Q&A: Designer Frank Ponterio on choosing and mixing fabrics

May 14, 2020

Founded in 1994, Frank Ponterio has been designing rooms, homes and hotels from his main office in Chicago. Ponterio specializes in interior architecture, historic preservation, interior design and product design. He is a master at mixing fabrics and has his own lines at Lee Jofa, Avrett, Arteriors and Clarence House.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, Marie Kondo, the Property Brothers or Amy Astley, editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest, answer your decorating, design and decluttering questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and organizing. For more than 20 years, our Thursday Q&A has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share your own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small.

Frank Ponterio is a top designer in Chicago who has created interiors all over the world including private homes, hotels, planes and private clubs. He has a special interest and expertise in fabrics and mixing textile patterns. He has a new line of fabrics and trims for Clarence House inspired by fashion. Send him your questions as you ponder making changes to that home you are now spending more time in.

So happy to be talking with everyone today! I’ll try to type as quickly as possible – please forgive any typos. Looking forward to chatting.

- Frank

We'd like to try painting our smallish office a dark green. There's one window, and we plan on white furniture and good lighting. We'd like something in the forest or hunter green zone. Can you recommend a place to start?

Sure,  I would start with our go to paint deck from Fine Paints of Europe.  You could look to their NCS color deck, great colors, great finishes as well, be bold and good luck!

Does your sofa need an upholstery grade fabric - or can I do a fun print that's less durable?

hmmm, So, I would understand the amount of use the sofa will get... main living space versus off in a guest room somewhere etc.  The easy answer is yes you should use upholstery grade but if the fun print is something that you can knit back and you love it AND understanding it might not stand the test of time then go for it!

What was the most challenging part of designing you own fabric line?

I have to say, I really found it to be a great experience with great partners in Clarence House.  There were several unknowns for on my end however.  While we design custom furniture and fixtures for clients everyday I had never done anything more than a "one-off" custom textile before.  So the Clarence House team was wonderful about process from my first prototypes to production they really guided me along, so good to have a great team!  To answer your question more directly though, there were a handful of designs that just didn't make it, mainly due to the prototypes not being exactly what I wanted so deciding to not include them (at least not yet :-) ) was the biggest challenge for me.

Hi. Need advice on painting the stairs in our 125-year-old farmhouse. I would like to go a bit bold by painting the banister perhaps navy, and also painting both the risers and treads one color (different color from the banister). I have considered stenciling the risers, but am afraid I would mess it up. My hallway walls are a golden yellow. It's the main entrance, and I would like to make a statement. I'm game for all options. I just don't want the spirits of the house to take revenge on me. One more thing: there is a window at the top of the stairs, and on a sunny day the stairs get a lot of light. Thanks for any suggestions

I would go for it... Being a vintage farm house gives a bit more latitude to the refinement of the stenciling.  The best thing to do is scale and draw your designs, planning things all the way through, marking your pattern on the stairs and being sure its exactly what you want.  Just like anything, the more planning you put in the better things will turn out.  Good luck!

Greetings! I’ve enjoyed a pair of Haitian cotton living room couches and a cotton rec room sectional that need to be recovered/replaced. Could you recommend nontoxic fabrics? The sectional is more widely used. I am aware that cotton does not clean well, but is there a blend you would suggest? Would bamboo or hemp be better choices? We like the dimensions of the Haitian cotton living room couches so would like to keep them. What are your thoughts on linen? The furniture is in a 1968 mid size house. I think leather would overwhelm the spaces. Thank you for your input!

I think the way to go for the chairs would be a great heavy weight / chunky linen.  On the sectional, wanting an organic option, I would look towards a cotton / wool blend, if you need it to be knit backed in a solid cotton that's an easy thing to do.  You're upholstery house or fabric vendor should be able to help you along with that process.

what are the guidelines to successfully mixing patterns?

This is a tough one but I'll give it a whirl - I'm not sure its really about "guidelines"  I think its more about artistry.  I think understanding the goal ie - soft color palette & lots of textured prints versus bold color and statement patterns.  In the end, like most of good design its about being sure these different materials live well together, either through being great, polite neighbors or a little more on the spicy side...which can be far more interesting. 

I’ve recently decided that while I like the shape of my traditional furniture my fabric choices are really dated. Any suggestions for modern takes on traditional style? Also as going shopping for fabric may be difficult due to social distancing, do you know of good online sources and how to choose when you are not seeing the fabric in person? (As I type this, my questions seem frivolous considering the state of the world, but I really need a distraction.)

Thank you for the question, its one we're all dealing with at the moment, how to source product (effectively) remotely... its tough to think about it this way in our current environment but thankfully we live in an age where we can all see things, ask questions and purchase remotely right now.  Most fabric houses like Clarence House and many others have wonderful on-line resources available.  They'll send you samples and many times can refer someone to help with reupholstery in your area.  Lastly, just my POV here, I don't think its frivolous, we all, especially now, could use a little more beauty in out lives.  

Just want to point out my article on stand alone freezers which are as hard to find as TP. Read my story about why that happened and when you will be able to find them again. Plus tips on selecting one.

