Y'all can go to Hell, I'm going to Texas.
Designer S. Rohde Hill talks about life, style, and coming home to the Lone Star State.
Just don't call him eclectic.
by Christina Davis
lipping into the booth across from me at Perfect Strangers inside the Hotel ZaZa in downtown Austin, Rohde looks slightly uncomfortable. “I'm trying to get used to the heat again!” he says, smiling, “Remember, I’ve been gone for a few years. And spent the last several of those practically in the Arctic Circle.”
You could be forgiven for not immediately mistaking him for an interior designer, particularly not one who cut his design teeth in the rarified air of Los Angeles celebrity residences. His O.G. Hipster beard, ripped denim and aviators feel more like the uniform of someone who spent last night tearing it up in a garage band, not poring over fabric swatches and wallpaper samples. The only thing that betrays him is the bright pink Uniqlo shirt that peeks out of his upturned collar. “I’ve always felt like I have a foot in several worlds at once,” he says. “People try to describe me as 'eclectic' because I don’t easily fit into a particular style - but to me, eclectic is just another box to avoid. I kind of hate the word now."
After starting out as an architecture student at the University of Texas, Rohde eventually realized that it wasn’t for him. “I was always confused about why we spent so much time on the building envelope of class projects and left the inside completely unfinished. I thought, 'But that’s where the action is!' ”
When I ask him how he made the obvious switch to interior design, he pauses, sips his coffee, and looks kind of sheepish. “Well, truthfully, I was heading in a completely different career direction” he says, lowering his voice a little and leaning in, “but I watched Trading Spaces back in the day like everyone else, and I remember being so interested in the story that each episode sort of told, and how the participants were so affected by the transformations (which, let’s face it, were usually kind of awful) and
GOOD DESIGN IS DEEPLY PERSONAL, AND I ALWAYS
WANT MY SPACES TO TELL A STORY.
- S. Rohde Hill
thinking, ‘This is what I was missing in architecture school!’ ” Several years later, he was studying interior design at UCLA. His professors there recognized that he had a unique talent and pushed him to develop it. One of them recommended him to world renowned designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard, who was looking for a design assistant at the time. “I was so raw, I had no idea who he even was, but when I saw his work, I was blown away. I tried to study every detail of his process while I was there. He was an immense influence on my personal style.”
But Austin is a whole new frontier for the former West Coaster and we talked more about his own style, readjusting to life on the surface of the sun, and the future of design.
So how in the world did you end up going from Los Angeles to Austin?
Rohde: Well, I grew up near Austin and lived here for most of the 90's, but I struggled with wanderlust. So by now I've lived in L.A., South Florida, St. Louis, and the last few years in New England...but no place is like Austin and I've always missed it. It's just cliché by now to say that, but it's true. There's a strange brew working here that is just awesome. Hippie, Tech, Academic, Country...it's just a great dynamic. And probably the only place I've lived that I really ever considered home.
Ok, so you don’t like to be called eclectic. How do you describe your design sensibilities/style?
Rohde: Good design is very personal and I want my spaces to tell a story. Usually in residential design that means creating something that feels like it was collected gradually over years and tells the story of the people that collected it and the life they live. Doing that visually involves using a variety of textures and colors and incorporating furnishings and art from multiple eras and localities. As far as what I would call my style, I like “electric” in place of eclectic, but much like fetch, I don’t think it’s going to happen.
Unexpected Mean Girls deep cut!...So what's an example of the kind of story you might tell in a space…
Rohde: I had one client that was a new mom and whose house had been just consumed by brightly colored plastic stuff, which I totally understood having two kids myself. She was feeling overwhelmed by the loss of any personal space and identity, so we carved out a grown up (but kid friendly) living room that was styled with a jet setting
graphic 1960’s feel to it. So in a sense the story it told was different from her reality - it created a new one for her. But she loved it. And we made the kiddo his own space where the giant colored plastic stuff could all live in harmony. So everyone was happy.
What’s your dream project?
Rohde: Boutique hotel. But barring that, I don’t have dream projects - I have dream clients. The dream projects are the ones that you have a vision for and that you can also get the clients to buy into, which is hard to do sometimes when you’re spending their money! I’m fortunate enough to be able to be very choosy about which projects to accept, but I almost can’t say no to a client that’s willing to get creative and push some boundaries.
How does budget fit into that?
Rohde: The dreaded B word. Budget is difficult for sure, there’s no getting around it. I’ve done projects with very limited budgets that I loved and projects with higher budgets that I didn’t. It goes back to the client. A client with a limited budget, but that is willing to push the envelope creatively, wins over a client with a larger budget. Most of the time anyway...I still have to eat!
Any thoughts on current design trends?
Rohde: Oh wow. There are whole books being written
on that! I honestly try to stay away from design trends. I know that’s cliché, because no designer says, "I love trends!" but it’s true. I just like what I like. I like to think
that I make the trends (I don’t...yet.), but nothing bugs
me more than having something I like get too popular. I'm such a contrarian that way! The flip side of that though is that I also don’t worry about designing rooms to be “timeless” because that’s not how life works. Times change, rooms change. So if I like something that’s a trend, then so be it. Except ikat. Death to ikat. I’m going to put that on a t shirt.