Melissa Galt, an Atlanta-based interior designer with more than two decades of experience, renovates and remodels homes across the metro and other southeastern states. She prides herself on being able to transform spaces to suit client needs in less than three months, often knocking down walls and introducing unique accents catered to both the homeowner and the structure.
As many of her clients don’t know, she’s also the great-granddaughter of world-renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. (And her famous kin don’t end there).
She studied design in a defunct Birmingham school called the Southern Institute, before deciding the Alabama city was too small and moving to the Peach State to make her mark on the industry, launching an Atlanta firm in 1994.
Galt sat down with Curbed Atlanta this week to discuss, among other topics, today’s most influential design trends, the fate of the Marcel Breuer-designed Central Atlanta Library, and her late ancestor’s influence on her craft.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed for length.
You’ve been an interior designer for decades, but you first studied and worked in hotel administration. Tell me about that jump.
I got a degree in hospitality management from Cornell [University], and I went into the field for five years and was climbing the ladder. I was one of few women and making great progress, but moving cities, states, and companies every eight months. The problem for me was I was a turnaround artist, so I would go in and fix troubled departments, but I would be bored out of my gourd, so I’d go above and beyond, or I’d find another job with another company and do the same thing. It wasn’t particularly exciting for me.
The turnaround part was fun, but the day-to-day would really bore me, and, as a high creative, that made sense. I had really wanted to go into costume design school—and I got in before I went to Cornell—but I didn’t have the guts to pursue it because I thought that I’d gotten in just based on my godmother’s recommendation, not my own merit.
(Galt’s godmother was Edith Head, an eight-time Academy Award-winning costume designer and one of a handful of her ancestors with Hollywood clout. Her mother, Anne Baxter, was an Oscar-winning actor from films such as The Ten Commandments and All about Eve.)
I just made a decision. Mom had died really suddenly in December ’85, and I had graduated in spring of ’84, so I wasn’t very far into my career path when she died, and I felt a compunction to follow the Cornell path because she had put me on it. My mother was always very persistent, and I thought, to shut her up, I would apply to Cornell. I won’t get in, I thought, and then it’s done.
Well, I got in. And I knew the quality of the education, and so I went for it.
So, about five years after I got out of college, I had that “aha” moment, saying, “I’m not loving what I’m doing. I’m climbing this ladder, and I don’t even want to get to the top. What is it I want to do?”
I had explored interior design much earlier on, but it didn’t seem like the right profession. But in that time gap, the field had shifted and changed, so I decided I wanted to do that. I had read a book called Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow, and my mother had done just that, because she had known what she wanted to do since age 7. She won her Oscar at age 23.
My mother was married to her career her entire life, so I had that to look at, and I had my godmother to look at. And Aunt Edie, [she] started as a French teacher at an all-girls school and could not draw her way out of a paper bag and then became the most famous costume designer in all of Hollywood.
So I went back to school to get a second degree in design, and, during that time, I gave myself six months to just focus on that before I picked up a full-time job. I was in Birmingham then. I did work and school, and I got a three-year degree in two and just fast-tracked my new career.
Your design firm boasts a 90-day turnaround time, from when clients reach out for help to when you’re done and out the door. How does that ambition from college translate to the way you work with your design clients now?
I work very fast, and I’ve done full renovations and remodels in that timeframe. I’m extremely take-charge with my clients. It’s not really a “co-” process for me; I take it off your plate.
What are some themes that recur in your work?
I do a predominance of contemporary, modern, and mission-style—arts and crafts, bungalow, Great-Grandfather-esque. But the key is I create it uniquely to each client. There’s no Melissa stamp. I have some hallmarks: Heavy texture, a lot of texture, a lot of different materials, and a good balance of materials.
I often think, as much as I love Great-Grandfather Wright’s interiors, there’s so much wood, and then there’s the stone on the floors, and he’s got some glass, but not necessarily enough for my tastes. He doesn’t do a lot of metal work and not as much on the softer fabric side, which I love.
He also called interior decorators “inferior desecrators.”
Were you familiar with Frank Lloyd Wright’s work growing up?
No, that was really funny. Mother took us to Taliesin West to have Thanksgiving and stuff, and I didn’t really pay it much attention.
She took us to Fallingwater when I was like 10, and I was like, “Huh, this is nice; Great-Grandfather was an architect. Whatever.”
But then mom died, and I got busy with life. I got into design school, and he’s popping up in my textbooks, and I think, “He might have been kind of a big deal.” It was hilarious; I had no clue.
When you were studying design, did the other students end up learning about your lineage?
I didn’t say anything. In fact, I never led with it. I still don’t lead with it. When I came to Atlanta, I had family telling me I should use it. And so I did use it in terms of garnering PR and things like that, but there are plenty of clients I have that don’t know about it.
I’m very irreverent about the family thing. I joke about it, and I bring Great-Grandfather down to earth on a regular basis. He was an architectural genius, but he was not an engineer, and the engineers couldn’t keep up with him, which means his homes are notoriously leaky. The maintenance is through the roof, and he was a very serious misogynist. He did not design for women.
For example—he died in 1959—it would be interesting to see how he would deal with the shift of women’s empowerment in the home today. That started happening in the ’60s and ’70s, and now you might have a him and a her going to purchase a home, but we all know who’s calling the shots. It’s her, even if he’s writing the check. And a lot of times she’s writing the check. So how would he have handled that?
What sells are kitchens, bathrooms, and storage. Always have; always will. And these are things that Great-Grandfather did not do well.
