We sat down with Fuigo member Michael Adams of Adams ID. Read on to learn more about his love of research and the macabre, how he once hired a crane for a high-rise installation, and what it truly means to not have any ego in your work.
Fuigo: How did you start out in interior design?
Michael: Originally I wanted to be a watercolorist, and my parents simply told me that’s not going to happen. When I told my grandmother my intentions, she suggested that I go to design school instead. She took me on as “her hobby” and said I was her “greatest investment.” When I would come home from New York she would tell everyone I was her New York Decorator, at 18 she made it possible for me to move to NYC to attend FIT.
Crosby Street Living Room, photographed by Marco Ricca.
Fuigo: Where does your passion for design come from?
Michael: I never could kick a ball—I was the kid who was chasing butterflies or picking flowers on the soccer field, missing every ball that went by. So my family said “fine, we’ll send you to art classes instead.” They really allowed me to pursue my passion for creativity. It’s even more notable because where I grew up, interior design didn’t exist. You inherited your furniture. The way my childhood home looks now is the way it looked 50 years ago. I was the 4th generation to grow up in my childhood house outside of Amherst, Massachusetts. I’m 9th generation in my hometown… what I’m saying is, growing up, the furniture you have is the furniture you have, there is no decoration. I’m really grateful that my family supported me so much in creative pursuits.
Fuigo: What are your biggest influences?
Michael: I always grew up going to local art shows, meaning I knew a lot of local artists. My grandparents collected this one particular artist, James Franklin Gilman, who would travel from farm to farm or estate to estate, trading a beautiful charcoal, oil, or pencil drawing of someone's home for a place to sleep in their barn and a hot meal. I was always interested in this type of transient artist, creatives who have no name or no face. Gillman had no family and lived in barns, but he left an imprint in Americana with his catalog of paintings. That made me interested in the things and people that are forgotten and or those who flew under the radar, it sparked my passion for discovery and research.
I try not to ever repeat anything. I treat every project and every client as a quest for new information, which probably makes my process a little longer than most. The discovery phase is the most important phase because when I’m designing, I don’t think about how I am going to be visually represented or represented in the overall design, but how my clients see themselves within their space. My goal is that it is the best tangible expression of who they are and what they want to be. So I pay a lot of attention to the research and discovery of the best solution and aesthetic for my client.
Spring Street Girl's Room, photographed by Nicholas Calcott.
Fuigo: What was your first ever design project?
Michael: My father is an organic cattle farmer with his own butcher shop. He wholesale processes free range organic beef. One Halloween, my father and I pieced together all the bones of random farm animals and created this terrifying monster that we placed on our porch. A few days later, someone wrote a letter to the editor in our local paper saying how terrifying it was! It was so much fun piecing this bizarre thing together. I like things that are dark. I draw inspiration from the shadows and other places that people don’t look.
Fuigo: What are you working on in your own home?
Michael: I bought a 1799 Federal-style colonial house in Massachusetts, and I’m completely renovating it. I’m piecing together a kitchen out of multiple pieces of furniture—all these funny pieces of empire and weird cabinets and bizarre things pieced together. Although it will look very finished, I also want it to look like a cluster of random stuff. I’m taking these old discarded pieces, tops of hutches, and bottoms of things, and drawer faces that nobody wants, all pieces where there’s no market, and making something functional out of it.
Fuigo: What’s the best piece you ever found through “the search?”
Michael: At Skinner’s Auction House in Marlborough, Massachusetts, I found this geometric square print, and for $45 I bought a real Josef Albers lithograph! It was signed, a total gem. I love to scour the internet and these little country auctions, that’s part of my search.
Upper East Side Penthouse Kitchen, photographed by Ben Fink Shapiro.
Fuigo: If you had no limits, what would you want to create?
Michael: All good design starts out with a problem. If there were no problem, then there’s nothing to answer with design. It’s hard to say that I would decorate Versailles when Versailles doesn’t need to be redecorated. Someone has to have a need for me to have a want.
Fuigo: Who is your dream client?
Michael: My ideal client is somebody who sees value in living, not just in stuff but in the art of living itself. Life is so short and so amazing and complex, why not look good doing it?
Soho Loft Master Bedroom, photographed by Nicholas Calcott.
