I first met Monelle Totah, the vice president of design for Williams-Sonoma Home at the new store opening party last October and was immediately interested in her job. The product development aspect sounded so interesting and quite frankly like a dream job that few know about or even realize is an option when they are going to college. I asked the powers that be at Williams-Sonoma Home if I could interview Monelle for the blog. Everything was on track until I suggested that photos of her home would make a great addition to the story and was told that a big fancy shelter magazine has just shot it and there was no way to post them until it was published. I am happy to report that Monelle’s beautiful home was just featured in the July issue of Elle Decor which means that I can finally present her to you! So with out further ado, please meet Monelle!
Monelle Totah grew up in Louisiana and has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Louisiana State University but it is her childhood that really influenced her future career in design at Williams-Sonoma Home. She says she read somewhere that “southerners are a tenacious lot, we take our homes seriously.” She can also remember the first time she met her mother’s decorator. “He came over with story boards and I was in complete fascination,” she says. Monelle also traveled a lot on family vacations where even at a young age she was purchasing, rummaging and collecting. “I love product!” she also states. “I am constantly shopping…yes for shoes and handbags as well!” She grew up wanting to be a merchant in the truest sense of word and loved to discover, design, develop beautiful things. “I suppose that is why I love what I do!”
Another interesting and influential aspect to her childhood was that both her parents were excellent cooks. Monelle’s father had a restaurant in Louisiana for 20 years. “I grew up in a family that the kitchen was the center of the world and the home was an extension of that. Even today in my home, I love to cook and entertain!”
Monelle Totah has been with Williams-Sonoma for over 19 years! It all began in 1986 when, alongside the company’s founder, Chuck Williams, she created the Chambers brand. Launched as a catalog in 1989, Chambers was the first brand in the U.S. to offer the finest in European linens and hotel quality towels. During her 9-year career with the brand, Monelle was responsible for product design, merchandising, and inventory management. Her history with Chambers led her to also create the Chambers Heritage bedding collection, now a Williams-Sonoma Home mainstay.
Prior to Williams-Sonoma Home, she was the director of furniture and lighting design at Pottery Barn where she helped grow the lighting and upholstery assortments into the core collections they are today. In addition, she was the senior director of design for Banana Republic Home where she was responsible for designing home textiles and bedding.
Monelle has since led the design team at Williams-Sonoma Home since the launch of the brand in 2004. Under her guidance, the Williams-Sonoma Home custom upholstery program has grown to offer more than 150 fabrics on more than 77 different frames. She has also led the creation of a fine art assortment that includes rare lithographs and limited-edition and signed art previously unavailable in a retail environment.
HC: Williams-Sonoma Home represents classic style. How do you reinterpret that each season to make it fresh and exciting for your customers?
MT: Based on our travels, where we have been or read, our inspiration changes for each season. Whether we are picking a fabric, a texture, a material, or sometimes a place – with color, icons, materials and fabrications, we do try to keep each season exciting and new. We edit through a lot!
HC: Does WSH look at trends? And if so, how do you incorporate them without creating “trendy” products?
MT: While we are often inspired by fashion, especially in the textiles area, when creating the color palette or a design detail that can be incorporated into a home textile. We rarely look to “trends.” Each season we tell a story by creating environments, compelling color stories and interesting materials, weaves and finishes.
HC: Do you travel for inspiration and if so, in what cities or countries have you found the most inspiration?
MT: We do travel and get inspiration from so many cities for so many things. My first is Paris, of course! The Porte de Clignancourt flea market is always a source for inspiration, as is my favorite “best for rummaging” Porte de Vanves market. London is great for design inspiration. The interiors are filled with color, there is always that element of surprise! I love the flower markets, whether a restaurant, museum, hotel room or flea market you never know what will inspire you next.
HC: Is there anything you have brought back from a trip that was redesigned as a product for WSH?
MT: I love to hunt for objects that inspire. I have been collecting textiles for over 20 years and we have reproduced so many textile programs from my collections. The antique paisley shawls in fabulous colors will be a woven duvet and I also can’t get enough of the great antique upholstered chairs I have found in Paris. I always come home with one because the silhouettes are often perfect and ready to be brought back and redesigned.
HC: I’ve noticed a lot of products for entertaining at WSH. Do you find that customers are entertaining more at home these days?
MT: I know I am and do feel that people are staying close to home. Casual “Sunday suppers” are always on the calendar.
HC: Which interior designers past or present have a style that you admire?
MT: I really admire David Hicks, Dororthy Draper, Elsie de Wolfe. It’s amazing they are still so influential! A present day interior designer that I admire is Suzanne Kasler. She is the picture of southern glamour!
HC: Are there any books that you look to time and again for inspiration? Are there any new books that you love or can’t wait to read?
MT: I love interior books – Michael Taylor’s new book Michael Taylor: Interior Design is on my list and Carleton Varney Houses in My Heart is great! I am a huge Daryl Carter fan and have not gotten to his book yet either. Too many books, so little time!
HC: The design world is always talking about the movie set designs that inspire them like Auntie Mame and Somethings Gotta Give. Are there any movies that inspire you?
MT: I watched a rerun of the Doris Day and Rock Hudson movie Pillow Talk. The set epitomizes Hollywood chic! I loved the grey walls!
HC: Color trends change for the seasons but are there any colors that you are noticing transcend the seasons and look good all year?
MT: I can’t get enough of the beautiful neutrals, from whites to khaki. We are working a lot with the most beautiful creams, warm wheat tones and buttery yellows.
HC: What is your best advice for anyone who needs a little inspiration right now?
MT: Get out of your office! Go to museums, shop store windows, etc. I love browsing through trim shops, fabric stores and of course book stores!
Photos by Simon Uptown