There was a time when American casinos were
dimly lit, low-ceilinged caves. Once in, it was nearly
impossible to find your way out without asking.
The idea was that the design would focus patrons on
only one thing—gambling. Roger Thomas was one
of the leaders who found that idea as harebrained
as it was counterproductive. As executive
vice president of design for Wynn Design and
Development, Thomas has created casino complexes
that are places of visual delight, art, and luxury—
places, he says, that people are eager to return
to again. His dazzling work can be experienced
in Wynn casinos in the United States and abroad,
including in Macau, China. He currently is
designing the Encore Boston Harbor casino for
Wynn, which is scheduled to open next year.
Educated at Interlochen Arts Academy and
The School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts,
Thomas received a BFA in Art History, and has
been published in many leading journals, including
Architectural Digest, ELLE Decor, Interiors,
and Hospitality Design. In addition to his work
for Wynn, he is the proprietor of The Roger
Thomas Collection, designing for many instantly
The recipient of many awards and honors in his
profession, including the Excellence in Design award
from the Interior Designers Institute, Thomas is
a five-time member of Architectural Digest’s AD100.
In 2015, he was installed in the Interior Design
Hall of Fame.
Raised in Las Vegas, he still lives there, but spends
weekends in Marin County, California, with his
husband, Arthur Libera.
i+D: There’s an expression that a person who
lives his whole life in one place becomes a
stranger in his own hometown.
Thomas: When I grew up in Las Vegas, there were
30,000 people; then 70,000; and, by the time I left
to go to college, there were about 120,000 people.
Now, there’s three million. (Laughing) So, yes,
I’m a stranger in my hometown.
i+D: Were you in Las Vegas last year when
the mass shooting occurred in October?
Thomas: I was asleep at home. The thought
was: How could this possibly happen here? That
was common to all of us who were close to the
catastrophic tragedy. A disconnect of time and place.
An immediate pang of fear, and all the time you’re
grieving the losses and thinking of your friends and
family members who were so close to being there.
i+D: How old were you when you first went
to a Las Vegas casino?
Thomas: Three or four. My father founded the
first bank that loaned money to a casino. Going to
the coffee shop at the [former] Desert Inn was not
unusual. That’s where you went.
i+D: Must have been exciting as a kid.
Thomas: Didn’t everyone grow up like that?
I was unaware that everyone didn’t have his or her
birthday parties at the Frank Sinatra dinner show.
i+D: Can you pinpoint the moment you decided
that making casinos dark and impossible to
navigate was stupid and impractical?
Thomas: I thought, I don’t want people to be in
a casino. I want them to be in their casino, to have
ownership wherever they are, whether it’s playing
slots or table games. What’s important about design
is not the color schemes you present, or making it
confusing to try and trap people. My goals are drama,
romance, mystery, comfort consideration, a little
titillation, and humor. I want guests to realize that if
they love the experience, they have to come back.
i+D: How do you achieve that, with making
spaces durable and easy to maintain while
getting the wear of thousands of people a day?
Thomas: With great difficulty. With enormous
amounts of time testing, trying, thinking, and talking
with people who have to maintain the spaces.
Steve Wynn always gave me the great advantage of
allowing me to build a scale model of every casino
we ever built. The Wynn casino model was built in
a Butler building [a prefab metal structure] on the
Desert Inn golf course and evolved over a two-year
period of changing carpets, colors, lighting, furniture,
everything. I spent those years getting everything
balanced with everyone’s input. When I walked into
the model for the 300th time, I went—wow!
i+D: You’re an eyeglass fanatic.
Thomas: I used to own dozens and dozens of pairs.
But, I was much younger and my prescription changed
every five years. Now, my prescription changes like
I change my shirt. I’m down to basic black, blue, gray,
and clear. Far less adventuresome than magenta,
orange, fuchsia, and every shade of green.
i+D: What was the first thing you designed
Thomas: There were five children in my family and
we inherited this magnificent, huge set of building
blocks of 200 or more pieces. I’d sit endlessly
building environments. We would ride horses out
into the desert and I’d sculpt landscapes with red
rocks and make sand castles, creating fountains and
ponds, spending hours creating fantasy worlds.
i+D: Where did that come from?
Thomas: I was born with it. I don’t think the need
to build is learned. I’ve always drawn, painted, and
played in the mud.
i+D: Your first job?
Thomas: My first paid job was when I was 16 and
an assistant to bank tellers. That lasted a month.
i+D: A whole month?
Thomas: Don’t pursue work for money. Pursue it
i+D: What’s the difference between designing
a casino in Asia as opposed to North America?
Thomas: What we found opening a casino in Asia
was they play baccarat. Period. They sit at dining
height so the rooms had to be entirely different
architecturally, rather than barstool height with
black jack, or standing at a craps table, or sitting
at a slot machine, which is basically a light fixture.
So, it was an entirely different way of getting the
balance of intimacy and easy wayfinding. The
chairs become very important. Mies van der Rohe
said that skyscrapers are easy, chairs are hard.
i+D: What frightens you?
Thomas: Creating a space that is architecturally safe.
i+D: What makes you laugh?
Thomas: I can laugh at a wonderful sight of color,
form, and light. I giggle when I walk into our
atrium at Wynn and they’ve changed the floral
i+D: You were raised in the Mormon Church.
How did your upbringing affect your life?
Thomas: I left the church when I was about 13.
There are several members of my family who
are devout to this day, and others who don’t
participate. I’ve sought spirituality in other ways.
I had the art school self-destructive phase.
i+D: You have to go through that.
Thomas: Evidently I did.
i+D: You’re on a desert island and allowed only
one kind of music. What is it?
i+D: Someone once said that, if Mozart had lived
past 35, he would have written all the music.
Thomas: You could make the argument that he did
write all the music.
i+D: When you look up from your desk, what
do you see?
Thomas: Well, first, the trick is to look up.
Who has the time to do that? Looking up, I see a
cubist painting, a neo-classic bronze sculpture,
a Morris Lapidus lamp, a portrait painted of me
40 years ago in the style of John Singer Sargent,
a photograph of Andy Warhol doing my portrait…
Call me a failed minimalist.
i+D: Waking up, how long is it before you
begin thinking about work?
Thomas: Seconds. I often wake in the middle of
a dream walking through a new space.
is the editor of the
Shelter Island Reporter and
a novelist, nonfiction
author, and journalist. His
work has appeared in GQ ,
The Washington Post, and
Los Angeles Times.
i+D — May/June 2018 55
ICONic Profile: Roger Thomas — By Ambrose Clancy