Sally Wilson on Trends, Tools, Inspirations + More

Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting virtually with with Boston interior designer Sally Wilson of Wilson Kelsey Design. Wilson Kelsey Design is an award winning residential and commercial interior design company co-owned by Sally Wilson and her husband, John Kelsey. In our interview, Sally discusses how she got her start, where her inspiration comes from, advice for new designers, and more!

Sally, Can you tell us why you became an interior designer?

When I found myself at a secretarial position after graduating from college with an English Literature degree, I had to sit back and take stock of my situation. I knew I couldn't survive long as a secretary! I did some career exploration and talent assessments and came to understand that I had to be in a field where I could be creative. As I investigated a few fields (such as art gallery ownership and journalism) the career of interior designer came out on top. I went back to school for a second degree and studied architecture and interiors.

Wilson Kelsey Design Interior on Comm Ave
And can you tell us more about how you got your start?
I’m a big believer in study and education, so I knew I wanted a full degree in interior design before going out there and trying to be an expert. So, after 4 years at an architectural college I graduated magna cum laude and started with a local architectural firm as their sole interior designer. They did a lot of schools and office buildings. I became creative with tile! I also worked on an Inn, for which I did custom wrought iron designs in the New Orleans manner. That was quite an interesting start. I was only there one year while my husband finished his PhD, and then we move to Boston. I set my sights on working for a big, famous firm, either in interiors solely, or architecture and interiors. I felt I would learn more of the essential construction details in a corporate setting than I would in a residential firm. And those skills I could take with me into anything I wanted to do in the future. I landed a position with a firm that was named Hugh Stubbins and Associates at that time. My first job with them was doing the New England headquarters for the Prudential Insurance Corporation. My boss was a great mentor.

Wilson Kelsey Design Interior of Beach House Game Room
Where do you get your inspiration?
From drawing. When you are trained with sketching it allows you to “see” a space when you are drawing it. I find that ideas come to me when I am sketching that might not have come to me if I was just sitting back and "thinking." You are accessing your brain in a different way. But I’m a firm believer that "design is thinking." It’s just that you can think so much better with a pencil!

Wilson Kelsey Design Interior for Design Show 2011
What design tools can you absolutely not live without?
A pencil, naturally, and mathematics. Design involves a lot of numbers and accuracy, geometry and such. Otherwise, color and fabrics are probably two of my signatures. I love being adventurous with them.

Wilson Kelsey Design Interior of Pride's Crossing Sitting Room
On that note, what hot trend are you loving right now?
I have always avoided trends, because I like my designs to be there for the long haul. I like things people won’t get tired of. The only time I even think of trends is when I know a space has a limited life span - like a 5 year lease, or a family that will only live somewhere for three years. Then I think the sky is the limit, because the long term is not in the program as a requirement.

Wilson Kelsey Design Interior of Sullivan Living Room
What advice would you give to up and coming interior designers?
For up and coming designers: keep studying throughout your life and never think you know it all. Contain your ego and don’t fall in love with your own designs. Be flexible. Think of 7 different ways of doing a space, knowing 6 of those solutions will go in the waste can. That’s creativity. The best idea rises to the top.

Great advice. What else?
For people who think they want to BE a designer: Think not twice, but 4 times! HGTV has made it look easy, cheap and fun. Real creativity and handling the public (your clients) has never been easy, cheap, and totally fun. It is difficult, demanding work, and only the really, really good people survive. Don’t skip school because you think you have "the touch." You'll learn things in the critique process of studio teaching that you won’t even know to ask yourself if you are on your own.


Sally Wilson, ASID, is the co-owner of Wilson Kelsey Design in the Boston area. She has been an active designer for 30 years, working in both the commercial sector and residential sector. Her work is noted for its attention to detail and thoughtful layering of ideas, individualized for each client’s personality. She and her husband, who is her design partner, are both known for their ability to anticipate and intuitively understand their clients’ needs and desires. They work wherever their clients are.