Patrick J. Hamilton: Modern Fall

November 20, 2012

Twice in my life, my knees literally buckled from beauty. I blame fall, both times…

Photo by Craig Denis for Miguel Fernandez Architects, Miami Beach, Fla.

Once, the chalky white trunks and bright-beyond-belief Cadmium yellow foliage of a forest of Aspen trees, whispering in the wind against a cloudless sapphire sky stopped me in my tracks on the mountainsides sloping down toward Santa Fe. Yes, a lot of adjectives. It was that good.

The other, my first fall in college, where a Miami boy had only ever seen a scene like this on Thanksgiving Hallmark cards: a perfect “V” of Canadian geese, against another clear and cloudless sky above the bright clapboards of the Unitarian Church on Providence’s Benefit Street. We were collecting leaves for a 2-D assignment in my freshman year at RISD. The picture was so perfect I was mesmerized, and for more than a moment forgot all tasks at hand. Leaves? What leaves? I was in fall.

Those kinds of moments, and a move to the Northeast almost eighteen years ago made fall my very favorite time of year. The sights, sounds, clothes and cuisine: I love it all.

But as a “casual modernist†living in a Manhattan high-rise, I’m sometimes stumped by ways to bring fall inside. The décor and design of most things fall-themed often seem overly crafty or too twee. And the backdrop seems to make or break the effect. Sure, seasonal fall décor might look great in a Vermont cabin or even a Back Bay historic row house. But how do you bring fall into a Downcity loft or, even if only as a fantasy styling assignment, into an ultra-modernist space, like the Philip Johnson Glass House?

Design by Johnson Berman. Photo by Erik Kvalsvik

Is there a way, seasonally or year-round, to welcome in the warmth of fall? And do it with a contemporary sensibility? Some of my favorite style makers and design colleagues think so.

“Perhaps more than any other season, fall says ‘color’ to me,†says Cecil Adams, creative director at Currey & Company. And even though he and his lamp, accessories and furnishings company are Atlanta-based, they’re not without their own leaves to peep. “My late-midcentury modern house is surrounded by plenty of trees that provide their blaze of color outside my windows. That always inspires me to bring those colors inside so I can continue to enjoy them long after the leaves are gone.â€

Upbeat Table Lamp in Pumpkin, by Currey & Company. Photo courtesy of Currey & Company

Design by Katie Rosenfeld. Photo by Michael J. Lee

It’s no surprise what Cecil touts as a solution, but his reasons are more well-founded than self-serving. “A cleaner, more modern aesthetic may not allow for a lot of layering but a great lamp can give you a very effective punch of the color of the season. Not to mention that light is even more important on those long winter nights ahead!†he chuckles. Who can argue?

Moroccan Silk Tablecloth by High Falls Mercantile. Photo courtesy of High Falls Mercantile.

Even a country fan can strip down the season to its more modern basics. A master of the scrubbed-clean country look is Larry Ruhl, the man behind the chic High Falls Mercantile. Larry loves relying on textiles like Moroccan cloth, where colors are not just earth-inspired, but earth-derived, with natural pigments and fibers. “These textiles are defined by important elements in modern design,†says Larry, and adds even more to his definition of what makes something modern: “Sustainability, versatility, and of course, timeless style.”

Simplified shapes, even if rustic in material, are another way Larry likes to keep it clean, and one of the reasons the taper-legged dining tables, made of reclaimed and painted woods, are perennial HFM best-sellers.

Design by Katie Rosenfeld; Photo by Michael J. Lee

Nelson Hurricanes by Ralph Lauren Home. Photo courtesy of Ralph Lauren Home

Larry thinks the way you live in your space is key, too. “Modern design never has to feel cold regardless of the season. Simple layers, a fire, and candlelight are unobtrusive ways to add warmth to a modern home.” I am lucky to know that Larry’s candle of choice is a classic beeswax taper, but consider something chunkier to hold its own in a loftier space, like the Ralph Lauren’s Nelson Hurricanes, or the always-classic Modern Hurricane, which stays contemporary with clean lines and graphic shape even in a more traditional brass finish.

From Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.; Photo by Ngoc Minh Ngo

For styling touches, forego some of the more traditional floral choices, and tear a page from design magazines: a few sculptural branches of Japanese maple, gingko or fig in a cylinder vase, and you’ve captured the raw beauty and essence of the season.

Besides brass and bronze, other materials are key: slate, weathered zinc and similar on-trend grays pair perfectly with Aspen-inspired (and also en pointe) yellows, from egg yolk to amber.

Cobble Hill Loom Knotted Wool Rug, Michaelian & Kohlberg. Photo courtesy of Michaelian & Kohlberg

An autumn palette can warm up a modern home now or year ’round and, like leaves underfoot, create inspiration every time you look down. Example: the Cobble Hill rug from Michaelian & Kohlberg.

Don’t forget fig, raisin and amethyst to deepen things up, colorwise. But fall style need not be about a riot of color, and great inspiration can come from even late November days, when birch trees are bare and skies are gray.

Design and photo, Thom Filicia

Stacey Holston Bewkes, the design tastemaker (and Connecticut homeowner) behind the popular interior and lifestyle blog, Quintessence, likes to deviate from expected palettes. “While fall is normally associated with the changing colors,†she says, “think about incorporating traditional elements in different materials or a modern color scheme like black and white.†Stacey cites an oft-pinned tabletop from Domino magazine as Exhibit A. “It features a monochromatic scheme that feels fresh, yet the addition of the feathers adds the warmth of the season.†The look is especially effective in a minimal, modern condo.

For Frank Campanale of Boston’s diseño boutique, it’s a matter of texture, warmth and natural materials, all part of the signature look of his Harrison Avenue shop. Frank thinks one way to take the edge off modern style is to get a little rough. “I like ‘rustic’ in touches that enhance an overall contemporary environment,†he says. Horn is one of his favorites, making appearances on dining and coffee tables, in boxes, plates, candlesticks and chargers.

Gwyneth Horn Dinner Plate by Ralph Lauren Home. Photo courtesy of Ralph Lauren Home

“This time of year, I think about nesting, viewing the crisp and at times harsh weather from the comfort of a warm and cozy setting,†says Frank. “I encourage the use of materials like rich leathers and cowhide, sheepskin and alpaca, as well as touches of hand-loomed textiles, vintage or not.â€

Design and photo, Tobi Fairley

Don’t dismiss textiles of a more buttoned-up nature…menswear inspiration seems perfectly suited to the season: tweeds, herringbones and traditional wools. New York designer Ally Coulter used classic camel draperies in her recent room for Holiday House, chosen for its perfect drape, great hand, and style-bridging timelessness. “There is something so clean and classic about camel, and yet it adds so much warmth.†But for Ally, the choice is something a little more sentimental. “It always reminds me off my Grandfather’s fall overcoat!†Hers was from Ralph Lauren, but Holland and Sherry is also an excellent source, and Phillip Jeffries even features a herringbone fabric for walls.

How about a quicker fix? John Douglas Eason, New York–based interior designer with a growing Connecticut clientele, suggests borrowing from nature more directly, and with a helping hand from technology. “Since we’re all amateur photographers these days, take a photo of a beautiful fall morning, crop it, blow it up and add a firm backing. Place your glossy new piece of art anywhere that needs a little snap of the season.â€

“It’s fun, fairly inexpensive and very fresh.†Now that sounds thoroughly modern. Happy modern fall!

For even more modern fall inspiration, check out our companion “Modern Fall†board on Pinterest.

–Patrick J. Hamilton

Patrick J. Hamilton is an interior designer, stylist and stager living in New York City. He’s appeared on HGTV’s “Small Space, Big Style” and “Rate My Space.” He blogs at

For more on fall decor, check out:

The Best of Fall Bedding

Fall Finds 

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