By Tara Cavanaugh
Award-winning interior designer Jimmy Angell should be more than a little full of himself. He has a booming firm and clients clamoring for his services, which range from single-room makeovers to entire house overhauls, reconstruction included.
But the in-demand designer is anything but pretentious. One of the first things clients notice about Angell is his surprisingly down-to-earth demeanor.
When he starts working with a client, “I always go to their home and I see how they live,” Angell says. He looks at the whole house, to get a feel for style, space and needs. Then he zeroes in on one room, asking clients what patterns and colors they like.
“I’m pretty practical,” he says, “and I want everything to be obtainable. You can flip through a magazine, and it’s beautiful, but you don’t want to touch anything.
“My clients really live in their homes. They cook, they entertain, they party. They’re not real show-y. They like it to be nice, of course. But my clientele is pretty down-to-earth.
“I just must attract that kind of person,” Angell muses. “I don’t have the society client. I just don’t.”
Angell’s rooms exude an inviting sense of timeless style. They’re stylish but not trendy; they’re classy but not stuffy.
So what inspires Angell?
“I’m a huge fan of great textures and a neutral palette,” Angell says. “I just think it’s really easy to live in.”
Angell is also inspired by old European architecture. He spent some time in France this spring with his partner. “I feel like there’s so much history there, the streets are so interesting, the ironwork is so interesting,” he says. “I went around and I photographed all this window hardware, because it all had these little cast bronze faces in them.
“The hinging, the strap work, – all those little details are so cool to me, and we don’t see them here, in our everyday life.”
An eye for those little details comes naturally to Angell. When living in Chicago in the early 1990s, he did promotion and box office work for different theaters. But when he redecorated his flat, he received tons of compliments – and he started to feel a calling towards a career in interior design.
So Angell went back to school and finished a degree at Lawrence Technological University. He worked for design firm Perlmutter-Friewald until 2005, when he opened his own: James Douglas Interiors, named for his first two names.
His firm now operates entirely by referral. He doesn’t need to advertise; his clients happily do that for him.
‘He’s honestly in it to make people happy’
Jan Naz, who describes herself as a “happy housewife” in Port Huron, just could not figure out how to fix the living room she hated for 25 years – until she found Angell.
“He’s transformed it into something that’s unbelievable,” Naz says about her new living room.
Naz worked with other designers who were so focused on their own vision that they didn’t even ask her how the room was used or what colors she liked. Working with Angell was different. “He did it from my perspective,” Naz says, “and just showed me how to do it.”
The living room was originally dark and narrow, with fifties-esque knotty pine walls. Naz drowned herself in design shows and home magazines in hopeless attempts to fix it up herself. So what does it look like now?
Naz sighs with dreamy content: “Oh my goodness. It’s formal but not formal. It’s very welcoming, and you feel really comfortable in here. I just can’t say enough about it.”
Angell had the pine walls covered in drywall, added drapes to soften the huge windows, and recreated the fireplace in bronze-toned marble. He also guided Naz in selecting furniture and art.
Now Angell is helping Naz redo her kitchen and her family room. “I think I’ve learned a lot from him,” Naz says. “I’ve learned to step outside my own comfort zone. but I don’t think I’d do it without him. I don’t trust myself.”
But she trusts Angell: “Oh definitely. I’d let him do a room blindly. And that’s saying a lot, because I’m a control freak.
“I think it’s fulfilling for him,” Naz says.”It’s not just to say, I’m a great designer, I want to make it to the top. I think he’s honestly in it to make people happy.”
“It’s all what people are comfortable with,” Angell says. That’s why I ask those early questions. Listening is a huge part of this.”
After all, he adds, it’s not his space, it’s not his home – it’s the client’s home.
‘It’s a little bit chaotic’
For Angell, who excels at intuiting clients’ wants and needs, it’s anyone’s guess as to what’s up with the DIFFA installment he created this year.
DIFFA stands for Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS, and it teams up with AIDS organizations in cities across the country for an event called Dining by Design. Designers, architects and artists create installments the size of small rooms, complete with tables and chairs. National and local sponsors donate thousands of dollars to support the installments, which they eventually dine in at a fundraising gala. DIFFA has teamed up with Michigan AIDS Coalition for its second year of the event.
Angell, who is participating for the second time, finds his installment uncharacteristically confusing, even to him.
“The floor is white, the table is white, the walls are white, the upholstery is white, and I have this great lavender and black stripe that I’ve cut out a fabric and I’m just running this stripe all over the place,” he says.
“It’s got right angles, and it kind of symbolizes a journey. It’s on the walls, across the floor, over the upholstery, comes up over the table, it’s kind of maze-like. It’s a little bit chaotic. It’s just not… me.”
Maybe he’s embracing chaos in one of his few opportunities to be whimsical. Or maybe the chaos reminds him of his business right now. “We are really busy here,” Angell admits.
Angell can’t predict what exactly is in store for his design firm, other than to say “I’m having some growing pains, and I have some decisions to make.”
Until then, he says, he’ll keep doing the best work he can do. As if anyone had any doubt.
James Douglas Interiors LLC
2233 Cole Street
Birmingham, MI 48009
Oakland Press Best Interior Designer, 2008
2008 Detroit Home Award winner
Learn more: http://www.jamesdouglasinteriors.com