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This Dallas Interior Designer Creates Modern Marvels — and Now, a New Book

How Emily Summers Changed the City, Opening Up a World of Possibilities

BY // 02.19.19
photography Nikolas Koenig

Interior designer Emily Summers’ conversion to modernism started in her teens. It was the 1960s in Kansas City, Missouri, where she lived in a modest Tudor tastefully decorated by her mother, a museum volunteer with a discerning eye.

“I grew up in a toile-and-porcelain environment,” Summers says.

But when a Knoll catalog with its bright-orange cover made its way into the household, a vibrant new world opened up.

“It featured the gorgeous Mies van der Rohe Barcelona pieces, set in a terraced apartment in Paris with high windows and molding,” Summers says. “I loved the clean look, and I realized you could make something fresh by adding contemporary furniture to a traditional environment. It transformed my whole way of thinking.”

Summers moved to Dallas in the mid-1960s to study art history at Southern Methodist University. Later, while doing post-graduate work, she became a full-time assistant in the fashion offices at Neiman Marcus, where she was mentored by Stanley Marcus. She married college sweetheart Steve Summers and spent a decade rearing a family. (Her son, Stephen Summers, and his wife, Elisa Summers, co-own Highland Park Village with Ray and Heather Washburne.)

In her spare time, Summers took interior design courses in London and design classes at Harvard University’s summer school program. “But there is nothing like the practicality of learning on the job,” she says.

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Summers opened her design firm in 1979. Contemporary high-rises and houses were going up in Dallas, but the city remained a bastion of traditional design.

“There was really no one else doing modern interiors here when I started,” she says. “The appreciation of contemporary architecture and design was slow in coming.”

Her first job was for the husband of a good friend, who hired her to do the interiors of his law offices. The client loved the Knoll-influenced environment she created for him — but not everyone understood it. When a sleek flannel-covered sofa was delivered to the office, his secretary wondered if Summers had forgotten to upholster it.

A seating area in Emily Summers’ home near Palm Springs with Qing dynasty screen and horseshoe-back chair attributed to James Mont. (Photo by Nikolas Koenig)
A seating area in Emily Summers’ home near Palm Springs with Qing dynasty screen and horseshoe-back chair attributed to James Mont. (Photo by Nikolas Koenig)

Summers traveled to Paris and New York on buying trips. “I discovered a whole school of design from the ’30s and ’40s that revolved around Jean-Michel Frank,” she says. “You could buy original furniture from that era, so I started putting together collections for clients.”

Today, she is one of the most sought-after interior designers in the country, known for incorporating important 20th-century furnishings with museum-worthy modern art.

Her high-profile clients have included Sally Rosen, Lupe Murchison, and Ross and Sarah Perot Jr. For Deedie Rose and her late husband, Rusty Rose, Summers collaborated with architect Antoine Predock; the four-year project, completed in 2007, was published in The New York Times and received numerous national awards. It established Summers as a preeminent designer and landed her on Architectural Digest’s AD100 list — a distinction she’s held every year since.

She is currently working on the interiors for Hall Arts Residences, slated to open in late 2019, along with residential projects in Hawaii and Bermuda.

Emily Summers’ Big Book — and More

This month, a new chapter opened: Her first book, Emily Summers: Distinctly Modern Interiors (Rizzoli, $50), debuted Tuesday, February 12.

“It was so long in coming — more than 35 years,” Summers says. Included is her work on some of Dallas’ most striking modernist residences, including the Predock–designed house on Turtle Creek and a 1957 masterpiece by Edward Durell Stone on Park Lane, the original interiors of which were designed by T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings. Summers’ own homes in Dallas, Palm Springs, and Colorado Springs are prominently featured, along with Stephen and Elisa Summers’ Spanish Colonial–inspired house, on which she collaborated with Santa Barbara architect Marc Appleton.

Summers will sign copies of her new tome at Interabang Books on Saturday, March 2, at 2 pm.

A few things you may not know about Emily Summers — from her obsession with index cards to carting back lighting from Morocco.

Card stock.

I started going to Paris early in my career. It was before digital cameras or iPhones, so I took my Kodak around and took pictures of all the things I’d seen. I printed two copies of everything I found, then I’d staple an index card on the back and write everything down about it.

I organized it all in boxes — it took hours. I learned in grad school to always go to the original source material for any project, and I used that inventory for years. One of my earliest clients was Sally Rosen. I got the job because of all the shoe-boxes full of photos I’d taken, shop by shop.

Those shoe-boxes have since evolved into 300 white vinyl notebooks.

Pages that inspire.

Star Pieces: The Enduring Beauty of Spectacular Furniture by David Linley introduced me to a lot of the really contemporary designers of the ’30s and ’40s, who changed the way we thought about furniture. I also read monographs by designers Paul Dupré-Lafon and Gio Ponti, who designed timeless furnishings that glide right into any environment.

Someone to believe in.

Antoine Predock opened up a lot of doors for me. He said, ‘I have to do all these bathrooms, but if I do them, they’ll just all be black granite. Why don’t you take over all the baths and have some fun?’

The best architects are collaborative. Working with him was an endorsement that brought validation to my work.

Perfectly imperfect.

One of the inherent dangers in decorating is the too-perfect room — the space that’s been so over-managed that it doesn’t come to life. I always throw in a really sculptural piece of furniture, like an Edward Wormley tall-back chair. It’s important to have things that are interesting to look at as well as being functional.

All in the family.

Elisa and Stephen Summers [my son and daughter-in-law] love the Spanish architecture of Highland Park Village, so when they were building their house, they asked me to do an architectural search. Marc Appleton in Santa Barbara and I had become pals from the AD100 list, and he had written several books on California Mission architecture, including that of George Washington Smith.

We toured houses with him, and then Elisa and I went to Morocco together to look for tiles. It was so much fun in the souks, looking for carpets in the basements. We came back with 16 different kinds of lighting that we based designs on.

The eye must travel.

I’d love to go back to Japan — it’s been 10 years. I also want to go back to Helsinki with its incredible contemporary architecture and Scandinavian design. I just recently was in Germany.

Every year, we make some sort of pilgrimage to a place we’ve never been before: Falling Water, a Palladian villa, early-5th-century ruins, or the Mackintosh in Glasgow. Palm Springs is the Williamsburg of mid-century design; Modernism Week is coming up, and I’ll be there signing my book and doing a window.

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