Contract - 2014 Legend: Trisha Wilson

design - designer profiles



2014 Legend: Trisha Wilson

24 January, 2014

-By Jean Nayar


A tenacious drive has propelled Tricia Wilson throughout her life. That drive has been evident from her start as a designer—as a young female sole-practitioner in Dallas in the early 1970s, no less—to the development of a global design firm of more than 350 people. It is also evident today in her continued efforts to serve the neediest young populations of South Africa through The Wilson Foundation with education and healthcare aid. After spending most of her career designing some of the most luxurious hotels and resorts in the world, and mentoring leading hospitality designers along the way, Wilson is now focused on her foundation. For her life’s achievements, Contract is pleased to honor Trisha Wilson with the 2014 Legend Award.

The Wilson Foundation (see story about the foundation, page 144) is a non-profit organization she created in 1997 to improve the lives of underprivileged children in both Africa and the United States. “The foundation provides scholarships and supports a staff that educates about 140 children a year at the Waterberg Academy, an independent school we helped to establish in Vaalwater, South Africa,” says Wilson, who designed and helped build not only the school, but also healthcare clinics, a computer lab, a science lab, and a library in the remote village.

Supporting the facilities and community programs in Vaalwater is only one of the ways Wilson channels her vast reservoir of creative energy these days after stepping down as president and CEO of Wilson Associates in early 2013. Her philanthropic endeavors have also spread to other parts of South Africa, and more recently, to Las Colonias in South Texas near the Texas-Mexico border, where the most basic living necessities, such as potable water and sewer systems, electricity, paved roads, and safe and sanitary housing are sorely lacking.

Trisha Wilson - Contract magazine's 2014 Legend from Contract Magazine on Vimeo.

While Wilson’s current passion revolves around crafting environments and programs that uplift disadvantaged children and their communities, her instinctive regard for humanity is arguably one of the most important keys to her success as an internationally renowned designer and leader of a worldwide design firm. It is also one of the qualities that inspired Manfred Steinfeld, her colleague, mentor, and friend, to help launch her career in the late-1960s. “She has achieved so much—not just for herself but also for the design community as a whole,” says Steinfeld, who met Wilson when he was CEO of the furniture manufacturing giant Shelby Williams and she was designing her first restaurants in Dallas. “After becoming so successful, she understood it was important to give back.”

Beginning on her own in Texas

Wilson’s success began to take shape in the mid-1970s, a time when few women worked as commercial interior designers, let alone as presidents of their own companies. Though the Texas native graduated with a bachelor of science degree from the School of Architecture at the University of Texas in Austin, Wilson never really expected to put her training into practice and become one of the most sought-after hospitality designers in the world. “In that era, women got married
and were supported by their husbands,” she says. “I got my degree so that I could become a teacher if I needed to earn a living myself.”

In fact, after graduating from college, Wilson began her career selling mattresses in a local department store, until the day a customer told her about a restaurant he planned to open in Dallas. Ever fearless, Wilson convinced him that she should design the new eatery, which became the popular Railhead restaurant. Her design firm was born.

Over the course of the next four decades, Wilson forged a name for herself through the same winning combination of pluck, charm, ability, and sheer dint of will, and gradually grew her two-person Dallas-based firm into Wilson Associates, an international network of more than 350 employees with offices in Dallas, New York, Los Angeles, Singapore, Shanghai, Kochi, and Abu Dhabi. She and her firm have designed a stunning array of hundreds of the most notable hotels, resorts, casinos, and restaurants in the world, including the Venetian Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas (1999), the Conrad Hotel in Bangkok (2002), the JW Marriott in New Delhi (2013), the St. Regis in Singapore (2007), and the renovations of the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach (2008) and the Waldorf Astoria in New York (late 1980s), to name a few.

