Designer Spotlight

Step inside Summer Thornton’s Masterfully Maximalist, Delightfully Whimsical Interiors

For the Chicago-based 1stDibs 50 designer Summer Thornton, creating vibrant interiors is a thrill. “Mixing color and pattern is my greatest talent, so I let it run wild,” she says. And in her new book, Wonderland: Adventures in Decorating (Rizzoli), written with Antonia van der Meer, color and pattern abound. Some of the interiors featured are more subdued than others, but for Thornton, “subdued” is a relative term. 

Even in a Chicago apartment with traditional architecture and a fairly neutral color scheme, the use of highly patterned traditional wallpapers, antique furniture and sumptuous fabrics and carpets instills a distinct sense of luxury and fine craftsmanship. Minimalism is anathema to this designer. 

Portrait of interior designer Summer Thornton
Summer Thornton, a member of this year’s group of accomplished 1stDibs 50 designers, has just released a new Rizzoli book, Wonderland. She’s seen here in an Old Naples, Florida, home she designed, in front of a Salvador Dalí series of fruit paintings from Galerie Philia. Top: For the foyer of a Georgian-style Chicago house, Thornton selected 1970s Italian black tubular metal armchairs from art1, a handblown glass Meridian pendant light from Kalin Asenov and Josef Albers prints. All photos by Thomas Loof unless otherwise noted

Growing up in rural Illinois, Thornton thought she wanted to be a fashion designer, but while she was still in high school, she changed her focus to interiors. In college, she studied business and fine art. “I knew I’d combine them one day,” she recalls. 

After working for several designers and in the showroom of fine fabric firm Osborne & Little, Thornton opened her own office in Chicago in 2007, when she was just 25. “It was a pretty big leap,” she says, adding that it was about a year before she could hire a full-time employeea cousin who is now a senior designer in the office. 

The living room of a Chicago apartment — inspired by Jodhpur, India’s Blue City, and Mark Rothko–style color blocking — features a custom sofa and a large 20th-century Murano-glass Venini chandelier from High Style Deco. The sconces flanking the mirror over the fireplace are also Venini, designed by Tomaso Buzzi and Napoleone Martinuzzi. Thornton sourced both the wavy wicker console and embossed-leather shagreen-style cocktail table from Hickory Chair. The painterly streaks of color on the armless chair reminded her of the work of Cy Twombly.

Thornton’s first big commission came the following year, from a couple who had seen an article on her firm in the Chicago Tribune. Her studio now employs around 15 people, and the business side is run by her husband, Josh Thornton, who left a career in advertising to join her. 

Thornton’s exuberant aesthetic is perhaps most clearly on display in projects like a Chicago apartment she designed for “two of my boldest clients,” as she describes them in the book.

The living room’s existing 18th-century boiserie was “too serious,” Thornton writes, so, drawing inspiration from Jodhpur, India — known as the Blue City — she painted it Farrow & Ball’s St. Giles Blue. Artist Mark Rothko’s use of large blocks of color inspired Thornton’s juxtaposition of a custom sofa covered in ruby linen velvet with blue fringe against the room’s blue walls. Presiding over it all is a large 20th-century Italian glass chandelier.

In the dining room, Thornton slightly modified the red-and-blue scheme, selecting a chinoiserie wallpaper in aqua and coral. She echoed the living room palette more directly in the cyan upholstery of a casual corner banquette and the ruby shades of the wall lights, both colors picked up in the four Joan Miró prints on the walls. Elsewhere in the room, a Directoire-style credenza from Carrocel overlooks white-lacquered Chippendale chairs surrounding a mahogany Regency dining table

Bedroom designed by Summer Thornton
The main bedroom shows off a sang de boeuf porcelain lamp from A Touch of the Past Antiques atop a ca. 1870s Louis XVI table. These stand beside a Lee Jofa upholstered bed.

For the primary bedroom, Thornton created a haven of pink and red— another Rothko inspiration — including a pair of sang de boeuf porcelain lamps from A Touch of the Past Antiques

This confident juxtaposition of brightly colored and more subtle spaces is typical of Thornton’s joyful approach to decorating, which also encompasses the skillful mixing of antique and contemporary furnishings and art. 

In the living room of a Chicago townhouse, a brass Klismos chair keeps company with a furry bench, modern-feeling wingback chair, kidney-bean-shaped cocktail table and channel-tufted greige sofa. The chandelier above is, once agin, Venini. Photo by Josh Thornton

Another project that showcases Thornton’s strengths is a Victorian townhouse in Chicago that had been given a modernist renovation sometime in the 20th century. Working with homeowners whom Thornton describes as “really playful,” she embraced oddities — the small but high-ceilinged rooms, for example — that, she writes, “give the house soul.” 

In the living room, Thornton’s choice of an organically shaped coffee table and a brass klismos chair add warmth to a space that is otherwise largely monochromatic and neutral-hued, with a greige tufted sofa and black-and-white abstract art. 

In a quirky space in the townhouse named the Manhattan Room — after the drink, not the city, and essentially a bar — a curved glass wall and transom evoke a modern feeling, while a large Art Deco rosewood bar cabinet and narrow console are ready for cocktail hour. 

Thornton clad the walls of this sitting room in gold grasscloth, the sofa in velvet and the armchair in sheepskin. The result, she says, is a rather louche atmosphere. Photo by Josh Thornton

The dining room has what Thornton terms a “Mondrian” window because of its various-sized geometric components, while the Gold Room, so called because it is lined in gold grasscloth, is “out-there and glam,” sporting a velvet-covered sofa and a chair clad in fluffy sheepskin. “People look so pretty in this room,” Thornton says before acknowledging its rather louche vibe. 

The primary bedroom is comparatively conservative, with a wall of bookcases keeping company with 19th-century landscape paintings by Alfred William Rich, sourced from Renata Fine Arts.

