I had the pleasure of meeting Jesse Carrier and his wife, Mara Miller, at High Point last spring, where they were introducing their new collection for Century Furniture. At that point, their team was planning talks at Century showrooms around the country, and they asked if I might do an interview with them on stage at the Washington Design Center’s Fall Market in September.
With a presentation called Magic of the Mix, it was a fantastic interview and book signing, and I recorded their comments as they spoke about Carrier and Company, their work and aesthetic, and the evolution of their designs for Century.
Here they are, in their own words:
What is it like working with your spouse? How do you cut off work and turn on family?
Jesse Carrier: We’ve been together for 25 years, and we’ve been in business together for nearly 15 of those years, so I honestly don’t remember any other way. [Once they had their first child, when they were working at different design firms, with different projects going and on different schedules], we thought if we were going to make a go of this as a family, we really need to unite as a business, so we took a leap of faith and we haven’t looked back since.
Aside from the marriage aspect, does it help being a man-woman team? Is there a Mars-Venus component to what your male and female clients gravitate toward?
JC: I don’t think its necessarily Mars/Venus, but I think that it’s comforting to have two pairs of eyes and two different opinions. We find families are comfortable working with another family who understands what happens to furniture when you have kids—being able to relate on that level is just another comfort for the client.
Mara Miller: In the office, we internally always have to compromise—nobody gets their way. We have to come together on each project. That openness to compromise I think translates well into working with couples.
JC: There’s oftentimes a divergence [of taste]. Jay Fielden [former editor of Men’s Vogue and Town & Country] was a modernist. He and his wife bought a midcentury home in the woods of Connecticut. He had a collection of modern furniture. She came from a family where she inherited a lot of European antiques. We were tasked with melding those two very different aesthetics peacefully within the context of this modern architecture.
Anna Wintour wrote in her forward to your book that even when there are a million opinions expressed about how a room should look, you manage to please everyone – that’s saying a lot! What is your learning process with new clients? How do you discern their style when they can’t articulate what they want?
JC: Anna Wintour is very articulate so that’s never a problem! But most times, it’s very difficult for clients to articulate what it is they want, and oftentimes, if it’s a family, there are different opinions about what they want, of how things should look, so we listen a lot.
MM: We also give them a lot of visuals to react to. We have fabrics out, we have things pinned up, and as they see things they don’t like, we just tear it down to a bin on the floor. What’s left gives us a lot of information, so even if they’ve edited out 70 percent of what we had, it tells us what textures they’re drawn to, what kind of color palette they’re liking, what level of layering or excitement they like in the interior. It lets us understand right away.
JC: I think you can learn so much more from what a client doesn’t like. It comes out of those early-on meetings. Within three or fewer meetings, we’re aligned and understand what their tolerances are and where we can push.
You wrote in your introduction that you want the homes you design “to have breathing room, a certain dreaminess, and strength of character.” Tell me about your aesthetic in achieving that goal, and how do you inject that into fulfilling the desires and needs of your clients?
JC: All of our projects look different, but there is a little bit of formula to what we do. We know that if there’s very traditional architecture, we’re going to want to soften some of those those upholstery pieces to make it less dense. We might add trim to certain things but it will be light handed.
JC: It’s always about this balance of materiality. Our aesthetic is really about a balance in keeping things timeless and collected. We want things to look not necessarily decorated but as if the client has traveled and amassed these things over the course of a lifetime, and it should really reflect their lifestyle.
MM: It really is about balancing, and that’s all I think about. [Pointing to the living room shown below in the Brooklyn home of Maisonette cofounder Sylvana Durrett, she said:] This is a young family home with traditional bones. We wanted to make it really reflect their young, vibrant lifestyle with three little kids running around, so it was the mix of that coffee table, midcentury stools, a traditional sofa with simple, self-corded velvet, a leather strap chair and industrial metal coffee table in the foreground. It’s making sure there’s always a balance of material and pattern and color, and the same concept applies to every project we develop.
Where do you look for design inspiration?
JC: We’re always poring over magazines and digital inspiration like Pinterest and Instagram to see what other designers are doing. It’s a blessing and a curse, but having all these digital resources is like traveling the world in the palm of your hand.
MM: I rely on going to museums, and I like exhibit spaces. I like seeing how an exhibit is being presented. I like seeing some detailing. I’ll get excited about the composition of color in a painting, or a frame detail. I’m not looking to necessarily replicate or translate something as much as just getting interested in, ‘What do I like about that?’
Now let’s talk about your collection for Century. How do these pieces fit into the “Magic of the Mix?”
JC: It was an opportunity for us to reflect on our 15 years of work and just go through these projects and really define what the formula was for us and where we mix vintage with contemporary, what are the materials we like to put together in a room. For us, it wasn’t about creating a suite of furniture, and we also understand that our clients are you [referring to our audience of designers], that we’re selling it to the trade, that we want to make pieces that other designers can make their own.
JC: The sectional sofa [above] is our Gracie sofa; it has a very slim, slender-shaped arm, but mixing it with the coffee table with its terrazzo top with bronze banding, chrome legs, and with these water-hyacinth stools that we pulled up to it, and a leather chair with the etageres in the background—it’s just our philosophy of mixing all these materials and periods together.
MM: We really like to focus on the shell of a room—and how we translate that into pieces. The consistency in our aesthetic is a cleaned-up and lightened tradition, so we’re very proud of the proportion of things because I think when we’re shopping, one of the things that turns us off is when something looks too new, too retail.
You are known for your celebrity clientele—Anna Wintour, Jason Wu, Jessica Chastain—are they different from Mr. and Mrs. Smith?
JC: I think sometimes they’re the most normal. Especially for those more high-profile clients, they have less time to spend, so they’re looking for somebody to get the job done. We’re just hard working and we get to the point quickly. It’s a service industry for us, and that’s how we treat it. They just want to know you get it, you can execute it, I can trust you, and now let’s move on. Nothing’s ever been thrown at us!
I think I know why high-profile clients are so drawn to Jesse and Mara, beyond their obvious talents with interior design. They are just the nicest people, without a hint of pretense. They’re the neighbors who’ll let you borrow a cup of sugar—and step in for a glass of wine while you’re at it. As I head for High Point next weekend, I’m excited to see what they’ll be introducing next.