Power design duo Kate and Andy Spade once conducted an experiment, counting how many decisions they made in a day (266, and it wasn’t a busy day). Lexington designer Tom Ulshafer laughs when told the number. “If Kate and Andy TOGETHER made 266 decisions a day, then I guess I make over 500 decisions a day, wearing multiple hats in my position as retail division president, store manager, buyer, merchandiser, commercial designer for banks and healthcare, and residential home design.”
Perhaps best known as the man behind the magic at My Favorite Things in Hamburg, Ulshafer is one of Lexington’s most informed sources about design trends in the bluegrass. He recently sat down with the Hamburg Journal to share a few tips with our readers, as he took a quick break from readying the store for its spring open house (which informally ushers in a year-long 10th anniversary celebration for the popular Hamburg retailer which specializes in exquisite furniture, gifts and home design). He says, “when I am serving as a designer for a client, it is important to remember the home is theirs, not mine, and to incorporate their desires and tastes into the options I present so they are pleased with the end results. My philosophy is to listen, learn and provide the customer what they ask for … and then “kick it up a notch.”
Design is somewhat like a jigsaw puzzle that starts with lots of pieces, but when properly assembled, the picture becomes clear and complete.”
In his own home, some of the things that make him happiest are “my growing collection of original barn and landscape paintings. They always remind me of my grandparents’ farm in Ohio, where we visited often when I was a child … so many good memories.”
He loves the varied nature of his work life and is quick to share credit, with “a dedicated staff (I could not do it all without them),” describing one of his most rewarding recent experiences as “moving 140 residents into a new health and rehabilitation facility that we designed, and hearing the positive reaction to their new home.”
Even as a child, it might have been clear to his family that he would grow up to be a designer.
“Usually I was creating rooms from blankets and pillows draped over card tables and twin beds under which I built buildings and houses from my favorite toy, Legos,” he said. “At a relatively young age, I selected animal print wallpaper and black faux fur bedspreads,” though he admits “my room was always a mess. Ask my mother!”
Strolling through the store, with its opulent mix of luxe contemporary and sophisticated traditional furnishings, accents and gifts, it’s easy to guess his answer to the favorite designer question. “Ralph Lauren, hands down! I envy the way he mixes patterns, colors, and textures. He always creates an inviting home collection through multiple layers of familiar classics, but in a new and fresh presentation. It is intriguing how the runway fashions and home decor parallel each other for the new season.”
For our interview, he (possibly coincidentally) wore a purple jewel toned sweater, leading us straight to the first question about spring 2014’s biggest trend in home design and decor. “Lots of bright color!” is this season’s signature, he says. “Indigo, cayenne, freesia. The Pantone ‘color of the year’ is radiant orchid.” (The store has incorporated touches of those colors throughout; a Brae ottoman in black cowhide is draped with a scarf that echoes Hermes orange.)
A long, hard winter filled with snow and ice has everyone tuned into HGTV as the favorite fantasy channel, but do we all need a full scale renovation to cure our spring fever?
A Kent State grad (in advertising), Ulshafer was ‘raised in the snow belt, with the full (Great) Lake effect snow of northern Ohio.” He suggests a simple spring facelift for home and garden might be easier than you think. “Start with accessories,” he said. “Colorful pillows on sofas and chairs are a quick and easy way to enhance the look of a room. Seasonal flower arrangements (for example, tulips, hydrangeas and iris) and table linens always make the room fresh for spring. Maintain a monochromatic color scheme to tie it all together.”
For readers who have longer term design solutions in mind, where is the best bang for the buck in terms of a splurge investment? “Believe it or not,” he says, “window treatments, for several reasons. Custom window treatments enhance the design, visual interest, color, light control and privacy of the room. In rooms where you spend the most time, focus on the primary piece such as a quality sofa in the living or great room as an important investment.”
