Leslie Williamson — Still Lives

On the soulful interiors of artist spaces

11.19.2021

We sat down to chat with Leslie Williamson whose books: Interior Portraits, Modern Originals, and Handcrafted Modern are a constant source of inspiration for our studio. Her new book “Still Lives: In the Homes of Artists, Great and Unsung” (Rizzoli) documents artist homes that have been exceptionally preserved. The book captures scenes from the homes of some of the greats, including Barbara Hepworth, Józef Peeters, Henry Varnum Poor, Giorgio Morandi, Vanessa Bell, Derek Jarman, David Parr, Andrew Wyeth, Georgia O’Keeffe, Isamu Noguchi, N.C. Wyeth, David Ireland, and Joan Miró, whose spaces also became extensions of their work. During our chat, we discussed the idea of how interior design can be self-care, and pondered about how maybe the spaces that we make for ourselves might also preserve a small part of us.

Well thank you so much for taking the time to meet with us.

Thanks for helping me share about Still Lives.

We are excited about it. We have all three copies of your other books in our office.

Are they all beat up?

I have them right here. Yeah there are a lot of post-its in them.

I love that. Always nice to hear that my books are well loved.

Where are you based right now?

At the moment I bounce between a little bungalow in Monterey and the San Francisco Bay Area when I am not traveling for work.

What kind of home did you grow up in and when you were first exposed to design?

Oh wow, I grew up in a tract house in the suburbs of east side San Jose, not anything to speak of I would say. And my parents have pretty good taste, I realize now. I didn’t realize it then, though. So all the stuff I grew up with was Danish modern which is where my parents’ taste ran, although not Hans Wegner level but, you know, knock offs of Hans Wegner from Czechoslovakia. We remodeled the house in 1976. So I was 6, I was little. It’s very 70’s looking and I still love it. Our bathroom has redwood lined walls with cobalt tiles and it still looks amazing. I’ve been appreciating my dad’s house recently and all the things that are there from 1976. For instance, my parents chose swimming pool tiles for their address numbers, which I still think is clever. Anyhow, my taste started with my parents and their taste and it grew from there.

What kind of work did they do?

My mom was a teacher and my dad was a social worker. But I was artsy from the beginning. I played the flute in middle school, and I danced and did graphic design in high school. Then I went to art college and did a foundation year, planning to go into fashion design but I quickly realized that I didn’t like to draw or sew — not ideal. So I changed my major to photography even though I hadn’t done any photography really....I thought I would go into fashion photography, but photographing people kinda stuck. And then ten years into my photography career, I started shooting interiors. That’s the Cliff Notes version.

Your early experience as a photographer, what kind of work did you do?

Lots of portraits. That's what I did the most. I was a people photographer. My first job ever was for RayGun Magazine, which at the time was a big deal. I did a lot of music industry stuff, like portraits or album covers and lots of editorial portraiture. I did a lot of book covers as well. But even now that I’m known for shooting interiors I still see my images as portraits — portraits of people through their rooms. I call them Interior Portraits.

How do you see the difference between an interior and an interior portrait?

WeII, I think it’s just the way I look at rooms. I think the difference between an interior and an interior portrait is not only thinking about the design of a room but also thinking about the why of everything in it and also looking at the objects as not just objects but as totems of people's lives and choices they have made. Rooms that have been lived in for a long time are a tableaux of our lives in so many ways.

The objects make up the personality.

It all makes up the personality. Design and objects. It’s in the mix. I think one’s home can be the most supreme way to care for yourself.

I think that is so important right now because of the last year and a half. I think that a lot of people weren’t conscious of that.

It is definitely ripe subject matter after the past two years. We are all more emotionally invested in our homes. I think it can only be a good thing.

I think that even for me personally it’s wanting to create a safe and nurturing environment for myself. But it takes time though.

It does take time. And it takes an ability to listen to yourself and what you need. Whether it’s the color of your walls or paintings that you hang on them to inspire you. It takes thought and self knowledge.

Maybe that is why your photographs and work are so appealing because it’s not something that most people can access. Most people don’t live like the people in your books.

I guess that might be true, although I believe we all have the capacity to create a home that nurtures our deepest self. The homes and people in my books are prime examples of creative homes, there is no debating that. But I have a fantasy of finding somebody that doesn’t have a creative job, like they sell manure or something, and their house is an inspiring and unique expression of themselves — an aesthetic revelation. It’s my dream to unearth these places. They must exist.

I’m sure they do! Along that topic, how did you go about finding artists to include in this new project?

Most of my books begin with a mental list I have been compiling for years of places I just want to visit. Not necessarily for a book, just for myself. Still Lives was no different. I knew what over half the chapters would be and then the rest emerged while I was shooting. I continue scouting as I travel and am photographing the homes. Much of the time people learn about my project and make suggestions. That’s one of the most fun parts — unearthing the lesser known artists or the houses that haven’t been seen in years, or ever.

Did the project change along the way? Were there any insights at the end?