Your fabrics have such interesting subtle patterns. Where would a novice begin using them in a living room? Should I start with curtains or pillows as baby steps? I feel it is time to refresh my living room with something modern and calming.

Thank you!  It all depends on you comfort level with selecting and using materials.  I think if you're unsure then I would absolutely start small... pillows or a table skirt, something that's not a huge commitment.  Then, once you've built up a little more confidence and knowledge about what to use where step up a bit and try things that are more substantial... window treatments or upholstery, you'll do great!

Do we think trim is coming back? How do you use it in a modern way?

In one word... ABSOLUTELY!  Along side our collection of fabrics for Clarence House we put together a complimentary collection of trimmings and we've used them in different ways than the typical.  In a few of the images for the collection you'll see Ive use a patterned natural hide flat trim as a border on a sisal rug.  I think trim is a great tool for designers to "finish" things off or put that last bit of refinement into a project.

I have a couple of pets who love to jump on my couch. I want to recover it but want to pick something that will be durable enough to withstand my animals. Is there something you would suggest?

I completely understand!  Leo and Lucy (my 5 year old springers) love to get on the sofa... not sure when that became a thing but they do kind of run the house.  So a couple of general guidelines;  Tight weaves like Mohair hold up like iron (they use to make theatre seats out of this material), you could also go to something softer with knit backing and be sure to stain treat the material, the fabric houses can sometimes do this for you.  Lastly, as an extra layer of protection we've had "roll-ups" made for the sofas out of the same material... basically we unroll a layer of the material across the sofa and over the arms for day to day use and then remove it to launder or when we entertain.  

We hear a lot about "luxury" these days - I'd like to understand how you define "meaningful luxury" in your work?

Thank you for your question, I love the term "Meaningful Luxury"!  Right now so many of us are really taking stock of what's important to us, health, safety, family... so how best to live each (and every) day in our current environment?  For me, I think of my home, my outdoor space and what it means to me have such a special spot - its truly meaningful.  My team and I talk a lot about how best to provide this same sense to our clients, how do we provide them with great design, product and from the safety of their homes while still making it an enjoyable experience?  We've spent lots of time on this recently and thankfully I have a great team of designers who go above and beyond to help our clients live in a more meaningful way.

I love alpaca but am worried it will be/look too hot in the summer. What do you think?

Alpaca is one of my favorites... and the fiber does in fact breath!  So, I wouldn't be worried about it "looking or being " too hot, if you love it go for it!

How does one find an interior designer? I see ones that showcase work in million-dollar homes in NW DC when I need help for my $150,000 condo in Silver Spring. I don't need a redesign just help with furniture to complement the vintage pieces I have, room arrangement and paint colors.

There are so many small boutique shops, store owners and makers out there and right now they REALLY need our patronage!  I would stay local, find a spot you love to shop, one who's visual merchandising appeals to you and then just inquire and see if they'd help, as artists they'll be extremely flattered and I bet love to help. 

What has been your favorite pattern to use and how have you used it?

Ok, so favorite child... I've got two right now I'm loving just a bit more than their siblings our Parigi on linen (love it in the Como color way) and also Paulo, the colors are fantastic and I always think of Paulo Bertazzoni when we use it, a friend and 7th generation oven maker in Italy. The inspiration for this particular pattern was derived from a detail in a beautiful palazzo in Parma where I was having dinner with Paulo, his mother and lovely daughter Valentina... take a peek at that pattern as well!

In our family room, used by two adults and one poodle, we have a beige leather sofa and a slightly darker leather ottoman, and another arm chair that is 30 years old, excellent quality but needs to be recovered. Currently it is fabric. Would it be better to stick with a fabric or have it re-done in leather same as the sofa?

Sounds like that might be a bit too much leather.  But if you want a classic way to break up the materials try using leather on the body of the chair and mohair on the seat cushion also finishing the cushion with a leather welt of the same  leather is a great touch.

What do you recommend for a serene environment. So much chaos right now, I want our living room to feel easy, breezy and let the light in. Any thoughts on selects for fabrics? Doesn't have to be neutral!

Ahhh... We all need this kind of space, especially now. I'm (and I think most everyone else) is over grey.  So one way to go would be using some great textures and some neutrals while layering in soft pale blues and sand accents, a classic, calming way to go.

Thank you Frank! Gosh your keyboard was on fire! So read all his great suggestions and consider mixing it up in your own home. Next week my guest will be Jennifer Pickens, who will be chatting about White House traditions and her new book on state dinners. Until then, be well and be safe.

I'd like to redo our beach house and want it to feel like a beach house but not overly cheesy or nautical. What sort of tones should I go with when I'm picking fabrics and paint that still feel setting appropriate?

Such a good question!  we're working through a very upscale beach house right now and we refer to it as a "barefoot" house.  I think textures should be soft and easy to live with and selections should be approachable so that everyone feels comfortable putting their feet up.  Resisting the urge to bring in store bought accents is the trick... bring in stones from the beach, fill the hurricanes with sand and a candle and just use your eye to find things that "fit"... take your time and collect, many times local shops have the greatest finds and a truly reflective of the area. good luck!

A big thank you to everyone for your thoughtful questions, its been a pleasure!

Home awaits-


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Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily Twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering and organizing.

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