BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
When we asked one of Chicago’s loveliest style setters whom she thought was the interior designer to watch, she answered with enthusiasm, “Jean Atchison.”
From traditional to transitional, urbanity to the wow factor, Jean Atchison projects the diversity of her own life as key volunteer for major charitable institutions, unforgettably elegant hostess, and mother of three onto the palate of sophisticated designer that she is.
We sat down with Jean to talk about her field in the quietness of a club just off Michigan Avenue. Her serenity must be a balm for clients agog in making multiple decisions, and her firmness about designers being thoroughly trained professionals keeping their eye on deadlines, writing good contracts, and bottom lines very reassuring.
In business for over 20 years, her work is 50 percent construction and 50 percent decorating. And her children have inherited her love for the field. Her daughter Lauren Atchison handles her firm’s marketing, while twin Kristin works in finance but has a flair for fashion design. Jean’s son Robert works in finance in Chicago, but his fiancée Paige Yohay is a lighting specialist.
Jean described her past and her process to us, also generously sharing some tips with us on timeless style, the latest trends, and where to start:
Did you enjoy design early on in your life?
When I was growing up, I had an aunt who loved decorating. She also loved knitting and made amazing throws that won national awards. She made beautiful draperies for her home and was often asked to make them for other people.
She would take me with her to the main fabric and design store in town where I fell in love with textiles. That started me on a career in interior design. I graduated with a degree in interior architecture from the University of Cincinnati, which had the top ranked interiors program in the country.
Tell us a little bit about your process.
I begin with a Conversation of Discovery, which is an in-depth conversation about what the client is looking for in the interior design of their home. I want to find out what inspires them, how they live, use their spaces, what they want to change, what works for them, what doesn’t work for them, places where they like to travel, and the style of clothing they prefer. All of this is a window into these people.
Once I have an understanding of the client and the criteria of the project, I will often show photos of rooms to get a better understanding of what appeals to them. Many times clients cannot articulate the interior details they like in a word picture. Photographs will get us all moving in the same direction quickly.
What do you like to start with when you are given an assignment: color, furniture, the “bones,” or a particular room?
I always think the place to begin is with the architecture. Does the space have classic moldings or is it curtain wall construction with all glass walls? The interiors should complement the architecture and the bones of the space.
I will always ask my clients if there is something that they have always dreamed about having or if there is something they are passionate about. That can start the conversation about what kind of furnishings they hope to have. If someone has a favorite existing piece, I will start with that and elaborate from there.
When I am working with a client who is using some of their existing pieces, I will edit those furnishings and select new pieces that will integrate with them, allowing us to move in a new direction. Together, we will re-imagine the room and make it all work beautifully.
Is there a particular room you like to design?
I like master bedrooms because you are making a personal sanctuary that is a subtle and soothing place for your client—a place to relax from the stresses of the day.
On the opposite end of the spectrum can be powder rooms. Powder rooms are small but mighty spaces that a person is in for only a short time. They can be places where you can make a statement and be dramatic, whether that is elegant or whimsical. They are places where you can create a ‘wow’ moment.
In which room do you think families are spending most of their time these days?
Without a doubt, I would say the kitchen. With larger kitchen/great rooms, this seems to be the one place families gather, whether preparing meals, doing homework, watching TV, or simply hanging out together. It is probably the room where we spend the greatest amount of time.
Kitchens for my clients are big-ticket areas and need to be highly functional, incorporate the latest technology, and have a timeless quality, since there are long periods of time between renovations.
What do you think people ask for most when you are invited in to work with them?
A general vision for the space and an overview of what I can do for them. Are rooms in the right locations, are they the right size, are they oriented the right way, how can they be made to accommodate their needs, what should be looked at from a different perspective? Is it a renovation or a decorating project?
Do you ever take on projects involving second homes?
I love to do second homes. Typically, they are in vacation areas like Lake Geneva or the Lake Michigan towns. Further away, I have primarily done homes in Florida and Colorado. It is fun to approach different locales with a different sensibility.
Are there certain qualities or styles that distinguish between first and second homes?
