For as long as Larry West Jr. can remember, he has enjoyed moving furniture around, making sure rooms were efficiently organized but still visually appealing.
He lent his talents to his sister’s Barbie dollhouse, his neighbors’ homes, and to his own furniture placed in and out of a seemingly endless stream of moving vans.
No task was too small. Interior design became his passion. But for years, as a child of rural Arkansas, he had no idea he could ever make a living out of doing what he loved.
Now, he’s one of the top interior designers in the state. His expertise is sought out, not only in Arkansas, but across the country.
“Growing up in Hickory Ridge, being an interior designer just wasn’t in the thought process,” West says. “I just didn’t have encouragement. My mom didn’t know any better. She fought me tooth and nail in doing this work.
“She wanted me to go to college and get a degree in marketing or communications. I was decorating people’s houses for free on weekends. All along it was in my head what I wanted to do. I just didn’t think I could make any money off of it. That’s a shame because I probably wasted 10 years of my life. I could have been doing this a lot longer than the 22 years I’ve done it.”
THE MONEY SHOT
These days, West is volunteering as design coordinator for the 2018 Arkansas Symphony Orchestra Guild’s Designer House. The event serves as a fundraiser for the guild’s music education programs. Interior designers from across Arkansas donate their time and talent to designing individual rooms in the house, which this year is at 8 Valley Creek View in Little Rock’s Valley Falls Estates.
Running Friday through May 13, the Designer House will be open daily for tours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1-4 p.m. Sunday (closed Mondays). Single-day tour tickets are $20; run-of-show, $35. Tickets can be bought at the door. Associated parties will also be held as fundraisers as part of the overall goal of raising as much as $250,000.
During a recent interview at the Designer House with Latin music in the background, crews worked hard painting, laying carpet and refinishing cabinetry and kitchen counters. The 8,500-square-foot house contains more than 20 rooms so there is much space to plan, design and furnish, including one upstairs game room that was previously Razorback red. “We’ve painted it and cleaned it up, so if you are Razorbacks fan, I’m sorry,” West says, chuckling.
His favorite part of the house is the entryway with a grand staircase and a view of a spectacular arched window wall overlooking the backyard pool and patio. “I’m in love with all this,” he says. “At the end of the day, this will probably be the money shot.”
West’s role with the Designer House is to work with the designers to coordinate a level of continuity throughout the house to help ensure that after the event, the owners will still be able to sell their house without complications. It’s a task well-suited for West. He loves making order out of chaos.
“I think it makes me better when I’m presented with a mess. When things are lined up neatly I don’t like it because it shouldn’t be that easy.”
“I think it makes me better when I’m presented with a mess,” West says. “When things are lined up neatly I don’t like it because it shouldn’t be that easy.”
His message to the designers for the house is: Be creative but don’t focus on using the opportunity to advertise services. He wants them to always keep the cause in mind.
“I love music,” West, a former French horn and saxophone player in high school, says. “I love everything we’re doing about this. When I was a kid, I didn’t have the opportunity to learn from the symphony. I love everything the guild is doing. If the designers were being persnickety we didn’t want them. Some designers didn’t want to do this because they didn’t get the room they wanted. That’s not the point. We didn’t do this for us. We’re doing it for this event. People that are in here are doing it because they love it.”
FROM FERTILIZER TO DECOR
West, 54, grew up in Hickory Ridge in Cross County, about 30 miles south of Jonesboro, the son of Patricia and Larry West Sr. His dad owned a fertilizer and pesticide business that served the local bean farmers, so he and his sister, Jennifer (now a retired Little Rock police sergeant), kept busy helping out. Young Larry filled drink boxes, changed oil, cleaned windshields and drove fertilizer trucks in the fields. His playtime activities varied from rearranging his sister’s Barbie dollhouses and playing with Hot Wheels toy cars, to riding his motorcycle.
When he was in seventh grade, his parents divorced. He left for Little Rock with his dad, who by then had taken a job as a traveling manager for General Motors. He attended McClellan High School for a while before moving in with his mother, who had remarried and moved to McCrory. He eventually graduated in 1981 from a high school in Lima, Ohio, where his father had moved.
“I was in love with both of my parents,” West says, explaining the back-and-forth nature of his adolescence. “I didn’t want my parents to be divorced. I couldn’t stand it. When I was missing one, I had to go back. It wasn’t good for me but it gave me the skills I am constantly using today — packing up my things. When I hire movers [for a design job] I really criticize how they pack it in the truck. If they don’t do it the way I want them to, I’ll tell them, and they learn a better way of packing.”
Early adulthood was a period of uncertainty as West tried to figure out his life’s career path. He worked briefly at a Memphis chicken restaurant owned by his grandfather before becoming a bank teller in Memphis and later in Dallas. He also worked as an apartment leasing agent in Dallas before moving back to Arkansas to attend Arkansas State University-Beebe and later the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
By 1994, he had a job as a bookkeeper for an interior design firm, Tom Chandler and Associates in Little Rock. But Chandler soon realized West had a talent for design and placed him at his furniture showroom, Elements of Design, as an interior designer where he charged clients $25 an hour.
