Thom Filicia showcases America's best in a suite for VIPs at this year's World Expo in Aichi, Japan
Fred A. Bernstein -- Interior Design, 7/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
Few designers pull a room together quicker than Thom Filicia, cohost of the Bravo channel's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" who transforms the houses of average Joes in a mere 48 hours. But a chic, comfortable, and richly American suite for VIPs in the U.S. pavilion at the 2005 World Expo in Aichi, Japan, in only 90 days? Even for Filicia, an established designer before the small screen beckoned, the request was daunting. Fortunately, he's as patriotic as he is efficient and signed on without hesitation. "America is a product I believe in," he says.
Each country gets its own prefab warehouse-style building that will be dismantled and recycled after the fair closes in September. And given the strong cultural and commercial relationship between America and Japan, it was critical for the U.S. pavilion to bear the stamp of serious high-level participation. This year's theme is Nature's Wisdom, a nod to environmentalism. So U.S. officials made the centerpiece of their building a theater showing film of an actor dressed like Benjamin Franklin speaking Japanese and extolling America's scientific achievements over the past 200 years.
Filicia's contribution, on a second level overlooking the theater, needed to combine history and glamour. So the dashing "design doctor," as he's known on "Queer Eye," chose to showcase a variety of authentically American styles. "I wasn't thinking 'Colonial Williamsburg,'" he says, "but I knew it had to be as culturally rich."
Initially, the space wasn't especially inspiring. It had an irregular shape, with doors to bathrooms and a catering kitchen occupying some of the most prominent wall space. And while the concrete-and-corrugated metal construction may be eco-friendly, it's far from beautiful: The HVAC systems hang from the ceiling, and windows are nearly nonexistent.
Architecture firm Meyer Davis Studio worked assiduously with Filicia, who faxed, phoned, and e-mailed from his office, hotel rooms, and everywhere else as he worked on the road for what he refers to simply as "the show." Some of his heady requests baffled the Japanese contractor. On his first visit to the site, for example, "the firm thought my drawings were wrong because the doors were 10 feet tall," Filicia recalls.
Still, he rose to the occasion. Compensating for the prefab roughness of the 5,000-square-foot mezzanine, he embraced industrial chic as a theme, and that decision allowed him to create the eclectic mix he had in mind. What emerged is part hunting lodge, part TriBeCa loft, and part grand 1930's hotel. Leather clads the floor, and it's luxuriously segmented into open-plan lounge and dining areas and an enclosed meeting room. Walls have a graphic quality thanks to sage-colored laths applied to sheetrock walls painted antique white. The extraordinarily high doors also feature 5-inch-wide frames of cerused ebonized oak and 18-inch-high baseboards.
Filicia knew he also needed something dramatic to screen off doors leading to bathrooms and the kitchen. He recruited sculptor Bryan Nash Gill to cut and arrange huge strips of a fallen sycamore tree from Connecticut. On-site the designer arranged the pieces into an artful divider whose look recalls both the work of Japanese-American furniture designer George Nakashima and California's redwood forests.
Natural mingles with natty everywhere: On one wall, there are bleached bucks' skulls; on another, a wall clock that looks as if it were excavated from an old art deco bank building. An antler chair made in Montana, for example, fits perfectly with a grand piano that signifies the height of urban sophistication.
The interior has already won raves from visiting dignitaries, including the expo's U.S. commissioner general and ambassador, Lisa Gable, a Republican from Virginia. "Thom created a living room where our most important guests can revitalize," says Gable. "People from around the world can feel at home." The suite has already been used for everything from lectures and investment seminars to cocktail ' parties and large, formal dinners. Now Gable even envisions an auction for some of the designer's impressive pieces.
Many items were loaned or donated—the leather on floors and doors and the piano, for example. The ottomans and cabinets are by Filicia's own company.
If there's anything to dislike about the suite, it's that non-VIP attendees won't be allowed to see it up close. To be fair, though, the U.S. may be committed to liberty and justice, but no one made guarantees about access to great design.