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Finishing Touch

Multi-talented designer puts heart and soul into every detail

photo by Matt Rose

Lighting the sets for Hollywood’s biggest names in Los Angeles, Douglas Stratton became well rehearsed in the art of creative space enhancement — from working in amazing locales to learning from the business’ best behind-the-scenes minds.

“Working with such a creative group of people changed how I view things,” says Stratton. “I see everything through the camera lens, looking for the shot.” Having an interest in renovation, he began buying and flipping houses. “My passion for design just kept growing. I think it was always there,” he says. Thus a new career was born.

Stratton designed the lighting in Tupelo Honey Café South and is behind the look of downtown Asheville’s SpaTheology, south Asheville’s Suraj Salon and also of The Spa, Biltmore, at the Inn on Biltmore Estate, among numerous other projects and residences.

“The lighting design is second nature at this point, but is only one part of what I do as a designer. It does have a huge impact in the overall scheme of things,” he says. “When you enter a home, restaurant, a hotel or especially a spa, it’s all about how you feel in the space. It needs to have incredible warmth and a lot of that is the lighting. It is interesting that lighting design [in the design field] remains largely under utilized. It’s a lost opportunity in that so many fine homes are great, that could have been remarkable with better lighting. It’s one of my secret weapons.”

Carolina Home + Garden talked with Stratton over lunch at Cedric’s Tavern at Biltmore Estate’s Antler Hill Village.

The ceiling fans and the lighting at Tupelo Honey South sort of have a whimsical, steam engine look to them — that was your concept, right?

Yes. I really like a design to have elements of whimsy, stuff that’s fun and interesting. I hooked up all of these belts to the fans, running to pulleys to nowhere, for no reason. Because I love when people look at something to say, “Why?” Well, just because. Ultimately the pulleys got whittled down a bit, but it’s a really cool feature at Tupelo.

You mentioned earlier that you aren’t traditionally educated in design. I don’t necessarily feel like you need formal training to be successful — do you?

Some people think it’s impressive to do something well when you’re not trained at it, and that may be so, but I have great respect for those who have earned their respective degrees. I had to learn by doing. It’s like in music or sports, everyone has their natural abilities. You have to have a real eye for scale and aesthetics in addition to the functional needs of the project. If a space doesn’t function and flow, what’s the point?

Agreed. For example, you were hired to design The Spa, Biltmore. It’s a huge project.

Yes, I did the design concept based on the Biltmore’s request to take a piece of inspiration from the Biltmore house itself. A real honor. I did everything from the space planning down to the fabrics, finishes and custom furniture. I even designed the bathroom sign. And it’s a beautiful sign. It matters. It all matters — every little detail.

The devil is in the details.

I do get a lot of comments about the high level of detail in the work. An executive from HGTV recently came through the spa who was thoroughly impressed by it and raved of that attention to detail. It’s a common thread… For instance, the steeple tips on the door hinges — not many will notice something like that, but it was correct for the period look of the project. It is just one little thing out of hundreds of choices made.

What’s your specialty?

The bulk of my work right now is luxury spas for hotels. I wouldn’t say it’s my specialty because I do many residential projects as well, but what I love about spas is the level of creativity. In a spa, you’re there to be pampered and wowed. And that’s the design goal — you need to wow people. This level of finish translates into any project type and style — you just do less of it. You must have the ideas in the first place and not fall flat. Space planning is also incredibly challenging in a spa, there are so many parameters of functionality and comfort. Also the amount of plumbing, electrical and mechanical is unreal. It’s all about a seamless guest experience, and you can’t miss a thing.

What’s the most innovative project you’ve ever done?

A lot of what I do is fairly creative, innovative might be strong. If I can do something out of the ordinary somewhere, I will. One detail at the Biltmore spa is that all of the doors are custom at an unusual 7-foot-4-inch height, and the door knobs are set at 34 inches instead of 36 inches. It was the perfect choice for the ceiling height. Subtle and you would never notice it, but a proportional trick that makes the rooms look taller. Volume here was key.

What’s your favorite project so far?

SpaTheology has a really cool mix of old and new even though it is all new. The concept was that it originally was an old doctor’s office that evolved over time. I think it turned out really great. Usually though your last project is your favorite, so definitely The Spa, Biltmore. They gave me a great amount of freedom and trusted me to execute that level of luxury. In return I stretched the budget as much as possible, adding more and more detail. I’m proud of it. No one besides me really knew how great it would be until it unfolded in the end. I made sure of it in my commitment to the project. I think that there’s a consistent level of quality to everything I do.

But most artists, in whatever form, have their own style, don’t you think?

I don’t think I have a style so much, it is just my eye and how I see things regardless of the architectural style or time period. Traditional to modern, I like it all. What I do doesn’t fit into any specific category. It pushes into both architecture and interior design. I am not licensed, but at times I do both and often work with architects and other designers in team projects. I believe the team approach will always yield a better outcome. My best strength could be labeled as “interior architecture.” For a custom home or any project, my goal is to always make the finished product incredible with no furnishings in it. It should stand alone.

Any tips for designing or redecorating on a budget?

Everyone says paint the walls, which can have a huge impact, but I would consider taking it further and doing something interesting with the ceiling: paint it a color or give it an interesting treatment like wallpaper. The other thing that can have a massive effect is trim and molding. Add bigger trim for doors, windows and base, add crown moldings, a chair rail or plate rail with paneled walls below of bead board, board & batten, horizontal planking, etc. I just did a design for a north Asheville couple that has a paneled wall detail that looks like giant picture frames. It is really cool and current, yet traditional.

What are good tips for working with a designer?

It’s cliché, but you have to have that trust. Look at what that designer’s done, and if you like what they do, tell them your needs and let them do their thing, because that’s their specialty. Great design just doesn’t just happen, it takes a good deal of planning.

Any parting words of wisdom?

Sure. Of course I would say to hire a design professional! Try to be honest about your limits, I surely can’t do the work of a skilled cabinetmaker — It’s what they do every day. How do you compete with that? A designer can take your project to a level you could never have taken it by yourself…better yet, hire me.

Local Resources: Stratton Design Group – design environments

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