Designer Spotlight

Tom Stringer Goes in Search of the New Global Interior

From Morocco to Bali to Northern Michigan, this Chicago-based interior designer finds aesthetic inspiration wherever his travels take him.

Chicago designer Tom Stringer portrait
The head of an eponymous design firm and author of a new monograph, Tom Stringer focuses on residential decor but has also dabbled in yachts and restaurants, creating the interiors of a boat for a Wrigley family scion and recently reimagining Alinea, the flagship eatery of star chef Grant Achatz. Top: The living room of a Tudor-style home on a 100-acre property in Indianapolis. All photos © Jorge Gera unless otherwise noted

It’s an old saw, but a true one, that good design can transport us, taking us on a metaphorical journey. The Chicago-based interiors expert Tom Stringer has customized the concept: He literally transports himself around the world to gather the inspiration for great rooms.

Travel is his paramount personal passion, as evidenced by An Adventurous Life: Global Interiors by Tom Stringer (Images), published in the fall and written with Marc Kristal.

The book features dozens of excursions on every continent, with an emphasis on Africa and Asia. Some chapters describe specific projects, but there are also sections devoted to travel, to give a sense of where many of Stringer’s ideas come from. Sometimes, the influence is direct, as in the elaborate Moroccan-style metal screens on the windows of a Florida house; in other instances, it’s more subtle, as in the way his aesthetic was honed by childhood excursions to a serene lake in Northern Michigan and attempts at Cousteau-like underwater photography on Caribbean vacations.

Stringer has had his own firm for 21 years, working a lot on both coasts as well as in the middle of the country, and he has distinguished himself as a shape-shifter without a signature style. Well, of course: The projects are as different as Bali is from Botswana.

The designer certainly employs classical touches, and he can be quite traditional for the right project, but the resulting looks feel contemporary, and the schemes always let the art and other collected objects shine. One constant: There’s a friendly vibe to his work even when it is gussied up.

“You know, I’ve watched other designers — who shall remain nameless — cultivate very detailed, identifiable looks and then also license those looks,” says Stringer, 53. “And they have been very successful at it. But I’m entirely client based, and that’s the way I want it. I’ve never aspired to have and refine a look, because I thought ultimately it was a trap.”


At Stringer’s Chicago home, a contemporary giltwood and mercury-glass chandelier hangs above a chevron-patterned white-oak floor in the foyer. In front of the stairs are a German Art Deco console and a Russian Regency chair upholstered in Fortuny fabric.

In Springer’s hands, furniture, art and objects from different eras and regions play nicely together. In the dining room of his home, two sets of 18th-century French dining chairs sit near a vintage Karl Springer console table topped by a Burmese headdress made of yak teeth and two African fertility figures.

While working on a home for clients in South Florida, Stringer traveled with them to one of his favorite cities, Marrakech, eventually incorporating into the design sun-shielding screens based on Moroccan mashrabiyas, as in the formal dining room. The photographs are by Sean Gallagher, the klismos chairs are by Michael Taylor, and the teak sculpture is Cambodian.

In the dining area of the South Florida home’s great room, the Moroccan influence continues, albeit more subtly. Stringer conceived many of the interior spaces as enclosed courtyards, cladding them with white limestone. Here, a Michael Noonan photograph hangs behind a dining table, arm chairs and zebrawood benches.

Stringer convinced the owners of this beachfront Santa Barbara, California, home to move a boldly colorful painting by Joan Mitchell from one of their other residences to this specific spot in a long hallway off the living room. The artwork, he writes, is “made all the more arresting by the casual beachfront context.”

The wood-paneled library of the Santa Barbara home shows off collections of objects from various places and times, such as Tibetan hats, African gures and boxes and a Robert Graham bronze. Furnishings include a vintage Jacques Adnet table covered in vellum and Dutch Art Deco chairs.

For the master bathroom of a home in Venice Beach, California, Stringer created a low table from an antique Indian marble elephant. It sits on an Art Deco–inspired handwoven rug. The bird-head sculpture comes from the Baga culture of West Africa, while the trio of hanging lanterns are Persian.


Chicago designer Tom Stringer Chicago home library
In the library of his home, Louis XVI–style chairs surround an antique English tilt-top table that, Stringer writes, is “ideal for backgammon and cards.” The designer covered the walls around the bookshelves with men’s suiting flannel.

Certainly, his own home — a block from Lake Michigan, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood — shows how dynamic Stringer’s eclecticism can be. A 19th-century house with a 1930s addition, it has a stone facade and a Norman-style peaked roofline. Stringer and his husband, Scott Waller, an educator, melded their aesthetics to create what the designer calls an “English-influenced neoclassical interior.”

But within that decidedly tasteful scheme, he places a Burmese headdress made from yak teeth on a Karl Springer console table in the dining room not far from a Cy Twombly-esque blackboard painting by the Chicago artist Daniel Christmas. Indeed, Stringer makes the artworks from non-Western places that he inserts into the scheme seem not like curios or trophies but integral pieces of the puzzle.

A midlife realization helped Stringer, who now oversees an office of 20, understand how to integrate his peripatetic proclivities into his work — and to understand that commuting doesn’t equal travel.

