A writer in Architectural Digest once described Mariette Himes-Gomez as a ‘house whisperer’, which is an astute assessment of the subtle and instinctual way she puts together her work. There is a distilled quality to the way in which she favors light and space over color. There is too, an extraordinary lightness of touch in the way she mixes art and objects that speaks to an inner sensitivity and to the warmth of a person, who on the outside, initially comes across as no-nonsense, direct, and even somewhat impatient.
You have had, and still have, projects in London and you once owned an apartment there. Do you like London?
I love London. First of all it’s a day flight and they speak basically the same language...only the words are different [laughs] I heard something the other day and they were describing some unpleasant bickering in the neighborhood and they called it ‘anti-social behavior’ – it’s a [criminal charge] called ‘ASBO’ [laughs], very funny. I’m always so careful about choosing my words there, I can’t tell you. The Americanization of the English language has made it so completely different. I was so timid 18 years ago. I was in some antique shop and I said, ‘May I take a picture of that painting?’ and they said, ‘Yes, you may take a photograph of that picture.’ And if something gets too serious, it’s always covered with humor. That’s really frustrating. [pauses]
Well, let’s talk about what I have to talk about. I mean, what are you trying to say [in this interview]?
Above (l. to r.):Three inches were cut off the bottom of this Gothic Revival bookcase to fit it into this vestibule. The color photograph of flowers against a starry night is by Ben Schonzeit; An 18th century portrait of a Dutchman is balanced against a colorful, 1960’s standing mobile from the Redfern Gallery.
Left: A pair of wooden Egyptian figures and a 1940’s drawing of a woman by Abraham Walkowitz, purchased at William Doyle, stand on an Asian altar table.
Oh. Well you talk! It’s supposed to be more about you and your life rather than design.
Design is my life.
How did you get your start?
Oh God, I’ve repeated that whole story so many times but I’ll give you a short version. I grew up in Michigan. When I was 14 all the girls were trying to be nurses or teachers and I always knew what I was going to do. I don’t know how I knew, I honestly don’t. I graduated from high school when I was 16 and then I went off to the Rhode Island School of Design. I was so starved to have art courses. I really learned how to draw there. [pauses]. So now I know how to draw a fish in a fish bowl.
[Later] I came to New York and studied at the New York School of Interior Design. I worked for Edward Durrell Stone and then I worked for Sister Parish. Now that’s part of the fabric of how I got the experience but I think it must actually impact the fact that I can’t get out of being in the middle of design. I like traditional things and I also like plain things. [pauses] Can you make a decent story out of this because it sounds a little provincial?
Above: A Swedish day bed and a campaign desk furnish this comfortable study which occasionally serves as a guest bedroom.
Right: Mariette loves to bid at auction, hence the stacks of auction catalogs that cover this glass-topped table.
It’s a Q&A, more of a conversation and not a story as such. What was working with Sister Parish like?
Oh, I don’t want to really go into that…you can’t even equate me to someone like that.
Has your style changed over the years?
Well, I’ve always respected architecture, so I guess that’s where the style starts doesn’t it? [But] I’ve been pretty much the same – well, except in the 60s when I did a lot of pattern [laughs], oh yeah! The 60s, a lot of color and pattern, pattern and color!
You have two grown children. What was it like when they were little and there were toys all over the floor and finger marks on the wall?
Oh that’s not easy! But I’m very good at storage… I came out of that era where Gloria Steinem told us we had to do everything and we had to do it well. I did the mother stuff. I supported every possible aspect of their lives but I can’t say that I cooked dinner every night.
So this is home now is it?
This apartment is really the fabric of my life, it really is. Everything in it is from another part of my life. I love this apartment. I’m never leaving here ever again. Home is where your heart is. It’s my sanctuary.
Clockwise from top left:Looking into the light-filled master bedroom. Each unit in this 12-story Park Avenue building has a single floor with several exposures; Mariette loves curling up with a good book, especially a mystery story, in this upholstered sleigh bed she designed for Hickory Chair. The painting above is by photo realist, Carolyn Brady for the Nancy Hoffman Gallery; Part of a carefully edited, but eclectic, collection of artworks from dealer Michael Steinberg rests on the bedroom window sill; ‘Everything in this apartment is from another part of my life,’ says Mariette. A childhood teddy dressed in starched white cotton rests on a bedroom corner chair.
Left:A masterful mix of collectibles and new technology atop the study desk.
You seem to have an ability to distil the essence of an interior, almost as if you are leaving things unsaid.
A lot of people don’t understand why I don’t have more things on these [tiered] tables but I like the air going through them. I do leave things unsaid. Maybe that’s the key. The object is everything. You don’t need to say any more. These things give me great joy.
So you like shopping?
I love shopping for home furnishings. But really I have no use for shopping. I hate it. I hate buying clothes. If I’m in a t-shirt and a pair of trousers and I can work with my hands, I’m happy.
The entire apartment was gutted and opened up to create a loft-like space. Front and center in the living room is a sofa that came from Syrie Maugham. A leather-topped low table by Paul McCobb adds an element of mid-century modern.
