Venus Williams serves up interior design

RENAISSANCE WOMAN: Venus Williams has four full-time professional designers at her V Starr Interiors firm, including, ...
Willie J. Allen Jr/The Washington Post

RENAISSANCE WOMAN: Venus Williams has four full-time professional designers at her V Starr Interiors firm, including, from left, Michelle Koppelman, Sanna Mehlin Tilley and Ariana Ranieri.

This is what you get when you hire Venus Williams as your interior decorator: an enthusiastic designer who has travelled the world, drawing inspiration from Moscow to Beijing, but never quite had time to complete formal training; a team of professionals working with her; and a place on a client list that includes celebrities and professional athletes.

And, of course, you get Venus Williams.

She's one of the great tennis players of all time: seven Grand Slam singles titles, an Olympic gold medal, a woman who changed the face of modern tennis. Her father gave her a racket when she was just 4 years old and told her she was going to become the best player in the world.

"Most people decide what they want to do later in life, and some people know really early," she says. "For me, what I was doing was already decided. Thankfully, I liked it." But that was her father's dream, not hers. "This was like when you get to make your own choice about what you love."

And Williams loves, loves, loves designing. She talks about space planning, construction, lighting and fabric swatches like nobody's business. In fact, it is a business: for more than a decade, she has quietly run an interior design firm in her adopted home of Florida, both capitalising on and overcoming her famous name.

On Friday night, she'll be in the District of Columbia for the unveilling of her latest work: the renovated Southeast Tennis and Learning Centre, an after-school tennis, arts and academic programme created for children. Other people at the gala will see her as the tennis legend; she's there as the person responsible for the look and feel of the space.

"As a designer, you design and it's beautiful and people feel great when they walk in - but how have you changed the world?" she asks. "For us, this sort of project means so much to us because it's going to impact so many lives."


Williams had been playing tennis for 14 years - and was two years away from her first Wimbledon and U.S. Open singles titles in 2000 - when a letter arrived on her doorstep when she was 17 or 18. She can't remember if it was addressed to her or was a random solicitation, but it invited her to study art and design at a technical school in Tampa, Florida.

"Oh, I want to go to design school!" she remembers telling her mum. She loved being creative: She grew up sewing and still has the homemade skirts she made for her first professional tournament at age 14.

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Tampa was too far from their southern Florida home, so her mother vetoed that plan. But she allowed Williams and younger sister Serena to enroll in a Fort Lauderdale, Florida arts school, where they both studied fashion design. Between training, practice and travelling the world for tennis, they learned pattern-making, clothing construction, textile design and computer programming.

It was not, as one might guess, a calming counterpoint to their gruelling day job. "School was not relaxing. It was intense," says Williams. "I had breakdowns just like any other student. I worked a little bit slower because I liked everything perfect." The other students weren't fazed by their famous classmate because "everyone was so stressed out that they didn't really care." Williams graduated in 2007 with a degree in fashion design and launched a small sportswear line called EleVen to a mixed reception.

But it was interior design that really captured her imagination. While travelling, she would slip away to explore art and museums - in Moscow, for example, she loved the intricate ceilings of St. Basil's Cathedral. She began reading books on interior design and consulted with professional decorators.

In 2002, after finding a partner who could handle the business while she was on the road, Williams founded V Starr Interiors, a small boutique firm in Jupiter, Florida, not far from where her family lived after moving from California when she was 10 years old. The real estate market was booming; she thought it was the perfect time to try to break into the field.

Everyone knew who she was, of course, but some people assumed she was just a titular owner with no talent. (Early on, the state of Florida reportedly reprimanded V Starr for overstating Williams' professional credentials.) Others were happy to hire V Starr solely for the publicity of having Williams attached to their projects: Two years ago, Williams and her team decorated a $US6.5 million luxury model condo for a Boca Raton development. Her name and photo were splashed all over promotional material and Florida real estate magazines.

"No matter who you are or what you do, you have to be good at it," she says. "You have to have the right team. You have to start at the bottom. The advantage that I had was to be able to open doors. You can get into a meeting. But when you get into the meeting, it doesn't mean it will go well."

