Executive Spotlight: William Caligari Jr., co-owner, William Caligari Interiors

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PITTSFIELD — William Caligari Jr. was 13 when his parents sent him to a day camp in Great Barrington. He was the only local kid there. Everyone else came from the New York City area.

Caligari befriended many of his fellow campers and, six years later, those connections made the budding interior designer comfortable enough to enroll in a certificate program at the New York School of Interior Design.

Caligari now runs William Caligari Interiors in his hometown of Great Barrington, one of several small family enterprises he co-owns with his older brother, Jeffrey. The Caligari family of businesses goes back to the 1890s, when William's grandfather, Eugenio, who came to the U.S. from his native Italy at age 30, founded a paint contracting business. The family businesses were so well-known in Great Barrington that a commercial area of Main Street just south of Cottage Street once was known as the "Caligari Block."

We spoke with Caligari recently about his craft, how he developed his style and some of the projects he has worked on.

Q: You've said that you prefer to sketch when you're developing an idea instead of using a computer program. Why?

A: I feel pretty strongly about that. AutoCad and computer-aided design software [are] the ideal thing to use for drawing the final floor plans and specifications that go to the job site, because they're much more legible and easier to change than the old hand-drawn drawing that I did when I started.

But, I really feel you can't work as quickly and creatively and be as connected to a design through the initial stage of doing a design through a computer as just working on paper.

Q: You keep your drawings in sketchbooks.

A: You can take this to the job site with you. After all these years, I'm pretty good at drawing to scale.

Q: You've also said you avoid using computer programs in the early stages because you believe you can find the solution through error. Can you give me an example?

A: We've had Canyon Ranch as a client since 1995. ... But, in 1995, they didn't know me. I was just this guy from the hardware store in Lenox and they were a big company in the Berkshires. So, I get to know their owners a little bit and they liked me and wanted to give me a chance at something.

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So, they asked me to redesign the reception area in the skin department. ... It was a real difficult space. ... I took all that stuff home and started sketching. ... God, I worked on it for a couple of days and just couldn't come up with anything.

Finally, one evening, I got so frustrated that I just drew a circle on it and walked away. I came back a little later and looked at it and said, "Oh, my God, that's the solution." We're going to do a round reception area in the middle and do the display around it. And we designed the program based on that. ... That can't happen in a computer program, but it happens all the time, I notice, when I'm doing these sketches and drawings because my hand might rub across something and create a smudge or something and I might say, "Oh, yeah. I'll put a chair there."

Q: Your drawing seems very artistic. Were you involved in art in any way?

A: As far as art is concerned, I'm pretty good. I'm not a natural. It took me a lot of practice and work to become pretty good at drawing.

Q: Are you self-taught?

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A: I took some drawing courses at the New York School of Interior Design. Then I went to open studio at IS 183 in Stockbridge for years. You just go for three hours; they have a model on Monday night and you just draw the figure.

That's the best way to learn how to draw. It's like anything else. If you want to be good at cycling, ride your bike. If you want to be good at drawing, draw.

Q: Why did you become an interior designer?

A: When I was in high school, for some reason I wanted to go into interior design versus architecture. I can't explain why, but I did. I think it had something to do with the paint store and design.

I moved to New York in 1981, when I was 19, and started to work in the industry at the same time I was taking courses at the New York School of Interior Design, which I did for three years.

Q: Why did you come back to the Berkshires?

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A: I wasn't planning on coming back. Then my dad called me [in New York] one day, it must have been late 1988, and said, "You know, your brothers came back to the business in their 20s; it's not fair if you come back when you're 35 and be a full-time partner."... I just made a snap decision, and decided to come back and join the family business.

Q: One of your projects was restoring the interior of Bellefontaine at Canyon Ranch, a former mansion that was originally built in 1896. How do you approach a project like that?

A: It is hard when you get into an historic building. There's only so much you can do. You don't want it to lose its character.

There's a little bit of research involved in understanding what it was and what it looked like. Then there's the communication with the client. Are they on board with that connection to the past, and do we want to make the connection to the past in a very literal way, or do we want to make the connection to the past in a cleaner, abstractive way, which we did in that dining room?

If someone buys a 19th-century estate in the Berkshires, most of the time they're going to want to keep it that way.

Q: You've begun designing marijuana dispensaries. How did that come about?

A: The owner of Berkshire Roots on Dalton Avenue [in Pittsfield] hired us to come in and design that space for them. ... We used a lot of stone and a lot of wood. I did a really low light for a retail space. ... It worked out really well.

What's happening in the marijuana industry now, in Massachusetts particularly, is that all these dispensaries are open and everyone's checking out the ones that are open. Everyone liked that one a lot. So, we're getting hired by all these dispensaries to design their dispensaries from that. We did one in Framingham and we did one in Attleboro; those are both under construction.

Q: Will this be a new revenue stream for you?

A: Yes. [But] I think it's something that's going to come and go. There are some national firms that have really focused on just doing dispensaries. We're not going to do that. I'm thrilled to work on these projects and happy to have the clients, but I'm not marketing myself and pursuing dispensaries as a sole type of project. I really like doing everything.


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