The Finer Points: Ray Booth
Blurring the lines between architecture and art, today’s guest on The Finer Points designs with an unmistakable aesthetic that is as captivating and genuine as the man himself. From his signature use of drapery to his ability to create spaces that are simultaneously historic and forward-thinking, Ray Booth has always held a place atop the list of designers I admire. He so graciously answered all of my questions – revealing formative details about his childhood, his serendipitous path to a career in interiors, and even a few tantalizing snippets about his almost completed vacation home. Ever grateful for the opportunity to learn from the best, I hope you glean inspiration and admiration from the stories that follow. Let’s get started!
Marie Flanigan: I would love to kick things off by talking about the path that led you to McAlpine House. I know you’ve worked with John Saladino in the past, and I’m interested to hear how your journey led you to the place you are today.
Ray Booth: It’s funny because writing a book is such a good exercise for those of us who do what we do. Many designers work without a formula. Our approach to creativity is very intuitive, and the process of writing a book forced me to boil back to the very beginning so that I could better understand why. Why does this matter? Why does this work have meaning? I attribute so much of my understanding to my mom, Betty Booth. At a very early age, her mother and father divorced and her father passed away. She had to live with a foster family and, although she had grown up very poor, her foster family lived in this beautiful antebellum home in Georgia. She marveled at the extraordinary architecture of that home and still talks about its grandeur to this day. For her, this beautiful house became equated with safety, comfort, and beauty; it meant something very special to her. The good news is that she was able to go back to her mother, but since that time, she has always been in love with houses.
When I was a little kid, we would go look at houses. We would make trips to the old Twickenham historic district in Huntsville, Alabama, and we would drive around, stopping to peer in windows. We would go on home tours, visit new homes that were under construction, and we would explore. That smell of concrete and wood was ingrained in me from a young age, and it all mattered – each element was special. So, rather than doing homework, I could often be found in my room working on graph paper drawing houses. Eventually, I attended Auburn, and my third architecture professor was Bobby McAlpine!
MF: Your journey is such a lovely mirror to Bobby McAlpine’s! A close relationship shared with your mother, growing up with a love of houses, and a passion for the discovery of home.
RB: Yes, and we’ve all got that! For every client that walks through our door, there’s a story. There’s something unique that lies below the surface. We really try to harvest and understand our clients – their wants, their needs, how they met, places they love to go. Anything that’s a little hook. When we develop that hook into the design scheme of the architecture and interiors, there’s a deeper sense of meaning. There’s matter and substance. It relates back to someone’s heart and soul, and that’s really what my book, Evocative Interiors, is all about. We strive to evoke emotion, to connect to people’s inner beings.
MF: Something we spoke with Bobby about is finding the balance between the designer’s eye and creating a space that speaks to the people who live within. How do you balance your design perspective with the story you are telling for each unique client?
RB: What I hope you’ll see evidenced throughout my new book (and I believe it’s evidenced in Poetry of Place, which represents a collective of McAlpine House work) is homes that go from very traditional to very contemporary, and even a few that fall in between. The hope is that I am painting a bit of a reflection, a portrait of whomever is in front of me. And that’s what I find most exciting. I don’t want to come to the table with a formula. I love finding unusual stories that force me to look at the process with a different eye. Then I’m pushing my limits and creating something new on their behalf.
MF: And congratulations on your new book – I can’t wait to get my hands on it! I also loved seeing your home on Architectural Digest. We were reading how you designed both the architecture and interiors from the ground up, combining those disciplines. I would love to hear if that’s something you’ll be doing more, or do you already do that within the firm?
RB: I can’t wait for you to see it, and I’m so happy to report that I am doing both architecture and interiors within the firm! It has been a journey because my degree was architecture and it was my greatest love. I was interning with Bobby when I graduated from Auburn, and we were working with John Saladino on a project in Atlanta. I went to New York to present the drawings for that particular home and knew it was where I needed to be. I had no place to live, I had no job, I had 3 friends, and $1,500. I interviewed with Saladino, and they hired me on the spot! It was total happenstance that led me to an interiors office, and that was such a gift – it was like being instantly enrolled in a master class on interior design! I was working in the architecture department but was able to witness how much deeper I could go when my first great love was paired with interior design. John really allowed us all to explore, and that began my journey into interiors.
