The Gourmet Guru
Valerie Gurdal ’85 has been enlightening palates for decades at her shop Formaggio Kitchen.
Four BC-educated interior designers are changing the look and feel of Boston.
Boston College doesn’t offer a design degree. Still, there must be something stylish about the Heights: Four of Boston’s leading interior designers—Lisa Tharp ’84, Cecilia Walker ’90, Katie Rosenfeld ’90, and Dee Elms ’95—graduated from BC.
Interior designers source everything from flooring to window treatments and collaborate with architects and tradespeople to conceive and create spaces that are tailored to a client’s needs. While all four of these women made it to the top of the field, they each followed a path that was as individual as their aesthetics. “Going to college for design was not something I ever considered, even after getting into this business,” said Rosenfeld, who studied philosophy at BC and now owns Katie Rosenfeld and Company. “You can’t be taught how to have a vision for something that’s functional and beautiful.”
These self-taught business owners create spaces that are shaping the future of New England design, from ultramodern offices to Back Bay row houses. Home exteriors around Boston tend to be timeless, as flashy as old L.L. Bean barn coats, but beyond the stately front doors, these residences can be blank canvases for designers to adorn with modern fixtures, textiles, art, and furniture. Looks are important, of course, but the role requires envisioning functional spaces that will help clients work, entertain, and relax. “I am solving problems and making peoples’ lives better,” said Elms, an English major at BC who went on to found Elms Interior Design. (Originally from Canton, Massachusetts, she grew up visiting the Boston College campus, where her grandfather worked in the mailroom.)
For Tharp, a former documentary-film producer who founded Lisa Tharp Design, addressing a client’s need recently required some extra creativity. A homeowner desired a mirrored room for reading and meditation in her basement that could be accessed via a secret passageway. To make the request a reality, Tharp teamed up with contractors and relied on the same considerations she always does when reimagining a space: “One is the people who will live there,” she said. “Two is the architecture, and three is the sense of place.”
Meanwhile, Walker, an art history major at BC, just created a commercial workspace that incorporated a living plant wall and an abundance of natural light. “After a COVID-19 year, luxury no longer means expensive furniture and housing,” said Walker, who is professionally accredited to design spaces with a focus on human health and wellness. “Going forward, it’s going to be more about the freedom of choices. It’s going to be about experiences.” She runs her own firm, Cecilia Walker Design, and is now also the head of operations at EQPT, a New York–based startup that develops hotel-style residences and flexible offices.
Here in Boston, there has never been a more exciting time to be doing this type of work. For years, interior design in the city was dominated by men with traditional, predictable taste and showrooms cluttered with Persian rugs, silver tea sets, and Queen Anne chairs. While still important to Boston’s identity, this kind of classic design is becoming increasingly passé. In the past decade, the sleek condominiums and lofts that have gone up in the Seaport and Fenway neighborhoods have transformed the skyline and the local design ecosystem. “The traditional New England aesthetic has really expanded because of this more modern style of building,” Tharp said.
In other words, opportunities now abound for diverse talent to influence the new look and feel of the city. There’s room for Rosenfeld to mix antiques with English-inspired cabinetry in her cheerful renovations and for Elms to imbue her residential projects with a clean, contemporary point of view. “The Boston design community is special because everyone is so passionate,” Elms said. “We’ve all got a deep love for what we do in this city.”
Danna Lorch writes for Architectural Digest, the New York Times, Fast Company, and the Washington Post.