A Conversation with Sandra Nunnerley
A Conversation with Sandra Nunnerley

Her book Sandra Nunnerley Interiors published by Powerhouse Books confirmed Sandra Nunnerley as a star in the firmament of interior design. Born in New Zealand, established in New York, and a natural globetrotter at heart, Nunnerley brought to the city her very own touch of style and glamour. She has that rare thing, an “eye”, which allows her to bring the best out of any space. With her purist vision of interior architecture, she installs harmonious backgrounds for antique pieces and mixes contemporary furniture and art effortlessly, creating a very distinctive style one could describe as classic with a twist. Here the designer talks to Esensual Living about her world.

a-conversation-with-sandra-nunnerley a-conversation-with-sandra-nunnerley
Sandra Nunnerley
Photo by Richard Corman
a-conversation-with-sandra-nunnerley a-conversation-with-sandra-nunnerley
Photo by Peter Estersohn

ESENSUAL LIVING: You studied architecture in Sydney and lived in several European cities before settling down in New York, where you opened your studio. Was New York a deliberate choice and why?

SANDRA NUNNERLEY: It was all very serendipitous as are most things in life – I went off to study architecture at Sydney University in Australia and eventually to Paris and London to study art history. After spending some time working at the Bonython Gallery, Australia’s leading art gallery, I embarked on the European grand tour and made my way to New York to the Marlborough Gallery as a “trainee”. Working in the art world in New York was the place to be and as a young woman it was exhilarating to be in the midst of the vibrant art scene of Manhattan.

EL: You are a very cosmopolitan lady and a passionate traveller. Do these two characteristics add a special tone to your work?

SN: Oh how nice! Travel is very important to me as I often discover new artists or modes of expression on my journeys. After spending time in India, I nearly filled my apartment with cushions instead of chairs. Sweden led me to incorporate colours reflecting the wonderful quality of the northern lights of a Scandinavian summer. When I returned from Burma, I wanted to paint everything red!!!

EL: Are foreign cultures and lifestyles crucial to your inspiration?

SN: Absolutely! For me, travel is important as I often discover new artists or modes of expression that are not known at home. Each year I make a point of going somewhere new. I’ve hiked to Machu Picchu in Peru and floated down the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. These are voyages of discovery and although you never know what exactly you’re going to take home from the experience, they’re crucial to inspiration.

EL: How would you define your style?

SN: It has been said that I have a sense of “art de vivre”, a style where the traditional meets the contemporary with an easy grace. My background in architecture and fine arts gives a true depth to my work, bringing together the past and the present, with special attention to the role of art. Often I showcase or augment clients’ collections of fine art, and in recent years, I’ve embraced a trend towards site-specific pieces of furniture commissioned from artists and architects. I prefer an edited mix of furnishings, and juxtapose luxurious fabrics like silk and cashmere with more humble materials like linen and grasscloth.

EL: How do you approach a new project and the importance of architecture versus interior design?

SN: As I always tell my clients, you’ve got to get the bones right first. If you don’t, you’re going nowhere, no matter how hard you try. It begins with the architecture of the space, and often involves reconfiguring layouts, altering dimensions, and adding or subtracting details to make spaces more functional and responsive to my clients’ lifestyles.

EL: Our way of life has changed a lot over the years. How does it translate in interior design?

SN: Good design never sleeps. We have global access now to travel around the world simply by spending time at our computers. Our global means of communication has changed design tremendously with our ability to work in global continents simultaneously - by using CAD and 3D printers in our office. It’s revolutionized interior design with our ability to see and touch the final plans before we even begin the project.

EL: Describe your ideal bedroom and/or bathroom. Have these rooms taken a greater importance today?

SN: My ideal bedroom is a room that provides you with a sense of serenity, a room you want to come home to at the end of a long day. In my own bedroom I have a piece of art, reminding me of the Inca Trail in Machu Picchu, along with Scalamandre fabric dressing the bedroom’s headboard, which echoes the wonders of this ancient city. Yes I think the bedroom takes on a greater importance today, as we all need a place to truly escape, to shut off our 24/7 communication with the outside world. 

EL: You often mix period pieces with contemporary design. What “plus” does the art of mixing bring to a room? Are artworks an important element in your decoration?

SN: YES! I love mixing traditional and modern periods with contemporary design. It’s the interplay between modern and traditional that fascinates me. I love introducing my clients to collecting art—starting them on a journey of exploration whether it is painting, photography or sculpture which they can enjoy displayed in their own homes.

EL: Share your favourite designers, periods, artists and textiles…

SN: Albert Hadley was a great mentor to me along with the other legendary designers including Elsie de Wolfe, Andrée Putman and Eileen Gray. And of course one of my favorites is François Catroux who has been at the forefront of French style for decades! There are so many artists that I love and exhibits that inspire me today including Agnes Martin at the Tate, contemporary Chinese artist Liu Dan, and who doesn’t fall in love all over again with Picasso with the wonderful Picasso Sculpture exhibit at the MOMA? My favourite textiles are the ones I bring back from my trips, they are so easy to put in the suitcase. I recently brought back some fabulous textiles from Inle Lake in Burma, which is the inspiration for my new fabric collection.  

EL: How do you use colour? Is the location and the light important when it comes to choosing colour schemes?

SN: Colour is sensual, subtle and bold. It makes a room come alive and is an essential part of my vocabulary as a designer. I can’t think of any colours I hate, but there are some I especially love – paper-bag brown, bitter chocolate, cinnamon, pistachio, cypress and grape. Off-beiges and pearlized grays I call “shadow colours” for the way they change with the light of the day, making it so interesting to enter a room throughout the day.

EL: You are designing a rug collection for…. What do rugs add to a room? Early next year, the rug collection, often with start with a good rug

SN: Early next year my rug collection will be coming out from The Rug Company.  Rugs are the starting point to any room, becoming a focal point and an anchor to the rest of the furnishings.

EL: What are the fundamentals of good design?

SN: The fundamentals of good design are that it reflects the needs, passions and lifestyles of the owner. Each of the chapters in my book INTERIORS reflect the fundamentals of good design and are thematically organized because they represent qualities in the design projects such as Sublety, Individuality, Refinement and Glamour.

EL: What do you enjoy most about being and interior designer?

SN: I learn something new every day as a designer and it’s certainly never boring!


a-conversation-with-sandra-nunnerley a-conversation-with-sandra-nunnerley
Photo by Peter Estersohn
a-conversation-with-sandra-nunnerley a-conversation-with-sandra-nunnerley
Photo by Giorgio Baroni

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