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Summer Thornton in Wonderland

Chicago designer Summer Thornton is coming on strong in 2022 with a new book featuring her high-octane interiors, a collaboration with de Gournay, and a boutique hotel in her hometown.
Summer Thornton stands in the entry hall of her Chicago home
Summer Thornton stands in the entry hall of her Chicago home. Pale blue lacquered walls lend a watery, transportive vibe. Photo: Melanie Acevedo

Flower: You’ve had a big year, including the release of your new book. I love the title, Wonderland. What aspects of your work were you exploring in it?

Summer Thornton: I’ve had that title in my head for many years. In fact, one of the very first showhouses I did in Chicago was based on the dreamworld that Alice escapes to in Alice in Wonderland. Design is all about escape, and that means different things to different people. For me, it is about creating a story and driving the design to elicit a powerful mood and feel. The book is separated into five chapters that explore different moods. My own home is the first chapter, which is all about romance. Building my home was like writing a love letter to my family. It was a sentimental, creatively freeing process that tells the story of the people I love.

Outdoor dining area
For a Florida retreat, she gave the outdoor dining area a sunny palette, accented with vivid arrangements of fuchsia bougainvillea, parrot tulips, yellow orchids, roses, and ranunculus.

You seem to have a visually graphic approach to design. Who has influenced you?

It’s no secret that I love contrast. I like things that jump off a page, whether in color or form. I have been inspired by many people, but some of my favorite decorators are Madeleine Castaing, Nicky Haslam, Jacques Grange, Dorothy Draper, and David Hicks. I’m also heavily influenced by different time periods. My house has a Victorian theme (one of my favorite time periods), but another home in the book embraces my love of the 1970s. Movies also serve as a huge source of inspiration for me. Directors like Wes Anderson, Baz Luhrmann, and Sofia Coppola top my list.

foyer designed by Summer Thornton
Hand-painted koi swim on the de Gournay wallpaper in the entry of this Florida retreat. The opulent mirror reflects an arrangement of objects and fan palms on the entry table.
purple chair in a Summer Thornton decorated room
In a Chicago apartment, Summer painted the architectural details white to set off a play of pop art, bold shapes, and adventurous colors. Blue delphiniums, yellow ranunculus, and red and purple anemones contribute more bursts of color. Photo: Annie Schlechter

I see you use a lot of de Gournay papers in your work. How did the collaboration happen? And will you include floral motifs in the collection?

I’m crazy for de Gournay, and I love their team. Their papers are the ultimate in fantasy, which is why I use them whenever possible. There is no better way to transform ordinary architecture into something fantastical than with one of their exquisite hand-painted papers. I started working with them on a custom design for the Kips Bay, New York, showhouse, and then we did one for my office. The whole collection, inspired by candy-colored palettes of the past, is something that has been in my head for a while now. And yes, there will be flowers, as well as a pretty graphic frieze and some border motifs.

Summer Thornton designed living room and dining area
In a large combination living room and dining area, Summer Thornton layered a plush rug over a flat-weave carpet to distinguish the two spaces. An oversize globe lantern draws the eye upward in the lofty space. Peonies and gladioli grace the coffee table, adding a punch of color to the seating area.

What is the boutique hotel project? 

It is in Old Town Chicago and is going to be an all-out design experience. Let’s just say there will be canopy beds in your hotel room. Finally! And it will be loaded with color and bold pattern. It hearkens back to the time period when the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition made Chicago the great city it is today.

Foyer with vase of cherry blossom branches
The foyer of a Chicago project with its daring color combinations is Summer’s tribute to the legendary French designer Madeleine Castaing. Striped wallpaper of aqua and teal meets a floral ceiling, while flowering cherry blossom branches add a bit of drama.
Crane wallpaper and marble sink in a Summer Thornton designed bath
In a bathroom, Summer had a bit of fun papering the small space with a Gucci design of oversize cranes. “The birds are way too big for the space,” she says. “And that’s why they are perfect here.” An arrangement of peonies and white phlox with a single, errant orange poppy adorns the marble sink.

What are your favorite cities for design inspiration?

I often look to Latin cities for inspiration. I’m crazy for Mexico, especially San Miguel and Mérida for their colonial architecture and bold colors. I’m going on a major Mexico tour this year because we are building a house there. I also love Buenos Aires for that Paris-in-South-America vibe. And I’m dying to get to Japan for a full design immersion.

Dining area banquette in corner of room
In a large dining room, Summer turned an empty corner into an intimate dining area with a tufted banquette. Shaded swing-arm lamps and a vase full of anemones pull out the red tones in the Schumacher wallpaper.

What is no home complete without?

A good sofa in an amazing fabric. No white or gray sofas please!

Summer Thornton designed living area
Wallpaper featuring a dreamy landscape of mountains scattered with cherry blossoms establishes the palette of jade, aqua, teal, cinnamon, and ocher. Purple lilacs on the coffee table, along with yellow and orange poppies on the game table, add sparks of color in the sophisticated scheme.

What’s your least favorite design trend?

Restraint.

Florida kitchen with a tropical botanical wallpaper by de Gournay as a backsplash
In a Florida kitchen, Summer used a tropical botanical wallpaper by de Gournay as a backsplash, made possible by a protective sheet of glass. “This was no easy feat, but it was worth it,” she says.
“It’s no secret that I love contrast. I like things that jump off a page, whether in color or form.”–Summer Thornton
Wonderland: Adventures in Decorating

by Summer Thornton (Rizzoli, 2022), $45, barnesandnoble.com

Designer Summer Thornton shares her expert advice for creating interiors that are the ultimate in escapism. Appropriately, a quotation from Alice in Wonderland opens every chapter.

By Lydia Somerville

Photography by Thomas Loof