Pamela Babey is an expert collector and creator of memories. A founding principal of San Francisco interior design firm BAMO, Babey brings an expansive curiosity, a flair for pattern and color, and an eye for artisan crafts to luxury projects around the world. With a reverence for the past that matches her love of the modern, her work often combines the two in unexpected ways. From weaving Polynesian tattoo motifs into textiles in the Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora to translating a pearl necklace into a yacht’s spiral staircase, she draws out the unique personality inherent in all her projects.
A visionary designer, she’s a member of Interior Design’s Hall of Fame and Hospitality Design’s Platinum Circle. Her award-winning portfolio includes the Four Seasons Hotel Milan, where her favorite Fortuny fabrics were so coveted that guests snuck them into their suitcases; The Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli, an 1892 neo-Gothic castle on Lake Garda in Italy; and a 4,700-square-foot Hong Kong residence decked out in marble, Murano lighting, and furnishings by Andrée Putman.
Here Babey discusses her own home, where she takes a “if you like it, find a tiny space for it” approach, her enduring romance with Venice, and the power of storytelling in design. (It should also be noted that she is a delight to speak with.)
Interior Design: What first sparked your interest in luxury design? Was there something that captivated your imagination at a young age?
Pamela Babey: As a child, I was terribly impressed when we stayed at the Waldorf Astoria. I remember having my picture taken next to the clock on the stairway, and I remember rubbing my hands on the tallboys in the bedroom. I was attracted to those things, and I thought, "Oh, this is really some hotel. This is really fabulous."
My parents also had a really good friend who was born and raised in Florence. She introduced me to a European sense of luxury. Her entire house was furnished with antiques and things she brought from Florence to New Mexico, and her garden was very wild and natural. I would always watch her. There was a different way of dressing. There was a different way of treating your furniture. Things weren't precious. They were used. That's something I practice today. You don't furnish a home or a hotel to stand back and not touch anything. It's all about living with the things that you own. I hate these pictures of rooms that look like they’re in a museum.
ID: You’ve worked on hotels and residences as far-flung as Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi, and Venice. How does travel influence your work?
PB: I think it's really important. You have to travel to understand an international aesthetic. You can’t get that in the U.S. The manager of the Four Seasons in Milan said he thought the project was successful because I was from California and I loved Italy. There’s a sense of lightness and freshness about the colors used on the project, and there's a simplicity to the way the rooms were furnished.
ID: Your love of all things Venetian is well documented. What do you love about the city?
PB: I made my first trip to Venice in college. The minute I saw the canals, I was enamored. It was love at first sight. I wandered the streets and it just sort of took over. I love the early morning light on the water. It's just sparkly magic. When you sit and have coffee and look out on the water in Venice, it's different than anywhere.
I’ve worked there on quite a few projects over the years now. There isn’t a lot of change in Venice. Buildings and their rich decorations are reused, and something about that resonates with me. I've worked on a lot of remodels and restorations of historic buildings, like the Villa Feltrinelli and Milan Four Seasons. I always like doing that. I don't really like starting from scratch.
And there's nothing like the lighting there. Natural light and lamps light most of the old buildings. It’s not this world of down lights. At night, buildings are lit from the inside out, not from the outside in. When you walk around or take the waterbus on the Grand Canal, you see life inside all the buildings—people having cocktails, chandeliers twinkling. It's very romantic. I’ve designed a lot of lighting in Murano [a series of islands in the Venetian Lagoon] for projects.
ID: You’re also known for your love of Fortuny fabric. What first drew you to the Venetian textile?
PB: At first, it was really Contessa Gozzi, who owned Fortuny at the time. I have to say she was a bit of a marketer. I met her in San Francisco when I was working at Skidmore, where you would think Fortuny would never enter in the front door, but we used it a lot. Once a year, she would travel around and take her good clients out to dinner. It's like a fashion show—when the person comes and shows you the fashions, you love them even better than when you see them on the rack. Then, of course, she would invite you to visit in Venice, where it was always lovely cocktails in her garden and dinner at Harry's. And when you went to dinner, it was like you were walking in with the queen. It was the old way of romancing you.
So I was drawn to Fortuny, and I never got tired of it. It's so versatile. It’s fabulous on pillows on a white canvas sofa. It's fabulous on an old antique settee as upholstery. I had one client that said, "Well, Fortuny, it's just cotton." But the thing about Fortuny is that it has layers, and I like to design in layers. It's dyed many times, it's washed, it's treated, it's blotchy, and there's something unpredictable about exactly how the color tone might be. And because the colors are mottled, they're elusive. Again, you have the feeling of the light in the Venice canals. It's bright and dark, dark and bright.
ID: What’s the secret to designing a luxury residence that really feels like home?
PB: Possibly under-designing is the secret. One of the things about BAMO's work and my work is that it doesn't look decorated. There's a sense that you can actually live in and feel comfortable in the space. Partly, it’s that idea that it's not a museum. You don't have to antiques. You don't have to have valuable things. You just have to have things you like.
When a client comes with a painting they just have to have, and you think it’s really gross, or they really want some big jug sitting on the counter, before you scandalize it, take a step back. Our clients don’t usually come to us with an empty home. These are their memories and their loves, and you have to figure out how to make them work. That said, under-designing doesn't mean creating a homely home. You have to give the client what they expect, as well as a little extra because that's what's exciting to them. Then you have a successful home.
Another part is the lighting. One trick is to light a home with lamp shades, so people look pretty, and you have light that's good for reading.
I think our work in hospitality brings us a little closer to a lot of functional considerations for a home, especially in the bathroom. If it's done right, the hotel bathroom is a big functioning factory. Very often a home doesn't incorporate all the parts that a hotel bathroom has, and I think we can really bring that into a home.
