Working with the Best, Pt. 1: Theo Kalomirakis
Only a handful of people have the creativity, taste, knowledge, and experience to create a luxury home entertainment space. This new series of podcasts and features offers a unique look at the artisans who represent the pinnacle of each profession that goes into crafting these ultimate systems and rooms.
We focus on the collaboration with the homeowner, and what it’s like to retain and work with the best in the field. There’s no shop talk here, no inside baseball, no speeds and feeds. This is the closest you can come to engaging with one of these experts without sitting down with them in your home.
It would have been wrong to begin the series with anyone other than Theo Kalomirakis, who not only created the whole idea of home theater but showed its promise through his best-selling coffeetable books and continues to create the most innovative, opulent, and stunning private theaters in the world.
(The text below is a slightly abridged version of the podcast, which you can listen to using the player at the top of the page. Podcast listeners will find photos and graphics illustrating some of Theo’s examples by scrolling down the page.)
How do you typically approach designing a theater?
I usually get a project either directly from a client that read about us in a magazine or whatever or from an audio/video integrator. Getting it from the client is usually the most satisfying because either they’ve done their homework or they realize we are the ones that do it professionally. And they’re usually more amenable to do it the way I suggest we do it.
But even if the job comes from a custom installer, I like to have direct feedback from the client. You need to have that kind of access, otherwise you design in absentia. You don’t know what they want. You have to be able to interview them.
The first meeting with the client
The first meeting starts with sitting down with them and communicating my enthusiasm for the space, and with helping them to feel that I’m not selling them something. I’m just bringing them into my world, because I’m immersed in home theater architecture and I want them to be part of my excitement about it. I want to be able to communicate my ideas to them and make them relax so they can listen to me. I usually start the design process after I feel like I’ve connected with the client, after
he and I are on the same page.
Integrating the theater design into the rest of the house
Once our visions align, I start the work. Early in my career, the client would say, “Hey, I want an Art Deco theater because I’ve seen your theaters, and I like that style—it’s cinematic.” And I would usually say, “Yes, I love that style too. Let’s do an Art Deco theater.” But after I saw Deco theaters happening in very traditional environments, I started to feel embarrassed. It’s like when you go to Epcot Center and you go into the French pavilion or the Spanish pavilion—it had that kind of phoniness.
So I started putting my foot down, in a gentle way. I directed the client’s attention to the fact that the theater should echo the identity of the rest of the house—but without imitating it. You don’t want the theater to look like a living room or a dining room or whatever. You want it to look like a theater—but within the same language.
Earning the client’s trust
One of the key elements of bonding with the client is getting them to trust me so that if I have to steer them someplace other than what they think they want, they realize it’s not because I’m trying to play the prima donna but because I have their best interest in mind. I’ll tell them, “I don’t want to give you a theater where some of your guests will go ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ but the more sophisticated guests will say, ‘What the hell is this theater doing in this house?’” I always seek approval—not only from the client but from the guests who might be more sophisticated than the client. I protect my ass from being accused of being a gimmicky guy.
Learning & assimilating the client’s taste
You have to know who the clients are as people. The first step is to learn what their tastes are. The next step is to make sure you guide them to things they may not have thought of. They may know what they like, and what they like may be perfectly legitimate, and you go with it. But if I sense that I can guide them to something they might
like just as much, I protect my integrity by also protecting the client from something that would be a liability.
The woman who wanted “gaudy”
I was doing a theater for a well-known baseball player, and I met with his wife somewhere in Georgia. The lady came in made up in a way that made Tammy Faye Bakker’s makeup look demure—huge eyelashes, painted lips, big bouffant hairdo. She was a caricature of a nouveau riche wife.
So I interviewed her to find out what exactly she liked, and it turned out she wanted something very, very ornate—all the kind of stuff ladies of the South associate with an expression that they’ve made it, they’ve arrived. “I want the theater with a lot of gold,” she said. “A lot of gold.” I took a step back because I was surprised and said, “You mean you want an opulent theater.” She said, “No, honey. I want it gaudy!”