“I had a second office in Los Angeles for a while, and it started to ruin my life,” he says. “I realized I had spent more than one hundred and fifty nights that year at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills. It got so bad that when Scott and I bought a new house in Evanston, the Four Seasons sent us pillows and a mattress as a housewarming gift, so that my bed at home would feel like my bed at their home.”

That epiphany led him to make more space for journeys, to the tune of 12 weeks a year, some of them with clients. “It is a really fantastic way of getting to know people and getting to know their desires,” says Stringer. “If you’re going to tell someone’s story through design, you kind of need to know about them, and know what makes them tick.”

One client he has traveled with by necessity is Wrigley chewing gum heir James S. Offield, whose 156-foot yacht Slojo is among Stringer’s most successful projects, designed with the Seattle boat-building specialist Delta Marine. Perhaps to contrast with the ever-present water, he deployed earth tones like taupe and cream, a color scheme that also flattered the fantastic objects with which he populated the ship, such as a tall Oceanic warrior’s shield placed at the entrance to four guest suites.

“I’m entirely client based, and that’s the way I want it,” says Tom Stringer. “I’ve never aspired to have and refine a look, because I thought ultimately it was a trap.”

Chicago designer Tom Stringer South Florida home master bedroom
“Grillwork cabinets made in Bali and lined with melon-colored silk brighten the master bedroom” of the Moroccan-accented South Florida home, Stringer writes. “I love the crazy chair, which I found through a Florida antique dealer — I think of it as a Moorish riff on a rector’s chair, for a fabulous Palm Beach priest.”

“We designed everything down to the uniforms, every element of the boat, and then I got to sail around the world on it,” says Stringer.

Not that his life lacks high-end pleasures when he is landlocked. Although residential design is his specialty, he does commercial projects when they spring from personal relationships. That’s how he came to design many of the restaurants of acclaimed Chicago chef Grant Achatz, of Alinea fame. (Stringer had previously done a home for Achatz’s business partner, Nick Kokonas.)

 “Grant was trying to redesign the dining experience, and he didn’t want some restaurant designer coming in going, ‘You can’t do that,’ ” says Stringer, who devised a serene reboot of Alinea in 2016 and is also an investing partner in the business. “I wanted to create a clean-swept contemporary space within the confines of something that felt like a nineteenth-century hôtel particulier.”

An elliptical first-floor dining and gathering space connects to a curved stair that features an elaborate chandelier with a period form but fashioned from very modern hanging OLED (organic LED) pads.

One of his favorite long-term projects, lovingly featured in the book, is a Santa Barbara estate comprising a 12,000-square-foot main house and four other buildings. It’s both a multigenerational home and a repository for a stunning collection of artworks, notably a huge Joan Mitchell canvas not far from a ravishing Cecily Brown painting.

“I pleaded with the clients for the better part of the year to let me move that Joan Mitchell from one of their other houses to this spot,” says Stringer, who knew it would be enlivened by the light there.

Chicago designer Tom Stringer Asian sculpture Syrian chest
Left: Stringer incorporated a wealth of international art, artefacts and ephemera from the clients’ own collection into the Venice Beach house, including this sculpture. Right: The designer adapted an antique mother-of-pearl Syrian chest to conceal a TV in the Santa Barbara home.


Board-and-batten walls set the tone. “It’s beach side. It needs to feel breezy and easy,” says Stringer, who also gave it a “studied eclectic blend of furniture and accessories — I love layering antiques into even the most contemporary interiors.” That blend includes everything from the clients’ colorful Axel Salto pottery collection to a 17th-century French dining table and a James Rosenquist painting, all mingling happily.

Perhaps most distinctive are the 30-odd Anglo-Indian lanterns, in primary colors, hung from the pool cabana’s ceiling. He and his clients were on a New York shopping trip when they came upon this assortment, and there was initially uncertainty about which ones to buy.

“I said, ‘Well, why don’t we buy them all?’ ” recalls Stringer. “And we basically ended up designing the entire pavilion around them. It’s always a party — you don’t need to bring balloons.”

As Stringer begins his firm’s next 21 years of designing, look for similarly buoyant notions.

Chicago designer Tom Stringer book An Adventurous Life

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Tom Stringer’s Quick Picks on 1stdibs

“Leave it to JF Chen to find the most unique pieces! I love the organic nature of the base and the added gold detail on the tentacles. Sure to be a conversation starter in any space.”

“The deep ruby-red glass of this table caught my attention immediately. The piece is simple in its overall form, but it commands attention.”

“I love the elegant, handsome curved lines of these chairs. The bleached oak reveals the beauty of the wood and is perfectly complemented by the rich leather and added nail-head trim.”

“Milo Baughman can do no wrong. The textured caning juxtaposed with the soft suede of these lounge chairs makes for an attractive combination. The dark chocolate framing updates the look and adds another level of sophistication.”

“The mix of materials of this chaise — canvas with textured leather set against sleek chrome — creates the perfect layering of interest in the piece. And the swooping lines are phenomenal.”

“The glass forms of this lighting fixture are a work of art, immediately drawing you in with eye-catching hues and the visual movement they create.”

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