Design with Purpose
For Austin Rese, the business is about more than just pretty rooms
By Waynette Goodson
During my stint as editor of Casual Living and Exterior Design magazines, I kept hearing the name “Austin Rese” as something of an upscale designer with a high-profile clientele.
When I caught up with him to schedule this interview, he didn’t have time to talk: He was in Indianapolis planning a dinner party for 1,000 people.
One-thousand guests! I couldn’t wait to hear all about this swank affair. And who could it be for?
Austin meets me at Green Joe’s coffee shop in Greenboro, smartly clad in a blue-and-white-checked button-down and khakis. The only thing that screams designer: wildly colored socks peeking from his loafers.
He’s so soft-spoken that I have to ask him to hold my phone and speak directly into the recorder.
It turns out that it was a private party for a group of high-school girls who were running a state track meet, he says. “They did so well that they will be at the national track meet here in Greensboro. And one of the girls happens to be my niece.”
That’s the down-to-earth Austin, the purposeful man who will put aside all 14 projects that he’s working on — he’s a “one-man band” with no staff — to help out family.
Then I ask him what he’s doing that’s not in the great metropolises of Greensboro, High Point or Winston-Salem.
“One of the larger projects is a restaurant in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, he says. It’s a connection he made several years ago when working on a project with an architectural firm in New York: “The project happened to be a new home for King Faisal’s daughter. She and I became friends, and she is now interested in developing a new brand of restaurants.” The idea is for Austin to conceive the prototype for that restaurant, which will open in the Middle East, and if it does well, expand from there.”
The princess requested a color palette of bright magentas, purples and metallic gold. Yet she also wanted to blend in natural tones.
“Immediately my head was spinning,” Austin admits. “I thought, ‘Is this going to be tree-hugger or disco queen?’ So, it’s a mix of the two, and she loves flowers, so the ceiling will have a serpentine trail of flowers hanging upside down that will take you from the front reception area to the back olive bar.”
Live flowers? I ask naively, thinking of the opulent, flower-bedecked Wynn Las Vegas, led by Roger Thomas, executive vice president of design.
“Certainly Roger Thomas’ beautiful work is an inspiration for many projects,” Austin says smiling.
Much, much closer to home, he’s designing a new estate in Highlands, N.C. The house started out at about 12,000 square feet, and now it’s grown to 18,000 square feet.
“It has a view to die for, simply gorgeous,” Austin says. “It is being done in Old World Tudor style, and the interior is not the stereotypical horns and pinecones. It’s much more elegant than one would first imagine.”
At the same time, he’s working on a recording studio in Burbank, California. “It happens to be a studio that’s been used in the past by legendary jazz musician, Herbie Hancock, Jewel and the Red Hot Chili Peppers,” Austin says. “It’s been fun, a much different mindset. In that industry, folks go to work when the sun sets and go to bed when the sun rises.”
His design philosophy is simple: “I help people create their own style that’s unique to them and their needs. And that’s the same for the restaurant in Riyadh and the home in the Highlands.”
To have such a prolific career, it’s surprising that he didn’t start out on the interior designer track. His dream was to become a set designer for motion pictures.
“I was born in a tiny little town, New Palestine, outside Indianapolis, with nothing but corn and cows for days,” Austin says. “Everybody knew everybody, and I went to kindergarten through 12th grade in the same building.”
Sadly for him, no one in the Midwest knew how to get into the movie business. “So, they said, ‘Why don’t you go the route of an interior designer,’” Austin recalls, “and I thought that would be something to fall back on.”
His senior year at Butler University, he did an internship for a small, still photography studio in Indianapolis. Those in charge were former photographers at Alderman Studios in High Point. “They told me a great place for a young designer to learn a lot and see a lot would be Alderman Studios,” Austin says. “So as soon as I got out of college, I sent my resume and within two weeks I was hired and living in North Carolina.” The time at Alderman paid off. “The vast majority of furniture catalogs from all over the country were shot there,” Austin says. “My particular account was Woodward & Lothrop in Washington, D.C., a landmark store.”