Good for her. She knew what she was looking for. You can’t fight that kind of person. You can’t persuade someone with a gaudy house to do something more understated. You listen to them, and 90% of the time they make sense.
The client who wanted the Acropolis
There were two or three times when I really hit a wall and didn’t know what to do, like at another house in Jupiter Island. It was fairly traditional—not particularly gaudy—with a typical Floridian richness.
When I saw the space for the theater, I asked the wife, “Do you have a particular style you want?” “Yes!” she said. “We want the Acropolis!” I almost swallowed my tongue. I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “You know—like the Versillis.” She didn’t even know how to say “Versailles.” Now, what the Acropolis had to do with Versailles, your guess is as good as mine. I decided there was no way I could do anything there, that I would be responsible by association.
How do you translate the client’s idea into a theater?
I usually crank up the volume. They come with some kind of concept that’s in the right direction but it’s not full-fledged. My role is to start from their concept and improve it, enhance it, and make it more exciting.
The importance of a proper theater environment
If I react negatively to a client, it’s usually because they say they want a comfortable seating layout. “We don’t want anything structured—we want a sofa here and an armchair there, an ottoman there.” I try to be very restrained in my response because it’s their choice—that’s how they watch movies. I make an effort to educate them that if they do that, they’re getting a living room in the guise of a theater. You have all the accoutrements of a theater but it’s literally a living room.
Theo originally designed the space above to accommodate traditional theater seating but
modified the design to honor the client’s preference for living-room-like seating arrangements
The classic example of that was the house in Vegas [shown above], where I couldn’t persuade them to do something that was more theatrical. That was a very well-defined theater that focused on the screen, the stage, and everything, but the wife put sofas in it like in a living room.
This is a typical contradiction I have with the client. They want a theater but they also want comfortable seating. I’ll tell them, “By doing that, you have one foot in your living room and the other foot in my theater language.” I can’t reconcile the two.
My clients usually have a living room and a media room, so I try to tell them, “We can do that in the media room, where it makes sense. But let the theater be a theater, with comfy seats spread apart with big arm rests, and you can kick up your legs because of the recliner. You still have the comfort of a living room.”
When I go down to my theater and I recline, it’s ideal. You see the movie. You have good sight lines. You don’t lose that luxury of a theater, where you’re meant to be able to watch a movie with people in front of you and behind you. You shouldn’t be facing each other in a position that’s meant for chit-chatting, not for watching a movie.
Casual seating is meant to accommodate unruly owners who want to talk to each other while the movie’s playing. When someone comes into my theater and starts talking, I stop them, as polite as I can. “Don’t talk. Let’s watch a movie.” So when my clients want something casual, I try to persuade them to do theater seating. Do I always win? 90% of the time.
Have you seen a big shift from movie palaces to more contemporary designs?
There are people who want to have the movie experience without reference to the grandeur of the old movie palaces. Figuring out how to create that same kind of excitement in a room that is expressed using contemporary architecture has
been my Holy Grail. It’s very difficult because our minds are filled with images of ornate palaces with chandeliers and everything, which creates the ambience of wanting to see a movie. Creating that ambience using a more contemporary language is very difficult because it’s, by its nature, more stripped down.
But I’ve found out that you can achieve that mostly through lighting, which creates that excitement.
Just add lighting to a room—not sconces on the wall but strip lighting or columns with backlighting—and it brings the architecture to the level of a theater.
Who assembles & supervises the team to create one of your theaters?
For the big projects, I usually bring the people, like acoustic designers and lighting designers—not interior designers because I usually do that myself. It’s like making a movie—you get specialists to do the various tasks. You get a crew that works together synergistically to divide the elements of the theater into their various expertises.
For lighting, I usually work with Howard Werner, who is a lighting designer on Broadway. He did Spider-man with Julie Taymor. For acoustics, I’ve worked very extensively with Steve Haas because he knows my ways. And he’s compromising in the same way that I’m compromising, to accommodate the acoustics. When you work with experts like that, you have to respect each other’s trades.
How do you accommodate the client’s or integrator’s equipment requirements?
