We caught up with interior designer Tom Gunkelman in his 1,100-square-foot condo in downtown Minneapolis. The heavily awarded Gunkelman, published from House Beautiful to Traditional Home, turns 80 on Monday. The energetic GunkelmanFlesher partner talked about his prairie roots, his design work for Garrison Keillor and why he hasn't bought new furniture in three decades.
Q Finish this sentence, Every room needs ... what?
A Some black.
Q Do you have a signature, something we would recognize in any Tom Gunkelman room?
A I hope not! I try to make each project for the individual, not for me. My signature is probably that less is more. I don't fill a room up just to fill it up.
Q You have some high-profile clients. You designed Garrison Keillor's first St. Paul home, his New York apartment on Central Park West, and his new Summit Avenue home. Will we get a chance to see your latest work for him?
A I don't think so. Mrs. Keillor doesn't want people to think they are flaunting it.
Q Their first home was featured in Traditional Home magazine.
A And it was their most successful issue! I think that after we published the first house, since that time, he's gained more notoriety; they just don't want it published.
Q Do you have a go-to color you use for painted woodwork?
A It's changed over the years. We do Cloud White, Benjamin Moore #967.
Q Are there certain materials you love, either in textiles, finishes, furnishings?
A I love my linen walls. They're timeless. All my pieces here are 30, 40 years old. I haven't bought a new piece of furniture in 30 years. Recovered, yes. But I feel like I don't have to because I bought quality. My Mies [van der Rohe] group I'm giving to the Plains Art Museum [in Fargo.] It was done by the gentleman who did all of Mies' furniture in Chicago. My friend Don Powell called me one day and said, "You should buy the Barcelona group," and I said, "I can't afford that." He said, "Well, go borrow money; you should do it." I said OK and I bought it. It was signed.
Q Did you design your own living space?
A My friend Don Berger of Portland, Ore., who worked with me at Black Interiors, did. I pretty much had to gut this when I bought it.
Q How do you spend your free time?
A I go up to my sister Dorothy's home at Lake Pelican; we'd spent most of our summers on that lake as kids. I usually go up every Thursday and come back on Monday in the summer. I spend time with friends. And I travel a lot. This fall I'm going to Provence again; I've rented a house there, and in the winter I always go to St. John's for five weeks.
Q Will you relax in that house in Provence, or will you think, gee, this would be so much better if they'd just do something about this plaster?
A (Laughs) I never go there with the idea of doing anything besides being entertained!
Q Do you entertain much?
A In the winter. A casual gathering is eight.
Q Do you do all the cooking?
A Not always; I sometimes have it catered. If I'm cooking, my favorite is pot roast. With everything!
Q How has the design business changed in the last few years?
A The biggest shift is clients seem to be able to think they can do it themselves. Primarily because there are so many avenues today. Room & Board, Williams Sonoma home store, Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware. In many ways that has certainly educated people to better design. But from our vantage point as a design studio, they are competition.
Q Can people still have good design in a flailing economy?
A The reason you hire a designer is not only to guide you but also that they have the knowledge of the marketplace so no matter what you have to spend, they can guide you to save you money, not spend your money. I do put design on an intellectual level when it comes to quality and understanding the cost of things
Q What are you working on now?
A We're just doing some work with Martha Yunker [Yunker Associates Architecture], the Hazeltine Golf Club. It's a great project. They'll do the PGA this summer, then this fall they'll tear the whole clubhouse down.
Q Any hint what it will look like?
A Yunker has done a beautiful job. It's sort of contemporary, not screamingly so, in order to satisfy some of the older members who are very traditional. The inside is very transitional. It's greens and golds, the warm colors.
Q How did growing up in eastern North Dakota inform your aesthetic?
A My mother used Levoy, the prima design studio in Minneapolis, to do her home, always. And [the salesman] would come up every once in a while to see the 10 women he had as clients in Fargo. I'd always be there, and it was fascinating to me.
Q How did you feed that interest?
A I started in architecture but I wasn't smart enough; it was too much work! It wasn't my bag but I loved the thought of doing interiors. But at that time there were very few schools that had interior design departments. There were none around here. I really got involved in interiors through the Store Without a Name.
Q Tell me about that.
A Mr .[George] Black was a very good friend of my dad's. This one summer I was mowing the lawn and this person stopped and said, "Would you like to come work in the drapery department at Store Without a Name?" Well, my dad had given me so much crap about not having a job I thought, I'll take anything.
Q When did you make your break?
A One day I went to Mr. Black and said, "I'm sick of being in the sewer selling draperies!" So I said I would like to open a design studio and would he be willing to back me. So he said, "See what you can do."
Q You seem to be a people person. How invaluable is that skill?
A The most valuable in our business. If you can't sell yourself you can't sell the product. Because clients look to you for that, a trust factor. If you don't have a trust factor you may as well forget it. There are very few clients I have turned down but I have turned down a few.
Q So it's been a pretty good ride?
A It's provided a decent way of life and being able to appreciate it with friends. And I've certainly met a lot of wonderful people, both in the industry and clients. People you get to know and respond to you and relate to you. I think that's one of the biggest pluses for an interior designer, his clientele.
Q You seem like a modest guy.
A I am, and I'm not!
Kim Yeager • 612-673-4899