Today, the firm has four full-time professional designers, all women. The operation is housed in a small townhouse with a discreet sign out front, but there is no hint of the famous owner until you step into the foyer, where there are small photos and two tennis prints. The second floor is filled with fabric samples; the third with a workroom where all the designers sit together. Williams doesn't have an office; when she's in town, she perches at the main worktable with her laptop.

Williams is the only one on the team without a degree in interior design. She studied it for two years - "I would sit there and draw a line, then erase it, and draw it and erase it. I drove myself nuts" - before finally deciding she could be more effective to the company if she got a business degree. (She's working on it.) It was, all things considered, the practical choice: Williams, now 34 years old, heads an estimated $60 million empire.

But she's deeply involved in all of the design projects, emailing ideas back and forth while on the road. V Starr began with residential work including houses for a couple of NBA stars. "Oh, they're the easiest," she says. "They just want it done. They're very busy. They tell you what they want, you do it, and then they're very happy." But she quickly got bored with home design and switched the firm's focus to commercial work - hotels, condos, clubs and other projects - because "I wanted to be creative on a wider scale and think outside the box."


The Southeast Tennis and Learning Centre opened in 2001 with guests of honour Venus and Serena Williams. Getting the tennis superstars was a huge coup by founder Cora Masters Barry, wife of former Mayor Marion Barry and a longtime personal friend of the Williams family. The centre has just completed an $18 million expansion and renovation, which transformed the District of Columbia facility into a modern arena - 48,000-square-feet, six indoor courts and more slated for outdoors - now eligible to host U.S. Tennis Association tournaments and other competitions.

Barry, an avid tennis player herself, had long planned to name the new arena in honour of the Williams sisters, but it didn't occur to her to involve Williams in the design process until Williams' older sister, Isha Price, said she thought Venus would be interested in the project.

Williams and Barry sat down with blueprints, her team toured the facility, and they began playing around with colour, themes, and photos that would hang on the centre's walls. Barry got excited when Williams said she wanted to do something bright with a lot of colour - "something that the kids would really enjoy and learn from."

How the design overall stacks up against other professional work, perhaps with a less famous name attached, is tricky to answer - clients who hire Venus Williams get her imprimatur, her aesthetic, and everything she represents. For a hotel, it's hard to calculate. For a tennis centre, Williams is probably always on the short list. Barry is thrilled with the results.

Williams' work includes bold, graphic panels explaining the rules of tennis, but the main design focus is the inspirational quotes sprinkled throughout the educational and athletic wings. V Starr came up with the concept; Barry took weeks selecting the people (mostly notable African-Americans) and the best advice from each, including students from the centre who went to college on tennis scholarships. Barry's favourite quote hangs in the conditioning room, next to a huge photo of Muhammad Ali: "I hated every minute of training, but I said, 'Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.' "

V Starr was paid for the project, but the company declined to disclose the fee, citing confidentiality. A representative for Turner Construction, the general contractor for the renovation, said the company received approximately $30,000.


On a trip to Beijing earlier this year, Williams sought out an outdoor antique market she had visited years before. She remembered they had "amazing" stones and minerals, and wanted to bring back something special for a custom door design the firm was creating. No one spoke English, and no one really understood her Chinese.

"I know how to say 'too expensive,'" says Williams, who brought back three geodes - one for the door, two for herself.

She just sold her midcentury Hollywood Hills house - a project she never had time to finish - and the plans to build a dream home in Florida are on hold. "It's always a dream house until you realise you don't want all the things you dreamed," she explains. "Why am I doing this? I just want a closet and a gym."

For the moment, tennis is still her top priority: more majors, a spot with the Washington Kastles, and one more shot at gold at the 2016 Olympics. She'll play as long as she's healthy and having fun. After that? Designing full-time because the thing she likes most is working with creative people.

"I enjoy getting that rush, doing something else cool, something new," she says. "I definitely will travel the world taking meetings."

 - The Washington Post


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