Trisha Wilson in her Turtle Creek office, surrounded by inspiration boards, sketches, and textiles.

Golden Girl

How did a Highland Park blonde work her way up from selling mattresses to running one of the most successful design firms in the world? Hint: The Spanish call it cajones.

Trisha Wilson’s 1965 Highland Park yearbook photo.
Trisha Wilson had a problem: "It was 1975, and we were finishing up the Anatole project. I had six or seven employees, and I needed more work if I was going to be able to keep them."

Trisha Wilson had a solution: "So I began cold-calling companies, and when Sheraton executives told me our operation wasn’t large enough to handle their project I persuaded them to stop by our offices."

Trisha Wilson had a problem: "I had no offices."

And so: "At the time I had a small space on Carlisle Street, and the adjacent space was vacant. The landlord let me use it for a day. I had a painter make a sign with the company name, and we hung it over the empty office. I rented drafting tables and phones with cords that went nowhere. Friends came over to sit at the desks. The Sheraton group arrived, saw our ’operation,’ and we’ve been doing business with them ever since."

Palace Tusk Lounge, Palace of the Lost City, South Africa
If you believe Trisha Wilson, founder of the interior design giant Wilson & Associates, "so much of it was luck." The luck, if anything, belongs to the Dallas Design District. The career of this 5-foot-4-inch, blue-eyed blonde, a graduate of Highland Park High School and the University of Texas where she pledged Chi Omega, has pulled Dallas’ designer showrooms through a series of downturns and continues to fuel the local design economy. And her legendary bravado has created one of the top hospitality design firms in the world.

She began by selling mattresses at the now defunct Titche’s department store. 

"A couple came into reupholster some chairs, and the man said he was opening a restaurant and would need to decorate it," Wilson says. "I told him I could do it. Well, I didn’t know if I really could or not," she says, her famous blue eyes crinkling into a smile. She promptly quit her job, worked out of her apartment, and plunged into the world of model trains. The project, Greenville Avenue’s famed Railhead restaurant, was hugely successful and helped spur Greenville Avenue’s growth. Wilson went on to design Kitty Hawk, then Chili’s, then more restaurants, and when Wilson read that developer Trammell Crow was putting in seven restaurants in the newly minted Anatole hotel, she wrote to him, declaring that she had some ideas he couldn’t refuse. "I never dreamed that he’d respond. When he called me, I had to make up themes on the spot."

One and Only Royal Mirage Lobby, The Arabian Court, Dubai, U.A.E.

A Palace of Riches

Wilson’s work on a palace in the United Arab Emirates kept the local showrooms really happy. One showroom had sales of more than $800,000. There was no budget on this project, and only the best would do:

48 gold leaf Quatrain dining chairs - approximately $4,000 each

36 gilded Thomas Morgan sconces -  approximately $2,000 each

10 Erica Brunson gold chairs - approximately $4,500 each

8 Gregorius Pineo gold leaf settees - approximately $9,500 each

Randy Yost did custom wood floors in the 30-by-50 private dining room inlaid with mother of pearl. Crystal chandeliers from Thomas Grant were embellished with amethyst, rose quarts, and malachite drops.

Get ready, showrooms - the specifications for a royal cousin’s palace are being planned right now, and the budget for furnishings is $30 million.

Not only did she design the Anatole restaurants, she got more work from Crow, and in the process, she hired three more people. Of the four on staff then, three still work with her - Snow Blackerby (purchasing director), Cheryl Neumann (executive vice president and chief operating officer), and Jim Rimelspach (executive vice president and design director).
 
THE SUN NEVER SETS
Wilson might have started out selling mattresses, but her firm is now at the top of the hospitality design world. The company is consistently ranked by the Hospitality Giants Interior Design Magazine as No. 1 or 2 worldwide, regularly swapping places with Hirsch Bedner Associates of Santa Monica, Calif., whom Wilson describes as a "friendly and worthy competitor." These top guns each pull in close to $30 million in annual fee income, each fits out millions of square feet of lodging and restaurant properties a year, and each oversees installations collectively valued at $1 billion plus. Wilson & Associates alone have designed more than one million guest rooms around the globe and have been the recipients of no fewer than nine Gold Key awards, the hospitality industry’s Oscars for excellence in hotel design.

But for all of the glory, her connections to Dallas are deep. Six years ago, Wilson & Associates won the interior architectural design commission for the already-fabled $1.5 billion Venetian Hotel & Resort. Since she has offices all over the world, including LA, she could have easily (and more logically) worked through the Pacific Design Center. Instead, she funneled a majority of the work through Dallas, which has benefited from the tens of millions of dollars in fabric, lighting, carpets, case goods, and custom furniture.

Currently, the firm’s 250 associates are working on 102 active projects in 50 cities and 20 countries. The firm operates offices in Dallas; LA; New York; Singapore; Shanghai, China; and Johannesburg, South Africa; and Cochin, India.

Wilson’s willingness to invest in international operations throughout the years was bold, but brilliant. "Diversifying geographically was the best thing we ever did," she says. "In the late ’80s, when the Savings and Loan business crashed, and the real estate market was bombing here and later in California, it didn’t affect us that much because we had other offices. After 9/11, 90 percent of what we were working on in the United States was put on hold. However, Asia was not affected, and South Africa was not affected."

