Island Style

Honolulu Magazine

November 2005

By A. Nam Napier


A new book encapsulates a lifetime of design lessons learned by one of the Islands' preeminent interior designers, Mary Philpotts. What are the elements of classic Hawaiian style? The photos and text on these pages simply scratch the surface.


HONOLULU: Not too many designers in town could do a book about a life's work. How did you get into interior design? Why did you choose this career?


Mary Philpotts: Probably because of Kenneth Kingrey at the University of Hawai'i, who was a mentor to a number of us, including Momi Cazimero, Mark Matsuoka and myself. There was no real interior design department at UH, for the most part it was more of a mentorship. Kingrey was practicing at that point, he and Phillip Spalding and Damon Gifford, and some other notables. They were the interior designers of that era, and there was just a handful of them.


HONOLULU: The education itself was based in the fine arts, then?


MP: Fine arts and graphic design. Designing a room starts with visualization, you have to be able to do that in your head. It's like a blank canvas you're starting on, so the same principles of doing a painting are utilized in doing rooms–balance, contrast, color.


HONOLULU: Do you draw?


MP: Oh, yes. I'm a printmaker. Mixed-media was my thing. So I got diverted out of the arts, because you have to do something in life, I mean, you find that, well, you want to go into the arts and make a living. As a woman, I think you look for a career that aligns itself with being a mother, too. I've been able to find the gratification that comes with executing something and seeing the results of it.


HONOLULU: What was your first professional interior design job?


MP: The Pacific Club in about 1959 or 1960. Allison Holland and I were partners, hired [at a time when] the Pacific Club was definitely a men's club. We had five young children between us at that point and so we had a station wagon full of kids and started this business. At the same time, we were working on Kona Village, and had just discovered Pegge Hopper when she was painting out of her garage and you could commission her for $150 a painting. We've bonded ever since. The three of us. It was really interesting, because there were a number of calls from [Pacific Club] members [who saw those Hopper paintings coming in] saying, "We don't want our club to be pink!"


But with the crossing of those two jobs, it was a total immersion into the business.


HONOLULU: Is the firm now an outgrowth of that original partnership?


MP: Not really. Allison moved to Maui, so at that point, we went our own ways with the business. I continued here.


HONOLULU: How many in the firm?


MP: We range around 40, depending on the push we're in.


HONOLULU: Sometimes, when design professionals become business owners, they get pulled away from the art that originally attracted them. Do you feel that tension?


MP: No. I think we are what we are. I'm a nontechnical person and so I just don't go there. There's no computer on my desk. I can't even operate my cell phone correctly. We do an awful lot of teamwork here and we divide responsibilities. But you never have growth unless everyone comes with you, so everybody is involved. We've all learned to read and write contracts, think creatively, think as a team. So I do still get to design and be very active with the clients.


HONOLULU: Is it a very competitive industry?


MP: It is, but I think less so today than it used to be, because now we've established the profession. When I started, no one really knew what an interior designer did. They called us decorators, then they called us desecrators [laughs], so we had to work our way out of that. There's a great deal of camaraderie in American Society of Interior Designers, because of those years of hardship when, as a chapter here in Hawai'i, we were fighting for our identity.


HONOLULU: Hawai'i's architectural and interior design vocabulary stems from the mix of cultures that defines the Islands. Is there any place in the world with anything similar to Hawai'i's design aesthetic?


MP: If you look at areas that have been colonized, where the British, the French or the Dutch went in, you'll see furnishings that are very similar to what we consider our Hawaiian traditional furniture–the four-poster beds, the turned tables, the plantation chairs, the use of wicker.


My book starts with the Europeans, because they were the first influence. I don't try to go back to what is the native culture other than how it influenced us in the past century. When we say Hawai'i–A Sense of Place, we're not really talking about the Hawaiian indigenous culture, we're talking about what happened between 1900 and 2000.


