World-class style

Childhood travels framed vision of Baltimore interior designer Patrick Sutton

  • Baltimore’s Patrick Sutton, at his retail outlet, Patrick Sutton Home in Harbor East, says his family’s European travels left him with a visual encyclopedia of design ideas.
Baltimore’s Patrick Sutton, at his retail outlet, Patrick… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
September 18, 2010|By Susan Reimer, The Baltimore Sun

Like the children's book character Eloise, who grew up in New York City's Plaza Hotel, Patrick Sutton had a rarefied childhood.

The son of noted New York travel writer Horace Sutton and his fashion model wife, the Baltimore interior designer spent his formative years in Europe's most glamorous cities and in its sumptuous hotels.

"We were traveling all over the world and all of the cities were wining and dining him," said Sutton during an interview in his Federal Hill offices. "Imagine. I am a 9-year-old boy and I have my own suite in Paris."

But 9-year-old boys get bored quickly, and young Patrick would always ask for permission to "go exploring." These were relatively more innocent times, and the answer was always a casual "yes." Off he would go, through alleys and city streets, plazas, piazzas and gardens.

"I was taking in all this visual information," said Sutton. "When you are that young, you don't even have to try to remember things. It is just there.

"All these years later, I have this immense visual library of interior design and architecture at my fingertips."

Sutton, 47, brought this world view to Baltimore and RTKL after studying architecture at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, eventually opening his own firm in 1986. But he waited a long time for the city to catch up to him, and most of his clients lived out of town, or were displaced New Yorkers or Angelenos living in Baltimore.

All that changed when Tony Foreman asked him to design Pazo, the Harbor East tapas restaurant and wine bar.

"Baltimore has always been a conservative town," said Sutton, who chose to leave New York, which had been his father's fiefdom, and live here because of the city's character, history and its amiability. "One that doesn't feel comfortable spending, compared to New York, Los Angeles or Paris.

"It took Baltimore a while to warm up to the fact that you can have world-class design here."

Foreman and Cindy Wolf, the chef behind Charleston, understood Baltimore's blue-collar roots, but they also believed that the city "deserved" the cosmopolitan vision and sophisticated feel of cities like New York — that you don't have to get on a train or a plane to have an extraordinary dining experience. They found their match in Sutton, who has since designed Cinghiale for them and redesigned Charleston.

But 90 percent of Sutton's clients are homeowners, and he had been disappointed that Baltimoreans liked it when interior designers repeated their work from residence to residence, as if the clients were buying a dress off the rack.

"Baltimore is just starting to realize, with Harbor East and the like, that you can have great design here without doing what everyone else is doing." Sutton said. "I want to live an interesting life, and I want to push the envelope."

The flip side of Sutton's expansive and eclectic world view is his calming, unassuming manner. He listens to his clients as they try to express themselves, and he never rushes their vision or hijacks it for one of his own.

"Patrick was a friend before we ever engaged him in a professional capacity," said Charles Nabit, managing partner of Baltimore's Westport Group, who met Sutton in a wine club. "Baltimore is a very small town," said Nabit.

After working with some old-line designers in Baltimore, he decided to hire Sutton, whose attention to lifestyle when designing a house appealed to the married father of two young children.

"Trust me, in a profession like interior design, the ones who are the best are the ones who are the best psychologists," said Nabit.

Sutton refurbished Nabit's home on the campus of Sewanee, The University of the South in Tennessee, Nabit's alma mater. His team spent a week in the house before Nabit and his family arrived, placing every book and piece of art, making sure, as Nabit wanted, "that it felt like home when we walked in."

It is in major renovation projects like this that Sutton's training as an architect comes in handy.

"You can see his architectural training during the process. He has a great feel for space. And for lighting. Lighting is critical to the success of any project," said Nabit.

Sutton discovered his muse during a high school summer spent at Harvard in a career exploration program. He chose architecture, and "I was like a fish to water."

But after graduating from Carnegie Mellon and working as an architect for RTKL in Baltimore, Sutton found that instead of seeing a room's bones, he was seeing its furnishings.

"We would walk a site and say the dining room would go here," he said. "And I would see the dining room table and chairs and the art on the walls and the food on the table." Interior design was where he belonged.

Sutton has done three projects for Stuart Smith, managing director of Credit Suisse, and in each he was asked to interpret Smith's life. First there was a 3,000-square-foot penthouse in Harbor Court, which Sutton took down to bare walls.

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