How 10 pounds of eyeshadow factors into Charles Pavarini’s interior design aesthetic


Interior designer Charles Pavarini, founder of New York-based Pavarini Design, got his creative start in the theater and often uses concepts learned there to inform his residential lighting decisions. He recently published the book Lighting Beyond Edison: Brilliant Residential Lighting Techniques in the Age of LEDs.

Your grandfather’s construction company built some of the most iconic buildings in Manhattan: the Seagram Building, the State Theater at Lincoln Center and other landmarks. How did that influence your sense of design growing up?

When they topped the Seagram’s Building, I was five years old. My father and grandfather took me to flag the top floor. I was holding on to my father’s leg —there were no walls or anything yet and I was afraid I would get blown off the building. We didn’t even have a Brownie camera at that time, so unfortunately it was not photographed. But I do remember it distinctly, looking up Park Avenue and wondering, ‘What is this really about?’

My grandfather and father influenced me, but I had no aspirations of following in their footsteps. I was absolutely possessed with having a career in theater. I did have 12 years of professional theater. I was in A Chorus Line and danced with the Joffrey Ballet School. The last thing I did was a tour with Ann Miller. It was destined to come to Broadway, but it never did. So, when I got back to the city after months of touring, I decided I did not like touring — I thought I’d like to eat a little better and own something one day. Dancing with Ann Miller would probably not provide that, so I enrolled myself in the New York School of Interior Design because I always had a liking for the industry. I always wanted to do something creative. When I was 12 years old, we had a family friend in Arizona who asked if I would like to go with them to pick out furniture for their apartment in downtown Phoenix, and I thought ‘Yes! I’ll do that.’ I’d say that was my first installation. I really liked it because I could discern how the disparate parts of a design come together.

I graduated from the New York School of Interior Design with a bronze medal in design achievement. I had to write a thesis, and from my thesis I was picked up by Ruben De Saavedre. He hired me based on my thesis. I was with him for two years. I learned an enormous amount from him. We worked on many projects on Park Ave., etc., and that really gave me my taste for the industry. After being with him for two years, I started my own firm and have been in business for three decades. And I have survived.

You studied product design under Massimo Vignelli at Harvard, who popularized the Helvetica font and was known for New York City’s subway map, among many things. What did you learn from him?

I went to summer school at Harvard and that was one of the main classes I took. That gave me a taste of product design. I am currently doing that now. I have designed furniture and case goods with Swaim and lighting fixtures with Alora Kuzco. It is so rewarding. It begins with a thought in the mind and then goes through many iterations of drawing, and through the prototypes. To see it on the market is so rewarding after that entire process, which at times can take a couple of years.

How did you develop an interest in lighting?

In the first year after graduating from the New York School of Interior Design, I joined the Designers Lighting Forum, and have been on the board for more than three decades. That is where I learned about lighting. Also, going to programs, going to lectures, and keeping aware of what is happening in the industry. Whenever I do a showhouse, I want to show the most recent technical aspects of a design. That’s what I think a showhouse should do—show materials in a new way. I was the first designer to show LED lighting and color-changing lighting in a residential setting in my 2006 Kips Bay showhouse. It was very well received because no one had ever seen lighting against a fabric wall. I was able to do that because of LEDs.

I learned the power of light when I was in the theater.

How does lighting factor into your interior design projects?

In my firm we use lighting as a design tool; we design the lighting as we design the room. I learned the power of light when I was in the theater. When you are on stage, if you can’t find your light you definitely have a problem. If they’re shining a spotlight on you and you are walking out of your light, you need to “find your light,” as they say, on stage.

In interior design, I would apply that to what you want the person who enters the room to see. Lighting pulls your focus. In interiors, if you have accent pieces, sculpture, a painting, etc., the light will direct your eye to that piece of art. It also gives the room nuance. Without light, we can’t have shadow, which plays a big part because lighting is almost like a concerto—it has its highs and lows, and that rhythm has to be throughout the room.

You literally wrote the book on residential lighting. What prompted you to publish?

I teach at Parsons, and I always look at how designers light their interiors. But I saw a disconnect on their interiors and how they lit them. When I was asked to write a book from the perspective of an interior designer, I said, “Me?”  But that caught my attention. I thought it was a great vehicle to get information out to other designers.

I did the writing through my hip surgery, and through the pandemic, but I am very proud to say I can hold the book in my hand now. It is not a technical book; it is a book to inspire and ask questions about lighting. There are some technical aspects — enough that you would be able to have a conversation or relay to a contractor what you want your interior to do or how to light it. The book is on Amazon and is getting a great response.

You once used 10 pounds of eyeshadow and a clear coat on a wall as a new paint treatment for an interior design project. What are some of the raw materials you are most excited about today?

I did that in a Kips Bay showhouse to show new techniques in materials and how to use them in a different way. I had five colors of blue in that room using the strié technique. The eyeshadow actually gave the rooms a chameleon quality. Eye shadow is basically ground mica, so it has a reflective quality to it. One wall looked teal, and the wall opposite lapis, and as you walked through the room the walls seemed to change colors.

Today, we’re getting into a more naturalistic area and we’re seeing a lot with biophilia. I think it’s great. I think that all these new materials, they have their life and then they fade out. Years later they come back in a different way. But right now, it’s a lot of natural materials. We are seeing light fixtures made of rattan, etc. We’re seeing sawn wood made into a cocktail table with a natural bark on the edges.


At a Glance:

What was your first job?

In high school I was a salesperson at Sears. It was very uneventful.

Who is your most admired lighting designer, living or dead?

James Knuckles. He was a lighting designer. When I first graduated, he took me under his wing. Being around creative people wears off.

What is your favorite hobby or pastime?

My favorite hobby would be dancing. I cannot do what I did when I was young doing A Chorus Line, but I’m a really great tango dancer. And I love to swim.

What is your least favorite household chore?

I don’t like to do household chores. I don’t like to take out the garbage.

What is the best place to eat in New York?

New York has so many wonderful places to eat. I do like Le Bernardin. But that’s at the high, high end. In contrast, I like the ramen shop that’s right next to my apartment.

What are you reading right now?

I read a couple books at a time. I’m reading a new book on the royals, and I’m also reading The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston. I find it very interesting. My father and mother were born in Italy. I love Italy; that’s why I picked up the book. I am going to Cinque Terre in May. I’ve heard it’s extraordinary.


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