ID: In the sense that objects can tell stories and evoke memories, your work seems to be very story-driven. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the importance of storytelling in design.
PB: Projects last a long time. As you begin to get a hold of what’s driving the project for the owner, I think you naturally start to create a design narrative. Designers also have a terrible habit of questioning what they're doing. You start thinking, "Did I really decide that a year ago?" Often, you go back and look at your story, and you realize, “Right, oh my god, I've gotten mixed up. I lost the narrative.” So it’s really good to have that story to get your head back into the main idea.
Sometimes the storytelling gets really carried away. On the Villa Feltrinelli, we had imaginary people staying in the rooms. For example, when we were designing the Casa Di Fiori, a small building in the garden, we referred to it as Audrey's room. It’s a comfort suite with a rosy tone and a big cozy sofa. Outside, we planted rose bushes all around the building, imagining her love of roses. There is a dressing table, a walk-in closet, and a bathroom with a large window looking out on the terrace—just what a lady like Audrey would like.
One of the buildings on the outer grounds is called the Casa di Fiori. It was the gate where the custodian lived. When we designed that building, we did it all in modern cottons, simple fabrics, and flat weave carpets, and hand-painted tiles in the bathroom. It is still part of the Villa in its elegance, but it has more of the flavor of a place where someone who worked at the Villa lived.
Winston Churchill painted on Lake Garda and most likely came to the Villa. We thought of him sitting in the card room in the evening. The house really lent itself to stories.
We're redoing it now and we're making it more special by taking it up another notch — a little more modern, a little more luxurious, but still always understated. No glitzy stuff, no gold and silver fabrics, no 6 tons of crystals hanging from the ceiling. Just quiet luxury, beautiful velvets, more summer feeling. I'm going to go there in a month to see the first group of things installed. I'm really excited to see it.
ID: It seems like you seek creative inspiration in a wide variety of places. Can you tell me about a few times where a surprising source sparked an idea?
PB: We worked on a 56-meter yacht [Lady Candy], and I was visiting the owner in Hong Kong. He doesn't say a lot, but he loves to go through auction catalogs. In the meeting, he opened a catalog and showed me the most unusual pearl necklace I'd ever seen. It was so beautiful and so corally pink. I said, “That's the color of the stairway on the yacht.” A vocabulary of seashells, sand, and pearls developed to give a basis for the ship’s shaft. On every floor, you always come back to the corally pink plaster. We also graded it so that it got lighter as you moved toward the sunlight on the top deck.
I also used to go to a lot of flea markets. I once bought this little flower arrangement made out of rock crystal and what looked like jade leaves. When I did the yacht-owner’s house, I took that piece to a woman in Paris who made light fixtures. I told her that I wanted it to be the basis of a huge chandelier. She wrapped this metal armature that looked like branches with green glass beads, crystal flowers, and jade leaves. It’s about 6 feet in diameter and the table is 10 feet. It's just fabulous.
I think carpets are one of those things, too. You see carpets and you get inspired to design fabric or design another carpet. They're again kind of tactile. I used to collect carpets. I don't do that anymore. I just have a zebra on my floor.
ID: How does fashion play into your understanding of luxury design?
PB: We keep doing these panels about what is luxury, and it's really frustrating. Luxury is so many different things. Years ago I gave a talk called, “What is Luxury?” Whenever I’m asked that question, I try to find a diversion. So I decided to talk about people I’ve met who I thought were extremely elegant or their houses were the epitome of luxury. Fashion people often have very luxurious houses or very luxurious things.
Today, what I find fascinating about a lot of the fashion world is how they’re going back to the artisans and that unique quality, which I think is also leading a lot of design now—trying to be unique but not cliché. I love the Italian designers for Valentino, because they're weaving raffia into clothing like they used to in Florence.
That's what I liked about the Villa Feltrinelli. We were going back to the Old World, but we were not recreating it. Our story was that it was a family who lived there. Year after year, everybody traveled and they brought things back. The house didn't stay in 1908. It thrived. And when you're there, you can see it. They didn't reupholster their furniture in some old silk that looked like what was on it before. They reupholstered it in some jazzy new silk. It makes the place much more livable because you aren't in a museum.
ID: How would you describe your design philosophy?
PB: I have a pile of heavy paper that I had engraved years ago with "carta bianca," which means "white paper” or "blank page" in Italian. That's my design philosophy—you start with a blank page. I really like to dig into the client, and see where they can take you. Sometimes they don't take you there very quickly, but that is how you get to the story. You never know what your challenge is going to be, and that's the beauty being flexible.
At BAMO, we're thinking about location; we're thinking about the client; we like to discover what's available locally. So all of those things that we enjoy doing, we try to apply to how we actually design. We don’t have an image in our office in terms of what our design looks like. For us, that's what gives our hotels more of an individual identity. You don't walk in and say, “Oh, this a BAMO project.” There are designers who are hired for a particular look, and that's not our strength.
ID: Since BAMO is a collective of interior designers and architects, it seems like you might have some ideas on how designers and architects should best work together. What advice would you offer there?
PB: Everybody works with specialists—lighting consultants, acoustic consultants. Somehow you have to bring the architecture and the interior furnishings together, so that it works with all these consultants. In our office, we try to melt the two together very quickly. It's the macro and the micro. It's the scale of the door, and the scale of the chair.
The architects are in charge of the big picture. They're the ones who keep us knowledgeable on whether we want symmetry or asymmetry; whether the volume of the space and the proportions of the room are good or bad.
Personally, I don't think architects make the best furniture arrangers. They need to work very closely with the designers who bring the small view, like how many inches apart chairs should be to accommodate conversation, or how much space should be between tables to give you privacy in a dining room. You need all these talents to make a really good interior.