Renowned Fashion Photographer Billy Winters gives Habitat For Hermanity an unprecendented yet candid chat about decorating his fabulous Russian Hill home! In this sweeping interview, my dear friend Billy reveals to us his tips on lighting a room, mixing & matching patterns & how the photography business has changed. He and I also take a walk down memory lane (Billy is responsible for my 1st magazine cover almost a decade ago!). Celebrities, models & politicians have hired Billy for his artistic eye. And now you get to hear first hand what this tastemaker has to say about home decor!
You've shot for countless fashion magazines around the globe in the most stunning locations with the most beautiful models. It's glamour 24/7. Yet, whenever I am over at your home, it feels surprisingly down-to-earth and homey. Why did you decide on this comfy vibe for your abode?
People say that for some reason my home reminds them of a North African Casbah or a Parisian atelier. I guess having Oriental throw rugs throughout (on top of the neutral carpeting that came with the apartment) adds to the "warmth" and feeling. The apartment has a lot of odd nooks and crannies too, making it (I guess) suprising to many.
When I first saw this apartment, it was all white. They "sprayed" the entire place with flat white paint, even all the woodwork. I was not impressed. Without asking permission to paint (I never did) I started my journey. I had to paint all the trim, doors and windows in a semi-gloss off-white to cover a dull flat white throughout. The semi-gloss gives the rooms more dimension due to its shine, and makes the rooms look larger. Of course, it's also easier to clean!
"When I first saw this apartment, it was all white...
I was not impressed."
As a photographer, you are very attuned to lighting (duh, 'photo' is Latin for light!). Tell my viewers how to light a home.
I have a "lamp" fetish I think. There are tons of unique lamps that create a mood in each room. It is all about the lighting. I often visit other homes and they have these horrid ceiling lights that have the ugliest hard light, making the room stark and cold. Having small lamps placed throughout a room creates a soft and romantic ambience. You can even toss a colored scarf over some of the shades and light a few candles to add to the effect. My living room is now painted a yellow with a tad of orange, similar to a 1950's poster I have on the wall from Belgium--a cigarette advertisement of an Arab man wearing the same golden yellow turban. So at night, with the seven lamps lit, the room almost "glows" and sets off the exterior view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the blue sky in an amazingly majestic way. First thing I do when I check into a hotel now is lose the bedspread and toss scarves over the lights.
"Lots of people put a big lamp or light source directly in the window --- Big mistake"
I also have tons of mirrors on the walls- some small, some large. If you go into a brassiere in France, or in most older European bars or restaurants, their walls are filled with odd mirrors that add a certain glow to the space and create lots of different light patterns. So if I can fit one mirror per wall per room, I do. It just opens up each room. I see a lot of people putting a big lamp or light source directly in the window--a big mistake. Windows themselves are "light sources" so leave them free of lamps (in most cases at least).
Some people say too many fabrics & patterns are a design no-no. Yet, your place is a potpourri of patterns. What is your advice to someone who wants to achieve your look?
Go for it. The more the merrier but they need to flow. As long as the fabrics are in a similar family of colors, it will work, but it's tricky. Using one wrong color can destroy the whole look. In my living room I have different fabrics on the sofa, chair and tons of throw pillows all over the floor. And then the Oriental rugs. All the colors are in the reds, oranges, yellows, pinks and beiges, browns, so it all blends in together in a weirdly beautiful way. Then I have yellow satin drapes which really showcase the view of the Golden Gate Bridge. I bought this old wooden chair for $35.00 and had it recovered with some leftover Art Deco from our Parisian apartment and now it's a total conversation piece. The room itself all seems pretty primary: red bridge, blue sky, yellow walls. Through out the apartment are fabrics from Thailand, India, Africa and other regions. Many of these have jewels sewn into them that picks up lots of light and adds sparkle to the rooms.
"Do whatever you want and don't listen to anyone's opinion (but mine of course!)."
HERMAN:Your black and white images are utterly amazing. But I notice your home decor is colorful & vivid. Why did you opt for a more flavorful vibe as opposed to sleek b/w? How did you pick your color palette?
Gee, thanks Herman. I am known for lots of color in my home. When I was 8 yrs old I told my parents that I wanted to paint my bedroom orange, and they let me do it. That's when it all began I guess. Also I remember my older sister Triech, as a teen-ager, bought her first palette of cream eye shadows. They had these really neat vivid colors that just fascinated me for some reason...Maybe that's is why I became a makeup artist later on. I always watched my mother "draw" on her eyebrows with her Maybelline eye brow pencil in the natural window light. After the orange phase, I did a more mature bedroom in ''eighth grade'' with colonial wallpaper and red chair rails-- unusual for a pre-teen, but I guess I was odd. Color just turns me on and makes me happy and feel alive.
"There is nothing more beautiful than a black & white photograph- period. But to live in a black & white home would be awful unless it was in New York in the 1930's and I were rich."
HERMAN: Your furniture is so eclectic; part vintage, part ethnic, part craftsman. You mix pastels & earth tones. But it all works! How do you make all these themes gel cohesively?
