Meet Your Neighbor — Christian Leighton
Interior designer Chris Leighton, founder of the Leighton Design Group, has traveled the world over, experienced the exotic and the urban, and where does he call home?
Coastal Delray Beach!
“Three years ago, I was at Tramonti’s restaurant in town. It was hot and humid, but
there was a breeze. I found it charming. It might have been the time in my life
when I was ready for a change.
“I said, after lunch and two glasses of wine, ‘I like this. I want to stay.’
“It was the kind of thing you flip and re-say, but, in fact, I did stay.
“Delray Beach is the combination of the best of everything, in my mind. There’s lots to
do and I love the people. Delray Beach is like a hometown.”
In a way, it was sort of a natural progression, if you think about it. Although he
grew up in Manhattan, where he “was dragged” to museums and galleries, he spent
time with family on Jupiter Island and vacationed on Fire Island.
He loves surfing, biking, walking. Nature is actually part of his palette. “I
built beach resorts and I am a beach person,” he explains.
With offices in Rochester[, N.Y.,] and Delray Beach and working on projects up and
down the Atlantic Coast, he and his staff still travel. “There’s a lot of back
and forth,” he said. But it’s different. Before, with Club Med, the travel was
nonstop. “That was one of the reasons I left,” he explains. “Now, it’s easy
The Delray Beach environment is a nice reflection of his design taste, too, in a
“All of my projects have a relaxed, organic feel to them. I don’t create a lot of
formal environments. Clients don’t come to me for that. They are aware of what
it is that I do and the particular style that I have.
“No one ever asks me for a traditional Georgian house. What I create is tropical,
but all have casual elegance, relaxed feeling. ‘Minimally organic’ is the way I
classify my design.”
That can easily be seen in his newly finished project in Delray Beach, the Seagate
Hotel & Spa. The color palette includes shades from the beach and water and
natural vegetation motifs are integrated into the décor as well.
“When I created the wallpaper, I thought about the morning sky here. It’s kind of
like a water color and incorporates the reflection of light,” he said.
He interpreted nautical and sea forms, too — like the custom, laser-cut light
fixtures in the restaurant that feature a coral pattern, and wave patterns that
repeat in mosaics in the spa and carved panels behind the reception desk.
“When people think modern, they think stark, chrome and shiny. I love modern forms,
but I tend to use organic material to interpret them, and that comes from my
personal preference, I think.”
— Christine Davis
Q. How/when did you become a designer?
Q. Where did you grow up and go to school? How do you think that has influenced
I grew up in Manhattan until I was a teenager, and studied architecture at
Boston University, but we spent winter holidays in South Florida with my
grandparents on Jupiter Island and summers on Fire Island. I think the combined
exposure of urban life and beach life formed my early aesthetic as it continues
to do today.
I was redecorating my mother’s house by the time I was 7, much to the dismay of
her own designer. I was always an artsy kid and I think in those times if you
were a boy and artsy the teachers told you to be an architect.
I was a lifeguard and surfing instructor on Fire Island during college but my
first job out of school was with Club Med in the design group. I worked in the
Middle East/Africa region, which exposed me to an unbelievable array of people
What advice do you have for a young person with an interest in design?
I think it is so important to travel and see as much as possible: museums, art
galleries, architecture, fashion and nature. It is hard to develop a style in a
vacuum. We are all influenced by our environments and the more varied that is
the more depth our references have.
I am newly inspired by people I meet every day. There have been people who
early in my career taught me to believe in what I was doing and instilled great
tools for me to use in how I approach. My first boss, Bice DeGrace, would force
me to make decisions and develop ideas for this I was not experienced enough to
do. Fear leads the way!
Tell us about the Seagate Hotel?
The Seagate was such a great opportunity for me to work because it’s in my
backyard: I live right down the street. When I was approached to get involved,
there was already a big concrete shell there and not much time to visualize the
interior. I set about trying to make the hotel feel as if it really fit into
the personality of Delray Beach, relaxed, but elegant. It was important for me
to bring what I saw as the natural pallet of the ocean, the beach and the
natural vegetation into the hotel in a casual urban form. I collected rocks,
shells, anything I found on my early morning walks on the beach, and I paid
close attention to the changing color of the water and the morning sky.
Gathering all of these elements in my head, I searched for materials for the
interior, which would bring those walks on the beach to life inside the hotel.
Somehow it all worked!
How did you choose to have a home in Delray Beach?
I had driven through Delray on A1A many times and even surfed here once. A
great friend and client offered me an opportunity to do a project in Delray. It
was summer and about 98 the first day I spent here and I just fell in love with
the town. One project grew into another and a month or two later, I bought a
condo and have not really left!
What is your favorite part about living in Delray Beach?
I love the mix of people you meet in this town, and how well they seem to mix
together regardless of their backgrounds. I love the fact you can wear a
bathing suit 90 percent of the time and nobody notices! I think one of the
greatest things about the town is the fact it was more carefully developed than
other beach communities. The lack of high-rise buildings lining the beach and
the feeling of a real main street all add to the uniqueness of Delray for me.
Do you have a favorite quote that inspires your decisions?
Care relentlessly about what you do and learn continuously!
If your life story were made into a movie, who would you want to play you?
My dog knows me best. Oli, my 10-year-old vizsla, could easily play me in
a movie and be dead-on. And nobody knows the secrets like Oli!