HONOLULU: A section of the book is devoted to postwar modernism, the architecture of Vladimir Ossipoff and his peers. Sometimes it seems as if that era of design has been forgotten, but that minimalist aesthetic can be such a good fit for Hawai'i.


MP: It was so simple! [Architects of that time had] a sensitivity to dividing space, and were able to use simple materials, so that it wasn't all about spending a lot of money in the creative process. That's why [we included in the book] a house by Allen Johnson–it uses screens instead of windows, and the screens come all the way down to the floor. I mean, why do we have to block ourselves in, especially with technology? You could still build screen walls and have technology outside that tells you when someone's breaking in.


That's the liberating aspect of those architects, with their vanishing walls. [They achieved so much] with simple planes and horizontal planes. I tried to make a correlation between what the architects of the '50s and '60s did and what John Hara and David Stringer are doing today, picking up those same horizontal planes that run through a house and form these architectural elements. It felt right then, and it feels right now.


HONOLULU: Some architects and designers have become allergic to the phrase, "Hawaiian sense of place," they're frustrated by it. Were you thinking about that when you titled the book Hawai'i–A Sense of Place? Is the book defending traditionalism?


MP: In a sense, maybe. We looked at a lot of titles and I talked in the beginning of the book about the design process for the Convention Center. We were sitting on the banks of the Ala Wai–Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo was there, Don Goo and Kevin Chun and our mentor, George Kanahele, who unfortunately is no longer with us. Kanahele was then writing the history of Waikiki and coming up with a new way of looking at Waikiki. We were trying to evaluate what kind of building we wanted the Convention Center to be. The major criteria we came up with was that it would have lasting value, that it wouldn't be a cliché in architecture. People should be proud of it 30 years from now. It needed to be contemporary, but needed to honor the land, the 'aina.


Kanahele then came up with, in this collective vision, "You mean 'a sense of place.'" That became our theme for our presentation and we won against I.M. Pei on that. It was a significant win for a Hawai'i team.


[Now] everybody uses [the phrase]. But the real meaning of it is to look forward while honoring the past. That is one reason, in the book, we look both backward and forward. Hawai'i design has a lot to do with embracing the arts, the craftsmanship we have in the Islands, the art and artisans. That's what gives us a sense of place.


The book is also meant to answer the questions, "What has gone before? What has Hawai'i interior design been like in the past?"


HONOLULU: You talk about Bali style in the book. We've noticed this Indonesian influence cropping up a lot locally in recent years.


MP: It's had a huge impact. It's really happening right now.


HONOLULU: It strikes us as a first. Traditionally, the different cultural or ethnic design motifs that we have in Hawai'i came over with people when they migrated here. But, with the Bali look, we're getting the style without any of the people.


MP: That's how we're living now. That's the era we're in. And [Hawai'i is] exporting its style out. There's this connection now, ideas migrate on their own. Technology spreads the ideas and the ideas embrace technology. There's a cutting-edge home in the book that takes the traditional Island idea of being able to open up the windows of a home, but now those windows open by pivoting on a single pin. The home is also wired to pipe the sounds of the ocean into all the bedrooms. If you were going to someone's beachhouse in Lahaina in the old days, you'd be sleeping right on the beach. Now we have all these setbacks, so how do you listen to the surf, how do you know what the ocean is doing? Technology can bring it in.


HONOLULU: Why do a book?


MP: It was because I've been so privileged over half a century to have been able to go through people's beautiful homes and work with all these architects. Val [Ossipoff] was one of the first architects I worked with, I went to school with his daughter and half grew up in houses that he was either building or moving into, so I understood the spirit of his architecture, because I was able to live, with my friend, in those houses. Then I started to work with him as a designer and did so up until he died, so & being freelance for 50 years, I saw things nobody else saw. I felt it was my obligation to try to do this book. How well I did it, I don't know, the jury is still out. But it was my attempt to try to bring everyone to all the places where I've had the privilege to be.

See more of Mary's style in Hawaii, A Sense of Place