Long before she became a leading luminary in the firmament of top hospitality designers, Trisha Wilson’s star quality was apparent to those who knew her since the start of her career. David Sutherland, founder and owner of his eponymous high-end furniture showroom, isn’t surprised that the young woman from Dallas would eventually take the hospitality design world by storm.  “She walked into the showroom and I could immediately see that she was a person who was going somewhere,” recalls Sutherland, who met Wilson in 1969 when she was just getting started as a designer. “She is very responsive to clients, and can explain and sell her concepts to people who are convinced they know everything. When she was starting, hotels were just beginning to become aware that they needed more than what their in-house designers were offering—they needed more comfortable, stylish, romantic environments if they were going to grow.” And Wilson was at the right place at the right time to deliver them.

Known for creating elegant, unpretentious, approachable interiors, Wilson never developed one set style, but looked to the overall context to create settings that naturally reflect their environs, while being very personal and distinct. Invariably, most of her attention was applied to the public spaces—lobbies, lounges, hotel bars, and restaurants—where people interact and congregate. “She would always come to us for the ‘sizzle on the steak’ in the lobbies and common areas, where she likes to surround people with high-quality, oversized sofas and artisan-made handcrafted pieces with presence,” Sutherland says. “When they sit down in one her spaces, they literally feel they’re sitting in the lap of luxury.”

Intrinsically a people person, Wilson believes the ingredients of a successful hotel or restaurant include not only the grand strokes that shape its visual identity, but also the personal touches that put people at ease. “The question is, ‘How does the total environment make you feel?’” she explains. “It’s not only about interiors and architecture, it’s about everything from an elevator call button to the pen you sign your bill with to the stir sticks you use to mix a drink.”

Wilson has applied this holistic, people-centric approach to her interiors since the start of career. Her first big break in designing hotel projects came in the mid-1970s when she wrote a letter to the prominent Texas developer Trammell Crow and inspired him to hire her to design the Loews Anatole Hotel in Dallas. “It was a forbearer to the ‘destination hotels,’” says Wilson, who had initially contacted the developer to pitch designing a restaurant for the hotel, and instead was awarded the commission to design its entire interiors. After Crow invited her to meet with him, Wilson says she walked him through some ideas she made up on the spot. The art-filled lobby, five-star restaurant, and 1,000 sumptuous guest rooms she designed made the hotel an instant landmark in Dallas. It also gave Wilson the confidence to reach for a bigger share of the hospitality market inother parts of the country by going after larger hotel operators, including Sheraton, Hilton, Four Seasons, and Hyatt, for which she later designed hotels in cities worldwide—from Boston and Bangkok to Cancun and Cairo.

Walking into Ralph Lauren’s office
Around the time she was completing the Anatole hotel, Wilson turned her attention toward retail as an investment opportunity, and with her special brand of moxy, worked her way into the offices of Ralph Lauren. “I went to New York to Ralph Lauren’s office without an appointment at 9 a.m.,” recalls Wilson, who requested a meeting with Lauren to open a retail store. After she sat in the office until 4 p.m., Lauren eventually agreed to see her, and although she had limited funds, no retail experience, and had never been to Washington, D.C., he gave her the Washington franchise and referred her to some investment bankers who put up the capital to start it. Ultimately, she owned four Ralph Lauren stores. Wilson eventually sold out her shares to her partners, but the business experience she gained operating the retail venues gave her extra wherewithal to take her design business to the next level.

During the 1980s, as hotel operators consolidated and expanded internationally and Wilson’s output swelled, she saw the need to establish offices outside of Dallas to be taken seriously on a national level, and quickly set up shop in New York and Los Angeles. “Trisha realized she needed to bring in additional partners to respond to the emerging group of businessmen who wanted to invest in hotels,” says Jim Rimelspach, executive vice president and design director in the Wilson Associates Dallas office, who worked with Wilson since 1978.

“It was a new paradigm.” Growing the firm catapulted her into wider acclaim. As she launched her new offices, she remained hands-on by mentoring her employees and fostering an environment of thinking outside the box—and these leadership skills have inspired tremendous loyalty and admiration among those who have worked with her.

