Comfort Whisperer

“WE DIDN’T REALLY CHANGE a thing architecturally,” says Roger Thomas, the famously meticulous Las Vegas designer, looking at the eight sunbrowned acres outside the nearly all-white Fairfax house he retreats to from Sin City on weekends.

The modern, L-shaped 5,000-square-foot concrete and glass block home in Marin was designed by architect Dan Solomon in 1992 as a live-work residence for a photographer and his wife. An essentially one-level structure, it holds a sunken, loft-like 12-foot-high open-plan living space that steps up to a kitchen on the east side and, in the northwest wing, to an enclosed swimming pool skirted by a wide ramp leading to a guest room and master suite.

Thomas, head of design at Wynn Resorts, is responsible for Steve Wynn’s lavishly baroque casino and restaurant interiors such as Wynn Las Vegas and Wynn Macau; his husband, Art Libera, is a licensing agent for designers. They didn’t anticipate living an hour north of San Francisco when looking for a contemporary second home back in 2008, but the city didn’t offer a lot of options in that style at the time.

“Lucky for us, even during the home-buying frenzy of those years, no one wanted a modern building in Marin,” Thomas says. “This one is not even a typical family home, but it was just right for us. All we had to do was add a little color.”

They kept the white ceilings and pale maple floors and replaced ordinary white tiles in the master bath with white linac veined marble. For the dining room walls, decorative painters Mark Evans and Charley Brown echoed the look of a grove of live oak trees, seen through French windows in the living room, with the brownish-olive tones in 19th-century artist Jacques-Louis David’s portraits of French nobles. Lavender grays in other artwork inspired expertly mixed full chromatic paints by Bob Kunst for the walls in the master suite.

Thomas added scrim shades to filter the strong south light streaming in from French windows in the living space, and new pale yellow floor-to-ceiling Holly Hunt wool drapes hang like fluted columns. “She had the perfect fabric that looked like the faded landscape outside and we developed this simple top pleat detail for them that I use often now,” Thomas says. The drapes add just the right note of Classicism for the room furnishings that, besides second-century Hellenic statuary, include vintage Russian and Czech deco tables (that have to be stacked for lack of space), artwork by Giorgio Morandi, Chuck Close and Andy Warhol and a side table by Bay Area designer John Dickinson.

“Of course, everything is moved constantly,” Thomas says. “It is my way of thinking and creating new designs.”

“Roger uses our home as a laboratory. It is another universe far from Las Vegas and it allows him to regroup and work on his Roger Thomas Collection of products,” Libera adds.

The basement darkroom of the formerly spartan photo studio is now Libera’s home office, where he licenses the Roger Thomas Collection, which includes some tableware. The rest of the house is a canvas for Thomas, who sometimes does his arranging and rearranging of objects simply in anticipation of a lunch party for friends.

Naturally, for Thomas, entertainment is serious business.

The dining table, designed by the original architect for the previous owner and made by Marin’s Thomas Fetherston, is a crucial component. Thomas, who has to make sure every seat he creates for Wynn’s casino resorts will keep his audience happily captive, designed his own animistic chairs, from a sketch he made of Wynn’s dog’s legs, to be comfortable for at least six hours.

No detail is too insignificant for Vegas’s comfort whisperer. Party invites come first.

“There isn’t always time to do it right, but I like to start with a handwritten invitation,” he says. “Where I was raised, in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, invitations were handwritten and mailed.”

Even catered lunches need a properly set table, he adds. “I look for comfort and consideration in table settings. Nothing is worse than having to fight with table decor when you sit down.” For instance, large napkins — to cover the lap completely — are folded to open with the lightest touch. And “there are always place name cards for everybody, to split couples and help along any friction and interest we’ve created in the guest list. I collect place name cards wherever I go and always keep a large selection on hand, to coordinate with anything that might be fresh and inspirational at the flower market, for my table arrangements.”

All shades of green are favored, as they coordinate with almost any color scheme in flowers. Likewise with showcasing food: simple white china for most courses allows the meal to be the star. Dessert dishes and place chargers are the exception; they can be highly decorated and over-the-top.

“We dispense with preprinted menus because the market determines what is available fresh, but we set the table with dishes, napkins and glassware, then suggest a silver service for the caterer to suit the menu she creates,” Thomas says.

Here too, visual and physical comfort rule. Sterling flatware has to be gleaming, and only menu-appropriate utensils are offered, placed for easy access. To avoid clutter, Thomas prefers salt-and-pepper bowls between each place setting rather than one set for each guest.

Such details are extra-important because “our lunches are for designers, fellow artists and creators,” Libera chimes in. These might include Bay Area designers Paul Wiseman and Ken Fulk or painters like Evans and Brown.

“If there is a lull in the conversation, I like to suggest a change of venue to the living room, or, if the day is beautiful, a walk out to the garden,” Thomas says. For someone like him who spends all week working in the desert, “these old California trees are to be admired. Even when we are inside, we feel like we are in a marvelous tree house.”

View the gallery below for more photos.

Zahid Sardar

Zahid Sardar brings an extensive range of design interests and keen knowledge of Bay Area design culture to SPACES magazine. He is a San Francisco editor, curator and author specializing in global architecture, interiors, landscape and industrial design. His work has appeared in numerous design publications as well as the San Francisco Chronicle for which he served as an influential design editor for 22 years. Sardar serves on the San Francisco Decorator Showcase design advisory board.