Hollywood loves a good reinvention story, but it’s safe to say that it doesn’t usually involve a studio executive quitting the business to become a decorator. (Actors have made the leap — most notably William Haines, a former silent film star, and more recently, the Santa Monica–based Thomas Callaway.) Still, 17 years ago, Eric Hughes walked away from his position as vice president of production at Universal Studios, and he’s never looked back. Hughes — whose project list includes relaxed, eclectic residences for Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick; a spare, elegant loft for Hank Azaria; and an edgy, recently completed Manhattan apartment for talk show host Andy Cohen, featured on the cover of the October issue of Elle Decor — says, “Having had a high-pressure corporate job for a number of years, I wanted something where I could enjoy my life in addition to doing good work.”
For Hughes, who shuttles between offices and homes in New York and Los Angeles (where his partner, the designer Nathan Turner, is based), keeping his office small is essential. “It gives me a lot of freedom. I don’t have to take on a big project, or a client I know is going to be difficult, to feed the machine. I work on a more personal level,” he says. Although Hughes gladly left behind some of the more volatile people he used to work with, “the funny part is that most of my clients are in the film business. I understand the language.”
Indeed, he compares designing interiors to producing a movie. “I use my brain in the same way,” he explains. “You envision the big picture, then the details, as does a producer. I’m just producing a different kind of picture.”
Still, Hughes’s transition was somewhat accidental. Growing up in Newport Beach, California, he was influenced by his mother’s and paternal grandmother’s “beautiful taste,” but he never planned to be a designer. Instead, he was expected to follow his father and maternal grandfather into medicine. But Hughes realized that was not to be and eventually found himself in the movie business. There, he became very friendly with Parker and often gave her advice on decorating decisions like paint colors and fabrics. “I’d always been the gay executive with the fancy office,” he quips.
Then, in 2002, Parker — who was both busy with work and pregnant with her first child — asked Hughes to decorate a house that she and Broderick had bought in Bridgehampton, on New York’s Long Island. Hughes had never decorated an entire house — at least not someone else’s — but his first effort was so successful that the couple became repeat clients. Now, Hughes is at work on their latest project, a double townhouse in Manhattan’s West Village.
After the Bridgehampton project, Hughes designed a glamorous New York apartment for the award-winning composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman; a clean-lined weekend house for himself, in Wainscott, New York (which he has since sold); and Azaria’s loft, which is filled with contemporary art and prewar French and Scandinavian furniture. Although Hughes has no signature style — his approach is consistently client-driven — he calls himself “a modernist at heart.” He says he’d love “to live in one of Tadao Ando’s, John Pawson’s or Peter Zumthor’s buildings — they’re so pure and clean, and ‘things’ don’t really mean a lot to me.” But, he adds, “it’s a fantasy that will probably never come true, as my partner is just the opposite.”
“You envision the big picture, then the details, as does a producer. I’m just producing a different kind of picture.”
Hughes’s and Turner’s opinions may differ on “layering,” but they harmonize nicely in the designers’ Malibu retreat — a sunny, casual place with a nautical blue-and-white color scheme. Like Hughes, Turner is a California native (from the Bay Area), and both men agreed that a surf-shack vibe was the way to go. Beach towels and bathing suits hang from pegs on a wall next to the front door near a round table with a base made of old anchor chains that was designed by Hughes. The denim-slipcovered sofa and vintage pieces found by Turner add to the air of funky chic. As with his former Wainscott house, Hughes painted this one in Benjamin Moore’s Super White. “I love the way it picks up the light,” he says.
Hughes is currently at work on a Martha’s Vineyard getaway for Stacey Snider, the CEO and chairman of Fox, and her husband, music producer Gary Jones. His other projects include an apartment in New York for actress Lauren Graham and residences on the West Coast. In addition, he and Turner have bought a three-bedroom cottage in Ojai, California, that they plan to expand. Hughes would love to design a hotel, which he sees as a natural next step. “So much of what we do is about making people feel comfortable,” he explains. But whatever the future brings is fine. “The thing about my career is that it’s been such a surprise,” he says. “There’s no agenda. I let it happen organically, and it’s brought me a lot of joy. You just have to trust your instincts.”