While studying interior design in Boston, William Powell had a eureka moment. One of his instructors, a well-known designer, invited him for a drink after class. “She was one of those people you can never really read,” he recalls. “Professionally, you never knew if she loved you or hated you. I thought she was going to tell me to give it up.”
They sat down and she asked him, point-blank, “What do you think you’re doing” Powell nearly fell off his stool. “Studying interior design, I think,” he replied. “This is not for you in terms of training,” she said. “I have to tell you quite honestly: You already have the eye. You have the skill. You need to be out in the field working with clients. Just go for it.”
Powell left the university and never looked back. “I really appreciate her to this day because I would have gone through the program,” he says. “She told me it might have been detrimental for me to study because some of the disciplines they’d teach me would probably be in conflict with my style and what I was already doing.”
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Powell launched his career at Cartier, where he worked in human resources and executive administration. He and his partner, Richard Johnson, moved to Boston in 2002, when Johnson landed a position as chief financial officer for the Boston Ballet. In Boston, Powell enrolled in a few classes and began taking on interior design projects. He also completely overhauled the townhouse he shared with Johnson. Designed in a traditional, tailored style, the home was published in a national magazine.
Powell shifted his practice to the DC area in 2004, when Johnson accepted a post as COO/CFO of the Washington National Opera. Powell also immersed himself in the renovation of the condominium apartment he and Johnson eventually purchased in Arlington. His ambitious plan would replace the condo’s new but standard-grade appointments with completely customized fixtures and finishes.
The apartment greets guests with a heady mix of glamour and restraint. Gone are the original bare white walls, “orangy” oak floors and run-of-the-mill lighting. “It wasn’t the caliber of build that we thought we were getting,” explains Powell. “So I came in and I went backwards.” Before even addressing color schemes and furniture selections, Powell focused on basic infrastructure. “I replaced, literally, all of the hardware, flooring and carpet and all of the doors which are now solid core as opposed to hollow,” he says, “plus all the electrical.” He also installed new appliances and countertops in the kitchen and new vanities, fixtures and top-of-the-line tile in the bathrooms.
From its gleaming marble floors to its enlarged crown molding, the finished apartment is a far cry from the original. “It is kind of my own little jewel box,” says Powell, reflecting back to his days at Cartier. Hints of sparkle in the chrome hardware, crystal accessories—and even in the Murano glass-beaded ceiling in the living room—play off luxurious silk and velvet upholstery.
Powell designed the main living area as a sophisticated environment for entertaining. “I think it’s very luxe, but comfortable at the same time,” he says. “I don’t think it’s overly ostentatious. I don’t want it to be unapproachable.”
Powell lavished attention on custom furnishings, fabrics and countless details, from the lamp shades he designed in silk with velvet trim to the buckles and accoutrements he added to the pillows, also of his own design.
A soothing color palette of blues, grays and black in the main living spaces gives way to a simple black-and-white scheme in the master suite. A custom black-lacquered bed is centered before a backdrop of hand-flocked velvet wallpaper from India and a black crystal chandelier hangs from a black-mirrored medallion. “I love the crispness and the play of just black and white,” says Powell.
Throughout the home, Powell had his Benjamin Moore paint selections custom-blended to achieve the effects he wanted. “All of the paints were darkened by 15, 25 or 75 percent because I just wanted the richness and the depth of color,” he explains. “I also had some fun with finishes. In the master bedroom, even though the walls are jet black, it’s jet black in a pearl finish so it gives them a sheen.”
Powell and Johnson lived in the apartment throughout the design process, enduring “two years’ worth of plaster dust,” says Powell, who went to so much effort because he and Johnson planned to make this their home for the next 10 years.
Then fate intervened when Johnson got a call from the Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas. The opportunity for him to shape this new institution as vice president and CFO was too good to pass up, so Powell and Johnson are moving again. Powell is already planning the interiors of their new home in Turnberry Place. He will continue working with clients on the East Coast, while cultivating business out West.
Ironically, friends remark that Powell’s glamorous abode in Arlington was somehow a hint of things to come. “Most people say, ‘You’re so ahead of yourself. This is Vegas. This is what you need to be doing now.”
Photographer Lydia Cutter is based in McLean, Virginia.
INTERIOR DESIGN: William Powell, William Powell Interiors, Inc., Arlington, Virginia, and Las Vegas, Nevada.