After 3 1/2 years, I left for a studio called Clodagh. Where Saladino may be called a painter, Clodagh was a sculptor. She had no limits, everything was new, everything was possibility. She had been a fashion designer in Ireland, so she wasn’t trained as an interior designer, and it was a totally different way to approach the work. It taught my young mind to have dexterity in how I see things and how I approach design.
All the while, I remained close friends with Bobby, Greg, and other McAlpine partners. They are my family and were always really solid ground for me. Every year, Bobby would call and say, “Okay, we’re ready for you to come back to Montgomery,” but I was this young Alabama boy who had just opened his eyes to the big, bad city of New York! At that time, there was no way he could get me out of there. I stayed with Clodagh for a few years and then worked for my dear friend David Howell who had started his own business, and that was where I was 10 years later when Bobby finally asked the question again. I was at probably my happiest time in New York, but I wasn’t realizing myself fully as far as my career was concerned. I had learned all of these great things, but I was hitting a ceiling. This time, when Bobby asked, he invited me to come back as partner. That was too good of an offer from people for whom I have such respect to turn down. So, I picked up and moved from Manhattan to Montgomery, Alabama.
MF: Culture shock!
RB: Yes, a culture shock! I thought, “Oh, I’m from Alabama, I’ve worked there, I know what it’s all about!” But you don’t take into account what 10 years living elsewhere has done to you! It was quite a transition. I’ve discovered that you often find what you’re looking for when you happen to be looking in the opposite direction of where you might assume that thing lies. My return to Montgomery and back to my roots at McAlpine has been an extraordinary dream come true in ways I wouldn’t have even known to want.
MF: That is so wonderful, and I’ve enjoyed the many successes your firm has seen over the years!
RB: Thank you! We cherish the opportunity to do what we do, and the invitation people continually bring to our door is humbling.
MF: There is such a humility and kindness behind everyone on your team that we’ve spoken to. It’s obvious why people love working with you. Am I correct in saying that you now split your time between NYC and Nashville?
RB: Indeed! For the first time, about a year into my tenure in Montgomery, I had a little bit of cash in my pocket. I decided to take a trip to Europe with a few of my friends – we went to Rome, Barcelona, and Ibiza. While on the beach in Ibiza, I met this character named John Shea. I was living in Montgomery, he was living in LA, there was a snowball’s chance of it becoming anything, but we started this slow burn. When 9-11 happened, we had been dating for about a year and we got real serious, real fast. We decided to buy a place together in New York and started building our life.
The first New York office for McAlpine House (McAlpine, Booth, and Ferrier at that time) was actually in our guest bedroom! I would spend every weekend working in New York, and then I would come back to Montgomery. Our entire 18-year relationship has been this to-ing and fro-ing, up until McAlpine graduated to a real office in New York.
When we knew New York wasn’t going to be our full-time home, John and I built this house here in Nashville. It was really my wicked plan to get John down to Tennessee, and it worked!
MF: Amazing! So, what is your typical day like? How do you manage such a large operation from two different cities?
RB: The typical day is atypical! Especially now when the book has added to the mix, architecture has been added, maintaining two offices in two cities, and two product lines under development! For someone who likes evolution and change and diversity, life has been rich with all of those things in the most wonderful ways! If there is anything typical to my day, it’s mornings spent in the gym. I try to reserve 7:30 a.m. – 9:30 a.m. as a window of time when I physically take care of myself and clear my head. That is “my time.” There are physical reasons I need it, but even when I’m traveling (NYC, Nashville, Dallas, Houston, Mexico, wherever), I try to reserve that time so that I have a bit of consistency. After that, mercy, it is just catch as catch can.
MF: I’m sure that time refuels and inspires you!
RB: Yes, I also try to practice yoga once a week. Cardio and weight training are great but there is nothing like yoga to force yourself to work on postures, work on breath, and consciously get out of your head. It is such a spiritual experience. I also try to reserve Tuesdays and Thursdays as “work days.” Meaning, I meet with clients and designers on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and I try to have those two days to catch up. I can’t draw, I can’t design, I can’t think unless I block out a couple of days just for that.
