This Newport Beach, California project was under a tight deadline, leading Blakeley to customize pieces from retail stores. Photos courtesy James Blakeley. 

Designer James Blakeley’s practicality has appealed to celebrities such as Tom Selleck and Kiefer Sutherland.

By Kirsten Niper

It’s no surprise to hear interior designer James Blakeley stress the importance of designing a space that reflects the people living in the home.

“Living environments need to nurture, inspire and grow with their occupants,” Blakeley says. “Creating a home, complete and individual, requires a single vision that can be felt and sensed from any room, during any occasion and time.”

In the design process, his first steps are asking the clients what they’re looking for, what their lifestyle is, and how/what they do in their home for entertaining.

“A superb use is to design a ‘box within a box,'” Blakeley explains. “Thus, one particular area in a room must standalone in its integrity, but when all of the elements combine into a seamless design, then the space can be viewed as a whole. The resulting compilation of spaces evolves together, ever reflecting a client’s personality.

“The living room is a big box, with different boxes in that room. You think it’s one room, but then it’s another and another, like those [Matryoshka Nesting] dolls,” shares Blakeley, a principal of Blakeley-Bazeley Ltd.

Blakeley uses hand-sketched, black and white drawings when illustrating his designs for clients. “I used to do a computer program to show ideas, flybys and all that stuff. By doing that, they got an image in their head and its never the way the completed project looks. Now, I find that they’re surprised by everything they see.”

Blakeley has worked with celebrities, including Tom Selleck, Kiefer Sutherland, David James Elliott, Don Bellisario and Raffaella De Laurentiis, and average Joes. No matter the client, he strives to further Los Angeles’ reputation of iconic style and classic charm.

Some of the buildings that inspire him are L.A.’s Union Station, “a wonderful Mid-Century Classical building,” Hollyhock House, the Stahl House and the interior of the Bradbury Building. “The city has a lot of diverse looks, we move with different concepts, and clean, crisp design,” he explains.

In order to deliver a finished product that pleases his client, Blakeley relies on his strong partnerships with artisans, craftsmen and carpenters. “If you go to individuals who specialize, you’re getting a better product, of better quality and more quickly,” he explains. “I have three upholsterers, each with a specialized skill.”

Often, he entrusts his tradespeople to refinish or refurbish pieces found at stores like Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware to make them customized pieces.

For what turned out to be one of his most challenging projects, Blakeley and his team had six weeks to fully redesign a client’s home that was to be rented out fully furnished. Due to the time constraint, much of the furniture came from retail stores. Blakeley picked up the dining room table from Restoration Hardware because he liked the style, but didn’t like the finish, so he took it to his refinisher who then stripped it and restained it. “I made what I needed, and then tweaked everything. It was made to fit — they re custom pieces, but not custom,” he says.

Throughout his projects, Blakeley is constantly modifying his concept. “As long as you tweak it, it leads you somewhere. A blueprint, it’s not the actual project, it’s just a guideline for what you’re about to build.” The constant evolution of a project is an example of why designers are needed in the first place.

“The reason a designer is hired is, number one, because they have the expertise to find things at a price you can’t find them at, and number two, your time is worth something. Hire a designer to do work for you, and in the long run you will save money and time,” Blakeley states.

He further drives the point home with a story of a client who while shopping with his wife, saw a coffee table he liked that was 60-percent-off. “He called me up, with the code on the piece, and I found the source for him. I found it for $1,800 less than the advertised 60-percent discount.”

His Favorite Project:

Blakeley was involved in a custom project, from the top down, in Coachella Valley, Rancho Mirage. “They didn’t know exactly what they wanted — they liked Contemporary, but felt like Contemporary could be cold.” So he ended up doing a Bali meets Japan theme, with Balinese wood ceiling in the great room, lots of exposed concrete, exposed stones from the mountains, muted colors and lots of steel. A standout from that project was the fireplace. “I made it the whole wall, almost 25 feet wide and 22 feet high. I layered three kinds of wood and had a stone hearth and mantel. It was one of the most exciting projects.”


A dear friend of the family, Tony Duquette, got me started in all of this. He was a local designer — a stage and set designer who won a Tony. He’d take things you couldn’t do anything with and make something great.”

On the Importance of the Color Black:

One of his idols, Billy Baldwin, used the color black often. Blakeley uses it as an accent, in some form, somewhere in the room; or it can be throughout the whole room. “Black is striking, enticing and sophisticated. And a black room looks bigger than a white room. It adds a sense of style and mystery.” When people walk into a black room, they have no sense of where the walls are, so it looks huge to them, he says.