What Defines Luxury? (A Pecha Kucha Coup!)

Published: July 29th, 2016

Last week, the River North Design District invited five designers including yours truly to provide a Pecha Kucha-style presentation on the topic of “What Defines Luxury?” at Studio41. Pecha Kucha is a format in which the speaker presents 20 slides at the rate of 20 seconds per slide… FAST and FUN, but really challenging!

pecha kuha presentation - what defines luxury

“What Defines Luxury?” is also a great question, so I thought I’d post an abridged version of my presentation here. Let me know what you think!

For my parents’ generation, luxury was a Cadillac. Owning one conferred status and prestige, as did giving your neighbor a taste of that boulevard ride. Luxury was a thing. Today, luxury is more than a thing, or even a ride in a thing. Luxury is a particular kind of experience.

Cadillac Deville design inspiration

Many years ago, my husband persuaded me to go on a 6-day camping trip. My idea of camping is a charming cabin in the woods without designer soaps, so this was a stretch. My husband might argue that paddling in the wilderness, surrounded by nature, is luxury. To me, this was only slightly more tolerable than water-boarding!

boundary waters camping trip 1992

Which shows that luxury is subjective. For me, luxury was leaving that canoe after 6 days of freeze-dried food and driving to the local Holiday Inn where I could get a hot shower, sleep in a real bed, go to the all-you-can-eat buffet and bite into that first, cold leaf of iceberg lettuce. What could possibly be more luxurious, right?!?

holiday inn 1963 design inspiration

Of course, when I eat iceberg lettuce now, I don’t feel any particular sense of luxury. The thrill is gone. Yesterday’s luxury is just today’s head of lettuce. Walking into a well-designed room should feel luxurious not just the first time, but every time. If an experience is to be luxurious, it should enrich our lives in ways that are enduring.

iceberg lettuce

In that sense, my college experience was a luxury. The seeds of my career as an interior designer were planted there as a Fine Arts major, where I learned to think critically and where I could become myself. A good education is enduring and transformative, and therefore closer to my ideal of luxury.

grinnell college

When I traveled to the Amalfi Coast, I experienced this sense of luxury. This garden path in Ravello feels luxurious in every way. It’s a perfect balance of dimension, of light, and flow — true to nature and to human scale. This kind of luxury is beautiful, timeless and true, like a great work of art.

amalfi coast garden walk

Great art also transforms us. All of us have had some encounter with art that changes us in some way. A few years ago, I saw Picasso’s painting, Guernica, in Madrid. You can’t see this painting and not feel deeply moved by the horror of war.

picasso guernica interior design inspiration

When I was travelling Europe in my junior year abroad, I came upon this beauty, The David. 477 years after Michelangelo sculpted this, I saw it and experienced a profound shift in my own identity. The David revealed me to myself. Art endures. Art transforms, and is beyond fashion.

david statue luxury defined

It is especially beyond BAD fashion! A leisure suit was once fashion; but now it’s just iceberg lettuce. Trends and fashions sell but are, by definition, passing. Real luxury is like art.  In design, when we elevate style to the level of art, it becomes true luxury.

leisure suit

Seurat’s  “Afternoon on the Island of Grand Jatte,” of course, is an enduring piece of art. I love it because it also illustrates another truth that applies to luxury design: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. A million dots of paint become a singular moment on a Sunday afternoon. It is beautiful, enduring and true.

a sunday afternoon on the island of la grande jatte timeless luxury

Just like the Amalfi Coast. Beauty and luxury are derived not from any one particular thing, but from the composition of things and their relationship to one another: the mountains, the sea, and the local architecture. In nature, art, architecture, and design, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.

amalfi coast sorrento italy

For a homeowner, real luxury is a home that feels like personal art. It is a story that can be rooted in their memories, their personality, their choice of setting, the architecture, or the view. Bette Midler’s Los Angeles home reflects a warm and exuberant woman in love with florals that probably remind her of her native Hawaii. Nothing like the Divine Miss M!

bette midler

Bette’s Manhattan home is luxurious in its embrace of New York and an urban sensibility, along with her love for Austrian antiques. Both homes are rooted in their settings, and in her passions and interests. They tell a personal story. That is luxury!

definition of luxury midler original

Giorgio Armani’s Milan home, first published in Arch Digest in 1990, is as tailored and understated as his clothing. I imagine the man himself as equally understated. When someone experiences their home, it shouldn’t just reflect their tastes. They should feel at one with it.

what defines luxury

My clients who overlook Millennium Park realized their dream of living in the cultural heart of Chicago. They are in love with their breathtaking view of Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion with its ribbons of stainless steel.  For them, luxury is a home that celebrates the location and the view, so we took that into account in our design.

jay pritzker pavillion millennium park chicago

We created a curved wall in silver leaf which shapes their powder room.  It feels as though we lifted a fragment of the Pritzker Pavilion and brought it into the home. The wall leads you from the foyer into the living room where it links to that stunning view.

Mitchell Channon Design: "What Defines Luxury?"

Here’s another example of how we infused luxury in a client’s home by creating something timeless. In this case, we linked the color scheme to the iconic CNA building that lies beyond. The orange is tied not to fashion or trends, but to the context, which will endure, … so long as the CNA building endures!

perry hortion what defines luxury

The den in my own home is luxurious to me because it tells a story rooted in my memory. That pair of lounge chairs now in a magenta chenille, the tall, white table lamp and the glass block table were all once in my grandparents’ home. And my husband and I purchased that Fortuny light fixture in the upper right on our first trip to Venice.

The real definition of luxury

So how do I define luxury? Luxury is like art: it is beautiful, it is enduring, and it is true. A luxury home reminds us of who we are. It tells our story as surely as David Hockney tells a story in his painting, “American Collectors.” And it transforms us, as powerfully as art transformed me.

hockney balance in art