MF: Yes, I know that feeling all too well! And I can only imagine that with a firm your size, it must take discipline to take those two days. I would love to hear how you manage new clients. When a new client comes to you, are they assigned? Are they generally coming in to work with you, or are they designated to one of your team members?
RB: That process has changed as our business has grown. When I first came down and was working in interiors, they didn’t have a computer purchasing system. They were handwriting everything – it was archaic. In those days, I was project manager, designer, purchasing, everything! Fortunately, our business has evolved and grown and we’ve been able to diversify. We have extraordinary designers, creative directors, a purchasing accounts team. At this point, nobody that comes to our door can have me as their sole contact, so everyone gets assigned a project manager. I’ve also been working on creating the skeleton form of a structure where I have a creative director who oversees all projects, so that there’s always a team dedicated to each. I feel strongly that our jobs are better when we’re working as a team, and so much of our success is due to our extraordinary group of people.
MF: How do you discover inspiration for your new projects? In the past you’ve spoken a lot about traveling and landscape. What inspires you today?
RB: I turn to our clients for inspiration. Usually, one little seed of thought or inspiration from their story informs another and then another, and we start to build. I very much enjoy getting to know my clients and involving them in the process. We spend time together early on, so that whether it’s a decision regarding the architecture or interiors, I know them. That allows me to bring anything I see in the greater world to them so that we can try it on and determine whether it has any resonance within their design.
MF: So beautifully said. Earlier you touched on the fact that you are working on two different product lines. Are you able to share details?
RB: I think so! I’ve signed contracts at this point! Next spring, I’ll be launching a Ray Booth licensed collection for Hickory Chair, which I am SO excited about! I visited the factory and love that this is a longstanding company with a stable of people dedicated to handcrafting all of their frames, all of their upholstery. It’s not product coming in from China or the Philippines, unless it’s metalwork that is specialty stuff. It’s all assembled by hand by craftsmen who have been doing this for generations in Hickory, North Carolina. I’m really, really excited to be in the company of the people they have there. So many of them are my great friends in the industry: Suzanne Kasler, Alexa Hampton, David Phoenix – I’ve always admired these people so much, and I still can’t believe that I’m anywhere close to them! When is everyone going to see!? I feel like the emperor in new clothes!
MF: Well, we can believe it!
RB: Thank you! I had so many wonderful revelations while working on my book and preparing these collections. Over the past four months, I’ve been forced to sit and think. I’ve had to create a new product or three new products every single day. I’ve had to conceptualize and exercise my mind. On top of that, it was very important that every design I created, all of the renderings and the presentation books, all of the watercolors, everything be done by my hand. So many people sub that out, and maybe it’s because I’m a control freak, but I really wanted the experience of pulling it out of my head and hand. In the fall of 2019, I’ll be launching my collection with Arteriors which will include lighting and accessories and small upholstery. It will be much more limited in scope due to my relationship with Hickory Chair, but I’m so thrilled!
MF: Wonderful! And how has the experience of developing that collection been different?
RB: It’s actually a very different approach because Arteriors is so outward bound! They are combing the world and are in India, Philippines, China, Vietnam – all over the globe. Their team is on the hunt for resources that can put product together and bring items to market in an amazing way. I didn’t realize this about Arteriors in the past, but when they go to market, they have the product there and ready to ship. When you buy, you are receiving the product immediately! With Hickory Chair, we produce the prototypes, resolve all of those details, and then set up the showroom.
MF: That’s incredible! On a related note, we’ve always believed that opportunities tend to come your way when you put forth your best work and partner with the right people. Are these opportunities something you went out and looked for, or did they come your way organically?