Fuigo: What’s more important, form or function?
Michael: Function is more important, because then you have a happier client in the end. It’s really just that simple.
Fuigo: What was your most chaotic project or installation?
Michael: I had a client who hired me on April 1 and said that Vogue wanted to come in and shoot on June 4th, giving me 2 months to renovate 3,300 square feet. I um… did it. Everyone I brought in said it couldn’t be done, especially given some of the massive pieces she wanted. We had a Josef Albers painting, 9’6” wide by 18’ long, which could not be unstretched because it was falling apart. I hired a crane and hoisted it over a balcony railing into this gigantic living room. It was the most unbelievably stressful moment of my life. It was crazy. Bananas.
The crane that took part in Michael's most chaotic installation to date, photos courtesy of Michael Adams .
Fuigo: What’s the most interesting constraint you’ve faced?
Michael: I’m currently working on a space for someone with Parkinson’s disease, and I have to consider lots of new things. People with Parkinson’s have trouble transitioning through doorways—most Parkinson’s injuries happen when people fall into doorframes. Their brain gets disoriented with the transition in flooring. Well, you need flooring, and you need doorframes, but you can also take into account the client's constraints to make your work both beautiful and functional for their specific needs.
Fuigo: What is your favorite niche vendor?
Michael: My woodworker, Ben Erickson. He is a master of wood. He can make anything. In my view, execution is everything. Ben can basically go into my brain and create anything I want. He’s incredible.
I also love the people that make my window treatments, Window Tech. They are two Israelis in their 60s who were civil engineers in the army. They make the most beautiful draperies because they apply a different thought process than everyone else. They self-machine and tool their own hardware, which makes everything function better.
Soho Loft Media Room, photographed by Nicholas Calcott.
Fuigo: What is your favorite tip to give clients an extra burst of unexpected delight?
Michael: I tend to purchase only materials that can also be used outdoors or in hospitality spaces. So when someone spills a glass of red wine, and the client texts me immediately in a panic, I have the luxury to say not to worry about it, your white carpet is completely hospitality grade, everything will come right out. I have a “shit, puke, and piss” rule. If you can’t do any of those on it, we probably don’t bring it in.
Fuigo: What is your favorite charity design event?
Michael: I participated in the Ronald McDonald House of Long Island. We redesigned rooms for the families of children who are being treated at the Cohen Children's Medical Center nearby. What makes this different from most charities, especially those related to interior design, is that the rooms are permanent. One of my issues with most charity design events is that they’re not green, so much goes to waste. With the Ronald McDonald House, I go there and update my room with books and toys every 6 months. Remember—these rooms are not for the kids, they’re for the parents. And how terrible would it be to find yourself in that situation!
Ronald McDonald House of Long Island.
Fuigo: Do you have a retail line?
Michael: No, but I’m looking into a few things. Maybe I’ll do an Adams ID squatty potty?
Fuigo: What are some of the unspoken rules you follow for every project?
Michael: My husband is in marketing, and one of the firms he worked at has a philosophy that every project must have 2 of 3 things: Good work, meaning you enjoy the work and will be proud to show it off; A good client, meaning you enjoy working with them, they will refer you, and the relationship will expand; or Good money. Each potential project be at least 90% in 2 of those 3 things. If you solely chase projects that are good money and ignore the work and the client, you will always lose money.
Fuigo: What’s your advice to designers just starting out?
Michael: Work for other people and lose your ego. Realize you have to do the grunt work. I always worked for small firms, so out of the gate from college I was not only meeting with the client, but also returning the samples, buying the printer ink, picking up lunch, emptying out the trash cans, you name it. If you are not willing to pick up a broom on a project site, you shouldn't be in this business.
Even when you’ve “made it,” you can’t have an ego. We are maids that get to go through the front door. When the sofa is late, we’re back to using the service entrance. Anyone who thinks that they are truly friends with their clients, try not delivering that sofa for Memorial Day weekend and you’ll see what kind of friends you are.
Fuigo: What’s your advice to designers who are starting their own businesses?
Michael: Get good accounting software, like Fuigo. Which is not just a plug! If you’re not billing properly and not keeping track of money, then you might as well not be working.