Gil Walsh’s husband is a man who’s likely been hearing the words “I told you so” a lot lately.
“It was the beginning of the last recession when I said, ‘I’m not happy where I am, so I’m going to start my own interior design firm,’” Walsh recalls. Her spouse, thinking pragmatically, was against the plan, so Walsh acted on her own. “I sold my designer clothes, I melted down what jewelry I could, and I raised enough money to buy the equipment I needed to start my business,” she says.
Today, Gil Walsh Interiors has 10 employees, and business is booming. “It was a good time to start because architects, builders, and tradespeople weren’t busy, so they had time to talk to me,” Walsh says.
Walsh attributes the success she has had to a combination of hard work and her natural eye for design. “Education is critical,” including exposure to the fine arts, she says, but good designers also need to have an innate feel for their clients’ experience of the world. “We’re in the luxury business, so it’s likely that you can’t afford to live your clients’ lifestyle, but you still have to understand it. You just have to feel and sense what to do.”
Walsh originally thought she’d go into fashion design—she even studied it in college—but several courses in theater changed her direction. “Theater combined costuming with the environment in which we all live, and I concluded that I really like interiors,” Walsh says.
She began taking courses on interior design, but there was a definite learning curve. “It’s one thing to know about fashion, but to know about interior design, you have to understand scale, heights, and depths of furniture, how people live in their environments, what their walkway requirements are—that sort of thing,” Walsh says. But, her work earned her an apprenticeship at Irvin & Company in Ohio, which was then the largest design firm between Chicago and New York, and later she took on roles of increasing responsibility at two Pittsburgh firms.
The designer’s first major project was Fallingwater, a house Frank Lloyd Wright designed in 1935 in the Allegheny Mountains of rural southwestern Pennsylvania, about 40 miles from Pittsburgh. The home, built partly over a waterfall, was hailed by Time magazine as Wright’s most beautiful work, was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1966, and was listed on Smithsonian magazine’s list of “28 Places to See Before You Die.” In 1982, Edgar Kaufmann hired Walsh to refurbish the interior. When she finished, she encouraged him to find a permanent curator, who’s still there today, ensuring the home remains intact as artisans from across the country contribute. Walsh, for her part, currently sits on the home’s advisory board, but she now lives down in Florida, where her husband wanted to retire.
It was in Florida that Walsh realized it was time for a change. “As my departments became larger, I was no longer able to touch my clients, and the joy of my work is to experience the joy of my clients,” Walsh says. When she opened her own shop, she put a greater emphasis on service, letting her clients drive the bus, so to speak, and simply helping them achieve the design and functionality they need. “My style is my clients’ style,” Walsh says. “I sit down with them and learn their style. I think that learning experience—placing yourself into your clients’ minds and bodies—is really fun because they see colors differently, they experience objects differently.”
The decision to trade her wardrobe in for a new career, as it turns out, was a good one for Walsh. “Men say their designer cars have a return on value,” she remarks, “and it turns out designer clothes do as well.”
Designing for Arnold Palmer
When golf legend Arnold Palmer and his late wife, Winnie, wanted design assistance, they hired Walsh, who worked on both their personal residences and the clubhouses of their golf clubs. The clients were a good combined catch for Walsh: Winnie reportedly loved interior design, but she gave up plans for a career in the field when, she once said, she “ran away to marry a golfer.”
Founded in 1873, Pittsburgh’s Duquesne Club has evolved from a fraternity of prominent industrialists—so-called robber barons who found success during the rise of the steel, oil, and banking industries—to one of the most sophisticated clubs in the city. It hadn’t been refurbished in years when Walsh was asked to handle the task, but that fact was actually a selling point. “All the colors had come back in vogue,” she says.