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Amy Lau’s Bold Statement

When it comes to adapting modernist design principles for 21st-century lifestyles, you never know where Amy Lau will find inspiration. The award-winning New York-based interior designer is known for creating warm and artistic environments, curated with vivid pops of color, artisanal pieces and historic furnishings. Each individual space serves as a vast internal gallery of her ideas and memories culled from a packed international travel schedule and an ever-evolving circle of talented artists in her realm.

Her interiors, which span from an expressive Tribeca triplex to a breezy beach cottage in the Hamptons, have been called everything from “refined, elegant and optimistic” to “vibrantly personalized.” The latter description sums up Lau’s approach perfectly—an Amy Lau room makes you feel instantly giddy, linking your present to your future and a past we can’t soon forget.

Amy Lau Headshot Slider“Modernist design is exciting in its juxtapositions—artistic, sculptural and expressive, yet clean and simple,” says Lau, who follows modernism all over the world, with occasional stops in Palm Springs during the city’s annual signature celebration, Modernism Week. “I find that furniture from the midcentury time period especially tends to be of high quality, made with rich and sturdy materials, and also intelligently created.”

This vantage point provided the basis for her 2011 book, “Expressive Modern: The Interiors of Amy Lau.” In that tome, one can clearly see how each room is unique. The furniture is arranged to subtly mirror the homeowner’s artwork. A living room’s calming blue color scheme and organic shapes connect to its beachy locale. A one-of-a-kind textile rug mimics the whimsy wall art above it. Vivid. Energetic. Personal. It all works in ways you would expect—and not expect. With Lau, there is always an element of edge—like Dexter’s diabolical dining room she created for Metropolitan Home and Showtime’s Gramercy Park show house in 2008.

ALD Chicago Residence

“In my interiors, I like to create spaces that are a little bit intellectual,” she explains. “The more you spend time looking at them, the more you become interested. The more things reveal themselves. It’s timeless in a sense that when you look at one element, you see a connection to it in another place, and then you see something else that is symbolic of what you just saw elsewhere. It’s more like a journey of interest to the eye and the mind and the soul.”

Previews® Inside Out caught up with Lau while she was on a journey of another kind, in Mexico City at the international contemporary art fair Zona MACO, to ask her about her expressive style, the midcentury artists and visionaries who have influenced her most, and what’s inspiring her today.

Previews Inside Out You’ve attended Palm Springs Modernism Week four times in the past. What do you get out of the event as a designer?  

Amy Lau Palm Springs is the place in America to see the midcentury modern aesthetic at its best. This celebration of architecture, furniture, fashion, culture and history is so unique because everything is presented in an authentic setting, the epicenter of modernist architecture. The vast collection of Desert Modernism buildings constructed in the 50s and 60s by celebrated architects showcases truly distinctive designs that put Palm Springs on the map for design connoisseurs. Being in Palm Springs for the celebration of all of this is inspiring! To see the classics mixed with what is up-and-coming is a treat, and to be in the heart of it all with like-minded aficionados makes it truly rewarding.

Previews Inside Out This was your first time at Zona MACO. How did you find the experience?

Amy Lau It was great. There is a very small design section featuring post-war to contemporary artists and then a lot of contemporary to more classic modern blue-chip artists. I fell in love with a sculpture that was $80,000 and a couple of other pieces. That led me to follow up with books, and I was up reading really late about these different artists.

ALD Tribeca Triplex

Previews Inside Out What inspires you as a designer? 

Amy Lau Primarily, I look to nature to be inspired. I find incredible color palettes by observing the subtle change from blue to green on a bird’s wing or the intricate detailed pattern on a butterfly. I am an avid scuba diver, so I also love the unexpected color combinations in the schools of fish, coral reefs and sandy beach towns I visit to pursue this hobby. Diverse cultures inspire me—from Japan to Turkey, Mexico to Saudi Arabia—each has a story to tell and a wealth of history, tradition and artistic technique to explore and incorporate in my work.

When designing a space, I will spend time getting to know the surroundings of the environment so I can understand the foliage, light, skylines and other natural elements that will provide the visual foundation for the project.

Previews Inside Out Tell us what “Expressive Modern” means to you.

Amy Lau Although I reside in Manhattan, I am a Southwesterner at heart, hailing from Arizona where I grew up in vast, colorful nature. When people head westward, they experience color in the most honest of ways. From the siennas and rusted browns of the clay dirt, to the hot orange, red and pink sunsets, to the rich grassy green cacti or the twinkling spray of stars across the velvety midnight sky, you can’t help but be inspired by the beautiful art that can be found in nature. Expressive Modern, to me, is finding a way to interpret the allure of the natural world into a vibrant, clean and livable space that uplifts and supports the lifestyle of everyone inhabiting it.

ALD Easthampton Retreat

Previews Inside Out Describe a recent project of yours that you feel really showcases your Expressive Modern approach.

Amy Lau I recently completed a triplex penthouse space in TriBeCa that was a chance to really explore what I consider my Expressive Modern approach. The client is an avid design enthusiast and has a broad knowledge of important designers of the past as well as those creating great products today. Working with a color palette of lush, warm greys and saturated blues inspired by the glimmering city skyline, fabrics ranged from cashmere silk rugs and nubby woven chenille upholstery to horsehair window treatments and hand-embroidered velvet pillows. We created added warmth in the space with organic shapes and natural materials such as rich walnut custom sofas, highly polished bronze sculptural table bases, precious gemstone tabletops with artistic brass bases, and smoky blown glass chandeliers. The mix of colors and textures helped us achieve a sense of balance among the variety of artistic furnishings, fixtures and accessories. We filtered our vintage selections and contemporary commissions through the lens of this distinct color palette, making sure that woods, fabrics, metals and other finishes all harmonized. This attention to detail keeps the space feeling intentional and well curated. 


