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Thom Filicia, Master At Work

Have you ever really seen a true master at work? Someone who’s so incredibly superior at what they do that witnessing them in the act of greatness is nothing short of revelatory? Think Bruce Springsteen in concert or Bill Clinton working a campaign rope line or Roger Federer hitting a forehand. Think genius. Think Wow! That’s the level of other worldliness and adjective busting talent we’re dealing with when talk turns to celebrated interior designer Thom Filicia. Yes, I’m saying what you think I’m saying: Thom Filicia is the Springsteen/Clinton/Federer of interior design. And it’s about time you got to know why.

I first saw Thom Filicia the same night so many of us did when a quirky, groundbreaking television show, Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, made its explosive American debut on Bravo in 2003 in the middle of summer. Filicia, along with wardrobe specialist Carson Kressley, foodie Ted Allen, grooming guru Kyan Douglas and lifestyle coach Jai Rodríguez, made up what was dubbed “The Fab 5” and took the pop cultural zeitgeist by storm. Overnight—literally—these funny, chatty men became not only the five most publicly “out” people in the US, but also the most endearing. Queer Eye was transformative television and it went on to win an Emmy Award for Outstanding Reality Program and, just like that, the guys were everywhere at once: Oprah, Jay, Ellen, Conan, GMA, Today, Regis & Kelly, The View—everywhere. For a hot minute, we were all living under Queer Eye’s spell.

What I noticed most about this show were two things: How smart and ridiculously funny both Filicia and Kressley came across (and no surprise to me, they became the show’s breakout stars) and how much physical work Filicia had to accomplish week after week. While the other nice guys could essentially run around and make amusing situations even more so, Filicia had almost no time to completely overhaul some clueless dude’s entire house. It was absolutely insane, while one of the Fab 5 was buying picture frames or picking out the right wine to help the hapless straight guy out, Filicia was busy painting every wall in sight, ripping out floors and curtains, buying and refurbishing furniture, overhauling backyards, knocking down walls—I mean, it was C-R-A-Z-Y the amount of work Filicia had to do. Every single week. The fact that Filicia could keep his sense of humor intact and his comedic timing so sharp under those conditions is a testament to my earlier point: Thom Filicia is a master at what he does. And not coincidentally, Filicia was also a very high profile Manhattan-based interior designer with A-list clients long before his life changing TV debut. He didn’t need Queer Eye to be a big hit for him to succeed, but it surely didn’t hurt.

Then, just a few months after Queer Eye premiered, I got a call from my oldest and closest friend, Greg Calejo, who informed me that he and Filicia had started dating. And in a way, the news seemed to make perfect sense. Greg and Thom are similar in many significant ways—perpetually the center of attention, leaders of the pack, social monsters with few peers, family centric, animal lovers—yes, this union was built to last. Greg brought Thom to my then new Manhattan apartment (a small penthouse, thank you very much) late one night. I remember thinking how much fun Thom was. He was gracious and funny for several minutes before moving in front of my “great wall” in the living room where the flat screen was meant to hang. In less than 45 seconds, Thom sketched out where the TV should go and which other paintings and framed photographs should be arranged around the screen so when the TV was on, it essentially became another objet d’art hanging on a graphic wall. Somewhat obvious to me now, at the time I very much believed I was in the presence of greatness. Incidentally, Filicia went on to wave the same design magic wand and instantly spruce up my place in West Hollywood, (with difficult 40-foot ceilings) as well as a home we all shared one recent summer in the Hamptons. Thom Filicia knows his way around a room.

For the decade I’ve considered Thom Filicia my friend—he and Greg and their beloved rescue dogs, Paco and Foxy, have made quite a life for themselves in New York City—I’ve been drawn to him for his intelligence (he’s keenly curious about myriad topics), his kindness (always makes the new person in a group feel included) but, mostly, his sense of humor. My goodness is that man funny. I remember a long night I spent at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles with Filicia and the equally hilarious Carson Kressley (both were filming different television shows the next day) that I literally gasped for air. I simply couldn’t laugh any more without causing internal injuries. The three of us were on fire, lighting up everything and everyone in our path. There are few funnier human beings than Carson Kressley and Thom Filicia. But Filicia has something different up his sleeve: Whip-smart observations delivered as sarcastic bombs all with expert comic timing framed around an innocent’s “Who me?” face. Oh, yes, this guy belongs on television. And, yes, this guy’s a star.

