One of New York’s singular surprises, Geoffrey Bradfield made his entrance, pure dandy, dressed in an immaculate pale pink seersucker suit, a green-and-pink polka dot tie, loafers with no socks – perhaps that should have been the clue. He spent his childhood, barefoot and free on an African farm in what he himself describes as a ‘time warp’. He has a precise and deliberate way of articulating his thoughts, a genuine knowledge of contemporary art and a certain delicate vulnerability that sits strangely together with ambition, business acumen and an out-and-out adoration of glamour, the kind that is nearly always generated by a passion for old movies.
You have so much incredible contemporary art in your home – I don’t think we’ve seen anything quite like it so far. It must be key to your design sensibility.
Absolutely – really my work is predicated on contemporary artists. It’s almost impossible for me to do an interior without some form of contemporary art. It’s a passion, it really is.
Who are your favorite artists?
Well, it depends on which period. If you’re talking about post -World War II, I’m a great Kenneth Noland fan, I like Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and if we move forward, I’m crazy about Jeff Koons.
In the ground floor reception room, sculptural steel andirons by Gilbert Poillerat are a subtle contrast to the minimalist painting by Robert Mangold, which hangs above the mantel.
A silver art deco tea set is used for guests. The great Elsa Schiaparelli was the inspiration for the bright pink backings on the XVI-style chairs.
L. to r.: A sure-footed vase by Fornasetti is a surreal touch. Geoffrey had the French table repainted in white, with a faux marble top; The reception room opens to a classical garden courtyard. Weather permitting, the doors are removed to create one grand entertaining space.
A rare painting by Julian Schnabel from the 1992 ‘Elvira’ series has its own custom-made Lucite protection. The clear acrylic Neoclassical-style table and Klismos chairs are from Geoffrey’s Millennium Modern furniture collection.
Why did you not become an art dealer?
[deadpan] Not bright enough. No, I love working with interiors, I really do. I was not someone who had a conversion on the road to Tarsus. I really always knew what I wanted to do. I mean, I thought that I would do film sets or something like that but I wanted to do interiors.
Why not set design then?
Um…easier route? I’ve had a good run.
Above: Carlos stands to greet at the front entrance. A 1930s photomural of Geoffrey’s town house and the Upper East Side street where it is situated, was created out of a set of photos taken for a New York City Public Works Project.
Part of Geoffrey’s extensive art collection, this metal sculpture by Aaron Wexler is appropriately titled ‘The Early Bird Gets the Worm’.
Do you prefer to take the easy way?
No, I don’t. Thirty years ago I gave up an amazing career in South Africa [where I grew up], a very big [design] company, a beautiful home in Johannesburg with dogs and horses. I had a wonderful life. Everyone said ‘You’re crazy to be leaving.’ We were big fish in a very little pond. I started all over again. I’m doing the same thing again. I’ve just turned 60 and I’ve opened an office in Dubai.
Why New York?
When I was [a conscript] in the [South African] army – and I have told this story before – I had a pass for a weekend and I went to see a movie called Breakfast at Tiffany’s and when Patricia Neal signed that check for George Peppard and told him to go and have a weekend, he deserved a break and she was paying for everything for this guy… I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. It was just sooo sophisticated and sooo glamorous. And I thought ‘Wow! I’m going to live in that city one day.’ I live for movies. They were a door to another world.
What was that army experience like?
Forgettable. I was 17 when I went into the army. It was compulsory. We were drafted. I did an officers’ training course. I got my veld pips [officer’s insignia] [laughs]. It was nine months but my brothers who went in after me had to stay longer.
Where does your family live now?
I have a sister and brother in South Africa and my other brother lives in Vancouver. He’s a surf dude, an aging surf dude! He’s wonderful. He has more personality than anyone deserves, he can charm the birds out of the trees.
Above: A stretch of gray ultra-suede banquettes provides additional seating for reading or watching movies on the giant plasma TV above the mantel.
Right: Geoffrey first spotted his beloved ‘Balloon Dog’, by Jeff Koons, at a party given by the dealer Nathan Bernstein. He purchased it the following day.
A view of the library. The intensity of color in Yves Klein’s 1966 coffee table filled with ‘Yves Klein Blue’ acts as a counterpoint to the soft greys in the rest of the room. A ballpoint pen-on-canvas work ‘Sargasso Sea’ by Guy Hindley almost seems to float on the library’s rear wall.
