1stdibs Introspective - Style Compass - Ruthie Sommers
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RUTHIE SOMMERS- by Susanna Salk for 1stdibs
I love working and making some kind of contribution,” says Ruthie Sommers of her design business. “I make a lot of mistakes and try to learn from them but I also grow from the things I do right.”
Judging from the successful Los Angeles-based design business and home boutique Chapman Radcliff, Sommers is doing many things right. Yet she is the active pursuer of a continual self-educated quest for knowledge as much as she is for that perfect chair to complete a client’s living room. Most evenings, after tucking her daughter Eloise to bed, you can find her buried in art magazines and design and landscape books. “Having a glass of wine and studying about George IV and Brighton Pavilion is my ideal night,” says Sommers. “There is so much to learn!”
Sommers’ flair for design began at a very early age, growing up in North Carolina, surrounded by classic Georgian and Tudor style homes, the latter about which she says, “I loved their simplicity and the tradition and functionality of all the rooms.” It wasn’t just architecture that inspired her style. Her own mother danced to a decidedly unique beat with her distinct ability to be chic and practical at the same time: “My mother was a potter and was always covered in clay,” remembers Sommers. “She wore a Pucci bathing suit wrap to a conservative Southern country club ball… and still had clay in her fingernails.
Alarmed by it then, but totally admiring of it today, she is my complete idol.”

 Sommers practices her mother’s daily mantras, which range from modesty (especially when it comes to showing designer labels), to writing thank-you notes and being mindful of the environment. “I refuse everything I can,” says Sommers. “That’s why I adore antiques – plus, they are green!”

After discovering the staple gun in boarding school (“My room looked like a poster for a Grateful Dead concert, but I was onto something that made me happy”), Sommers graduated from the University of Virginia and moved to New York to start an apprenticeship with the renowned designer Juan Pablo Molyneaux. She then worked at Ralph Lauren Creative Services until her boss caught her and best friend Mary Mallard at a diner near the Lauren offices, laying out a design plan for their first personal client. “Of course I was let go and cried all the way down Madison Avenue but Mary just laughed and told me this was a sign telling us to get our business license!” Thus Chapman Radcliff Interiors was born in a small townhouse in Greenwich Village back in 1995. “The name is based on our middle names as tribute to our favorite firm, Parish Hadley,” explains Sommers. “I strive to have the modesty and humility of Albert Hadley who, when asked of his most prized possession, mentioned a rock his mother painted for him that still dwells in the same one bedroom apartment he’s had for 30 years.”

 

After almost a decade of honing her style in New York, Sommers moved to Paris and traveled throughout Europe where she studied painting and antiques. When she returned to the United States, her desired destination was the West Coast where, in 2002, she resurrected her design business while opening a home furnishings and accessories store. “If I had to describe my style I would say it’s definitely classic with a quirky flair and a little Southern touch,” says Sommers. Today’s business landscape is as challenging as it is lucrative:  “I think being a designer these days can be tricky,” says she. “There can be so much opportunity such as heavy presence of the press – moreover, the branding and the ability to build lines is so much more extensive than it was even five years ago. I think you have to choose your avenue. I have come to realize I am a better designer than brand manager.”

This gives Sommers the precious time to roll up her stylish sleeves and brainstorm: “My real love is sitting on the floor with a design scheme and doing watercolors,” she says. “I obsess over fabrics just as much as I do over keeping my clients’ budget in place.”
Her appreciative clients respond as do magazine editors who place her on their covers, (she was on Domino’s debut), and on the tippy-top of nearly all  “Best Of” Designer Lists.

But it is Sommers’ extensive work on several non-profit projects that has made her most proud.  She has paired with the Global Green organization and Domino magazine to design the first global green house dedicated to Katrina victims, located in the lower ninth ward of New Orleans – as she also helps renovate and furnish South Bronx structures to better accommodate families of which the primary caregiver is affected by HIV. “I wish I could do even more charity work,” says Sommers. Can you imagine if all the designers did only one foster care home a year? Those in need would be the easiest of clients because they would be thrilled about everything – and   no one would worry about billing!”

