Interior designer takes spaces to the next level

Ryan Lawson, BFA '04, interior designer

Ryan Lawson, BFA '04, in his office in New York City. Photo by Seth Caplan
Ryan Lawson, BFA '04, in his office in New York City. Photo by Seth Caplan

Interior designer Ryan Lawson, BFA ’04, finds beauty in contrast. “I look at things all day, every day,” says Lawson, who draws on his deep background in art ­history for his work. “Whether I’m shopping for furniture, for art, I’m ­constantly making connections between things.” And these connections might include an 18th-century carpet, a table from 1920s Italy, a living plant, a modern lamp and a desiccated plant, all in the same room. In his own former apartment, ­Lawson explored a rustic, cabin-like feel inspired by his ­Arkansas upbringing, while playing on its bustling Manhattan locale.

His projects have appeared in Architectural Digest and Elle Décor and include the New York City apartments of friends and clients; a beach house in the Hamptons; a desert house in Palm Springs, California; and an 88-foot yacht for a client who spends time between New York and Florida. He helped conceptualize the look of the Faherty Brand clothing stores, co-founded by his friend Mike Faherty, BFA ’05, and his brother, Alex. Currently, he is working with another WashU alumnus, Eric Scroggins, AB ’01, on a home in St. Louis’ Central West End.

“I had the chance to see his work while living in NYC,” ­Scroggins says, “and I knew he’d find a way to weave together contemporary, vintage and antique pieces that would ­resonate in our early 20th-century home in a way few others could do. It’s beautiful, functional and interesting all at once.”

At the heart of Lawson’s practice are relationships. He explores clients’ goals and helps them distinguish between “good, better and best.” Making each project personal also means taking time to find offbeat things that work together, a process more circuitous than linear. “My business is strange in that a client has to buy a lot of stuff, for months or sometimes a year, and not see results until it all comes from a warehouse and is placed. You’re asking for a lot of trust when you ask people to do that,” Lawson says.

One particular project — an enormous lake house in ­Minnesota — began as a request to design the bedroom ­furniture and then grew into a complete home renovation that lasted seven years. “The client went on this journey with me, and it turned out beautifully. But it couldn’t have been done in one year. It wouldn’t have looked as good.”

Even from an early age, Lawson was passionate about interior design. His first “commission” came at age 12, when his next-door neighbor hired him to decorate her house for the holidays. While he attended what was then ­Washington ­University’s School of Art, Lawson was influenced by “the ­critique,” where students hang up their work so others can discuss its merits. “That really is the basis of my work today,” he says. “I present things to clients, they present things to me, and we work through them and decide how to go forward.”

A highlight of his WashU experience was getting to know C­hancellor Mark S. Wrighton. After meeting at convocation, the two kept in touch. “The chancellor was always curious about how I was doing. And he was interested in my notion of switching from architecture to art, as the university was in the early phases of planning the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. [The idea] was exactly what I was doing in practice — studying both and being successful.” ­Lawson also enjoyed getting to know Risa Zwerling Wrighton and going bowling at the Harbison House. One summer, Lawson returned to the ­university from Arkansas with a huge bushel of peaches that he left on the Wrightons’ back doorstep with a note. “They were so amused,” he recalls, “and I think they had to throw parties to have people over just to give all the peaches away.”

Today, Lawson enjoys getting to know his clients and ­deciphering their needs. He places a special emphasis on furniture in accentuating clients’ lifestyles. “Furniture functions like people in a room,” Lawson says. “You can be surrounded by a table and some chairs, a counter and a sofa, and they’re kind of your friends in that room. The thing is, you want interesting friends that are offbeat and that are not like those everyone else has. That’s what I bring to my projects.”

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