West soon went out on his own, founding Interiors West design in 1995. He has home offices in Little Rock and Dallas. His client list includes VCC Construction in Little Rock and Campisi’s Italian restaurants in Texas and countless residential jobs. His fee has increased to a base rate of $150 an hour. “But we work fast!” he quickly adds.
Janet and Sam Alley, chief executive officer of VCC, have been hiring West every Christmastime for more than 20 years to arrange their holiday decorations.
“Larry has a unique talent, number one, at making whoever he is working with feel very comfortable,” Janet Alley says. “He’s constantly reinventing. Every year, he will come in with the same items, or with something totally new, and re-create it into something magnificent. We never know what to expect. We’ve known each other so long so he knows what I like and don’t like. He listens. He takes my thoughts and makes them into something.”
Given his extensive Texas client list, West spends about half of his time in a Little Rock apartment and the other half in a downtown Dallas high-rise apartment he shares with one of his best friends, Marisa Willis. They’ve been friends for about 20 years and moved in together a year ago.
“We said a long time ago that if we’re still single at 50 that we should get a house together and think about taking care of each other for the rest of our lives,” says Willis, a chief financial officer for a money manager. She credits West for landing her current job after he referred her to one of his design clients who was in need of a finance specialist.
The living arrangement works out well for both of them. She has a dog and West has two dogs and a cat. Each likes to go to bed early and get up by 4:30 a.m., which is West’s creative time. He keeps a studio desk near his bed so he can crunch out ideas quickly as they come to him.
“Larry is an open book,” Willis says. “What you see is what you get. He’s always working hard and he’s so personable and funny that people are surprised at how actually very thoughtful he is. He has a deep and well-thought-out intelligence. I’m constantly amazed by him.”
West credits his upbringing with helping him form his ability to successfully navigate varied social situations and mingle among different demographic groups to identify with varied client interests. His father’s family was more conservative and his mother’s more liberal. He’s able to listen and understand where people are coming from and what they need and want. The same goes for his personal life.
“I’m not one of these gay people who refuse to be a part of reality in the sense that they don’t know, or don’t understand, that there are people out there who just don’t get it,” West says. “A lot of gay people just revel in it but the general public really hasn’t caught on to that. I’ve always been one of those gay people who can adapt to surroundings. I came out in the early ’80s. For a long time, I thought I was the only gay person. I honestly thought it was just me. I had to learn how to be gay. I had to learn how to find others [who were gay]. My father still doesn’t get it. But I don’t really want him to. It’s his business. I was tormented by some of the boys growing up because I didn’t play sports. But that stopped in the seventh grade. They just called me ‘sissy.’ But I didn’t care. I had a motorcycle, and they didn’t.”
He credits his mother, a registered nurse, with helping teach him how to stay healthy during his young adult partying years in the 1980s, a time when there was so much uncertainty and misinformation about AIDS.
These days, West has largely left the partying scene behind. Aside from going to the movies frequently, he mostly just works, and that’s OK with him. Given that he spent so much of his earlier years unsure of what to do professionally, he doesn’t view his interior design job now as work.
“I spent a lot of my early 20s dancing and going out with friends,” he says. “I have great memories of that but now what I do is what I love. I took a really awesome vacation last year to Italy, and I loved it but could not wait to get back to work.”
He recalls being hired several years ago to remake Boo at the Zoo, an annual Halloween event at the Little Rock Zoo. That assignment perhaps best demonstrates his vision, his love of his craft, his desire to do everything it takes to do the job right, and his confidence in his abilities.
“It was not a very successful event, so we redesigned the entire event and started getting their people back in and it became a big deal again,” West says. “We started at [the] front gate and went to [the] very back of the property. They wanted us to remake the haunted house but after walking in they needed a lighted pathway. It was dark. You almost felt like you were going to get murdered. We did awesome [Halloween] spiders and got a lighting company to come and in and light the entire place. We wound up doing much more than a haunted house.”
What does Boo at the Zoo have in common with his other projects, such as Italian restaurants, houses and apartment complexes?
“Whether decorating with pumpkins or furniture it all boils down to design and placement,” West says. “You ask, ‘What can I do to get people interested?’ It’s the same as doing a restaurant versus a home. It’s what makes people want to be there, how you get people to want to stay. It’s an overall experience, comfort, feel and touch.”
Larry West Jr.
DATE, PLACE OF BIRTH: Aug. 6, 1963, Hickory Ridge in Cross County
RESIDENCES: Little Rock and Dallas
A BOOK I ENJOY IS: Facebook.
AS CHILDREN, MY SISTER AND I WOULD PLAY: At my father’s pesticide plant. I don’t know how I’ve made it this far and not died.
MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY GUESTS WOULD BE: Sister Jennifer Bartsch, mother Patricia Hurford, singers David Bowie and George Michael, and designers Ian Schrager and Philippe Starck
LARRY IS: Not short for anything. Just plain Larry works just fine.
MY FAVORITE SPOT IN ITALY: Assisi, because of St. Francis.
ONE WORD TO DESCRIBE ME: Determined. Everybody around me would say “chaotic.” I never want to be serious. I want to be fun. I love untangling things that are chaotic.