“She always empowered people to do what they were good at,” says Margaret McMahon, who worked with Wilson for 28 years, starting as a recent graduate, and later rising to managing director of Wilson’s New York office before joining Wimberly Interiors as managing director a few years ago. “She always said, ‘I like to hire people who are better than me,’” McMahon recalls, adding that Wilson’s passion for design and attention to detail was instrumental to the success of her firm’s projects.
“It wasn’t just about a hotel stay, it was about the whole experience. It was about crafting a story through the design that began the minute you would pull up in your car to the moment you would leave,” McMahon says. Yet, it was Wilson’s skill as an entrepreneur that enabled her to amass a stellar team of talented designers and see through a growing roster of projects in various parts on the country with finesse. “I often relied on Trisha for strategy advice on structuring teams, pricing, and execution,” McMahon says.

Wilson’s ability to foresee both design and market trends—from the entertainment hotel concept fostered by Disney’s former CEO Michael Eisner in the late 1980s and early 1990s to the concurrent fantasy casino resorts like Atlantis Paradise Island in the Bahamas to the boutique hotels that emerged in the 1990s and early 2000s—allowed her to adapt to the broader forces that began transforming the hospitality industry and continually reach new plateaus. Over the years, lucrative design commissions, such as the Sheraton Boston Hotel and Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi in Santa Fe (1992), also brought her numerous awards, including ASID’s Designer of Distinction Award in 1993.

Design for the biggest names in hospitality
As Wilson’s body of work expanded, she also began attracting the attention of the world’s most influential hotel operators and developers, including Steve Wynn, the high-profile Las Vegas hotel developer, Sol Kerzner, the global resort magnate, Isadore Sharp, founder and chairman of the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, and Texas oil heiress Caroline Hunt, founder of Rosewood Hotels & Resorts. Once she started working with these industry powerhouses, Wilson’s career exploded. “Her relationship with Isadore Sharp launched her to a new level,” says Jerry Inzerillo, former general manager of the Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, who met Wilson when she designed Las Colinas Resort and Club, Four Seasons’ first golf resort, spa, and conference center complex in Dallas (1986). “He allowed her to go from a great American design firm to a great global design firm.” Her international commissions, including Four Seasons hotels in Cairo (2000), Hong Kong (2005), and Riyadh (2003), among many others, inspired Wilson to open offices in the Middle East and Shanghai within the past decade, and enabled her designers to readily connect with local sources and adapt to local laws and customs.

“When we opened the Shanghai office, it was the future,” Wilson says. “China was the future, so we just said we have to go there. It was a good decision because, after the recession, everybody was trying to go to China, but we were already there. We had already been there and had gained their trust. The same thing happened in Singapore. We opened a Singapore office about 24 years ago, and we didn’t leave.”

Another turning point in her career came with an invitation from South African developer Sol Kerzner to design the Palace of the Lost City, the fantastical mega-casino resort in Sun City, South Africa, that opened in 1992. Breaking ground during the apartheid era, the project not only opened new doors to international projects and people for Wilson, but also allowed her to deploy her cultural sensitivity and resourceful street smarts to navigate the foreign terrain and spawn a network of cottage businesses that continue to thrive to this day. “What was so exciting about the project was that we created an industry,” Wilson says. “The fabrics, the furniture, the carpeting, the moldings—they weren’t there, so we taught people who had the skills. Now in South Africa, there’s a big industry for design.”

The experience also launched a love affair with South Africa and its people for Wilson, and prompted her to build a game lodge and home in the South African bush, as well as establish The Wilson Foundation that supports the Vaalwater community nearby. “I would see these little children—no water, no electricity, no food except for one meal a day of something that looked like porridge. They would have to walk two miles or more for water. When I would see these children, I had to stop. I had to do something about it,” Wilson says. “And that was really the beginning of The Wilson Foundation. And I can tell you that we have saved lives.”

“The reason Trisha has been so successful with the foundation is because we don’t have a timeline,” says John J. Canterbury III, executive director of The Wilson Foundation. “We’re there for the duration with a generational system to help the community.” The opening party for the Palace of the Lost City—attended by a wide spectrum of political and entertainment luminaries—also connected Wilson with a network of political figures, royalty, and celebrities, such as Mariah Carey and Quincy Jones, who have enabled her to both further her design career and help promote her foundation’s mission.