Thom Filicia was born 43 years ago in Syracuse in upstate New York, a part of the world he still considers home. Not only would he go on to graduate from Syracuse University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Interior Design, he recently reimagined his dream lakefront home in beautiful Skaneateles, the “Hamptons of Syracuse,” and the home is the star of his latest book, American Beauty: Renovating And Decorating A Beloved Retreat (Clarkson Potter), available November 13. His first two best-selling books were Queer Eye For The Straight Guy: The Fab 5 Guide To Living Better and, more personally, his signature effort, Thom Filicia Style (Atria/Simon & Schuster) published in 2008.

Right after graduation, Filicia got serious about his chosen profession and landed at a succession of renowned New York City-based interior design firms including Parish-Hadley, Robert Metzger Interiors and Bilhuber & Associates. Striking out on his own in 1998 by launching Thom Filicia, Inc., the affable designer garnered so many accolades and awards from the design world that the results have been nothing short of staggering: Elle Décor’s “Top 25 A-List Designers,” House Beautiful’s “Top 100 American Designers,” House & Garden’s “Top 50 Tastemakers” and on and on and on. With apologies to Sally Field, they like him; they really like him.

Though he doesn’t promote himself in this manner, Filicia has designed amazing homes for titans of industry and for the planet’s biggest celebrities including Jennifer López and Tina Fey, who wrote a fantastic foreword for his new book. Filicia has also designed many jaw-dropping, large-scale projects such as the VIP Suite for the USA Pavilion at the most recent World’s Fair at Aichi, Japan, the holiday decoration installation with American Christmas for Radio City Music Hall, the newly glamorous pool deck at the W Westwood in Los Angeles and countless others. After the mind-blowing success of Queer Eye, Filicia went on to star in two other television shows, Dress My Nest for the Style Network and Tacky House for HGTV. The indefatigable creator behind the Thom Filicia Home Collection (furniture, rugs, textiles and more), Filicia doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. At all.

When I see Thom Filicia just prior to conducting this interview, I find him—as always—charming, funny and kind but also a tad more reflective, a little less childlike. This small adjustment suits him well, as if he has found his sweet spot. Thom Filicia is firing on all cylinders and it’s pretty cool to watch. I love seeing Filicia get excited—not frustrated because that can be quite the memorable dressing down for whomever has deservedly earned his wrath—when Filicia gets happy, the world seems to spin just a little bit faster, blissfully.

It’s intoxicating to witness a master at work. Bruce Springsteen in concert. Bill Clinton campaigning. Roger Federer on Center Court. Thom Filicia designing a room. Masters at work, one and all.

Define luxury.

Having time, simple as that.

Describe the perfect room.

The room has to be as comfortable as it is chic. As personalized as it is aspirational. As unexpected as it is familiar. Well balanced is the key.

The thing I notice is that you design specifically for the owners instead of creating a “Thom Filicia” space.

That’s how I see my role as a designer. I look at my client—who is always the most important consideration—but the location, the climate, everything has to make sense. Each home should have its own experience that always connects with its owner. The home must tell a story that makes sense. I’ll put it a different way, Richard. When walk into a home, I want to know where the people who live there have been, where they’re from and where they’re going.

What does overnight fame feel like? What were those first initial weeks like after Queer Eye For The Straight Guy catapulted the five of you civilians into stardom?

To be honest, I really didn’t believe it. None of it. What do you mean The Tonight Show wants us? And we’re having dinner with Ellen [DeGeneres]? And Oprah called? All of it was so crazy so fast that I just assumed that in a matter of weeks, life would go back to normal. But it never did.

Are you glad you weren’t a kid when the celebrity thing came around?

Oh yes, definitely. When Queer Eye exploded, I was at a time in my life that I had already suffered the death of a parent, I had my own successful business and I had enough life experience to help me navigate all of the noise that comes with celebrity.

When did you realize that Queer Eye was going to be a great thing?

