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Thom Filicia on Underground Parking Garages, Panic Rooms, and Working Around Picassos

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Interior designer Thom Filicia opened his Manhattan-based firm in 1998 and has done quite a boatload since, launching a furniture collection with Vanguard, a line of rugs with Safavieh, artwork with Soicher Marin, textiles with Kravet, curtain hardware, and other such things. He's seen his own homes published more than once—Elle Decor ran his NYC condo in 2007, a few years before it sold, and House Beautiful featured his country house, in New York State's Finger Lakes region, on its Nov. 2012 cover. The space so happens to the subject of American Beauty, a design and inspiration tome that he released in November. Here Filicia, once a star of the long-gone TV show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, talks to Curbed about preferring vintage to antiques, small, oddly placed beer fridges, and what it's like to spend millions and millions of dollars on fine art.

Define luxury.
Luxury is a word is a word that has lost some of its authenticity. You see the word thrown around everywhere. I would say to me luxury is really about living well in an authentic, unique, special way. I think the things have to feel unique and special and not typical and mass-produced.

If a house were to have only one truly high-end piece of furniture, what should folks invest in?
When you are talking about a high-end, luxurious home, I think you really want to try to bring that philosophy to 80 percent of what's around you. You want it to feel good and look good, so the materials and finishes need to be fabulous. The surface AND what's underneath need to be incredible. I would say if you had to choose one high-end piece, I gravitate toward the sofa. When you sit on a sofa in someone's house and it's down filled, made well and hand sprung, you can feel the difference. If I had an empty home I would just do a fabulous sofa before anything else. It's like having great shoes you can pair with jeans and a T-shirt because the shoes elevate everything else. You can't hold off on the sofa.

Tell me about some outrageous sofas you've done for clients:
We've done a 25-foot long Chesterfield. We've done really great back-to-back sofas. There was a rocking sofa that we did all the legs as finials from curtain hardware—so beautiful and decorative. We did a Moroccan sofa that was all about mix of great pillows. It really more of a party barge than a sofa. Sofas to me are everything. Everything else can be anonymous but the sofa has to have style.

What would you say is the most luxurious item in your own house?
My cashmere-and-suede down custom sofa is pretty great. It is horsehair and it's hand sprung. You can't get more luxurious than that.

At what point do you throw your hands up in the air and proclaim, "custom!"?
I would say majority of things we do is a custom mix with vintage and antiques—more vintage than antique. I would say we do use things that are out there in the world of design—manufactured pieces in the high-end realm. We like to have a healthy balance of all of the above.

Anything outrageous you've created?
I would say the craziest thing is for a client with a large collection of cars. We were creating an underground parking garage, but outside looked like a three-car garage so it didn't overwhelm the property. We've done hatches in kids' rooms that go up to attics and almost hidden playrooms. Lot of time clients use leftover spaces in the eaves and turn them into play caves. We've also done panic rooms.

How do you design a panic room?
A comfy chair so you can wait for the police to get there I guess! They are panicking so they aren't really going to take it in. You are beyond whether it is a fabulous silk mohair chair. So maybe a really nice Japanese toilet that does everything is probably the best thing. And, I guess, all your cash. That seems like the most luxurious thing. Whoever is looking for you is not going to want your cashmere chair! Just a duffle bag full of cash.

They say money doesn't buy taste. Can you think of any examples of client interactions where that's most definitely been true?
One client had a small refrigerator filled only with beer next to his bed.

Did you keep it?
We put a refrigerator in the master bathroom. It was still just filled with beer. I drank one of the beers with the client. It definitely came in handy during the walk-through.

Do you often but fridges in bathrooms?
We have clients who get up very early, so we often get requests for a cabinet that has built-in coffeemaker and cold water in the master bath. A lot of my clients like to wake up and push a button to get coffee without going to the kitchen. If you get up at 5:30 in the morning, it's unappealing going all the way down to kitchen to get a coffee.

What would you say is the most expensive single piece you've ever included I a project?
I would say it's usually art. We've spent millions and millions on art. Maybe a rare beautiful antique rug that cost half a million dollars. Though artwork is generally the most expensive thing in our realm, usually Picassos. It's nice when you know something like that is going to be in a room—you have to take time to make sure that nothing else is going to overwhelm it visually. Pay respect to it without making it too self-conscious.

· Thom Filicia Inc. [official site]
· All Whale Week 2013 posts [Curbed National]
· All Thom Filicia coverage [Curbed National]