L. to r.: A cozy corner of the library with a collection of custom-bound editions of favorite books. The white Philippe Starck table is from Design Within Reach; Framed photos of family and close friends are placed throughout the townhouse.
Below: Some of ‘the ladies’… and men.
Did New York live up to your expectations?
Absolutely. Everyone always said ‘Oh, you’re in the honeymoon period.’ But it’s truly not the case. It became a fantastic marriage. In fact I wish my [real] marriage had been as successful as my relationship with the city. I couldn’t live anywhere else, I just couldn’t. Oh, but you don’t want to be on the inside of my head when I walk the streets of New York because I’m so critical: ‘Oh, they’re overweight! Oh my God, isn’t that ugly! They shouldn’t allow those people in the 21 zip!’ But by and large I am absorbing so many positive things all the time. It’s just amazing the amount of beauty around us and I’m 90 per cent visual. And if you are designer, and worth your salt, then you are critical and making comparisons all the time. I don’t know if I’m making sense…
Do other cities have this effect on you?
Well Paris and London, the great cities really are civilized cities. New York is not civilized, it is sophisticated. It has a different pulse altogether.
Matching mirrored French doors give height and stature to the living room. The painting by South African friend and artist, Karel Nel.
L’oiseau Bleu II’ by Francois-Xavier Lalanne looks longingly at the perfectly formed Fabergé ceramic Easter egg from La Vielle Russe.
Geoffrey was influenced by the sculptures of Gilbert Poillerat when he designed the swirls of the ‘carved’ living room rug that has since become part of his rug collection for Stark carpet. Julian Schnabel’s ‘Carey’ from the Nohra Haime gallery makes a powerful statement on the west wall.
‘Puppy’ by Jeff Koons (Thank God ceramic doesn’t shed!).
Voluminous silk draperies flow to the floor of the ultra-glamorous living room. Clear acrylic modern wing-chairs and a low table from the Millennium Modern collection fill the space.
A sculpture by Joel Perlman and Ming elephants. A vase by Jonathan Adler sits below.
How do you draw the distinction between the civilized and sophisticated?
Ohhh, New York is not civilized, no way. We really are bruisers on the street and we really are aggressive. But I don’t like the French [either]. I love the French culture but I have no time for the Gauls as a nation [and yet] I think they have the most superior culture of all time.
How can you not like the people but admire the culture? Don’t the people generate the culture?
Well, I think you begin with premise that the French actually don’t like each other, so if you start with [that], they don’t like their neighbor, they don’t like the people down the street, then they don’t like their government, and then they hate the Americans and it goes on…they really are not a friendly race. I mean I have a lot of close French friends and I’m being a contradiction now…but [back to your question]…have you read The Essence of Style [by Joan DeJean]? It’s become my bible. Read that at once! Chapter Nine was written for me. It’s called Power Mirrors and I’ve always loved mirrors. I think they are the essence of glamour. And Louis XIV, the Sun King, was the first man to actually do a room with mirrors. He sort of kidnapped the mirror makers from Venice and had them come to Paris. If you’re interested in design, the influence of the Sun King on every single aspect of our lives is in this book.
Dressing room closet doors are a clever way of displaying more personal photos.
Geoffrey’s dressing room on the third floor. Above a couch from Design Within Reach hangs a photo of Geoffrey from a former (very short-lived) incarnation as a South African movie actor and model. In the corner stands part of Geoffrey’s collection of vintage costumes.
An elegant side chair provides convenient shelving for a stack of books in the corner of the dressing room.
So you think that the French culture has been formed by an aristocratic sensibility and hierarchy?
I do, absolutely. His court was rigid and he was involved in every aspect of the court. He was only five foot, five inches, and he was also brave! He fought in wars. He was the celebrity of the era.
Do you identify with him?! What about the narcissism of mirrors?
I can live with that…[laughsloudly] …and let’s remember all the positive aspects of mirrors. I mean they give one a sense of infinity, they add glamour and have ways of achieving glamour in a room [even though] they’re not expensive.
Where did you train?
I did several courses in London and in my youth, but nothing really to boast about. I really feel that everything I’ve acquired has been gleaned – or is innate.
