BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Two of the most cordial people you might ever meet, James Dolenc and Thomas Riker, shine in the top tier of Chicago designers, reflecting this same sense of hospitality in clients’ homes from coast to coast.
We talked the day after a sensational Valentine’s Day party, where they were among those celebrating its beautiful redheaded hostess by wearing red wigs, and saw why everyone loves being with James and Tom. With clients from Nantucket to Beverly Hills, Chicago to Santa Fe, including a fishing camp in Montana, the founders and principals of JamesThomas LLC translate graciousness into design. A couple for 20 years and business partners for 15, Tom brings his architectural experience and a love of great structures to the firm.
James, who had specialized in residential design, shares his skills in working with budgets and timelines and client relations.
I asked James to tell us about their style:
“We don’t necessarily have a look connected to our work, more than anything we want to reflect our clients’ passions. We once designed a powder room around a necklace a woman adored. We don’t want someone saying: Oh, this must be a JamesThomas home, rather that they love coming to that home.
“That being said, if you are looking for harsh minimalism, that is probably not us. Your home shouldn’t be a showpiece but a place where you can have fun.”
“I love Nantucket and the Hamptons, and find the East Coast style very comfortable, but lately we have been looking west. When I was growing up, I visited Flathead Lake in Montana and hold the vast plains in my heart. That unencumbered feeling, like a breath of fresh air, is very important in our work.”
“We feel fortunate that we have many returning clients whom we perhaps began with on a Chicago project and now are adding second homes or retiring to places like Santa Fe or Tucson.”
James and Thomas recharge at their home in Glenn, Michigan, close to Saugatuck, as much as possible.
“Glenn is really our home home. It is where we feel our inspiration, where we can actually talk about our work and catch up on the industry through publications and other sources. We do lots of entertaining—often clients come up for the weekend. It’s a place to demonstrate how we feel about leading gracious lives.”
How do you begin your work with clients?
We first want to learn your personal aesthetics—how you breathe. Our work is very structured at first, going from the macro to the micro. We look at your travel photos, your fashion; most aspects of your life. It’s all-important to know your passions. There are 25 great designers here in Chicago, so there is not the question of finding superior talent.
What tips would you share?
James: If you are looking for a quick fix, add an area rug over a hardwood floor or other rug. Changing lighting fixtures is also good solution. For a few hundred dollars you can add beautiful pleated lampshades. And always make sure your lamps have dimmers.
At our cottage in Glenn, we make several winter-to-summer changes that bring great joy.
Speaking of getaways, is designing someone’s second homes different?
Tom: People seem more willing to take risks, be a little more relaxed. Second homes often become a place to lounge and flop, and our designs embrace this. Today there are so many high-performance fabrics. They may have the richness of velvet or mohair but are actually very functional.
Is there a room that is most challenging for a designer?
Thomas: Hands down, a daughter’s bedroom. Often, we could design a master bedroom in an hour, but there must be a larger cultural issue about this room. Once, we had five meetings on a child’s bedroom.
What about trends in color?
James: In the last three years, we have seen a real shift from neutrals to saturated color. There’s a burst of color in textures and patterns, as well, to combat the grays of Chicago’s winter. However, the master bedroom often will still have subdued, restful neutral shades.
How about entertaining?
James: Downtown Chicago entertains mostly with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres before going out to dinner. We want a living room to be multi-purpose as a swing space with some high tables and entertaining options. The old ‘never go there’ philosophy for the dining room is no longer true for some, though. One of our clients can create an intimate space for two to dine, and then use two tables joined together for many more—a real flexibility.
Kitchen design seems to be changing. What are the trends?
Thomas: Many people who entertain a lot are finding that they want to close off the cooking area, even going back to the old-style galley kitchen. We have one client who entertains weekly, and she has one open kitchen but then a working kitchen where the chef makes things happen. It has only been in the last several years that people are once again sectioning off their kitchens. After all, who wants to look at appliances and your dirty dishes?
People still gather around a kitchen island, and with younger children, you do still see the open big room concept, but now the trend is to have resource rooms.
What are resource rooms?
Thomas: They are a combination of the old library and office except these days people have their laptops and are sitting in comfortable chairs to get their work done. We often place a big center table with casual chairs around it in this room so that kids can do homework, the family can play games, or accomplish what they need to do. They are great places to go and just read a book.
How does the television fit in?
James: We really try to minimalize this because we feel it can be our nemesis. How great it would be if there would be just one TV in one room, although this probably isn’t realistic. We encourage people to not have one in their bedroom and to put one either in a side armoire in another room or above the fireplace.
With their emphasis on bringing being together and bringing out a home’s livability, James and Tom translate real graciousness into their design.
Photo credit: JamesThomas Interiors