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Dorothy Willetts Review - Where Art, Soul, and Space Meet

By David Thompson

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Interior design and architecture is a job that is torn between the demands of form and function, between creativity and practicality.  For Dorothy Willetts, founder of Willetts Design & Associates, managing these opposing forces for her clients usually means more than just having a great artistic vision.  “This job is very left brain and very right brain,” the engaging East Coast native explains.  “There are a lot of really creative people who are great at design, but don’t necessarily know how to manage a business or how to interact with people.  The key for me is taking the time to really interview my clients and find out how they are actually going to live in the space.”

With an artist’s eye for details that are both expressive and practical – she admits that she “geeks out” over plumbing fixtures and door hardware – Willetts is able to create spaces that elevate her clients’ ideas and needs to exquisite perfection, being both classy and comfortable.  With private home and commercial projects across the country, including many high-profile clients in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, her vision extends beyond interior design to fashion and lifestyle, knowing that each decision affects her client’s everyday life.  “It can be a very intimate relationship,” she says of the process of working with clients, “especially if you’re dealing with a couple.  You know who sleeps on which side of the bed, if they want to be able to read in bed…sometimes I feel like I’m part therapist.”

Willetts was born and raised in Philadelphia, but her family name is also well-connected with New York City – a distant grandfather was the city’s first mayor and the neighborhood Willets Point is another family legacy.  “I still have an east coast aesthetic that I can’t get rid of,” Willetts says in referring to her personal style (she frequently has a streak of blue in her otherwise red hair).  Her instincts are also influenced by her many years in Chicago as a student and young designer, preceded by time in Mexico.  “When I first moved to California, it was a big adjustment – the buildings don’t smell the same, as strange as that sounds.  In Chicago and on the east coast, buildings are made of stone and wood and concrete that give a real substantiality and energy – a smell.  The solidity of those buildings is very comforting to me.  It’s more of a shelter than a structure.”

Her fondness for elegant but substantive detail comes from being “raised with English antiques” and later developing an appreciation for architecture – which was her initial career choice.  “My mother told me I wasn’t good at math, so I focused more on fine art before ending up at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where I studied interior architecture.”  Getting to walk through one of the world’s greatest museums every day on the way to class was a welcome bonus.  Another bonus came from her apprenticeship with legendary designer Bruce Gregga.  “The consummate gentleman,” Willetts remembers.  “He was definitely on the artist end of things, and had good people running his business side.  Bruce really allowed me to strengthen my architectural work,” citing projects for film critic Gene Siskel, the Melk residence, and offices in Madison Plaza. 

It’s easy to see Willetts’ love for fine art in her design projects.  The bold use of contours and natural hues in the recent remodel of a client’s home in The Vintage Club in Indian Wells suggests an almost impressionist rendering of the desert landscape; while the delicate use of blues, greens, and wood tones in a private home in the mountains of British Columbia echo the majestic skyscapes outdoors.  

The love of art is also part of her recent project, called Living With Art.  A colleague at the prestigious Heather James Fine Art Gallery let Willetts know that 2016 would feature a show with artwork by legends Pablo Picasso and Alexander Calder.  She was immediately inspired to do a nearly impossible design project.  “The goal was to take pieces of the art and design a room around it – and I wanted to do 12 different rooms in 24 hours.”  With hired handlers and gallery officials on site, Willetts and her team turned over a 12x12 space every two hours.  The Living With Art series is now featured on her website.  “I wanted to show that you can have everyday furniture in a room with art, and that you don’t have to live in a twenty million dollar home to have great art to display.  Art doesn’t have to be in a museum.”

Willetts’ eclectic range of interests (she also studied political science and flirted with becoming a lawyer) also extends to her love of animals.  She’s got two beloved rescue dogs, Bella and Zeek, but also hopes to one day have a baby goat and a monkey.  With a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science as well as her art degrees, she’s also involved in animal rescue and relocation projects, and has donated her efforts to the International Medical Alliance bringing relief to Ecuador. “I’m a total goofball, but usually very appropriate,” she says.  “I grew up thinking I was very weird, but now I know that’s a good thing.”  Her inherent weirdness and comfort at not always fitting in often gives her the ability to connect with clients who respond emotionally and viscerally to something unusual.  “You don’t have to understand it, but if there’s a piece of art or a piece of hardware that you like, you should be excited about it.  I want people to get excited about the idea of their home being a work of art, and it doesn’t have to feel like a museum.”

Having most recently established herself as one of the southwest desert region’s most innovative and successful designers, Willetts’ is looking towards new projects in Los Angeles and throughout Southern California, and as well as moving into furniture, fabric, and fashion design as a way to extend her vision into new artistic realms.  Indeed, her support of local and emerging artists as key collaborators, along with the craftsmen, contractors, architects, and other designers who are often part of the creation process, is another key to Willetts’ success that is just an extension of her own personality.  “I want to put myself in a position where I am acting as a liaison between artists, clients, and architects.”   

For more information please visit Willetts Designs & Associates    

Photo Credit: Willetts Design & Associates

Published on Jul 11, 2016

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