Wilson’s business might have been able to withstand the repercussions of 9/11, but she also came to believe that her success was tied to the success of her vendors, specifically, those in the already reeling Dallas Design District. At a luncheon just two months after the attacks, Wilson told the group that her company "was going to make it through this, and so will you." "I had a lump in my throat," she recalls. "They work so hard, helping us with products, helping us get in under budget, and helping us get the right quality. We fight for our vendors; it’s as though it’s a team effort."

After the downward spiral (which really began before 9/11), the Dallas Design District started to reverse course in the last quarter of 2003. By May of 2004, things were looking up, and by the end of last year, some showrooms were claiming the best year they ever had.

Wilson is a consummate salesperson. "She has the ability to get people excited, and she’s good on her feet," says friend and former colleague Connie Campbell, who handled marketing for the firm for 20 years. "If she senses a developer is not good at reading plans, she’ll make the presentation more tactile by showing photographs and painting word pictures."

Not Your Typical Office

Wilson & Associates is filled with creative people, and it shows in their dedication to having fun.

"I have five hula hoops in my office right now," Wilson says. "And I don’t know why."

From costumes on Halloween to the occasional miniature golf games (designed to incorporate the office furniture, of course), Wilson goes out of her way to keep her employees laughing and fresh for work. But sometimes the fun can get so time consuming that it actually becomes work.

"One year for Christmas we did the 12 days of Christmas; every day we had a different theme for the office, to correspond with the song," Wilson laughs. "It was so much work, but we had a great time."

This year’s celebration promised to be just as spectacular, if not scaled down. Wilson began working on the Las Vegas-themed holiday party just after taking off her Halloween costume. 


At a new business meeting, Wilson may don a pastel-colored Ralph Rucci knit pant suit embellished by a piece of custom-designed Matthew Trent jewelry and sexy, Manolo Blahnik reptile slingbacks. Although she’s competing in a man’s world, her style is strictly soft, determinedly feminine. It may be politically incorrect to say so, but every man we talked to - vendors, clients, and colleagues - mentioned her bright blue eyes, her effervescence, and her energy.

A villa at Little Dix Bay in Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands
In the mid-’70s, Wilson was the only woman among a handful of pioneers in hospitality design. "She thinks like a man," Campbell says. "She speaks in terms of profit and loss, understands the money game, and is mindful of budget constraints. And she understands construction, so she knows where the interior architectural design slice fits into the building pie." Jim Brown, former president and chief executive of Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, agrees: "Ultimately, it’s not how talented a firm is, or how well they can design, but can they design to the project? The versatility of Wilson & Associates is amazing. Their designs are not repetitive, and Wilson herself brings fiscal reality to bear."

HIGH ROLLERS
Another key to Wilson’s success is her lack of obvious ego. Architect/ASID designer Rimelspach oversaw The Venetian installation, and Wilson is quick to give him credit, as she does to all her designers. "I always hire people who are more talented than I am," she says. The project involved not only the hotel’s interior architecture, but also the design of the property’s logo (an artful emboldening of the St. Mark’s lion), shop facades, frescoes, lighting, and decorative accessories. How does one re-create the splendor of Renaissance Venice on the glitzy Vegas strip? In 24 months? Tastefully? Herein lies another of Wilson’s business principles: in-depth research.

Step one was to send members of the design team to the real Venice to study its cathedrals, palazzos, and monasteries. "The client (Las Vegas Sands Inc.) didn’t want to spend the extra time and money, but after we presented sketches and created scale models to show what we conceived, they agreed. Now it’s their signature space."

The enterprise has been so successful (in the first three months of 2004, The Venetian produced the single-highest operating cash flow quarter recorded in the history of Las Vegas) that The Venetian awarded Wilson & Associates the interior and exterior (in collaboration with HKS Architects) architectural design of a $1.6 billion complementary hotel called the Palazzo - along with the contract for a towering glass and steel atrium connecting the two hotels. When finished, the combined Palazzo, Venetian, and convention center will be the largest hotel resort complex in the world comprising 7,000 rooms and suites, two casinos, and 2.25 million square feet of conference space.

True to her word, specifications for furnishings for the public spaces of the Palazzo have gone to ID Collection, Donghia, and David Sutherland.

But for all of Wilson’s savvy and bulldog reputation, it’s her warmth and commitment to people that stay with those who’ve met with her. While working on The Palace of the Lost City, an opulent hotel in South Africa, Wilson & Associates sought out local artisans to produce custom-designed chairs, lamps, and other appointments. The result: A new interiors manufacturing industry for South Africa and a lasting impression on Wilson. "That project was my introduction to Africa, and it just spoke to me. So much of my heart is there now, and most of our charity work focuses on Africa now. It helps me realize that there is more to life than work or a great hotel." It takes guts to think beyond your own success, and Trisha Wilson has plenty.

Conrad Bangkok Lounge, Bangkok, Thailand Four Seasons at The First Residence in Egypt