He was a masterful architect, sure, but his kitchens were these tiny dark spaces at the center of a home. To his credit, they were in the center. But tiny and dark? Not happening.
His bathrooms were typically galleys, which are not comfortable to move around in, and he didn’t believe in storage. Those three things are what sell homes today and what women look for.
What should I be looking for when I walk in the door during a property tour?
Technology. Smart homes. That’s huge, especially in kitchens. The talking refrigerators that tell you what you need when you go to the store. Disappearing kitchens are huge also. People are literally doing the kitchen in a way where you look around a go, “Oh, this must be the kitchen. There’s the stove top,” but everything else is paneled out so you don’t even notice the appliance anymore.
I was reading up about the trends coming up in 2019. Induction cooking is finally starting to come into the market more, and an article showed a kitchen where the sauce pans were sitting on the counter top. They’re hiding the induction in the counter, so it looks like a counter top, but it’s actually inducted, so you need a certain kind of pot to use it. It sounds a little dangerous, but with induction, the heat only goes through the metal, so you could put your hand on it, and it won’t burn you.
There’s that, and the latest thing in the high-end homes is what’s called a scullery kitchen. Scullery kitchens are being built parallel to the kitchen, fully loaded with appliances because even though the kitchen is right next door, people in these high-end homes don’t want you to see dirty dishes in the sink or appliances being used. So the cooking takes place in the scullery kitchen, and then you close the door behind you.
Black is also coming into kitchens more. Touch latch, too—no hardware, so you can use your hip to open the refrigerator door since your hands are always full. And the faucets: there’s no knobs. You can just wave your hand. The only challenge with those—I’ve had clients who got them—is pets. A kitty will run across it, it will turn on, and there’s no one around to turn it off.
What are your favorite interior designs in metro Atlanta?
I did turn a townhome for a client. She was a tech entrepreneur who had built and sold a company. She’s a big golfer, and she could have moved anywhere, but she chose to stay exactly where she was—in her late mother’s townhome on a golf course up in Johns Creek.
She’s not the flashy sort, and this project was fun because she had never invested in design at all. She never knew what she really wanted, but she had a cat called Delilah. We’re both cat people, which was a huge bonding place for us, so I ripped the entire concept off her cat, who was charcoal with green eyes. Now, rhe whole house is shades of grey with lime green accents. That’s my favorite, without a doubt.
Then there’s the home that was designed architecturally by Robert Green, who studied under Great-Grandfather. And Great-Grandfather didn’t have students; he had disciples.
I had the privilege of meeting Bob Green many moons ago when he showed me another one of his homes off West Paces Ferry.
He was quirky as sin, but he had some very distinctive hallmarks to his work, which showed up in this property (above), which was renovated by my friend Burns Century—I love that name. It’s on the market for $2.8 million by Debra Johnston.
It was such a treat to see what Burns had done. She’d brought it back from the brink of ’80s disaster after Green left, removing all the mirrors off the panels and bringing the wood and the stone back to life.
Apparently Green got the house almost done for the clients who were paying, and then there was an issue in [the clients’] personal life, and [it wasn’t finished.]
Because it wasn’t complete, the owners stepped in and finished it themselves. Then, as time goes on, people think, “Oh, we’ll just update it with the trends.” You can’t do that with a home that is architecturally significant, which his work is to Atlanta. You need to design with the sensitivity to what he would have intended. He had such an organic quality, which was a hallmark of Great-Grandfather.
There’s a lot of Bob Green in Atlanta, and it really deserves to be preserved and sensitively renovated. I think Burns is looking for another one right now. A home of that style, done by an architect of significance, needs to have an owner that understands living that way and is willing to adapt—or a designer who does that as well.
There are a couple of Frank Lloyd Wright homes that have been turned Victorian on the interior. He would never have wanted that. I saw one that was pink and purple on the inside, and I did all I could to bite my lip and not say a word because it was literally an affront to everything he stood for.
This reminds me of the fight to save the facade of the Central Atlanta Library, the Marcel Breuer-designed Brutalist block downtown. You’ve voiced concerns with the plans to cut windows into the building—part of its $50 million renovation. Despite some community uproar, especially from the architecture community, it looks like the window plans are a go.
It’s not just a shame; they are literally decimating a national landmark that happens to be in Atlanta. It is of national significance because that architect is a global treasure, and there’s no reason to make that change.
This is not an adaptive-reuse project where we’re taking something and turning it into something else. We’re not. And when you have architecture that’s significant, you honor it; you don’t destroy it. It’s not even just destroying the structure’s integrity; you’re destroying the intention of the architecture.
Henceforth, no longer will the building have any social relevance—any raison d’etre—which is a shame because Birmingham has significant structures by a number of major architects, and Birmingham is all about preservation.
Atlanta was burnt to the ground. It doesn’t have architecturally significant structures the way other cities do, and to take even one piece of this magnitude and decimate it is nuts. If Atlanta really wants to land on the map and stop being the second tier city that it is, it will have to protect and preserve its significant structures.
What would you say to the people who complained about lighting within Central Atlanta Library, those who voiced support for the plan to chisel holes in the exterior?
It’s inappropriate. I would look at their lives and find something that's parallel to them. Not architecture, clearly. Maybe it’s some sports thing that they absolutely love and treasure, and I’d say, “Hey, let’s tear that down.” Because there’s not logic in what they’re doing.
There’s no reason to spend $1 million per window, and the money can be better allocated toward something else, whether it’s preservation or purchasing a new book collection. I just think there’s a better use.