Barefoot with Tom Scheerer
As one of America’s most acclaimed decorators, Tom Scheerer is no stranger to luxury and extravagance. But if he had it his way, he’d be barefoot 24/7.
Words by Natasha Were. Photography by Francesco Lagnese/OTTO and Björn Wallander/OTTO.
Having grown up spending summers at his grandmother’s beach house in East Hampton, Tom Scheerer has always been drawn to the relaxed lifestyle that goes hand in hand with living on the coast. And it is that easy living – where nothing is complicated, precious or too serious – that defines his interiors, whether in a slick city apartment, a refined country retreat or a wind-buffeted beach house.
From Paris to Park Avenue, and the Hamptons to the Bahamas, Scheerer has mastered a style that is neither starkly minimalist nor excessively styled, that is sophisticated yet invitingly informal. It is his ability to see art in unexpected places and to turn everyday objects into unique, decorative pieces that make his designs unequivocally his own.
Although he trained as an architect, the veteran decorator quickly realised that it was not a career he was cut out for. It was a long and arduous education, he says, and he found the practice to be too slow, technical and detail-oriented. So, when a friend suggested they team up to decorate a show home in New York, he jumped at the chance.
“Neither of us had really done anything like that before but we both knew the woman running the show house and she had faith in us,” he recalls. “We got some good press out of that one project: Town and Country and the New York Times Sunday magazines both ran stories on it, and that put us in business right away.”
Thirty-five years on, his career has taken him across the country and around the Caribbean, with the best of his work documented in two books: Tom Scheerer Decorates, published in 2013, and More Decorating, published in 2019.
A wanderer at heart, Scheerer had been fascinated by the tropics since visiting Florida as a child, so as soon as he was old enough, he set off to Haiti. He went on to visit St. Barths, Barbados, Costa Rica and eventually arrived in the Bahamas. There, he quickly found a circle of friends, was offered some interesting projects and embarked on his first island home renovation. It was the re-imagining of the Lyford Cay Club that really put him on the map as a go-to tropical designer although, he admits, his personal preference is still for more ‘barefoot living’ residential projects.
When approaching a new project, it is the place that tells him what to do, both from a practical standpoint and from an aesthetic one, he says.
“I’d never put a glass table in a beach house, and I wouldn’t use polished chrome in the tropics. It doesn’t work visually, it’s hard to clean, and to maintain,” he points out. “And there’s a certain urbanity to polished, shiny things that I don’t think is appropriate in the Caribbean.”
That is not to say that every Caribbean home calls for the same approach. Having decorated three of his own homes in the Bahamas, he wouldn’t do the same thing in Abaco, which is wild and beachy, he says, as in Nassau, which is dressier and has a more colonial veneer.
Nonetheless, certain forms and favourites pop up time and again, whether it’s a town, country or coastal property. He’s a devotee of the white Saarinen table, for instance, which he says is practical and doesn’t call attention to itself, but makes any chair look good against it. Artworks featuring orbs – moons, spheres and circular motifs – also make frequent appearances, as do collections of straw hats in Caribbean homes.
For Scheerer, decorating is not about filling a room or a house with the best and most expensive objects that money can buy. Often, he will choose inexpensive, factory-made furniture and accessories (he’s not afraid to shop at Ikea and Walmart) and complement these with bespoke pieces, tailored to the room’s dimensions. But it is his careful selection and placement of quirky ‘found’ objects and one-off treasures that, like a sprinkling of Scheerer fairy dust, transform his designs.
“It is those off-piste moments and choices that prevent a design that is comfortable and durable from being dull – because you throw in an antique chair, a kooky plant or one fantastic fabric,” he says. “It’s all about that balance.”
It is this combination of recurring pieces and his unexpected, often playful, use of collected items that are his signature, and like a painter’s name scrawled in the corner of a canvas, confirm an interior is the work of Tom Scheerer.
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