Previews Inside Out Looking back on some of the great midcentury modernists of the past, who has had the most influence on your design aesthetic and why? 

Amy Lau Gio Ponti was a genius and completely revolutionized design during his time, with his unique spin on everything from bottles to sofas, silverware to tiles and lamps. His work is vibrant and graphic with an air of whimsy and playfulness. At the same time, his aesthetic remains sophisticated and sexy, showing a thoughtful sensitivity to color and line. He was able to pare a design down to its most essential elements, allowing his pieces to be sturdy yet elegant and sculptural. I have absolutely been influenced by Ponti’s incredible aesthetic, but even more so his intellectual curiosity and thoughtfulness that led him to produce not only appealing but smart design. I try to emulate his well-rounded approach in everything I do.

It would be remiss not to mention Vladimir Kagan, who remains a prolific visionary today. Vladimir’s innate sense of form takes shape in sinuous, organically sculpted furniture that looks as innovative today as it did when he started in the 1950s. People are drawn to his designs because they are as comfortable as they are beautiful. That he insists on giving equal value to form and function is something I admire. I am lucky to count this legend as a dear friend and frequent collaborator who, to this day, creates artful and elegant custom furniture tailored to unique lifestyles and spaces.  


Previews Inside Out Can you talk a little more about your design process and how you achieve a modernist look in a room?

Amy Lau For me, the modernist aesthetic boils down to saturated colors and a simple, carefully edited space that offers a place for art and natural objects to live and inspire while simultaneously providing a comfortable flow and overall function. I try to interpret those basic principles through my own lens, incorporating vintage midcentury modern pieces as well as collaborating with designers who produce furniture, lighting and art that mix the best of this concept with a contemporary translation. 

Previews Inside Out You are a fan of using bold colors in unusual spaces—like the dining room. What have been some of your most exciting color combinations in recent years?

Amy Lau I learned a great deal about color by studying the work of Josef Albers, Mark Rothko and James Turrell. Understanding the power that color and pattern have to heighten our senses and alter our perception of space, I try to thoughtfully use color to its best effect. Pairing analogous colors creates a calming feeling and flow in a space, no matter how bold and bright they are individually. I love to embrace color, especially colors inspired by elements found in nature, as this evokes a sense of familiar comfort. Some bold color pairings that have worked for me in recent years are a citron green, lemon yellow and brilliant blue inspired by Josef Albers’ “Formulation” color field painting, and a rust orange, ruby red and navy blue combination inspired by dramatic Rothko multiform paintings.

Previews Inside Out It’s interesting that you studied art history at the University of Arizona—in a desert landscape that is not all that different from the landscape in Palm Springs. Do you think the desert climate (or at least warmer climes) lends itself better to a modernist approach?

Amy Lau The modernist aesthetic is the perfect antidote to the hot desert climate in the Southwest. This area in particular was the hotbed of midcentury design precisely because of its unique desert landscapes. Architects of the time thrived on the visual interest created from the clean lines, open floorplans and floor-to-ceiling windows of their projects juxtaposed against the rocky, mountainous topography. They built structures nestled into the existing terrain, amplifying its beauty by blending in and becoming one with the landscape. This is not to say the modernist approach cannot find success in a cool climate. To the contrary, important modernist design and influence regularly flow from Scandinavia, Italy and, I’d like to think, New York!  

Previews Inside Out Do you find that your clients are continuing to ask for more modern interiors now that you have a different or expanded fan base?

Amy Lau Yes. People want a more edited, streamlined feel to their home, and they’re seeing that modern is not just cold and clinical but can be warm and artistic or very expressive.

Previews Inside Out How has your style evolved over the years, and where do you see it evolving now?

Amy Lau My style has evolved a lot in the sense that when I first started out, I didn’t use any color. In the last 10 years, I have felt more comfortable using color in my palette. I collaborate with so many artists and artisans now, and each project is totally different; nothing is cookie cutter. I’m always evolving, always challenging myself. Next month for Design Days Dubai, I’m in Qatar and Oman. In October, I was in Japan. I’m constantly seeing new things and interpreting them. You never know how that’s going to percolate. I just got a new iPhone, and while I was downloading all my photos, I started looking through the ones I took three and four years ago on different trips. I could really see how that influenced a fabulous rug I created or a sofa I bought. It was really apparent and powerful. There is a connection.

Amy Lau is the founder of New York-based Amy Lau Design, established in 2001. In addition to designing some of the world’s boldest interiors from New York to Chicago, her firm has designed a range of collections—including patterned cowhide rugs and pillows for Kyle Bunting, unique Heath Ceramics mosaic tiles, colorful wool-and-silk rugs for Doris Leslie Blau, tie-dyed wall coverings for Maya Romanoff and a vibrant fabric collection of contemporary prints, embroideries and wovens exclusively for S. Harris. Lau’s 2011 monograph, “Expressive Modern,” is available for purchase on



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Amy Lau’s Bold Statement

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