If the job comes from an audio/video integrator, I ask immediately to get the list of equipment and the placement of the speakers. I design around what they want and where they’re going to position the speakers on the wall. I totally respect the science of someone who has to put the speaker in exactly the right location to the left or the right of the subwoofer. So I’m very accommodating.
What happens when the equipment gets in the way of the design?
Sometimes you have to go back to the integrator and say, “That wasn’t what I proposed”—like a recent project in Texas. The manufacturer put the subwoofers all the way to the floor but I specified a 6-inch baseboard there. I said, “Come on, guys. Lift the woofer off the floor 6 inches. Will that create havoc? Is it going to ruin the room acoustics? I gave you a room that’s 90% transparent to put the speakers wherever you want.” The whole room is stretched fabric, so they could put the speakers pretty much anywhere, but I wanted a baseboard so people wouldn’t kick the fabric, or especially the subwoofer, when they went down down the steps.
Does the screen choice sometimes compromise your design?
It’s usually easy to get a client to go with the right screen. If it’s a low-ceiling room, I tell them to avoid using a 16:9 screen because it will need to go all the way to floor, so you won’t be able to see the bottom of the image from some of the seats. I tell them to use a wide screen because it will fill the room width-wise but it doesn’t need to go all the way down.
If they get a wide screen, they can watch epic movies like Lawrence of Arabia without bars at the top and bottom, and they’ll be able to move the image inside the screen if they want to watch 16:9 content. If they say, “We don’t watch movies—we watch sports,” then they’re meant for a 16:9 screen. But if I have my way, I push for the wide screen because you get a bigger screen in a smaller space.
Have you seen video walls being used more frequently in home theaters?
Not yet because they’re very expensive, around $300,000 to $400,000. But a nicely calibrated set will give you the same performance as a projector—and probably an advantage, because you’re going to produce a brighter picture. When I watch
3D movies in my theater, they suffer. Even though I have a bright projector, the level goes down. You don’t have that problem with a display.
You like to create a sense of anticipation before people enter one of your theaters. Have clients ever objected to that?
Nobody has rejected that because I usually remind them of what it’s like to go to a movie theater. When you go there, you don’t expect to open the door from the sidewalk and find yourself in the middle of the theater. Why? Because going to a movie is like riding a submarine. As you go up in the water, you have to go through various compartments of decompression before you get to the very top.
So you need to go from a small space to a larger space to an even larger space—and I usually bring up the example of the Roxy Theater in New York. The Roxy had an incredible corridor with movie posters right on 50th St. and 7th Ave. that was like 10
feet high. From that you would get to the ticket lobby, which was grander—like 15 feet high. Once you were past that, you went down into a tunnel that was 8 feet or 9 feet high that led to the grand rotunda, which zoomed up to 70 feet.
It’s like an orchestral piece. You orchestrate the crescendos and the pianissimos to create variation and a sense of anticipation and a sense of excitement for when something big happens. You can’t have a symphony that starts with a big crescendo and just stays there.
I explain to the client that, even if they have the smallest space in the world, they should let me subdivide it. I’m not taking away from the space—I’m giving them a more nuanced approach to the theater. I haven’t met anybody who’s said “No,” unless they just don’t have the space.
I did a theater called The Ritz in Texas [shown above]. It’s in my book Great Escapes [page 136]. The client gave me the attic, which was a big space—2,000 square feet—and he said, “How many seats can we fit in here? I have a big space and a big
family.” I said, “Wrong question. It’s not how many seats. It’s how do you create a home theater environment?”
So I created a layout that was like a maze that was opening up. The theater ended up right next to the left of the entry, but you had to go all the way to the back and snake around and go through inner lobbies—a big lobby and a grand foyer—and then a smoking room, and then two corridors. And finally, breathlessly, you arrived at the theater.
It’s just like what Disney does with the theme rides where they have you waiting in line for two hours and you watch different things on TV or you go from one room to another before you get onto the ride. They prepare you. That is not done to showcase the architecture of the various rooms; it’s to create a sense of anticipation, which is what I do by capturing the grandeur of arriving at the Roxy in a simple theater—which is what that Max Fleischer cartoon accomplishes so well.
