The bold and the beautiful

Talking interior design with Southwest’s own Cy Winship

The walls of Cy Winship’s Kingfield design studio are draped with wallpaper samples in big, bold florals — lots of silver and charcoal, as well as pops of acid green and hot pink. Shag rug samples with pile easily six inches deep, with lush, loopy coils of wool, lay against iridescent tiles on the tables and floors. The walls themselves, where you can see them, are a screaming red-orange.

It’s enough to make cautious homeowners turn on their heels and march right back out under his huge sign saying, simply, “Design.”

But Cy Winship is ready for them, with a winning smile, an infectious enthusiasm for the colors and textures around him, and a deeply felt conviction that good design — which means creating a personalized home full of joy — means taking some risks.

Winship may be familiar to HGTV fans from the show Decorating Sense, where he was known for his 1960 and ’70s pop art style — as well as his ability to pull a room together for $500 in just one day.

We talked to Cy about being bold, being cheap, being responsible and having fun with your home.

You’re known for your bold decorating sense. Does that scare some people off? Are people afraid of looking silly?

I think they are. I think we’ve gotten so used to playing it safe we’re not able to take risks and make leaps of faith. I was just going over that with a client this morning: Every time we get a direction worked out she says, “Oh my girlfriend says…” and changes it entirely. You hire me for a reason you have to trust me. I am not going to take you down some road you don’t want.

People are scared of me because of the wild, loud out-there stuff I did on TV but, come on, it’s TV. And that’s me being indulgent and loving that stuff.

In my own kitchen, I’m surprisingly toned down; I used teak-look cabinetry. But I put loud stuff out there to shake you up and say, wait a minute, do I really need more beige on my walls? Do I really need taupe? Is a Room and Board showroom really what I want my house to look like, or can I find something more fun and interesting and unique.

What’s the biggest difference between TV decorating and real-life decorating?

Well, we have more than two days!

If the stuff I did on TV bordered on garish, it was because I wanted it to be something out-there and challenging and surprising, but I also didn’t have the luxury of trying it out in the room. When it went in they filmed it. In reality, if you try something loud and dangerous, I’m going to repaint it probably, because it won’t be exactly right. But I have the luxury of testing things out. I mean, I test out quart after quart after quart to get the right color in a room. It’s a much more intricate, thoughtful process in real life.

So those shows really are spontaneous?

Oh yeah, we don’t get to do it in advance. It goes up and I’m freaking out.

I think I enjoy those shows even more now I know that. Are you still interested in TV?

I really want to do a show that involves young artists and also involves the homeowners — a show about how hard it is for a homeowner to take risks because they can’t see it — none of us can, we’re too close to our homes. But it’s like pulling teeth! You cannot convince TV people that that’s something watchable. They want that OHMYGOD reveal! And you say no, no more about that! You don’t care about that. I care about what the room looks like at the end. I’d rather watch the transition of the room, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

What about your own home?

We just redid our kitchen. I’m a total cheapskate, and that’s what everyone is so worried about when they call a designer. I did IKEA cabinets, put in by a reputable cabinet installer. I’m tired of the idea of cutting down forests to build a kitchen. Recycled particleboard or plywoods made by a good cabinetmaker are just more responsible.

We used some tiles from Italy and I hemmed and hawed because they come from across the ocean but they’re already stocked here. They’re made through a digital process to look like marble, but with the veins really enlarged. They’re just beautiful, but you can’t see it in stores. It’s all just for the trade. You have to have a designer go with you.

Our floor is American-made and it looks like a pale gray granite with little veins throughout, but it’s fully rectified porcelain; it’s exactly square and every piece is different. That cost just $3.50 a square foot!

Our counters are made here by a guy named Dave Foley. He makes all the concrete countertops for IKEA. He’s thoughtful. He’s an artist. And our counters look like sand. He drives all over the Twin Cities and gets leftover glass and grinds it up and he has a new sealing process. Our counters feel like silk. And it is totally impermeable!

I want to work with as many local artists as possible.

It seems like kitchens and baths are where everyone is putting their decorating and remodeling dollars these days. Have you noticed that?

I just finished one kitchen project and we’re starting another and then a bathroom. I think it’s really obvious why. We don’t have the money — or we don’t feel like we have the money — to keep going out to dinner. Instead, we’re staying home. I’m totally not a cook; salads are as far as I go. But I started cooking in the new kitchen. And I hear it over and over again: I’ve started to cook again! It’s a hearth-and-home thing.

