The Captain of Calm
In his new monograph, designer Shawn Henderson shares his techniques to create serene, nonplussed spaces that wow
When you count boldface names like Will Farrell and Octavia Spencer as your clients, you can officially call yourself a success. But designer Shawn Henderson had another grand vision for himself and wasn’t going to rest until he achieved it. “I had always had this goal of having a book by the time that I turned 50,” says Henderson, who launched his namesake firm in 2003. “It was an important milestone in my life and career.”
Mission accomplished. His first monograph, “Interiors in Context” (Monacelli Press, November 2021), is out and features projects from Aspen to his own country place in Hillsdale, New York. We chatted with Henderson about why it’s worth seeking out authentic vintage furniture over reproductions— and how he tweaks his upholstery choices for Colorado clients.
Tell me how you got your start in the illustrious design world.
I got a BFA in interior design from the Rochester Institute of Technology and worked for three different design firms. I think it’s so important for people to apprentice and to really learn the trade.
What are some of the things you learned in those early jobs?
Everything. Everything. I really learned how to deal with clients and vendors. One of the things that I was fortunate to experience was learning from amazing gallery owners and antiques dealers about the history of design and understanding the quality of design and what that meant.
So much of what’s out there is derivative of design, and it’s unfortunate, because I think that there’s amazing stuff out there if you know where to find it and what to look for. For example, there was a picture of a newly made chair on Instagram that was more expensive than the actual original chair. That’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Why not have the original? Antiques are great from a sustainability point of view, too.
What are the reasons that it’s worth seeking out the original?
It’s so important for a home to have a layer of vintage furniture whenever possible, because it tells a story and adds a warmth that is hard to achieve otherwise. In order for a space to feel super warm and inviting and serene and comfortable, I want that extra layer and those little nuances that vintage furniture provides. New spaces can provide that, but it puts a little more onus on the architecture and on the materials choices and then the execution of both of those things. When you have the perfect storm … an amazing architect, amazing finishes and an amazing contractor who can do all of that … then you could have a space that feels that way. And then you can kind of do whatever you want with furniture.
What is your hallmark as a designer?
I think the one word that my clients use a lot to refer to my projects is “serene.” I think there’s a dialogue between what my interior feels like and looks like and what is happening architecturally. The end result is a space that feels super relevant and appropriate.
How do you create serenity?
So many people feel like they just need to jam full. Part of what I like to bring to the table is doing just the right amount of furniture. I’ll custom- design a 10-foot or 12-foot-long sofa to make the space feel a little more united, so I don’t have to have two sofas in a room.
I don’t like to have a lot of elements in a space [and want to introduce] elements that feel appropriate in the aesthetic sense, too. So, if it is like an upstate country house, having a little bit of Americana in there, like a Windsor chair. I’m a huge fan of wingback chairs, and those, to me, are really statement pieces. I think they’re super comfortable and inviting. And you can skew many different ways with that. You can go Italian mid- century, or you can go more American too, or more English/American, which feels slightly more traditional. Having those elements in a room is where furniture becomes really kind of architectural, and sculptural.
“I always had this goal of having a book by the time I turned 50.” – Shawn Henderson
When you were working in Colorado, were there a couple things that you did here that you might not have done in New York?
There’s a little bit more of an emphasis on chunky, warmer textiles— velvets, mohairs and shearlings. Lots of nubby fabrics. Some of the homes that I’ve worked on in Aspen are a little more modern, and I think it’s nice to have things that really convey that extra layer of warmth in the depth of winter. For one project in particular, I’m thinking of this living room rug—a very thick, braided wool rug in brownish-gray that is super beautiful.
You often use a lot of stunning sculptural furniture. How do you make it comfortable?
It’s a little subjective. Comfort means very different things to different people. I think that’s why we end up doing a lot of custom sofas, because my clients all like to sit differently. I personally like all types of sculptural chairs—it’s fun to have them in a room. But the ones that I like the most are chairs that you can take a nap in. The chairs that have the perfect pitch, that are soft and comfortable.
Speaking of taking a nap… what about upholstery? Do you have a favorite?
It really just depends. Soft and fuzzy’s great, but I also like a tailored wool felt. It really depends on the specific piece of furniture and how the fabric will best show off the lines of that furniture.
When did you know you were a designer? Were you constantly rearranging your room as a child?
Oh my God! I was always rearranging the whole house. It was hilarious. I seriously was obsessed. Totally obsessed. And I always knew that I wanted to be a designer from a young age, and I was super lucky. I grew up in upstate New York—a small town called Menands, which is just outside of Albany.
Nice. And so your family was fine with you rearranging the whole house?
Oh, yeah. I’m the youngest of six kids, so by the time I came along my parents were exhausted. They were like, “Do whatever you want.”