Harper Collins will soon publish her first book, “Diary of a Decorator,” which Sommers describes as highlighting not just her personal work but those of other decorators she admires. “Basically, it’ll be all about this crazy journey of being a designer,” she explains. But it is her talent for keeping her feet grounded that clearly propels Sommers to the echelons of success: “I think worrying about payroll actually builds character and can be somewhat thrilling. Working is a privilege and I love contributing to my household; this is what truly makes me happy and I want my daughter to see that. Not to say a pair of Christian Louboutins don’t bring instant bliss – but  interior design is lasting!”

 

FASHION:  I have never been a big shopper. In fact, I rarely shop for clothes and when I do I usually have a purpose. Sadly, this is either underwear or shoes. I am afraid this may be evident in my inability to accessorize and owning the most out dated pocket book in Los Angeles. I am a bit of an old schooler and I believe in buying for the long term. There is nothing chicer than seeing my mother-in-law or my mother in a dress they have worn a thousand times to many different events. Their confidence outshines any dress that they could adorn. Excellent shoes and good posture are what I tell myself are all I really need. Sometimes that doesn't work however, such as when I read a fashion magazine on a plane. I recently purchased a Roland Mouret dress that I do enjoy and hope to for a lifetime – body permitting of course…

FABRICS: Now this is an obsession. I could never pick just one. I die for Claremont fabrics and Robert Kime. Yet anything by Alan Cambell is always yummy and truly never disappoints. Fortuny is must for me, if not just to look at the sample board every now and then. I cannot get enough of Holland and Sherry. Peter Dunham has a fabulous line of fabrics that I am using in my own home. And if Suzanne Rheinstein would give me some of her line from Lee Jofa, I would have nothing else in my living room. As you can see, I have a fabric problem.

ENTERTAINING: I love to entertain. Organizing, arranging the flowers, and caring too much about the fact some chair has not been upholstered for the party is typical. I have learned that the food really doesn’t matter and no one noticed the missing Louis XVI chair. It is the company and the mix of people that count. But I am always insecure about my house.  DL Lawrence Candles, peonies and gardenias are the usual suspects as well as anything Southern for food. I am game-obsessed and sometimes my bringing out Scrabble or a game of charades can break up the party!

COLOR: I could not live without every color in the spectrum. Every week I have a new favorite – especially if I see some World of Interiors article with all pink chintzes. Then pink is ma colour du jour. Next week it could be black upon salivating over something Miles Redd designed. I am always influenced by good design.

TRAVEL: Anywhere in France. St Remy is my favorite place to visit. I left my apartment in Paris in 2001 a month early in order to afford a dress I wanted (It was equal the price in rent). I traveled south and ended up in St Remy and stayed for two weeks. My only friend was the concierge with whom I attempted to have tipsy conversations after my solo dinners. The hotel is no longer there but I would die to go back and stay a month.

GARDENING or FLORAL: I am one of the many lovers of the boxwood shrub. Attending the University of Virginia and visiting my grandfather's home on the James River must be the reason for my proclivity towards anything shaped and dark green. I like organization in gardens. Maybe because I myself am fairly unorganized.
I started a patience garden. I really wanted a boxwood garden that was filled with large cones of boxwood and rounds balls as are seen in formal English and French gardens. I could not afford the mature plants so I purchased new small unshaped boxwood. It looks like a Hobbit’s garden at this stage. It may be twenty years before they grow to look like ones in Versailles. But I told myself that this is patience and to enjoy where you are in life. There really is no destination so I need to be patient and enjoy watching this form and grow – and relish in every stage of it. 

BOOK:  Cradle to Cradle/Remaking The Way We Make Things  by William MCDonough and Michael Braungart.  It is our obligation to be thoughtful about our environment. The Earth doesn’t have patience and it needs a PR firm to promote its well being. This is the only committee on which I am currently serving.
MUSEUM:  National Portrait Gallery in London – Just to see a Lucien Freud.
RESTAURANT: Raoul's NYC:  Martinis and steak au poivre make a perfect night.
HOTEL: Palazzo Sasso, Ravello,Italy-
MUSIC CD:  Sia; MIA; Vampire Weekend; Radio Head; all KCRW LA
GIFT:  Your time.

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