Meanwhile, Schumacher, the wall-covering and fabric company, became another big client. “At that point, wall covering happened to be another very big industry, so all of those pictures you saw in the wallpaper books had to be shot somewhere, and the vast majority of them were shot right here in the Triad at various homes or in studio,” Austin says.
Working in the epicenter of the furniture world, High Point, Austin soon realized showroom work was inevitable. In 1989, he went out on his own as a freelance designer and started working with manufacturers such as Thomasville and Pennsylvania House furniture.
“Eventually I took the job of being the showroom designer for Maitland-Smith, and at that point, it was quite a large company coming out with 500 new products per year,” Austin says. “My job was to design the 50,000-square-feet showroom every six months to be new, fresh, attractive and on point again.”
Soon Austin began getting inquiries for residential design work, as well. “I did a project in New York, the original Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue,” he recalls. “It has incredible views of Central Park and all of Fifth Avenue up and down. They call it the ‘rubies and diamond’ view because you get the headlights and taillights both.”
In 2008, his career skyrocketed when he was asked to lead the residential division of Gabellini-Sheppard Associates, an architecture firm in New York. It was there he gained experience working with major fashion designers such as Vera Wang, jewelry designers including David Yurman and Saudi royalty, as in King Faisal’s daughter.
“The standard was, we started at 8:30 a.m. and we may finish around 1 to 2 a.m. the next day, seven days a week,” Austin says. “No one broke for lunch and few broke for dinner. I lost 18 pounds in three months. It was an eye-opening experience.”
Working so hard, he was actually unaware of the Great Recession, until friends from High Point, Greensboro and Winston-Salem started telling him about losing their jobs.
“I said to myself, ‘What can I do to bring some of these jobs back to our own neighborhoods?’” Austin says. “So, I decided to create VALOR American Home, and I came back to the Triad. I said good-bye to my projects in New York in 2010 and started to put together a brand of home furnishings in which every single part of it is made in the United States.”
Austin traveled across the country assembling a list of manufacturers who operate in a sustainable way and also produce high-quality product, from upholstery and area rugs to lighting and case goods. Many of the accessories he designs himself.
Proceeds from each sale benefit one of three charities, designated by the customer: Blessings in a Backpack, NEADs (National Education for Assistance Dog Services) and National Alliance Against Homelessness.
Thus, VALOR stands on four cornerstones: 1) Made in the U.S.A., 2) Designed in the U.S.A., 3) Good for the U.S.A., and 4) Giving to the U.S.A. To check out the line for yourself, go to valoramericanhome.com.
“I believe in the long run, we will be judged not by what we have accumulated in life, but instead, by what we have done for others,” Austin says. “It is my hope that the talents God has given me improve the lives of others in some way.”
Waynette Goodson is an associate creative director at Pace Communications. She fancies herself to be a designer, but in truth her house is filled with tchotchkes from her 16 years as a travel journalist
In His Own Words
Austin Rese dishes on current trends and pet peeves
Trending: For the past maybe 10 years, I’ve seen a big push toward contemporary. Midcentury modern has been big — it’s all very abstract and contemporary. Colors are neutral with a pop of spa blue or bright orange.
Forecast: Ultimately things come full circle, so the next big thing will be a sprinkling of traditional again. Whether that’s 18th-century or French or Italian, it will come back in some degree. We may see damask patterns or toiles again, but with a fresh twist to them, a fresh coloration. Maybe even something with a wink to it.
Pet peeves: One of the most important elements about design is scale. Whenever I see something under-scaled, when things have been placed too small . . . that drives me crazy. Also, someone who doesn’t understand the statement of what you leave out is just as important as what you put in. Those who overdo things. It’s always better to hold back than to just let go.— W.G.