Second homes are typically generational homes, a place where memories are made. They are homes where families gather for vacations and holidays, so they tend to be more relaxed. Besides the more casual feel, I try to use low-maintenance products like performance fabrics so that spills, stains, and dirty little hands and feet are more easily forgiven.
Often, clients are willing to be more creative, to try new things, mix high and low, expensive and inexpensive, and be nudged out of their comfort zone with furnishings that are more modern, colors that are more bold, accessories and decorative objects that are layered, eclectic, and unexpected.
What is your advice for those looking to brighten up or add character to their home?
It is important to have a global view, be curious of other countries and diverse cultures for inspiration, fresh ideas, and new directions. Morocco, for example, is a country of bright colors, shifting patterns of sunlight and shadow, organic motifs, and unique shapes in both their housewares and architecture.
But one of the easiest and least costly updates is a fresh coat of paint in a new color, or new wallpaper or grasscloth. Subtle or bright, it will change how you feel about the room. Try new throw pillows or lamps to change the feel of a room while still complementing the existing interior design. Small drinks tables with bases that slide under the sofa and tops that break up the seating area can also update a room to make it look more current.
What are some of the DIY (do-it-yourself) mistakes that people make?
Not understanding the scale of the furniture to the room! For example, sofas that are too big or too small for the space or arms that are too wide or too thin.
Another common mistake: not having a balance between furniture with legs and that with upholstery. A room can look too leggy without enough upholstery to anchor the pieces to the floor.
Are there new trends in interior design that you are seeing for the New Year?
Highly organized closets are important to my clients. Space is at a premium in the city, so a well-designed closet will help maximize useable space and help organize small items like shoes and handbags.
Performance fabrics have come a long way in recent years. Not only are they durable and stain resistant, they can be very luxurious and functional. They can be used in almost any room, whether it is for sofa or a headboard.
Over the past few years, I have designed many home offices for my clients. They can be dedicated rooms or smaller underutilized spaces. Wherever they are, clients love having places to put their papers and do their work.
Dramatic surfaces are also popular. Large glass tiles and back-painted glass for kitchen backsplashes are very popular. Their glossy surfaces add drama to the room. Eglomise mirrors are beautiful for tabletops and even doors. I do like to be careful when recommending trends, however, because some can quickly become outdated.
Are there favorite colors and fabrics that you like to use?
In Chicago, neutrals are always popular, both warm and cool grays, with my clients. I like to intersperse the neutrals with pops of saturated color: Hermes orange, lime green, and my personal favorite color, red.
Fabrics in geometrics and other strong patterns are another way of adding dimension to a room. Modern motifs like animal patterns and irregular dots are also good to use as accent fabrics. Metallics can add a bit of glamour to a fabric and a room. I also love an intricate wide trim tape on the lead edge of solid fabric draperies for a more updated approach to window treatments.
Is there a trademark that one might point to as a Jean Atchison design?
I would not say there is one thing is my trademark. I feel a good designer should be able to deliver an interior that meets the distinct aesthetic preferences of every individual client.
I began my career as a designer for Herman Miller, one of the most highly regarded and best known international furniture manufacturers in the world. So my early career centered more on contemporary commercial design for the first ten years, while now I do more residential.
My current work is more transitional, which melds contemporary and traditional. I like a thoughtful mix of contemporary, modern, and even antique furnishings that are nuanced combinations and carefully coordinated. I like it all! Often city dwellers like elegant, but not precious, rooms that are always comfortable and livable for their families. I like to think of it as the new classics with a modern aesthetic.
I like furniture to fit the space properly, so I often have pieces custom made so the sizes are perfect for the room. We are very fortunate in Chicago to have furniture makers and upholstery workrooms that can do this of kind or work at prices comparable to the major manufacturers.
What do you love most about your work?
I love my clients the most. I enjoy getting to know them, their lifestyles and aesthetic preferences and being able to create a home that is luxurious yet comfortable for them. I want their personalities, not mine, to burst through in their home.
For more information, visit jeanatchison.com.