I don't know, but it just works out that way. A lot of the living and dining room is craftsman wooden pieces. Then the bedroom has antique French oak bed frame and American night stands with dressers from the late 1800's. I got an amazing beautiful gold & pink toned Indian bedspread from a shop on grant avenue in North Beach
(a shop that is no longer there, much to my dismay). The color scheme might sound a tad feminine but with all the rich browns of the wooden furniture and the brown sheer drapes that hang, it looks to me totally masculine and riche.
The one piece of furniture I have is an odd pyramid-shaped chest of drawers that is almost the same color as the walls. Along the hallway I have a long shelf that is lined with old and new photographs of family and close friends in a melange of old and new frames that quirks it up. In the bathroom I placed an old wooden dresser I got in Santa Rosa
for $75.00 that fits into the space with perfection. Above that there are shelves of colored glass pitchers and vases I have collected over the years that add a sense of whimsy in all the jewel tones to this small room.
"If all the colors are in the same families
& complement each other, it works.
Your dad owned a furniture store, right? Did that influence your style?
I was raised by a father who owned his own furniture store. He specialized in "early American/English" reproductions so that is all I ever really knew. As a kid I got paid to "dust all of the furniture" in his store, then eventually moved up to delivery boy/man! I appreciate modern furniture a lot, but I just never get a cozy feeling in that type of environment. So over the years I have collected furniture and lots of antiques and it is a big mumbo jumbo that somehow works. The sofa and side chair are Chippendale style that my father actually gave to me as a college graduation gift. I recently had them re-upholstered in reds and tans. Despite their rigid distinct shape and looks, people say they are super comfy to sit (and sleep) on.
Our first shoot we did ended up landing me on the cover of a magazine. Thank you! Not to date myself, but it was shot on polaroids & film. How has the photography business changed in the past 10 yrs?
I know a pretty face when I see one. The biggest change is that now we are wrinkled and photography is instantaneous. We immediately see our images, which is great in a way, but film was so special too. There is no comparison or substitution for a photograph printed from a negative. However, now with Photoshop there are tons of programs & tricks you can use to give the images different film effects. It was very difficult for me to make the switch to digital but I was pretty much forced to by my agent. Once I got it down, it was completely the norm. Now I fumble and stumble when I try to load a film camera! So i guess it's not the way a photograph is "made" that counts, but the eye that takes the shot. And now, thinking back to our first cover we did together, the background was vibrant orange, just like my pre-teen boudoir!
What is the best place to get unique furniture, like those gorgeous lamps & pillows? Any favorite pieces?
If I pass an antique store, I have to go in it. Although I am at the point where there is no longer any room in the apartment to add anymore stuff. I can now go through a store in a quick fifteen minutes, while for others it will take hours. Also, never forget to look up at the ceilings in these shops. There are some good finds above.
I have an adorable postcard rack that I got in Paris--must be from the 1950's. It is bright yellow, red and blue. On the dining room table I have a Tiffany lamp (sounds so grandma) in purples and blues. It's gorgeous and illuminates that room. So lovely.
I'm green with envy. You've got a million dollar view of San Francisco in your living room.
You know, I do. Before moving here I said that eventually we take views for granted, but this view never ceases to amaze me, especially at sundown. Best times of the years are in the fall when the sunsets are über saturated. I have a direct shot of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco Bay and all of its surrounding areas--all from the top of Russian Hill, so it sort of looks like a view you would get when descending in an airplane. Or a super neato postcard.
Like many of my artist friends who constantly re-arrange their furniture as a creative outlet, I've noticed you tweak your place often. Do you find a space gets stagnant if you don't change up the decor?
Yes!!!!! Unfortunately, there are only so many ways to rearrange a room. Maybe every 3 months I switch up the bedroom & living room, usually on a whim. The rooms are on the smaller side and I have so much furniture which must be meticulously placed, so it's difficult. And when you toss in a real large Christmas tree, you've got a big challenge!
HERMAN:If you were given access to shoot in any property in the world, where would it be and why?
Well I have not been to too many different places in the world (yet). However, when I lived in Paris as a hair and makeup artist (pre-photographer days) I went on many "work trips" all over to do editorial shoots for fashion magazines. One of the most memorable trips was to Biarritz
, a vacation town on the lower Atlantic coast of France, where all the wealthy holiday. We stayed at the ''Hotel du Palais
'' and it was breathtaking to say the least. I have been to some of the best hotels in Paris and France for shoots, but this one made me feel really special-- almost like a movie star whilst lounging at the poolside overlooking the sea. The rooms, the decor, the pool and grounds were truly majestic. Even though I had to share a room with the photographer's assistant, I still felt special! The hotel was built in 1860- so you can imagine the history it holds...
Another place we would often go for shoots was the north coast of France to Deauville
, where the light was incredibly soft, long and magical. We dined at local seafood restaurants and drank tons of wine. During one of my last work trips there a huge windstorm descended upon us. The models were wearing trench coats so it added to the ambiance immenesly (and the photographer was shooting really grainy film). I would love to go to these two places to make fashion photographs. It is on my "list" for sure.
Images by Billy Winters415.407.9075