If all the stereotypes associated with interior designers, the overbearing snob is an enduring one. Thom Filicia, though, is far from being a stereotype. In an industry based on appearances, artifice and, sometimes, illusion, his utter lack of pretense, evidenced by his open, affable nature both on TV and over the phone from New York last week, has helped him build a far-reaching, ever-growing brand that spans the broadest spectrum of clients and commissions.
On the one hand, he has designed spaces for A-list celebrities including Jennifer Lopez, the late Peter Jennings and Tina Fey (“she’s exactly how you imagine her to be,” he says of the comic actor, “down-to-earth, generous and funny”). His high-end corporate clients include the W chain of boutique hotels. And his New York showroom, Sedgwick & Brattle, does a thriving trade in furniture, fabric and hardware produced by him or by designers he admires.
On the other, Filicia isn’t above a little mass-market work, as comfortable as he may be in Manhattan’s beau monde. In 2003, he became a household name as the design guru on Bravo’s massively popular Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the reality-TV show that introduced the word tszuj to the world. On that program, Filicia had only a few hours and limited resources (as opposed to months-long schedules and massive budgets) to completely remake sad, often dilapidated spaces. “It was so much fun,” he nonetheless enthuses.
During the show’s run, Filicia became a spokesman for Pier 1 and co-authored a bestselling book with his Queer Eye castmates. After it ended, he wrote two more books (2008’s Style and 2012’s American Beauty, for which Fey wrote the foreword), hosted a second home-rescue show (Dress My Nest) and appeared on popular daytime TV shows such as Ellen, through which he encouraged everyone, in his characteristically sweet way, to make their homes, regardless of budget, a little more fabulous.
To Filicia, the distinction between so-called high-end and lower-brow is a blur anyway. “It’s like truffle fries,” he offers, using a food-world example to highlight how the mixing of high, low and everything in between characterizes the aesthetic of this particular age. In fact, it’s something that makes design today exciting, he feels. Take the weekend home he created for Lopez when she was married to Marc Anthony; for that project, he seamlessly blended J.Lo’s glitziness with her then-husband’s “guyness” for an effortless juxtaposition of casual and sophisticated, traditional and contemporary. His knack for this kind of fluidity is something that grew naturally out of his background.
Before he started his design studio in 1998, Filicia trained under some of New York’s highest of highbrow designers, including the late Robert Metzger (Carolina Herrera’s interior decorator) and Jeffrey Bilhuber (whose client roster includes Iman and David Bowie). “It was great exposure,” says Filicia, who before that “studied art and design at Syracuse University. In design school, you learn the theory of design. But sometimes you have to pull a rabbit out of a hat, or design things the night before they are due.”
“It’s one of the reasons I have enjoyed doing TV,” he adds. Having developed a resourceful, can-do spirit, crazy-tight deadlines have never fazed him.
Good thing, too. At 45, Filicia is hardly done ascending. Currently, his studio is working on a spate of big projects, including a 340-unit luxury condo project in Miami, a hotel in Mexico, private homes in the Hamptons and Beverly Hills and a new fabric line for Kravet. If that doesn’t sound busy enough, he’s also considering a new TV project.
Asked if he had ever thought, when he was a student at Syracuse, that he’d achieve this level of success, he goes into humble mode. “I certainly never planned for this to happen,” he says. Yet he doesn’t take it for granted. “I’m enjoying it,” he says. “It’s certainly enjoyable.”
This piece originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on Saturday, January 17, 2015.