Playing with Color | Bay Pop Magazine

April 1, 2012

The boyishly handsome Rob Bowen enjoys favored-person status in St. Petersburg. Not only is the accomplished interior designer a local (he grew up on St. Pete Beach), but Bowen pals around with noteworthy clients—and friends—like HSN CEO Mindy Grossman. Moreover, he knows the intimate details of the lives of the rich and famous as the stylist of their luxe mansions and modern condos. In fact, Bowen, 34, dictates where his clients store their Christian Louboutin pumps and Zegna power suits, and, in one case, their sex swing (but more on that later).

Bowen’s boutique interior design firm, SPACE, specializes in adding shocking bursts of color to otherwise neutral palettes. Ultimately, these neon green, bright orange and deep red splashes work. “I’m not afraid of color or texture,” he enthuses, “but I use it sparingly. For a home I did on Snell Isle, we used beautiful limestone floors and creamy white walls. But when you walk in the kitchen, there’s a 12- by 15-foot lime green wall. It’s fun to interject textures, fabrics and colors into these neutral boxes.”

Luckily, the current trend in design is color, which dovetails nicely with Rob’s penchant for bright hues. That and “over-the-top” texturing. Envision crushed velvet and black patent leather in your home—not just in your wardrobe. “For a while, the market and economy were down, so people who were building homes played it safe,” Bowen explains. “Now that property values are coming back up, they’re like, ‘Let’s go crazy with it. I want hot pink. I want bows.’ They’re not afraid of it. In Mindy’s apartment, I did black lacquer doors, baseboards and crown molding. It’s so dramatic, but you balance it out with white Venetian plaster that’s shiny. They work well together.”

Rob thoroughly enjoys collaborating with his clients—often before the architect is even hired: “I have two clients right now who said, ‘Look, we really love your vision. If you could just find us somewhere to build a house, that would be awesome.’ We found great pieces of property and they said, ‘If you could put us in touch with the right architect, that would be great.’ ” The Florida State alum also advises on landscaping, AV plans, lighting and the ecology of a client’s house. “I’m such a control freak,” he admits. Right down to a light switch being placed based on the client’s height.

In 2010, Bowen designed one of the first LEED-certified platinum homes (over 5,000 square feet) in Pinellas County. Eco-friendly touches encompassed lighting systems with one master control (in order to cut down on outlets and switches), LED lighting, reclaimed floors and Zero VOC paints. “The cost of the technology has come down since then,” Rob notes. “LED lighting is quite popular now. They’re not these big cans anymore. The paints are getting better and cheaper. Everyone has caught on and realized that you can actually save money while doing a good thing for the environment by just being smart. And you’re not sacrificing design anymore, which is nice.”

Another tool in Bowen’s arsenal is custom-designing furniture. This comes in handy with condos and their often odd configurations. The Ovation building in St. Petersburg, for example, is completely round. “It goes back to my obsessive-compulsive thing because there is such a level of detail that I strive for,” Rob says. “It’s difficult to find a mass-produced piece that has the level of detail that I’m happy with. However, you can create a cabinet with 10 drawers in it and two of them have outlets so you can plug in your blow dryer. Clients appreciate that level of detail. Or if there’s a zigzag on the floor, we can incorporate the zigzag into the cabinet.” However, he’s not shy about occasionally adding stylish elements from furniture retailers like West Elm, Crate & Barrel and Z Gallerie.

Furthermore, no request is too odd: He placed a seven-foot tall, full taxidermy green peacock in Grossman’s apartment. He’s applied wallpaper with inlaid feathers. A nude scene of a client’s wife created out of mosaic tiles in the steam shower. Stripper poles. A swing over the bed. The latter sex toy was concealed with a small, mirrored cap in a $10 million home in Clearwater. When you hit a button the winch drops down. “If you request it, we’ll do it,” Rob asserts. “We just play it off like, ‘Oh, that again?’ Because you don’t want anyone to be uncomfortable.”

In fact, Bowen has become chummy with all of his clients. “You’re designing their home, and by the time you’re done, you know what side of the bed they’re sleeping on and where their toothbrush is,” he reveals. “You know such intimate details about their lives.” The collaborative process begins almost immediately, with patrons creating a book of inspiration for Bowen to design from. Images he has encountered include a red Porsche, green Judith Leiber frog brooch and white Hermès Birkin bag with red piping. “I have them make a list of things they love,” Bowen continues, “such as ‘I’m more Ralph Lauren than Calvin Klein.’ And then it’s like, ‘I hate bows. I hate polka dots. I love color. I love stripes.’ And that says enough.”

So, where does Bowen’s personal inspiration come from? “I always knew design was my passion,” he declares. “I was moving my mom’s house a couple months ago and I found blueprints that I had drawn of my room when I was like 10. She wouldn’t let me paint my walls, so I would cover them with construction paper and just really have fun with it.” His career took a circuitous route, from working as an assistant for a Ralph Lauren furniture rep to buying and selling real estate in the mid 2000s. Along the way, he fixed up homes for friends and family for free. That all culminated when he designed his own apartment in downtown St. Pete in late 2008.

Subsequently, this showplace condo, which he shares with his partner Bob Glaser, has become his number-one generator of new business. The 2,500-square-foot penthouse, which is currently on the market, features 12 55-pound Buddha heads, a marble-tiled fireplace, distressed ebony oak-plank flooring and brazen shots of color. “When it’s your home, you can take some serious risks,” Rob explains. “I’ve had people walk into my condo who have beautiful 30,000-square-foot, over-the-top Mediterranean homes with layers of beautiful silk draperies. And they’re like, ‘We want to live here. It’s clean. We can wake up every morning and there’s not stuff everywhere.’ That was my springboard into the market. They were like, ‘Here’s this guy who’s bucking every trend. Let’s go with him.’ The house was published and it was a snowball effect from there.”

As a result, he’s also become known as the condo guy. Because Rob has worked extensively with many of the local towers, he has an advantage other designers don’t. “Clients want someone who’s familiar with the building,” he says. “Having experience in each one of the buildings really helps. You know how big the sofas have to be to fit in the elevators. You know the corners that are difficult to get past. It can be tricky when you have a client who is used to living in a home and just having a ton of space. In a house, there are rooms that you don’t use and closets that are half full. You have to use every square-inch of a condo. You give up a little of your privacy, but you also can just lock your door and walk out.”

On deck for Bowen and SPACE are seven homes in development from Tampa to Clearwater, and the redesign of over 20 Community Banks as part of that company’s rebranding effort. He’s also receiving kudos for the décor of the recently launched Tryst Gastro Lounge on Beach Drive in St. Pete, which is moody and romantic. Conceivably one day soon, Bowen will introduce his own line of homewares—perhaps on HSN. It’s not in the immediate future, though: “I have great clients that I’m working with. I don’t know if it would be my strength to be like, ‘Oh, I’m just a genius. I’ve re-created bedding.’ I’m not blazing any trails. It’s more of how I put it all together.”

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