My books generally evolve from where I start but Still Lives actually stayed pretty true to my original plans. I knew when I began that I wanted this book to be a bit of a trojan horse in that it has a main focus, which is always the spaces and artists themselves, but then I wanted to weave a subtopic into each chapter. Still Lives is filled with inspiring and unique artists' homes and studios. All the spaces I chose have been preserved, so the artists are no longer with us but they live on through their work and their homes in these cases. Throughout my years of making my books I have learned so much about the challenges and perils these delicate places face. Preserving an artist's home, or any home or space, is not an easy task, even if it is someone like Georgia O’Keeffe, who is very well known and revered. And for the smaller, more obscure artists...well it’s a challenge and a labor of love. I wanted to share those stories along with the stories of these artist’s lives and work. So the book has a sub topic you could say. As for insights, I haven’t gotten to that point yet, but my love of preserved spaces and the people who maintain and nurture them has deepened if that is even possible. These places are treasures.

So when you’re gathering content for these books when you go to the houses do you have the intention of shooting them then?

When the houses are a long distance away, like Japan or Mallorca, I go with the express purpose of photographing and the scouting I do is more virtual for budgetary reasons. But I always find a trusted friend who has visited the space before and pick their brain a bit. I have some very trusted advisors that know what I am looking for and are spot on when they recommend a space. Ideally, I scout a space first just by going on the basic tour if it is open to the public. Physically experiencing the spaces beforehand is really important for me. I am looking for more than beautiful rooms. I am looking for something beyond the physical realm. I need to sense the artist’s soul stirring still within its walls. You know the feeling, when you walk into a room and get goosebumps or a chill down your spine?. That is what I am always searching for. I call them soul spaces. All the homes and studios in Still Lives are soul spaces..

Is there a time of day that you prefer to shoot?

Generally early am and late in the day are nicest in terms of light, but every space is different. I just move with the light throughout the house.

I’m sure it just depends on the architecture and how it's oriented with the sun.

That’s true. And don’t forget the weather. Usually I have two days to shoot and whatever the weather is on the days I’m there is what I have to work with. No matter what it is, I take it as ‘this is what is meant to be’. But I will admit, a couple times it was spitting down rain and dark, which makes for a long day with long exposures. But it was fine. Sometimes the harder it is, the more beautiful images you can get. They might take longer but it is a bit sweeter as well.

Do you kinda remember when you first started going on house tours and when you first started experiencing design and architecture in that way?

I’ve probably been doing it my whole life. I didn’t consciously start, it’s more like I never stopped. My family was the type that went on vacations to national parks and California Missions. So I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t visiting house museums and historic sites. I have definitely taken it further than most. It is both my work and my pleasure. I definitely got more focused when I began making Handcrafted modern. Saying I was doing a book became a vehicle to visit all the places I dreamed of going and being able to spend days exploring those places. I am completely hooked. I couldn’t stop now if I tried.

In the book you really see how some of the artists’ work extends into the interior.. I love seeing how Vanessa Bell painted her home, and how Jozef Peeters color blocked his apartment. I think the book really illustrates how fluid art and life can be.

Yes! Isn’t it beautiful? Those are two really beautiful examples of course, and rather all encompassing since they cover every part of these artist's homes. It can be quieter too, more manageable for today's busy life. Maybe it is a small corner of a favorite room that becomes a creative altar to self expression. Maybe it is a simple unassuming room but you wallpaper the closet in a crazy design you absolutely love. There are so many ways we can all create for ourselves in our living spaces. I hope Still Lives inspires people to honor themselves in that way.

How big of a part is research in your work?

I think my approach to research is rather unusual. I don’t like doing too much research before I shoot a space. A lot of the time I am already a fan of the person or artist in the case of Still Lives so I know a fair amount about the person and their work. But when I am heading to photograph a space, I purposely do not do too much research. I like to leave a lot of space for discovery in the shooting process. I like to discover people through their home. After I shoot, during the writing process... that's when I fall down the rabbithole in terms of research.

Any plans for your next project? I'm excited to see what that will be..

I am actually about to launch an online accompaniment to my book, called the Still Lives Portal. It will feature ‘the Lost Chapter’ that I had to cut from Still Lives, outtakes, new content and stories, images from my archives. Essentially all the things I love and shoot on my own. I want to share my work closer to real time and have a more direct relationship with people who enjoy what I do. For me, my work is not completed until it is shared. My books take 5 and 6 years to make. It is hard to sit on so much good stuff for that long! That and I have a few different projects percolating in my brain and I’m not ready to concentrate on just one. I plan to work on them all as they call me and I’ll share them on the Still Lives Portal as I shoot. I am also launching a shop for limited edition prints. So if you have a favorite page from one of my books that you have dreamed of hanging on your wall, it is now possible. So lots of good stuff coming...Still Lives is just the beginning.

Barbara Hepworth
Henry Varnum Poor
N.C. Wyeth
David Parr
Isamu Noguchi
David Ireland
Vanessa Bell