Working with the client’s interior designer
I usually don’t talk to the client while I’m working with the architect and contractor. But when the construction is underway, I meet with them to select things. That’s a very important part of the job because usually there’s a designer in attendance, and they don’t want the theater to be too far away from what they’re doing in the rest of the house. I tell them not to use bright colors in the theater, and that they can’t use a carpet design that jumps out of the floor because it makes the seats prominent.
Scaling the seating to the rest of the theater
The seats are probably the most damaging element in a theater because they’re large. Everything else I do is kind of miniaturized to create a sense of scale, so the wrong seats can throw my work out of proportion. The most typical example
of that is the theater I did that was a recreation of Ocean Drive in Miami Beach. But when you see the seats, which are as big as the buildings, you say right away, “That’s fake.” Your sense of disbelief is eliminated and you suddenly see the artifact, that it’s all miniatures to create an effect.
I was watching the Netflix documentary Martin Scorsese did with Fran Leibowitz, and there’s a scene where she sits in
the miniature of Manhattan that’s in Queens. And then she steps into the set, and her shoes are as high as some of the shorter buildings. She becomes like Gulliver among the Lilliputians.
How does your approach differ from other theater designers?
I don’t really know because I haven’t really worked with them. All I know—and this is a very generic observation—is theater designers with a technical background tend to start from the technology. And that is Sam Cavitt, and that’s Keith Yates. They’re very protective of technology, and they should be. Traditional designers are the opposite. They start with the interior design, and they tend to be technology adverse. I see myself as sitting in the middle, between acoustical or technical designers and those who decorate. If I were to put a label on my principal contribution to home theater design, it’s that I became a bridge between technology and design by respecting both.
How did you learn to balance technology & design?
When technical or acoustic designers like Steve Haas began to get involved, I had to start listening to them. I didn’t want to because I wanted to decorate, but slowly I realized it’s not just decoration. They would pressure me—“We can’t put that speaker too far behind the seats. We want it here.” So you have to work with the integrator, or with clients who are sound-savvy.
And I learned to pay attention to materials. You can’t make a theater using all wood. It looks fantastic, but wood is very reflective. So I learned to use materials that aren’t reflective—not only in terms of material but of color. If you have a white surface, it reflects too much color off the screen and makes you aware you’re in the room. You want the room to disappear.
The extreme case of wanting the room to disappear is [video-calibration expert] Joe Kane. He doesn’t want to have anything other than a black room, which is going to the one extreme. Having a room that’s very bright and colorful would be the other. There’s got to be a middle ground, where the room can look attractive when the lights are on but disappears when you watch a movie, like in my theater downstairs.
I can change the color of the walls to give the room a different personality because I have LEDs, but when the movie begins, the room disappears. So, everything can be done if you know the tricks of the trade, and I developed them by making mistakes and figuring out what works and what doesn’t.
Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtable, marketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.
PODCAST EP. 17
0:32 How do you typically approach designing a
1:55 The first meeting with the client
3:00 Integrating the theater design into the rest of
4:42 Earning the client’s trust
6:00 Learning & assimilating the client’s taste
6:57 The woman who wanted “gaudy”
8:39 The client who wanted the Acropolis
10:20 How do you translate the client’s idea into
10:58 The importance of a proper theater
15:12 Have you seen a shift from movie palaces to
more contemporary designs?
16:53 Who assembles & supervises the team to
create one of your theaters?
19:33 How do you accommodate the client’s or
integrator’s equipment requirements?
20:51 What happens when the equipment gets
in the way of the design?
21:20 Does the screen choice sometimes
compromise your design?
23:23 Have you seen video walls being used more
frequently in home theaters?
24:42 You like to create a sense of anticipation
before people enter one of your theaters.
Have clients ever objected to that?
30:14 Working with the client’s interior designer
30:51 Scaling the seating to the rest of the theater
33:04 How does your approach differ from other
34:51 How did you learn to balance technology &