Everything is in master bedroom is low-slung and more relaxed, including this king-sized bed with an upholstered headboard that Geoffrey designed; an untitled color field painting is by Kenneth Noland.
More memories, especially Debbie B.
A Milton Avery drawing sits regally in the corner of the master bedroom surrounded by puddles of sumptuous silk curtains and a wall of inset mirrors.
Above:A huge folding screen (that doesn’t actually screen anything) stands in front of tufted white leather doors; the rug is also Geoffrey’s design.
What would you say is the most commonly held misconception about designers?
That we’re airheads…[laughs]… which we probably are!
You eventually ended up working with Jay Spectre – that must have had a big influence upon you.
We were so close for many years until he got ill and then it was nightmare. His boyfriend died two years before he did, so I had a really rough four years towards the end of his life. He was very ill but he was an amazing man. But we both brought a lot to the table. I don’t like it when sometimes people say ‘He was my mentor’ – it’s not the case. We were really were a team, and I’m not saying he wasn’t great because he was. But so much of what happened was because of my being there and goading him.
The guest bedroom is entirely covered in this toile with a black-and-white print of the city skyline.
L. to r.: Gifts from Bradfield’s sister, an accomplished artist still living in the family homeland of South Africa;
The oversized black headboard is designed by Geoffrey.
How do you deal with someone who, when you go into their house, points out all the things they want to keep in the room?
If clients own things of great beauty and worth, it’s okay… and I guess one has to acknowledge sentimental value, hopefully something that is pleasing to the eye. But why do a beautiful new room where people are making an investment of a certain caliber and hang on to something that really is a dog?
Is interior design essentially creating ‘sets’ for people to live in?
Of course it is. It’s a backdrop to a lifestyle. And most of our clients are people who have lifestyles.
But you’re not on show in your own home, it’s not theater.
Have you seen The Devil Wears Prada? There’s a scene in that film…she [the magazine editor] has a parting line to her assistant, who doesn’t want any part of the [glamour world], and she says, ‘Look at yourself. Everybody wants to be us.’ And I believe that. I think that the little girl sitting behind the typewriter, or the hairdresser, they all fantasize and have a vicarious pleasure out of watching it all.
This room, for all of its glamour, is also quite calming.
I seek serenity in all my interiors. I think that art brings a lot of that signature to it. I mean we’re not talking great Picassos that are representing the Spanish wars but art really has a serenity.
Are you an optimist?
I was born an optimist. So it helps. I have chums who really suffer, they’re unhappy and feel they’re being unjustly treated and I just don’t feel one [of those] I mean we all have problems… certainly my generation… becoming teenagers and growing up. Today the culture has changed so radically. When I see my siblings with their children it is such a reverse of what we experienced. My goodness! I mean you called your father ‘sir’ and you would never dream of kissing or cuddling your father. It was the way it was. And your grandparents were revered. So I think we were raised with a lot more reserve – maybe not in America, I speak for the colonies, South Africa. It was a time warp of behavior. Becoming a teenager in the 50s and early 60s, we came to the world. It was the first time youth had a real voice and affected the world. There was huge resistance to it, certainly where I grew up.
Not a ‘The Hall of Mirrors’ but part of the master bath.
You grew up on a farm in the Eastern Cape. Did you have one of those barefoot African childhoods?
I’m from farming stock. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents were farmers. [As a childhood] it was wonderful, unbelievable! I was in the saddle at the age of three. Our farm was called Athlone and actually ran on to the Indian ocean. We had a young black man who looked after us. His name was Oblong We [my brother and I]… we never wore a stitch of clothing and my mother would let us go the entire day on the beach and we were as brown as berries! That’s why my skin’s such a mess now!
Did you used to hunt?
Actually I love it. I’m a very good shot. I used to hunt with my dad in the Karoo. You know the way you used to call people who weren’t related to you ‘uncle’. Well, I had an Uncle Billy and he had a very big farm there and we used to go there every June, which was the hunting season. We hunted kudu and springbok.
Is there anything you miss about South Africa?
Not any more. I used to but it’s changed so much. They don’t want us. But I used to love the freedom, the beach, just to go on a horse and ride and not care about anything. It was a lifestyle that has … gone.
What do you do now to relax?
I have a beautiful house in Palm Beach, on the beach. It’s wonderful.