A second-generation interior designer, Michelle Willis Adams grew up “assisting” her mother, who had a design business in New York and Rappahannock, Virginia. She can remember sitting at her mother’s clients’ kitchen tables, “listening to them discuss fabrics and furniture arrangements,” she says. “I also remember browsing many antiques shops and going to auctions with mom, which I loved.”
No doubt that early exposure helped shape her own taste and sensibilities: The Charlottesville-based designer specializes in traditional, historic design, and loves colors and textures. But, she says, she’s enjoying contemporary items more and more. We asked her to tell us about her favorite things—including which room in her own home shes loves the most.
Antique or modern?
An eclectic mix of both. I love the weight, quality and patina of antiques and have been a long-time collector, but I find them more interesting and current when mixed with contemporary art, modern or transitional lighting fixtures, glass and metal tables, glazed garden stools and more.
Which colors do you gravitate toward?
All shades of blue attract me, [especially when] warmed up with a little red, camel or brown.
What materials or textures do you frequently use in your own home?
Blue and white porcelain, books, very soft-to-the-touch fabrics such as velvet and chenille.
What is your favorite interior design-related word?
Personal or individualistic.
Does your home look like the one you grew up in?
Yes, my family has given me many antiques, Oriental rugs and accessories, which are beautiful and have family history. And I use the same color palette as my parents: cobalt, russet and camel. Throughout the years, family pieces have traveled back and forth between our houses.
What’s one thing that can really transform a room?
A gorgeous lighting fixture, rug or piece of art are desirable. Live plants or fresh flowers are wonderful. Family photos personalize a space.
I greatly admire British designer Nina Campbell. She has designed everything from townhouses to castles, and she employs a fabulous mix of old and new, color and neutrals, with beautifully executed custom sewing.
Décor-wise, what should a homeowner never scrimp on?
If you can only afford to do one space well, then focus on the one you spend the most time in, such as the family room, kitchen or study. You will feel like you are on vacation when you are home.
Design rule you like to break?
Don’t feel you must match everything. Complementary colors or multiple shades of a color used together are often more interesting. It is nice for homes to look like they have evolved over time and not been purchased straight from a showroom.
What do you wish you could do without?
Television. It is not attractive and it can consume a lot of time, but I get hooked.
What are you afraid to DIY?
For anything electrical, I use professionals.
Have you ever had a change of heart about an object or style?
Yes, I enjoy contemporary items more and more.
If you could live in one historical figure’s house, whose would it be?
I love Monticello. How could you not? It is elegant, yet not pretentious. I see and learn something new every time I am there. And the surrounding countryside is so beautiful.
On what movie set would you like to live?
It is really a TV set, but I would vote for Downton Abbey. I spend half the show admiring the rooms.
If you were reborn as a piece of furniture or an object what would it be?
The desk in the Oval Office or the ceilings in the Vatican. Why not think big? Think of all the history to be experienced.
Which design blog, website or TV show do you peruse religiously?
When I have time, I love HGTV, especially the design shows. I admire Candice Olson and Chip and Joanna Gaines. They design in very different styles, but do beautifully detailed work.