This self-described “late bloomer” has designed everything from a 13,000-square-foot estate to a sofa “cufflink” The Wall Street Journal called “ingenious.” Here’s how Denise Morrison went from helping clients choose new pillows to running her own firm, retail shop, and full manufacturing facility.
What were you doing before you got into interior design?
Mothering four boys took up most of my time, and to be honest still does! When they got older, I decided it was time to think about my next steps. I have a degree in communications, but I’ve always loved art. Every elective was an art elective; the ceramics room was my hangout. When I told a few friends I was going back to school and wanted to learn more about interior design, I had several design leads in a matter of minutes. That was back in 2002.
I’ll be truthful: Initially, I took on everything. If someone needed new pillows, I took them. Because to grow a business, you have to build relationships. The business grew very organically from there. I got an assistant, hired another designer, and grew at a nice pace. I didn’t take on more than three people could handle for quite some time. Once my sons were in college, I started to really pursue more jobs.
Architect: Brandon Architects, Builder: Patterson Custom Homes, Photographer: Chad Mellon, Product: Itai Bar-On Kwa in White
Did you end up going back to school?
I did some further study in interior design but what I really found was that my art background was my foundation. I learned a lot along the way, with a little trial and error.
I think you can learn a lot on the job and school. I say this a lot to my hires: You can’t force creativity, it's something that comes naturally. Everyone has to learn the rules. Understanding color, scale, proportion, and balance and tweaking them, makes for great design.
So you had the art background, but how did you learn the business side of things?
My husband was running a successful company and was a great source of support. My second hire was also a very experienced designer who had been working for a very reputable firm for a long time. Where I was struggling, she was really experienced. Early in my career I learned just as much from the people I hired as they did from me.
If I was struggling with something and I had a relationship with a vendor, I might ask them questions too. I found that when you’re vulnerable and open up, people are very helpful.
Photography: Rod Foster, Product: Eastern Promise by Martyn Lawrence Bullard Fez and Tangier in Palazzo
How would you describe your trademark design principle?
I don’t know if it’s because I’ve raised four sons, but there’s this side of me that’s really practical. People are trusting us, so I want to make sure our designs have longevity but also freshness and beauty. To me, using texture to create tension with something smooth and something really old and worn is really an interesting way to design. Color can be a little overwhelming at times, so I try to use that more sparingly on the construction side. So often with hard materials, their interest is in their scale or finish or texture. We can layer color or other elements on with fabrics and rugs to give that boldness.
I love tension even within a style. If we were doing something classic, I might find a modern light to kind of shake it up a bit. If you throw in an antique in a modern home, it just elevates the design. That tension makes the design more interesting.
How does living in Southern California play into your design?
Residing in California tends to come with a casual and relaxed outlook. Regardless of the design, there’s always this little bit of comfort level that transcends the style. I really want people to embrace every aspect of their home without fear of damaging it or feeling like it’s too precious to touch or sit on. Beautiful design can still be approachable.
You’ve said you like a home to feel “collected but not decorated.” What does that mean?
We ask every client to please, give us a box, a momento, sentimental piece—anything we can place in their new home. We can reframe it or reupholster it or whatever, but it has to have a little history.We don’t want their home to feel like a showroom, we want it to feel like their home that’s been updated and freshened. You have to find things that give your home a sense of history. That makes it feel more collected versus decorated.
What do you look for in a tile?
We love the Ann Sacks MADE collection, and weave it into our designs a lot. Particularly because we can pick the style, create our own pattern—it allows for amazing customization. They have so many color options that allow us to create something really unique and special for each project. We tend to use tile more playfully in laundry and powder rooms. Those are great areas to add color. For kitchens, a place to add drama is through texture. Honestly, we have numerous projects going at all times, so the broad offerings of the Ann Sacks collection helps us assure each one is unique.
How do you incorporate trends without designing something that eventually feels dated?
Trends are great to embrace lightly, they add a freshness to any project. However, we are very mindful that a classic or original approach will transcend an era of time and have more longevity. For instance, with the brass trend, we tend to like living brass, which is more authentic to what you might have found 100 years ago. If it’s lasted 100 years, it’s probably going to last 100 more.
Are there certain materials you come back to again and again?
Something that always seems to make an appearance in every project is a natural stone countertop. Durability is important to us though, so in high usage areas we love mixing in a man made counter such as neolith to incorporate both beauty and functionality.
As simple as it sounds, I frequently resort to a stainless finish for kitchen faucets, and for laundries. It reads neutral and offers great functionality. I like incorporating those finishes that aren’t super hip, butstand the test of time.
What made you want to open a retail space?
Being a designer, merchandising comes naturally. I had this feeling that it was a great next step for our brand. For all our jobs, I was sourcing accessories all over town, and it became really hard. We do large homes, and installing them, you’re gathering and gathering, and I thought, not only could we provide some interesting selections to the community at large, but it would really benefit our design projects too.Setting up shop wasn’t easy. I’ve learned I tend to go in feet first and figure it out as I go, which is a little bit of an entrepreneurial hazard. Shortly after the House of Morrison opened, came our manufacturing company. Our upholstery team is truly the heart of HOM, they make everything from pillows to sofas all in house at our factory in Southern California. It’s a beautiful process to be a part of.
What made you design a sofa cufflink?
I didn’t have room for a drink table in a project, and I had to get creative. From there the sofa cufflink was born and quickly became one of House of Morrison’s best selling pieces both online and in store. We were even able to get a patent on it which was very exciting.
Architect: Brandon Architects, Builder: Patterson Custom Homes, Photography: Chad Mellon, Product: Custom Stone
Your son is your director of operations, and your daughter-in-law is your VP. What’s it like working with family?
Running a family owned business has been quite the learning experience. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t struggles. But the truth is, the benefits far outweigh the challenges. Communication is key and we have learned a lot along the way. At the end of the day, we all share a passion for this industry and moving the business forward. Everyone brings something different to the table and that’s what makes our perspective so special. We just follow one family rule, no talking shop at Sunday dinner.