A friendship with Oprah
The Waterberg Academy inspired Oprah Winfrey to open her own Leadership Academy for Girls in a village near Johannesburg. Winfrey tapped Wilson to hire the contractor, guide the building of the school, and navigate the government and non-government organization (NGO) channels that restrict and enable building construction. “I took it over as a contractor, so to speak, and I got the people that I knew locally that would do a great job. It is a wonderful school. Oprah changes lives, and we became friends,” Wilson says. “Oprah said to me, ‘I know god has not given me children, and yet this is his way of giving me children.’ And I know that I have children through our children at the school and at the clinic. So it is what life is all about—saving lives and making a difference in lives.”

As The Wilson Foundation blossomed over the past decade, her interiors business continued to evolve, along with several specialty studios—including Blue Plate, Medica Design, and InnBox, which offer customized solutions for restaurant, healthcare, and hospitality projects—opening under the umbrella of Wilson Associates during the mid-2000s. The success of her firm has also made it the subject of several Harvard Business School graduate-level case studies.

And in recent years, Wilson authored a book, Spectacular Hotels: The Most Remarkable Places On Earth (Panache Partners, 2007), established the Trisha Wilson Endowed Professorship at the University of Texas, and was invited to sit on the President’s Council for the George W. Bush Presidential Center.  

After bringing prosperity to dozens of developers and delight to countless consumers through her timeless and enduring interiors for more than four decades, Wilson has turned most of her attention toward her philanthropic efforts. As she moves into a new chapter, her closest colleagues marvel at the legacy that Wilson—and the firm she founded against all odds—continue to leave behind. “If you look at not only the number of people who work with Wilson Associates, but also the people who now work in other firms who used to be employed by Trisha, you get a sense of how responsible she is for raising the bar on hospitality design,” McMahon says. “It’s a testament to her position in the world—she’s really a force of nature. She’s one of a kind.”




2014 Legend: Trisha Wilson

24 January, 2014


A tenacious drive has propelled Tricia Wilson throughout her life. That drive has been evident from her start as a designer—as a young female sole-practitioner in Dallas in the early 1970s, no less—to the development of a global design firm of more than 350 people. It is also evident today in her continued efforts to serve the neediest young populations of South Africa through The Wilson Foundation with education and healthcare aid. After spending most of her career designing some of the most luxurious hotels and resorts in the world, and mentoring leading hospitality designers along the way, Wilson is now focused on her foundation. For her life’s achievements, Contract is pleased to honor Trisha Wilson with the 2014 Legend Award.

The Wilson Foundation (see story about the foundation, page 144) is a non-profit organization she created in 1997 to improve the lives of underprivileged children in both Africa and the United States. “The foundation provides scholarships and supports a staff that educates about 140 children a year at the Waterberg Academy, an independent school we helped to establish in Vaalwater, South Africa,” says Wilson, who designed and helped build not only the school, but also healthcare clinics, a computer lab, a science lab, and a library in the remote village.

Supporting the facilities and community programs in Vaalwater is only one of the ways Wilson channels her vast reservoir of creative energy these days after stepping down as president and CEO of Wilson Associates in early 2013. Her philanthropic endeavors have also spread to other parts of South Africa, and more recently, to Las Colonias in South Texas near the Texas-Mexico border, where the most basic living necessities, such as potable water and sewer systems, electricity, paved roads, and safe and sanitary housing are sorely lacking.

Trisha Wilson - Contract magazine's 2014 Legend from Contract Magazine on Vimeo.

While Wilson’s current passion revolves around crafting environments and programs that uplift disadvantaged children and their communities, her instinctive regard for humanity is arguably one of the most important keys to her success as an internationally renowned designer and leader of a worldwide design firm. It is also one of the qualities that inspired Manfred Steinfeld, her colleague, mentor, and friend, to help launch her career in the late-1960s. “She has achieved so much—not just for herself but also for the design community as a whole,” says Steinfeld, who met Wilson when he was CEO of the furniture manufacturing giant Shelby Williams and she was designing her first restaurants in Dallas. “After becoming so successful, she understood it was important to give back.”

