Sitting Down with Phil Norman

Iowa transplant Phil Norman came to Southern California in 1984 with his BFA in Interior Design but without a single contact. Spirited, talented and undaunted, he quickly gained entrée into several San Diego-area firms, ultimately launching his own office, Norman Design Group, in 2003. The Torrance-based designer and his team pride themselves on cultivating wonderful relationships with their clients, finding creative solutions, and on working in myriad styles but Norman, a family man, is quick to point out that his favorite room to design is the kitchen. “I love to design a kitchen that flows openly to a family room, as I know I can really influence people’s social experience in this space,” he explains. “Whether it's a family dinner at the nook table or cocktails with friends around the center island, I know it will be a great place to experience life.” We'd suggest that all of Phil's rooms, not just his gorgeous kitchens, are lovely places to be!

How would you describe your aesthetic? We have a classic design aesthetic that pays particularly attention to interior architectural details. Understanding the interior architecture of a home, along with its key interior decorating features, is a critical component to our approach. I don’t have a particular look because I really do enjoy being inspired by my clients. It seems that each client that partners with our firm speaks a new design language. I hold in high regards the quality of materials and working with great vendors. I believe the outcome should hold a reflection of the client but packaged in a way that pushes them out of their comfort zone. I don’t seem to use a lot of bold colors, but trend towards softer, soothing colors that have a calming effect. I think after all of our crazy days, we want to come home to a home that wraps itself around us in a calming way!

How did you get started in the business? I think there are two major life experiences that charted my course, the first one being my Mom taking me to estate sales on the weekends. I loved going through the treasures and looking at the art and furniture. My Mom would purchase antiques and refurbish them in our garage in Iowa and I was always drawn to the “before and after” transformation she gave to them. They would then end up in our home and I always appreciated the journey from the tired old piece to the newly refinished piece now artfully placed in our home. The second life experience was more of a push in the arts direction by a high school teacher. I had finished the recommended classes of physics and chemistry, and had time to take a few art and design classes that interested me. I found myself really liking the classes but always thought of them as fun work and not real work. How could anyone ever make a living in art and design? I thought it had to be in economics or business. I remember one time actually getting an A+ on a creative project and the teacher leaning down and telling me in my ear, “It’s OK to be really good at design. Physics and chemistry aren’t the only things that matter.” My teacher, Mr. Mel Myers, changed my path at that point, giving me permission to choose design and know that it would be OK. Thanks, Mel!

From where or what sources do you derive creative inspiration? Our clients bring us some extraordinary projects so it is hard not to be inspired by these journeys, by our clients. I work very hard to stay inspired and to keep my staff inspired. I read trade magazines, travel, visit unique buildings, look at my colleagues’ work, and just have a huge passion for design. I’ve been a designer for over twenty years but I still wake up every morning passionate about what our firm is working on and the possibilities that we can do better, not settle, and be more creative. I have a great creative staff and wonderful design library to motivate me each day. 

If you could reside on a Hollywood film set from any era, what would it be and why? I don’t seem to have a lot of free time between running our firm and being a dad to my three small kids but the other day I had a few hours to myself to just do some good old channel surfing. I stumbled on The Holiday directed by Nancy Myers and loved the mix of the two types of homes in the movie, one being a charming English cottage with such an artisan warmth and the other one being more of a modern home with an open and fresh feel. I also really like A River Runs Through It. I find one of my happiest moments is being in wide-open spaces surrounded by nature. I guess I’m just a “big sky” kind of guy.  

What takes a kitchen or bath from ordinary to extraordinary? Having a successful plan is a must, followed by superior finishes, great fixtures and researched appliances. I really like the idea of sitting down and just writing out exactly how you see yourself feeling when in the kitchen and the bathroom. Allow yourself to flow with the adjectives and target your design toward achieving these emotions. Proper lighting is crucial—don’t be afraid to splurge on just the right decorative lighting because it can make all the difference in the project. To invest in luxury is to invest in things that will give you happiness in years to come. Design is a not an overnight process, and when done right it can be consuming and sometimes complicated. The key is not to settle for just safe. Make it unique and a reflection of your lifestyle.