CeCe Barfield Thompson cut her teeth working for Bunny Williams, and now, she’s designing some of the coziest, chicest interiors in New York City and on the East End.
What were you like as a child?
I was very artistic. I was constantly rearranging things in my room, in my house, in my friend’s house.… And I loved to paint. My walls, my bed—any surface was a place to experiment. My mother always says that she would hear furniture screeching across our wooden floors upstairs and think, “Here she goes again!”
What did you study in college?
I went to NYU, where I studied art history with a minor in French. Because so many major museums are here in New York, many of my professors were also curators. They expanded our minds in ways that reached far beyond the classroom.
Did you always intend to pursue a career in design?
I feel like I sort of fought it. I did not want to be an interior designer, because everyone told me I should be one! After college, I worked at Vogue, but it wasn’t really hands-on enough for me. I love history, design, painting, and colors. I had a natural inclination toward interior design, and so I finally went with my nature. I attended Pratt’s interior design program, which is architecturally focused. I thought I was going to study fabrics and color schemes, but it was much more about space planning, scale, volume, and height. I got a true education in renovation; that’s been immensely helpful in what I do. The bulk of my work is in what I would call renovation in collaboration with an architect and construction team. I stayed at Pratt to get another degree in historic preservation, and then I got the job at Bunny Williams. Working with Bunny was another degree in itself. I learned more about fabrics, scaling, and the client side of the business. It’s so important for designers, and everyone, to have a bank of knowledge from which they can draw for their projects. This can come from school, experience, and osmosis. I sort of see myself as an eternal design student.
You launched your own firm four years ago. What was your first project?
A gut renovation of a corner apartment in the Sherry-Netherland. It was an amazing transformation and opportunity; my client gave me free rein. The space was stripped down in the ’80s and done in a trendy way for that time. We took it back to its former glory. From start to finish, it was a two-year project. In every project, the first eight months are always planning—creating drawings and mood boards, interviewing contractors, and working on the budget. It’s my job to not only make a client’s house look beautiful, but make sure the project goes through seamlessly.
How do you describe your aesthetic?
It’s ever-evolving but rooted in contemporary traditionalism that’s forward-thinking and tailored. I gravitate toward clean lines, but not as a sacrifice for comfort and visual interest.
You’re an aficionado of estate sales.
In this day and age, when a lot of design feels so ubiquitous with Instagram and Pinterest, it’s more important than ever to try to find special things. That often means going to places like estate sales and Goodwill. It not only allows you to find unique things with character, but it also really stretches clients’ dollars. I’m also a huge auction aficionado. Doyle and Christie’s are my go-to’s, but my guilty pleasure is Bidsquare. I stay up all night with the blue glow of my phone looking at Bidsquare auctions across the country.
Where do you keep it all?
At my storage unit in Connecticut. It really helps my practice to be able to pull together interesting, layered interiors for my clients in a short time frame. You don’t always know if you’ll be able to find that really interesting side table in four months. It’s so wonderful and helpful to have a small inventory to pull from.
You’re also currently renovating a new apartment for your family on Gramercy Park…
My husband and I bought a new apartment that is two doors down from where we are now; it’s been easy for us to oversee the renovation. It was in estate condition, and when we bought it, it had basically no running water. You could brush your teeth in one bathroom, take a shower in another, use the loo in another, but you couldn’t do all those things in one place. So it’s been a gut renovation. We’re bringing in things that hopefully look like they’ve been there since the building was built but are actually brand-new.
How long have you been going to the East End?
Five years. We rent a charming farmhouse in Wainscott, which we initially found online. When we first visited it, the owner happened to be there, and also happen to live on Gramercy Park. We’ve become friends!
What’s your dream project in the Hamptons?
A really cozy beach shack. Something right on the water, with an indoor-outdoor feeling where you could hear the water and smell the salt in the air.
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