Beginning on her own in Texas

Wilson’s success began to take shape in the mid-1970s, a time when few women worked as commercial interior designers, let alone as presidents of their own companies. Though the Texas native graduated with a bachelor of science degree from the School of Architecture at the University of Texas in Austin, Wilson never really expected to put her training into practice and become one of the most sought-after hospitality designers in the world. “In that era, women got married
and were supported by their husbands,” she says. “I got my degree so that I could become a teacher if I needed to earn a living myself.”

In fact, after graduating from college, Wilson began her career selling mattresses in a local department store, until the day a customer told her about a restaurant he planned to open in Dallas. Ever fearless, Wilson convinced him that she should design the new eatery, which became the popular Railhead restaurant. Her design firm was born.

Over the course of the next four decades, Wilson forged a name for herself through the same winning combination of pluck, charm, ability, and sheer dint of will, and gradually grew her two-person Dallas-based firm into Wilson Associates, an international network of more than 350 employees with offices in Dallas, New York, Los Angeles, Singapore, Shanghai, Kochi, and Abu Dhabi. She and her firm have designed a stunning array of hundreds of the most notable hotels, resorts, casinos, and restaurants in the world, including the Venetian Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas (1999), the Conrad Hotel in Bangkok (2002), the JW Marriott in New Delhi (2013), the St. Regis in Singapore (2007), and the renovations of the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach (2008) and the Waldorf Astoria in New York (late 1980s), to name a few.

Long before she became a leading luminary in the firmament of top hospitality designers, Trisha Wilson’s star quality was apparent to those who knew her since the start of her career. David Sutherland, founder and owner of his eponymous high-end furniture showroom, isn’t surprised that the young woman from Dallas would eventually take the hospitality design world by storm.  “She walked into the showroom and I could immediately see that she was a person who was going somewhere,” recalls Sutherland, who met Wilson in 1969 when she was just getting started as a designer. “She is very responsive to clients, and can explain and sell her concepts to people who are convinced they know everything. When she was starting, hotels were just beginning to become aware that they needed more than what their in-house designers were offering—they needed more comfortable, stylish, romantic environments if they were going to grow.” And Wilson was at the right place at the right time to deliver them.

Known for creating elegant, unpretentious, approachable interiors, Wilson never developed one set style, but looked to the overall context to create settings that naturally reflect their environs, while being very personal and distinct. Invariably, most of her attention was applied to the public spaces—lobbies, lounges, hotel bars, and restaurants—where people interact and congregate. “She would always come to us for the ‘sizzle on the steak’ in the lobbies and common areas, where she likes to surround people with high-quality, oversized sofas and artisan-made handcrafted pieces with presence,” Sutherland says. “When they sit down in one her spaces, they literally feel they’re sitting in the lap of luxury.”

Intrinsically a people person, Wilson believes the ingredients of a successful hotel or restaurant include not only the grand strokes that shape its visual identity, but also the personal touches that put people at ease. “The question is, ‘How does the total environment make you feel?’” she explains. “It’s not only about interiors and architecture, it’s about everything from an elevator call button to the pen you sign your bill with to the stir sticks you use to mix a drink.”

Wilson has applied this holistic, people-centric approach to her interiors since the start of career. Her first big break in designing hotel projects came in the mid-1970s when she wrote a letter to the prominent Texas developer Trammell Crow and inspired him to hire her to design the Loews Anatole Hotel in Dallas. “It was a forbearer to the ‘destination hotels,’” says Wilson, who had initially contacted the developer to pitch designing a restaurant for the hotel, and instead was awarded the commission to design its entire interiors. After Crow invited her to meet with him, Wilson says she walked him through some ideas she made up on the spot. The art-filled lobby, five-star restaurant, and 1,000 sumptuous guest rooms she designed made the hotel an instant landmark in Dallas. It also gave Wilson the confidence to reach for a bigger share of the hospitality market inother parts of the country by going after larger hotel operators, including Sheraton, Hilton, Four Seasons, and Hyatt, for which she later designed hotels in cities worldwide—from Boston and Bangkok to Cancun and Cairo.

