’re presumably spending an inordinate amount of time at home?

A well-timed question. We live in a five-story townhome and years ago I fully designed an office/media room on the fourth floor. Prior to COVID I rarely used the space because I wanted to keep my work and home life separate. When the pandemic hit this spring and I was forced to work from home I realized how lucky I was to have created that home office and just how important it is to invest in your personal sanctuary. I love my office and my home and working from there has been wonderful. It has also been a peek of what semi-retirement might look like, should that ever happen.

Bedside table with a Restoration Hardware lamp, sculpture that was inherited from Sutton’s father, framed art was found at a gallery in Aspen, CO. Photo by Roger Davies

In an interview with My Domaine you said, “I am a big believer that good design reflects who we are as people, and having equal parts familiar and innovative seems to capture that spirit.” Stories and storytelling are central to everything you do as a designer. What specific story do you think your home and the art you display within it tells visitors about you?

I think my home and the art within it reflects a person of curiosity, with varied interests, a love of travel and adventure, a tendency toward romance and intrigue, one who tends toward balance, proportion, and beauty over shock value and looks to create an environment that promotes spiritual wellbeing, calmness, and sanctuary.

What can you tell us about upcoming projects you’re working on for the rest of 2020 into 2021?

We have several new restaurants that will open; one a French burlesque dinner theater concept and one sort of a garden pavilion concept. We have a new hotel out of state that I cannot name yet, a viniculture learning center and banquet complex in rural MD, and of course houses in Baltimore, DC, the Eastern Shore, and elsewhere. 

You’ve said you “don’t subscribe to trends” in your designing and spoke to the fact that people today seem to be primarily concerned with collecting experiences and then displaying evidence of these collections as curated suggestions of the full life they are living. It seems like you view your own home in this manner. Can you speak a little about some of the objects you’ve chosen to display?

My home is an amalgam of things I have come across that speak to me intuitively. When collecting things I rely on my emotional response and trust my instincts over intellect. If something brings me joy or captures my curiosity it is likely coming home with me and I trust I will find a place for it to work.

Sutton's home office, where he has been working during stay-at-home. Triptych photographs at the top are by Lalia Essaydi. On the left is a framed photograph of Sutton’s Aunt Stella. Photo by Jennifer Hughes
I collect things that make my life more full and meaningful; it’s about mindfulness.
Patrick Sutton

The influence of nature, especially your admiration of systems and the patterns those systems create, is evident in your client designs. Would you say that nature is a subject you look for in the art you collect? Do you gravitate towards depictions of the natural world? I am thinking specifically about a few of the works in your collection, including a triptych by Lalia Essaydi.

No, I think it is the other way around. I think nature is the ultimate teacher and inspiration for art and design. I seek out that inspiration by putting myself in nature, hiking, going to beaches, scuba diving, and connecting myself to the earth. If there are things that resemble forms found in nature it is likely why it is beautiful. The only piece you pointed out that may differ in that regard is the Essaydi piece. I was drawn to that because of the powerful way the artist was expressing what it meant to be a woman in Islam, so that really is more about cultural identity, gender, religion, and humanity in a world that is very unfamiliar to me. Its beauty lies in how poignant that artist was in her ability to communicate complex cultural messages in one image.

As a longtime world traveler, how does being “stuck at home” feel for you right now? For when we are all presumably able to travel internationally again, do you have any travel-related tips?

I am an explorer so there is a restlessness that comes with being stuck at home but one just adapts. Travel for me is about adventure and exploration so I don’t really pack anything special other than sunblock. My camera on my phone and a sketchpad are the two most important things I take with me when traveling. 

In your book, Storied Interiors, you make it plain that for you, art in interiors should be “carefully integrated into home and furnishings.” Do you identify as an art collector? Do you think of selecting and hanging work in your home as the building of a cohesive collection visitors should experience as a whole or are you more concerned with displaying works that complement the many other elements of your interior design?

I think one needs to be careful with labels. I am drawn to beautiful, meaningful objects, and when I can I acquire them because I feel they possess an energy that enhances the quality of my life spiritually just by being around them. So I collect things that make my life more full and meaningful; it’s about mindfulness. I don’t collect things in sets or groups. When you look at the things that I surround myself with and where they are placed within my home it is my suspicion you will get a picture, or story, of who I am and what I am drawn to.

Hendrik Kerstens’ Crescent with Panamanian Woven baskets found at the Baltimore Antique show. A pair of bronze crow candle holders found on a shopping trip. Roger Davies
This is a still life done by Sutton’s great aunt Stella Lewis. Wallcovering is cork from Phillip Jeffries. Pillow is from Bliss Studios. Photo by Roger Davies

Photography seems to be a favorite medium of yours, would this be your father’s influence? What makes a good photograph for you?

I think you are right, it is, but I don’t think it is because of my father; he was a writer, not a photojournalist. I think what photography does for me is capture a moment for which your mind completes what is not in the frame of view. It is captivating to me. For me, great photographs start with balance and proportion which immediately puts me at ease, then it layers in intrigue or mood which makes my mind wander. That is what all great art does really. 

In photos of your home, I noticed some subtle nods to Vermeer, both the framed reproductions and Hendrik Kerstens’ Crescent, the stunning photograph of a woman with a cloth wrapped around her head. Is he a favorite painter of yours? What about Dutch Realism appeals to you?

Yes, I am a huge Vermeer fan. It is for the reasons I mentioned about photography. Vermeer’s use of light and composition is both visually pleasing while creating an air of mystery. 

Do you have a favorite piece or piece you were most excited to acquire? Were any of the works in your collection a gift? For you, is the story of how a work came to be in someone’s home the critical story of its life as an object or is the essential story more of an imagined life within a work that happens within the viewer’s mind when they observe the work?

Kerstens and Essaydi are among my favorites. In fact, I have another Hendrik Kerstens piece in my office called Red Turban. As of how I see the work in a clients’ collection and how it is important, I would say the latter is more important. The energy that exists within the piece and how that influenced the client’s acquisition of it is far more important than how it was acquired. It is the mesh point of that energy with the space we are creating that makes the space come to life. 

 

Armoire from Alfonso Marina, light fixture was made from a basket Sutton found from an importer called Texture. Painting: "Conduit" by Baltimore-based artist Leslie Shellow, 2010, ink, oil, wax on gessoed panel on wall. Photo by Roger Davies
Furnishings with hard edge etchings #1 and #3 from 2016 by Michael Heizer. Photo by Roger Davies
View from second story with Hendrik Kerstens’ Crescent over the mantle. Photo by Roger Davies

Photos by Roger Davies and Jennifer Hughes, as noted in captions.

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