RB: We create something custom on almost every job we work on. I don’t strictly like to curate or decorate, although I enjoy doing that too. I like creating something new. So, I’ve really always created product, and indeed some of that product has evolved and will be represented in these lines. As we’ve matured this business over time, going from McAlpine, Booth and Ferrier Interiors or McAlpine Tankersley Architecture, and I’m now doing architecture and interiors and we’re in Montgomery, and we’re in New York, and we’re in Nashville, and we’re in Atlanta…we knew it was time to simplify our brand into McAlpine House, the place and not solely the person. Bobby has generously allowed each of us our voice at the table and within the design industry, but to retain a sense of individuality, it was important to me to do the book. With this rebranding, I decided that people need to know where to find me as part of this other larger brand. Ultimately, our belief is that this strengthens the McAlpine brand, but I can only do that if I have a little bit of light shining in my corner.
Jill Cohen, our extraordinary book agent and my dear, dear friend who I love, is handling my PR and she hooked me up with a licensing agent. In doing the book, Jill suggested that we should consider product as well. She suggested that the book stand as the centerpiece of my brand but that these other elements should be in play. So, some of it just happened naturally, but some of it has been part of the effort to expand and create awareness surrounding how people can find me within McAlpine.
MF: That’s so smart. And I love how the rebrand turned out – elegantly done!
RB: Thank you very much! Jill Cohen was involved in that as well, and we had a design army – there was a graphics firm out of DC and all of the partners had a hand in the process.
MF: Last but not least, we love watching you on Instagram! It seems like you’ve kind of amped it up – is that true, are we seeing more!?
RB: Likewise! I’m just trying to keep up with it! I do it all myself, and I’ve gotta’ say that I’m running out of photos! I’m ready for this book to launch so that I can start using some of those photos! I’m sure you guys run into this issue too, but I’ve got 4 or 5 clients who won’t let us publish their homes, but they did allow me to put their homes in my book, so I’ve been waiting to share these photos for quite some time. I enjoy Instagram because I do it in the morning with my second cup of coffee, and it encourages me to sit down and think. What do I want to put out there in the world today? What is it about this photo that matters? Boy, it’s tough, but y’all do an extraordinary job!
MF: You’re such an inspiration! Your captions are always so thoughtful and personal. But it’s definitely a full-time job, and I’m impressed that you do it yourself!
RB: I tried to find somebody to do it for me but worried that it wouldn’t get my voice out there in the same way. We’ll see how long it lasts – probably until I run completely off the road!
MF: Thank you so much for letting us pick your brain today, Ray. Before we go, what’s next for you? What can we be looking forward to besides the obvious, your book and two furniture collections? Anything else you’d like to share?
RB: I’m really excited to say that John and I have taken on a new building project! We’re building a house in the most enchanted, magical forest in the middle of historic, colonial Provincetown, Massachusetts! We found an undeveloped little piece of land, and we’re building this atypical house for P-Town. It does not have a lick of cedar shingles on it, but it does have vertical cedar planks that are stained black as soot, and a silver metal roof with white windows. It’s going to be a home that feels really familiar but unlike anything anyone has seen up there. And we’re going with a very contemporary interior! Part of that, for me, is invoking the spirit that I find exists in Provincetown. You journey in to this beautiful little city that is very quaint and charming, and there’s so much history there, but there’s also so much more lying just beneath the surface.
There’s an extraordinary art community and colonies that have existed there forever. There are these beautiful, protected dunes that basically surround all of Provincetown so that it will never get developed. There are bike trails, beautiful beaches (albeit a little cold for these Alabama bones), whales, seals, gay, straight, black, white, purple; it’s just this diverse little focused tip at the very end of that cape that I find really rich and intriguing. I am very excited about our future in this home that will serve as our summer escape! I will come and go, and John can stay put and enjoy the house.
MF: Well, we can’t wait to see pictures of that, although I’m sure we’ll have to wait awhile! Perhaps book number 2?
RB: Yes, we’re hoping to be in the home this June! I’m really excited to share that I’ve designed the architecture and interiors for multiple houses that are coming out of the ground this year. From other hilltop houses in Nashville to houses right on the water on Lake Worth and Palm Beach, and certainly this Provincetown home, the next book is being created as we speak… If I’m so lucky as to have another book!
MF: Love it! We can’t thank you enough for spending time with us today.
RB: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. And for all of the work you do to encourage interest in design, and for keeping it alive out there through your blog and IG. Thank you for including us in it all!