Walking into Ralph Lauren’s office
Around the time she was completing the Anatole hotel, Wilson turned her attention toward retail as an investment opportunity, and with her special brand of moxy, worked her way into the offices of Ralph Lauren. “I went to New York to Ralph Lauren’s office without an appointment at 9 a.m.,” recalls Wilson, who requested a meeting with Lauren to open a retail store. After she sat in the office until 4 p.m., Lauren eventually agreed to see her, and although she had limited funds, no retail experience, and had never been to Washington, D.C., he gave her the Washington franchise and referred her to some investment bankers who put up the capital to start it. Ultimately, she owned four Ralph Lauren stores. Wilson eventually sold out her shares to her partners, but the business experience she gained operating the retail venues gave her extra wherewithal to take her design business to the next level.

During the 1980s, as hotel operators consolidated and expanded internationally and Wilson’s output swelled, she saw the need to establish offices outside of Dallas to be taken seriously on a national level, and quickly set up shop in New York and Los Angeles. “Trisha realized she needed to bring in additional partners to respond to the emerging group of businessmen who wanted to invest in hotels,” says Jim Rimelspach, executive vice president and design director in the Wilson Associates Dallas office, who worked with Wilson since 1978.

“It was a new paradigm.” Growing the firm catapulted her into wider acclaim. As she launched her new offices, she remained hands-on by mentoring her employees and fostering an environment of thinking outside the box—and these leadership skills have inspired tremendous loyalty and admiration among those who have worked with her.

“She always empowered people to do what they were good at,” says Margaret McMahon, who worked with Wilson for 28 years, starting as a recent graduate, and later rising to managing director of Wilson’s New York office before joining Wimberly Interiors as managing director a few years ago. “She always said, ‘I like to hire people who are better than me,’” McMahon recalls, adding that Wilson’s passion for design and attention to detail was instrumental to the success of her firm’s projects.
“It wasn’t just about a hotel stay, it was about the whole experience. It was about crafting a story through the design that began the minute you would pull up in your car to the moment you would leave,” McMahon says. Yet, it was Wilson’s skill as an entrepreneur that enabled her to amass a stellar team of talented designers and see through a growing roster of projects in various parts on the country with finesse. “I often relied on Trisha for strategy advice on structuring teams, pricing, and execution,” McMahon says.

Wilson’s ability to foresee both design and market trends—from the entertainment hotel concept fostered by Disney’s former CEO Michael Eisner in the late 1980s and early 1990s to the concurrent fantasy casino resorts like Atlantis Paradise Island in the Bahamas to the boutique hotels that emerged in the 1990s and early 2000s—allowed her to adapt to the broader forces that began transforming the hospitality industry and continually reach new plateaus. Over the years, lucrative design commissions, such as the Sheraton Boston Hotel and Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi in Santa Fe (1992), also brought her numerous awards, including ASID’s Designer of Distinction Award in 1993.

Design for the biggest names in hospitality
As Wilson’s body of work expanded, she also began attracting the attention of the world’s most influential hotel operators and developers, including Steve Wynn, the high-profile Las Vegas hotel developer, Sol Kerzner, the global resort magnate, Isadore Sharp, founder and chairman of the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, and Texas oil heiress Caroline Hunt, founder of Rosewood Hotels & Resorts. Once she started working with these industry powerhouses, Wilson’s career exploded. “Her relationship with Isadore Sharp launched her to a new level,” says Jerry Inzerillo, former general manager of the Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, who met Wilson when she designed Las Colinas Resort and Club, Four Seasons’ first golf resort, spa, and conference center complex in Dallas (1986). “He allowed her to go from a great American design firm to a great global design firm.” Her international commissions, including Four Seasons hotels in Cairo (2000), Hong Kong (2005), and Riyadh (2003), among many others, inspired Wilson to open offices in the Middle East and Shanghai within the past decade, and enabled her designers to readily connect with local sources and adapt to local laws and customs.