The primary bedroom mixes pieces old and new and patterns both masculine (straitlaced pinstripes) and feminine (Liberty florals from Scalamandré). The Louis XVI side tables are from Fireside Antiques. Photo by Josh Thornton

Among Thornton’s more subtle projects is a large Georgian-style Chicago house defined by elegant lines and white spaces. Even this, though, is anything but conventional. 

For the foyer — which features a groin-vaulted ceiling, curved staircase and a gray, black and white marble floor — Thornton’s office designed a sculpture of circular yellow and brass pieces. The space is also outfitted with a pair of 1970s Italian black tubular metal armchairs from art1, a handblown glass Meridian pendant light from Kalin Asenov and a series of prints by Josef Albers. The effect is a pleasing combination of classic and modern.

Holding pride of place at the base of the stairs in the Georgian-style Chicago house is a sculpture designed by Thornton’s studio. Thornton took inspiration for the circular motifs throughout the house from Damien Hirst‘s dot paintings.

In the living room, silver triangles hand-painted on the ceiling echo the print on the silk curtains. Thornton says they “give the white-on-white palette some drama” — as do the pair of ruched-leather Souffle ottomans from Kelly Wearstler

The oak-paneled piano room treats the eye to a pair of Marco Zanuso’s Lady chairs covered in Missoni fabric, plus a couple of 1970s Fontana Arte glass sconces from Gaspare Asaro-Italian Modern. The latter flank a plum-colored, convex mirrored disk above the fireplace. These pieces’ graceful lines and subtle textures create an elegant backdrop for the contemporary artworks. 

In the house’s piano room, vintage Marco Zanuso Lady chairs, covered in a Missoni fabric, face a Jamb fireplace mantel made of Arabescato marble and a desk formed by placing a plate of glass atop a sculptural two-piece patinated-bronze brutalist base by Valenti Madrid. The 1970s Fontana Arte glass sconces are from Gaspare Asaro-Italian Modern.

Thornton is currently working with the architect Stephen Sutro on an early-20th-century Tudor-style house in San Francisco that includes a malachite-lined bathroom. Also on the boards is a ground-up house in Mexico — the designer’s “happy place” — inspired by Colonial architecture and Luis Barragán, and what Thornton calls an “insane” house in the Chicago suburbs, whose centerpiece is a two-story oval library designed for the clients’ extensive book collection. (In addition, she’s collaborating with de Gournay on a wallpaper reflecting her “love affair with Marie Antoinette.”)

“Our studio is in a place right now where people are coming to us with wild ideas,” Thornton says, noting that the number of repeat clients is increasing rapidly. “We love passion projects, and I love projects that have an extreme point of view. The more out-there, the more site specific, the more fantasy based, the better.”  

Clearly, Summer Thornton has found her niche working with clients who expect the unexpected. And she wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Summer Thornton’s Quick Picks

<i>Superb Lilies</1>, 1972, by Alex Katz, offered by Manabia Fine Arts
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Superb Lilies, 1972, by Alex Katz, offered by Manabia Fine Arts

“I’ve been obsessed with lilies recently, and this depiction by one of my favorite artists is no exception.”

Maurice & Leon Jallot Oak Sideboard, 1930, offered by Gauchet & Gauchet
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Maurice & Leon Jallot Oak Sideboard, 1930, offered by Gauchet & Gauchet

“I will always find new ways to reinterpret Art Deco pieces in my interiors.”

Vienna Secession Abstract Female Portrait, ca. 1930, offered by Grinard Collection Palm Beach
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Vienna Secession Abstract Female Portrait, ca. 1930, offered by Grinard Collection Palm Beach

“I love the play of two different greens in this bold sculpture, and I like to switch up an art collection by adding sculptural pieces to sit with two-dimensional ones.”

J. & J. Kohn Vienna Secession Bench, ca. 1883, offered by De Huiszwaluw
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J. & J. Kohn Vienna Secession Bench, ca. 1883, offered by De Huiszwaluw

“I am fascinated with Viennese pieces, and I can never get enough of bentwood.”

Vienna Secession Brass Table Lamp, 1910, offered by Design Fornication
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Vienna Secession Brass Table Lamp, 1910, offered by Design Fornication

“This lamp is whimsical and elevated at the same time.”

Campbell-Rey Set of Six Cosimo Murano Highballs, new
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Campbell-Rey Set of Six Cosimo Murano Highballs, new

“I collect Murano drinkware and would love to add these beauties to my collection.”

Antonio Da Ros for Cenedese Murano Glass Bowl, 1970–90, offered by Parker's Mid-Century
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Antonio Da Ros for Cenedese Murano Glass Bowl, 1970–90, offered by Parker's Mid-Century

“A good bowl in a vivid color can elevate any coffee table.”

Josef Hoffmann/Wiener Werkstätte Reedition Wall Lamp, new, offered by Woka Gallery
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Josef Hoffmann/Wiener Werkstätte Reedition Wall Lamp, new, offered by Woka Gallery

“I’m loving the softness of lights with silk shades right now.”

Verner Panton IKEA Vilbert Chair, 1993, offered by Iconic Objects
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Verner Panton IKEA Vilbert Chair, 1993, offered by Iconic Objects

“This chair brings back memories of college trips to IKEA, and I have to admit that it’s super-chic.”

Karim Rashid Curvy Karlotta Sofa, new, offered by Covet House
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Karim Rashid Curvy Karlotta Sofa, new, offered by Covet House

“Sitting in this chair would be like floating on a pink cloud.”

 Louis XVI Sofa, new, offered by The Craftcode
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Louis XVI Sofa, new, offered by The Craftcode

“A classic French sofa in one of my favorite fabrics.”

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