First Families of Design
The Thomsons, the Bolens and their legacies
Photos by Charlie Neuenschwander
Oklahoma City’s interior design landscape is liberally dotted with talented individuals and firms providing top-notch services. However, there are two companies that hold special places in the hearts and homes of the metro residents they’ve helped through the years.
Thomson + Thomson and Fanny Bolen Interiors were founded by two of the first families of design in Oklahoma City, so to speak, and that heritage seems to be key to both their longevity and their lasting relevance in the metro’s interior design world.
Thomson + Thomson: Old-School Artistry Meets Cutting-Edge Technology
In every sense of the word, Thomson + Thomson is a family business. Its original incarnation was founded 60 years ago by Ron Thomson; his son Cam met Dencie, one of his father’s interns, while working there, and the two married. They eventually provided the company with two more employees: son Ashford and daughter Cody.
The advantage of that kind of generational knowledge, when it comes to understanding and implementing great design techniques, isn’t lost on the younger Thomsons.
Cody says, “Growing up, I didn’t realize that everyone wasn’t having these precepts of design ingrained into them.”
Ashford and Cody both studied photography in college, enhancing their design upbringing with artistic eyes for composition and realizing how it translates to the world of interiors.
They’ve combined forces with their father to continue their grandfather’s legacy … but also to bring a little more of the 21st century to the firm, by introducing a more technologically savvy focus, one that Cody is quick to point out is a good balance for the artisanal factor that her father still provides.
“One of our father’s biggest attributes is his ability to hand-render,” Cody says. “He does all of these incredible drawings by hand for every project — instead of the common initial planning through computer aided design — and then Ashford and I translate it into the technical realm. It’s such an awesome balance. We’re able to maintain old-school artistry with cutting-edge technology.”
Thomson + Thomson offers a la carte design options and full service for clients working on a residence or commercial setting, but Cody feels that they’re at their strongest when they’re in charge from the outset, and that their clients receive the biggest benefit from their strengths when they’re involved in the project from the beginning.
“We’ve always encouraged clients to consider that furniture should be considered throughout the whole design process,” Cody says. “Where we feel we have a leg-up is our ability to see design in an overarching way and realize that if all factors are considered from the outset, there’s more potential for better results than when the process is compartmentalized. But we can elevate any project, at any point.”
The educational background of the partners, combined with the informal osmosis that can occur in a family atmosphere, has produced individual strengths as well as a cohesiveness perfectly suited for delivering next-generation design.
Cody emphasizes that a solid foundation and understanding of design as a whole is paramount to facility with variety — something Thomson + Thomson values.
“We try to maintain versatility,” she says. “We don’t have a defining style as a firm. Instead we have several individuals who may be better at one school of aesthetic than another, but we want the client’s vision to be the driving force.”
Thomson + Thomson’s strength as residential designers carries over into their commercial work, as well, blending the needs of a business with the familiarity of a home. That’s an important consideration for commercial clients who want to provide a welcoming and beautiful atmosphere for customers and company staff alike.
“We like to put residential flair into our commercial jobs,” Cody says.
While their technical expertise and range of effectiveness give them an edge, Ashford believes that their strength as a firm is their ability to bridge the gap between a client’s vision and the challenges that architecture or other aspects of the project may pose.
“We can gauge the client’s style without pushing our own,” Ashford says, “We create a relationship between what they love and what we believe is best for a fluidity along the design process.”
Fanny Bolen Interiors: The House Doctors
When she started the company that bears her name in 1984, Fanny Bolen wasn’t necessarily envisioning a family enterprise — but she believes she came by her instincts naturally, and that sometimes an eye for beauty is in your genes.
“My parents were always gardeners, and always beautifying things,” she says. “My children all have great eyes for color, for flower arrangement — I think it’s just something some people have a knack for.”
Fanny welcomed the help of her daughter Bebe Bolen MacKellar when she came into the business in the early ’90s to facilitate some modernization. “I helped get things computerized, sort of brought it into this century,” MacKellar says. Then, after a few years, she was ready for another challenge.
“In 1995, Oklahoma City didn’t have a lot of outlets for buying unique things,” MacKellar explains. “So I dragged Mom to DecorX in Chicago. We were there for the day, I started buying stuff, and Mom said, ‘Where are you going to put all this?’ I said, ‘I think I’ll just open a shop!’”
That was the birth of Bebe’s, which quickly became a fixture for metro residents seeking singular home furnishings. “It went hand in hand with what Mom was doing,” MacKellar says. “She always needed quality accessories, and remember, this was before the ease of Internet shopping.”
The strain of running a business like Bebe’s eventually wore thin, however, and MacKellar decided to sell her beautiful shop to Karen Samis, a former customer who despaired at the idea of the OKC fixture going away completely.
MacKellar took a job in New York City, with a jeweler … but then 9/11 happened. She decided to return home, and re-joined forces with her mother, an arrangement that has made for a formidable decorating team with an undeniable family spirit — one that spills over into their company as a whole, and pervades their decorating mode of operation.
“Our team has a ton of fun,” she says. “The movers we use, we’ve had for a long time, and we’ve been all over the country. They’re like our family, too.”
If there is such a thing as relational decorating, the Fanny Bolen Interiors team embodies it. You get an experience with Fanny and Bebe — it’s more than advice about colors and placement. They want to enhance your home life, and they put their considerable talents to work learning about what you really want, and how best to express it. “What we can pull out of a client is different from what someone else can,” MacKellar says.
Bolen told the story of a client who insisted that they hated red … until she showed them some key fabric choices that she thought would appeal to them, and they realized that they just needed to see it in a different way.
“A good decorator gives you the confidence to make the choices you really want to make deep down,” Bolen says. “You’re like a doctor for their house.”
“Mom can do any style,” MacKellar adds, “and I’d like to think I’m the same way: traditional, modern, French. We can do beach houses! It shouldn’t be our style that we’re imposing, it should always be the client’s, at its highest level. The best it can be. And carried out in the right way.”
Fanny Bolen Interiors — and their impressive results — have built a loyal following. Clients will hire them for a home decor design, and then call on them again for seasonal decorating, entertaining, even choosing their dishes.
Fanny and Bebe’s professionalism, eye for detail and exquisite aesthetic, combined with their comforting, counselor-like approach and infectious enthusiasm, make their service special among their peers.
Their passion for what they do is evident, and their fun-loving personalities make something that can be intense — a decorating project — an adventure.
“It’s a beautiful business to be in,” Bolen says. “I look forward to coming to work. It’s just fun.”