Even if we’re getting takeout, were putting it on beautiful plates in a lovely kitchen.

It’s also a solid investment, if you’re not going to be in the home forever and looking at eventually moving into a condo. But, then, it’s my job, too, to say, ‘Don’t just do this stuff because of the resale value. Do it because it’s going to have an impact on your life right now.’ I insist that it be as joyful as possible. If it becomes agony, let’s just step back. Every effort is made to have the most beautiful materials to create as much excitement as possible so at the end you feel like I just created something beautiful.

Are people overly influenced by what they feel they should do rather than what they want?

I think people want a really personalized home but they don’t know how to get there. I think we are unduly influenced by what we see in magazines, certainly by what we see in stores.

If you say, ‘I’m just going to have white walls’ — no, you need to know why you want white walls. ‘I have brilliant huge modern art, so I want white walls’ — fine. But if it’s just about safety and lack of imagination and lack of thoughts and unwillingness to risk, then it’s not okay.

I don’t want people to think I’m shouting, ‘Hot pink!’ It’s not that. The hardest part of my job is getting people to express feelings about color, texture. That’s unbelievably hard for some people.

It’s better than what you imagined because what you imagined is what you saw at Room and Board.  

You said you are cheap. Does that surprise some people about you as a designer?

I love to travel. And that costs money. I just think it’s wrong to overspend on things like this. [He motions to the luxurious samples covering the table.] I believe everyone deserves a good living. So I believe the craftsmen who do the work need to be paid fairly. If you hire the cheapest contractor, the cabinets might never arrive. If you want people to do the job, they need to make a good living. Certain products are going to cost because you need good quality. You don’t want the floor cracking out from under you.

You don’t have to spend a fortune on materials, just make sure they’re made well enough. You don’t need a $12,000 kitchen faucet. Get a Kohler faucet. They’re made in Wisconsin, and they’re about $600 — which is a lot! — but you want a company to stand behind it and they have a good labor policy, which is important.

It’s a balancing act, to try to spend as little as possible so that you don’t shortchange yourself so that afterward it looks cheap or doesn’t perform. And that’s my job to help you do that.

Southwest design challenges and Cy’s solutions

Small, boxy rooms

I think some people think they need to remove walls. But if you have a bungalow, you don’t want to muck with that. I do believe in honoring the home.

You need to make the rooms work together. I like to do a journey of colors, to give each room its own personality, but they need to work together. I create a palette so that the rooms connect to one another.

Another great choice for small rooms is to go really dark. We’re mostly home at night, especially in bedrooms. And pools of light on dark walls with a real luster to them — it’s beautiful.

Small windows and dark rooms

It’s very, very individual because the light in one bungalow will be different than the light in another bungalow. The tone of the wood will be different in one place than another so there could be identical homes in different places but you would do different things with wall color, wall texture, fabrics, rugs, whatever. If the floors, say, are the same color as the woodwork, let’s restain and darken the floors to give ourselves some different things to look at.  

Mixing modern pieces in a craftsman

I think it’s really possible to mix modern in with that. It’s about scale, detail, texture, light — all of that stuff comes into play. But when you like the modern look and you’re trapped in an older home, think about the dramatic tension between a really clean, super-modern sideboard against ornately carved woodwork — it can be really interesting. It can be much more interesting than a piece of furniture of the period that just gets lost. It’s like you don’t have enough imagination.

Mixing styles and eras and detail, it’s very subjective. You know you’ll know it when you hit it.

A bigger problem I find are big ’80s and ’90s faux mansions, because they’re built with such huge scale, the furniture that you have to put in is giant and I feel little. I feel like a child in those places. Those are much harder. I’d rather deal with smaller spaces than with larger. Because I think that those homes are just more human scaled and mid-century furniture has a clean, human feel to it.

The dining room-cum-office: Squeezing several uses out of one room

Stop doing that! If you’re going to have a formal dining room it should be a formal dining room. There are public spaces in the house now and there are private spaces and an office is not a public space.

If you don’t have extra room to have an office, don’t put an office where it’s going to be jarring for you or for your guest. If it’s got to be somewhere put it in the kitchen. And I think custom built-ins are a really smart solution.

That’s why the design process is endlessly interesting. It changes how we think about the roles of these rooms. Every room can be accessible. But every room needs to know what it is.