“When we opened the Shanghai office, it was the future,” Wilson says. “China was the future, so we just said we have to go there. It was a good decision because, after the recession, everybody was trying to go to China, but we were already there. We had already been there and had gained their trust. The same thing happened in Singapore. We opened a Singapore office about 24 years ago, and we didn’t leave.”

Another turning point in her career came with an invitation from South African developer Sol Kerzner to design the Palace of the Lost City, the fantastical mega-casino resort in Sun City, South Africa, that opened in 1992. Breaking ground during the apartheid era, the project not only opened new doors to international projects and people for Wilson, but also allowed her to deploy her cultural sensitivity and resourceful street smarts to navigate the foreign terrain and spawn a network of cottage businesses that continue to thrive to this day. “What was so exciting about the project was that we created an industry,” Wilson says. “The fabrics, the furniture, the carpeting, the moldings—they weren’t there, so we taught people who had the skills. Now in South Africa, there’s a big industry for design.”

The experience also launched a love affair with South Africa and its people for Wilson, and prompted her to build a game lodge and home in the South African bush, as well as establish The Wilson Foundation that supports the Vaalwater community nearby. “I would see these little children—no water, no electricity, no food except for one meal a day of something that looked like porridge. They would have to walk two miles or more for water. When I would see these children, I had to stop. I had to do something about it,” Wilson says. “And that was really the beginning of The Wilson Foundation. And I can tell you that we have saved lives.”

“The reason Trisha has been so successful with the foundation is because we don’t have a timeline,” says John J. Canterbury III, executive director of The Wilson Foundation. “We’re there for the duration with a generational system to help the community.” The opening party for the Palace of the Lost City—attended by a wide spectrum of political and entertainment luminaries—also connected Wilson with a network of political figures, royalty, and celebrities, such as Mariah Carey and Quincy Jones, who have enabled her to both further her design career and help promote her foundation’s mission.

A friendship with Oprah
The Waterberg Academy inspired Oprah Winfrey to open her own Leadership Academy for Girls in a village near Johannesburg. Winfrey tapped Wilson to hire the contractor, guide the building of the school, and navigate the government and non-government organization (NGO) channels that restrict and enable building construction. “I took it over as a contractor, so to speak, and I got the people that I knew locally that would do a great job. It is a wonderful school. Oprah changes lives, and we became friends,” Wilson says. “Oprah said to me, ‘I know god has not given me children, and yet this is his way of giving me children.’ And I know that I have children through our children at the school and at the clinic. So it is what life is all about—saving lives and making a difference in lives.”

As The Wilson Foundation blossomed over the past decade, her interiors business continued to evolve, along with several specialty studios—including Blue Plate, Medica Design, and InnBox, which offer customized solutions for restaurant, healthcare, and hospitality projects—opening under the umbrella of Wilson Associates during the mid-2000s. The success of her firm has also made it the subject of several Harvard Business School graduate-level case studies.

And in recent years, Wilson authored a book, Spectacular Hotels: The Most Remarkable Places On Earth (Panache Partners, 2007), established the Trisha Wilson Endowed Professorship at the University of Texas, and was invited to sit on the President’s Council for the George W. Bush Presidential Center.  

After bringing prosperity to dozens of developers and delight to countless consumers through her timeless and enduring interiors for more than four decades, Wilson has turned most of her attention toward her philanthropic efforts. As she moves into a new chapter, her closest colleagues marvel at the legacy that Wilson—and the firm she founded against all odds—continue to leave behind. “If you look at not only the number of people who work with Wilson Associates, but also the people who now work in other firms who used to be employed by Trisha, you get a sense of how responsible she is for raising the bar on hospitality design,” McMahon says. “It’s a testament to her position in the world—she’s really a force of nature. She’s one of a kind.”

 


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