Heidi Bonesteel and Michele Trout of the Los Angeles design firm Bonesteel Trout Hall on home bars, powder rooms, reimagined exteriors and the pitfalls of downlighting.
I was looking at a project you guys completed in Los Angeles last year, and was struck by how skilled you guys are at using different design elements to define the vibe and intention of individual rooms while also connecting the entire space together, too. What’s the secret?
The owners are really close friends of ours. It’s their main residence. Their kids are all grown and they wanted a totally different look in their house. Urban Electric was actually a huge part of unifying the aesthetic, which was really punchy and fun. The quality of the lights and the finishes fit really well there.
Beyond that, Michele and I always go on a shopping trip or take an inspiration day at the start of a new project. We do come up with a jumping off point, whether it's one image that we saw or a store that has all this new merchandise that we love...We work on this step for at least a month in our studio before we ever pull it together in a presentation form. No matter what size the house is, it starts with a little microcosm and then we build from there. Everything has a common thread running through it because we start at such a tiny level.
Do you guys have a favorite room in a house to design?
We love to design bars. They're different from any other room in the house, and can be really special. And fun. People have fun in bars.
What kind of design elements do you prefer in bars?
We always try to do different types of shelving, whether it’s from a company from Brooklyn, let’s say, or something we designed. We always make the shelves really special. Hardware, too. It’s not necessarily about the brand, even—it can just be a finish or shape or something like that. We like to use big, brass door hardware as cabinet hardware on a bar, or incredible unlacquered brass that even gets a little dirty.
What about mirroring? Do you guys do a lot of reflections?
Sometimes. If we don't put a reflection on the back of the bar, then we do a lot of the glasses with a lot of reflection.
What are your home bars like?
I [Heidi] have actually been working on making a new one. No one was going in our living room ever, so we decided that the only way we were going to get anybody in there was to have a bar and a TV.
I [Michele] had an experience not long ago that really brought home the value of the bar in a new way for me. I was at a wine tasting. It was 10 o'clock in the morning, which just felt so hedonistic and decadent, and I kind of latched onto this woman there who turned out to be the winemaker. As we were talking, she made a comment that wine is just a connector to people and that really resonated with me. Because it's so true. Even if you're not going to have a lot to drink (or any at all), there’s something about gathering around a common spot, starting a bottle or sharing a glass or just capturing the spirit by proxy and proximity, that makes people open up to each other. And that's why people gravitate to a bar.
What kind of lighting do you use in a bar?
We're not huge on the upper cabinet lighting. We lean toward more ambient lighting instead. Sconces, or anything hanging—we do all sorts of decorative lighting. Some of them are really small—not a lot of huge home bars among our clients. There is a little bit of a trend here to do a basement. But, again, everyone just wants more space, and in that respect it gets a little hiccupy down there. If you put a bar in your basement and you put your kids' games down there...well, teenagers... Yeah, our favorite kind of bar is just a little small guy.
What are some of the other spaces that you guys get excited about?
I would say powder rooms. We had this one project where the powder room drove the whole aesthetic because we selected this beautiful Hermes wallcovering. It had this mustard, curry-ish color in it and black, and that actually became the jumping off point for most of the house. Definitely for the whole downstairs.
Beyond the bar, are there any signatures you always use?
I always say that the one hallmark of our work is great texture. Really great wallcovering. Really beautiful lighting. The lighting is extremely important to us so we like to use a lot of it, and we like to be repetitive with it. I would rather fill a space with light fixtures rather than downlighting. I hate downlighting. We also do these incredible plants, big installations for us. All of those elements work really well together and kind of finish off our work.
The architectural elements are there, but we make sure that there's a lived-in, kind of earthy, quality to our work, like we've touched every element of a house. A lot of times people install homes, and maybe they don't do the finishing touch, but everything's beautiful. If you don’t go the distance, to the nth degree, it’s never quite the same.
Is there any space in the house that you just hate?
I've got to be honest here, and I don't hate it—that would be too strong—but the main bedroom is a huge challenge. It's so personal for people. And they're always so big—people, you don't really need a lot of furniture in your bedroom! Nobody wants a desk in there! And who's ever going to sit in a chair in their bedroom? Maybe it's going to be one of those things that changes like a living room finally changed. People are almost ready not to have them anymore.
What are some of the things that you see crossing over and reaching a tipping point?
Let's see...the really traditional floor plan has changed, for sure. We don't see people having living rooms separate from a family room as much. Everyone wants to be together, for the most part.
And people don't have books that much anymore. It kind of breaks your heart, but nobody does.
If you could design one room, a room that you love with a purpose and all the things in it that suit you guys, what would it be?
I would love to do a conservatory. Someone we know had one at his house here in L.A. He doesn't own that house anymore, but he had one and he was the only person I'd ever seen in L.A. that had one. He's coasting.
What about other exterior spaces? Do you use them as rooms?
The exterior for us is as important as the interior. We tell people right up front that your exterior is going to cost as much as your living room, because people use their exterior here for everything, year-round or close to it. It’s not an afterthought for us at all. We buy beautiful furniture, outdoor rugs, plants, lanterns, blankets, custom pillows, everything.
Do you guys ever use exterior lighting inside?
Oh yeah. We used really pretty exterior lanterns in the family room of a recent project. We needed something that had that patina, a cool funkiness that wasn't as refined as anything we could find specifically for interiors. It was kind of unexpected, but it worked perfectly. Great scale, lots of black, loads of reflection.
What are we missing?
I think I mentioned this, but I do think it's important. The repetition of light fixtures is a really powerful tool—a grouping of five of them all close together, or lining a hallway, for instance, is very impactful and looks very rich. I'm always happy when my clients approve lighting budgets with many many lights in it.
Do you have a favorite Urban fixture? Or certain styles or product families that you gravitate toward?
The one we use all the time in all conditions is the Malplaquet. Sometimes it's hanging, we always change the finish...that's probably our go-to.
It looks different every time, which is strange because it's so recognizable. But we’re always struck by how fresh and new it becomes.