When my peers, fellow interior designers, kept telling me how much they were enjoying the show. When my father and so many of his friends told me how much they laughed and learned with every episode. Whenever I went to the airport and dozens of people came up to me to thank me or to share their own straight man horror stories, I realized fairly quickly that this television program was deeply resonating with America. Queer Eye, unbelievably, became a lot more than I ever expected it to be.

Tell me about Queer Eye.

It was a lot—a lot—of work. And it took a lot of time. For me, in particular, because my segment of the show required a complete transformation of the guy’s home. It was so crazy so much of the time. On top of all of my own work, I was expected to cook with Ted [Allen] or shop with Carson [Kressley] and, by the way, completely overhaul the guy’s living space. Looking back, it’s pretty amazing how I did it all but the truth is, I loved it and I do have a lot of energy and I am very social, so that definitely helped.

Your best design moment has been…

One of my favorite design moments was the recent assignment to design part of the USA Pavilion at the World’s Fair in Japan. It was, simply, a very cool experience. Another one would be my just completed design of Tina Fey and her husband Jeff’s New York City home. They were dream clients.

Let’s talk about American Beauty.

My first book was a collaboration with the other guys on Queer Eye that quickly became a best seller. My next one, Thom Filicia Style, was hugely important to me for many reasons not the least of which it laid bare who I am as a designer. With this new book, American Beauty, I was trying to show how you could make something fabulous and cool from an existing structure. It’s a bit of the classic ugly duckling story—with a little bit of love, anything can start to take on a different, more appealing sensibility. I’m really proud of American Beauty and I hope it helps and inspires people to see the beauty that exists all around them, even in the most unexpected of places.

New Jersey. Discuss.

It boasts the single most beautiful skyline on the planet [looking at Manhattan]. New Jersey, to me, is the state most like America—most geographically and demographically diverse. Think about it, New Jersey has mountains, lakes, oceans, industrial cities, lush suburbs, and the state is chock full of what makes this nation so interesting, every race in the world can be found there. The Jersey shore, incidentally, is gorgeous; easily the best kept open secret in the country.

Are you a TV star?

I’ll put it to you this way, Richard. Television is the medium, and interior design is the dialogue. I’m an interior designer who happens to be on TV. Though when I went to Australia to promote another one of my television shows, I quickly realized that Queer Eye was massive there. I never felt like such a rock star in my life. I love Australia—who doesn’t?

What’s the biggest design mistake everyone makes?

Not trusting their instincts as well as the notion that everything in the room has to be beige. No one should be afraid of color, it’s just how you manage it is the key. Look, I get it. If the big pieces in the house have to be safe—the sofa, master bed, dining table—there are so many ways of sprucing them up with colorful rugs or throws or pillows. It’s like buying a conservative Brooks Brothers suit and pairing it with an expensive colorful tie. Again, everything needs balance.

What has been your most challenging design job?

I’ve had several challenging jobs, but I’ll answer this way. The wealthier the client, sometimes—only sometimes—the more difficult it is for them to see why a $200,000 marble bird bath may not be the best idea in the foyer of their home. I’m pretty charming, but even I sometimes have to be quick on my feet.

If your life partner, Greg, were to design your home without your input, what would you hate?

Not really sure. Greg and I share an aesthetic and I think he likes what I like so, on that front, we’re good.Describe to me your dream job.I’m dying to design a yacht. I’ve always loved boats and the idea of designing a yacht gets me excited.

Describe bliss.

On a boat behind my home in Skaneateles surrounded by close friends, my dogs and a glass—or two—of wine. That, to me, is bliss.

Where’s Thom Filicia in five years?

I think doing more of what I’m doing now. Here’s the thing that I want to make sure I convey. I’m acutely aware of how fortunate I am in my life. I’ve exceeded my wildest dreams for myself. I could have never imagined this life for me as a kid growing up in Syracuse. Every single day, I feel inspired and have deep gratitude for being able to create beautiful things. Self-awareness is important, and I am exceedingly so.

What’s the single biggest misconception about you?

I think some people out there associate me with a very modern design aesthetic and that’s simply not the case. I love classic, fresh, timeless design. I really, really do.

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