He adds, “incorporating heirloom or family pieces into a new design scheme can present a challenge but can become the perfect focal point of complement to a new design. Using personal items helps the client to feel more comfortable in a new space.”
Are there design trends that haven’t quite hit the bluegrass yet (but are on the way)? “Lexington leans traditional in design,” he says. “The newer trends focus on contemporary furnishing and home accents. At MFT, we have incorporated some of these contemporary elements, like glass, metal and the Pantone colors, with our traditional product mix to bring these trends into the homes of Lexington. Mixing contemporary products with other more traditional styles that our customers are used to has been termed ‘transitional’ within the design industry.”
One question that locals never tire of always has design implications: is Lexington midwestern or southern? Ulshafer doesn’t hesitate. “Southern! (y’all, I was born a Buckeye but have lived in Lexington for the past 13 years.)” He’s lived here since 2001 and has worked previously with Ethan Allen (he opened the Hamburg location), Dillard’s, and he was the sole proprietor of his hometown garden store. MFT was founded by Forcht Group president Debbie Reynolds. “Her dream was to create a retail outlet that offered beautiful, high-end furniture, home design and accessories, and unique gifts,” he said.
Some of his favorite southern touches? “The use of magnolias, boxwoods, traditional red brick, Derby hats and bourbon are the best southern traditions.”
Speaking of Derby … 2014 is the Chinese Year of the Horse. Ulshafer says many manufacturers have focused on that for “fabric patterns, pillows, serving and barware, and even as motifs for ladies’ fashion accessories.
That will be a welcome sight in Lexington as Keeneland and Derby are the stars of the spring social season. Any advice? “Obviously, red roses and julep cups come to mind. However, this year, why not use roses or flowers in one of the colors of the year (lavender, yellows, and orange) instead of the usual red for your party! Use the julep cups as vases for centerpieces that are easy for anyone to arrange, and they always set the stage for a great tablescape. And look around the house — use last year’s Derby hat, and other ‘horsey’ accents like horseshoes, equestrian art or figurines.” (MFT has already started merchandising for the season with these parties in mind.) Ulshafer says “most importantly — have fun! — don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and create your own style.” He welcomes readers to “take photos and share the creativity with other hosts and hostesses on our facebook page.”)
Asked who inspires him in entertaining, he says, “Preston Bailey for over-the-top florals and decorations.Giada DeLaurentiis for food, since she uses old family recipes to evoke a comfortable and conversational environment for entertaining.”
The five “MUST” essentials Ulshafer would recommend to readers who want to throw the ULTIMATE Keeneland soiree or Derby Party: “bourbon (the best you can afford), Kentucky Derby pie, red roses, hats, and a round of ‘My Old Kentucky Home.’”
If you’re not hosting but just want to be invited back year after year, he says the guidelines for being an agreeable guest are simple, “the perfect party guest always mingles and attempts to get to know at least one new person … And of course, send a ‘thank you’ note to the host and/or hostess.” (He doesn’t say it, but a hostess gift from MFT is never a bad idea.)
“We are excited to begin our 10th year in Lexington,” Ulshafer said. “My Favorite Things has wonderful, loyal customers and we look forward to special events all year long leading up to our 10-year birthday in spring 2015.”
Oprah recently made the news when she canceled her 60th birthday celebration. Asked what special touches he might have thrown in if he had been her party planner, he says, “photographs! Large size. From her life throughout the years which would generate conversation, memories and hopefully laughter from the guests who knew her well during the various stages of the past 60 years.”
We’ll look forward to a few memorable photos of Hamburg through the years at the MFT birthday party next spring. Ulshafer would never cancel a party because the guest list got too big.
The spring open house for My Favorite Things will be March 13, 14 & 15 at 2721 Old Rosebud Road. The seasonal celebration will include special interior design tips and tricks, book signings from local authors, food and beverages and a visit from the Easter Bunny. Stay tuned to the MFT website at mftky.com and like them on facebook for spring specials and 10th anniversary event updates.