Working with architect Mark Simon, Mariette designed a fireplace with no mantel –just a wall of scored plaster. Above the fireplace opening is a small metal piece titled ‘A Minute of My Time’ by Micah Lexier, bought from the Affordable Art Fair and held to the wall by push pins.
You mentioned earlier that you went traveling around Europe and South America before you set up your business on your own. What do you remember from that first trip outside of the U.S.?
Well, I went with my [ex] husband. We’d both been in school for so many years. He’s an architect. I remember every country we were ever in. I have this incredible ability to sort of focus on shapes and sizes and styles and objects. When I was there [in Lima, Peru] I was buying all these pre-Colombian things. I just used my eyes. It was just the beginning of understanding other cultures.
Where do you travel now, for pleasure?
I haven’t really done anything for pleasure because I work in so many places. The idea of getting on an airplane is not necessarily appealing. [My workload] is staggering. This year has gotten really bad and I’m not really sure how I’m not controlling it but some of our clients have projects all to hand in at the same time. I’ve done four or five serious installations, one in Boston, one in Arizona, two on Long Island and another one somewhere that I can’t even remember. And so being at home is a vacation.
Above, l. to r.: A 17th century portrait of an English gentleman, purchased from William Doyle, reigns over the front hall;
Bookshelves have been cleverly slotted into the apartment’s niches.
Right: No dog walker needed for this pair of 19th century ceramic pugs.
Are you good at relaxing?
Oh, at my house in the country – I can sit and just be… comatose!
What’s your approach to new clients? Are there any red flags that warn you away from a client?
I love that process. Not everyone can be that selective that they don’t take a client. And I will really try with some people if I think that there is [at least] some level that we are communicating on. Really, in my experience, only three times, in 35 years or more have I said, ‘This isn’t working.’ And I gave them back their money. You don’t always manage to figure out what their insecurity is, or their anticipation. I don’t know.
Above: The play of light and space is reflected in the gilt-framed dining area mirror.
Below, l. to r.: A collection of antique tortoiseshell boxes gathered together on the living room table. The carpet is from Doris Leslie Blau; Two antique circle-back chairs from Sweden are tucked under the altar table in the living room to provide extra seating when needed.
Is there any part of the process you don’t like?
I like it all!
Do you have a fantasy project that you’d love to complete?
Fantasy project…um…I think I’ve done’em all! I’ve done a house in Mustique – there are only 60 houses there…that was pretty much a fantasy.
What do you think of all these new glass buildings that are going up in New York?
Did you read that New York magazine article about the way New York is going to look 20 years from now? I don’t know how we are going to design for that. I would certainly like to bring it back in to something that is more cozy and comfortable. We were working in a Richard Meier building and I had a hard time making it not cold. I’m just not ready to live in a Jetsons society.
Left: An abstract black and white drawing is aptly titled ‘Undone’.
Below: In designing her kitchen, Mariette chose to keep some walls free for artwork, including this ‘blackboard’ piece that reminded Mariette of a real blackboard. Inset: More kitchen artwork.
Yet the light in these buildings is amazing.
But light should be a surprise, not a given.
What do you mean ‘light should be a surprise, not a given’?
I just do. I mean you don’t want to live in complete daylight or complete darkness your whole life, well that’s just weird. I love when [the light suddenly] hits something and you see the magic of light. You want the romance, the drama, anything that light can do.
What do you like to read?
I love books. I have a library [at my place in Remsenburg] and now it’s full and I don’t know what to do. I read mystery stories. And I have quite an elaborate library on flowers, not necessarily gardening but more to do with botany.
Mariette sitting on her Syrie Maugham sofa.
At last, a designer who reads something other than biographies. Why mystery stories? Is it putting the pieces of the puzzle together that you like?
That’s what intrigues me. I can always figure out who it was or how it was done. I have read all the Agatha Christie stories twice … Dorothy Sayres … and the new Sherlock Holmes, that guy who is writing a modern version. I’m reading 1185 Park [by Anne Roiphe] right now.
Do you bring that problem-solving skill to your design?
Oh yeah! I just love it when somebody in my office says to me ‘You know we really can’t get that’ or ‘I can’t find the right color’. I can give them three or four ways how to do it. I just never take no for an answer. I love people giving me problems they can’t solve. When I was in that high school in Michigan I was in charge of doing the senior prom and I said we’re going to make this look like Paris. And they kept saying ‘How are we going to do this?’ I got the crew together. We didn’t have any money but we made plaster out of shredded paper and glue. We made the Eiffel Tower and a little café, everything!
L. to r.: Mariette carved this elegant dining area out of a corner of the living room. A 1960s mobile is suspended above an English tilt-top table from Sotheby’s; A celadon bowl holds Mariette’s collection of glass marbles.
Another view of the dining area. The curved, tufted sofa is from her Hickory Chair collection.
How did you get to be in charge of that?
I probably volunteered because I was so starved to do things. I did anything I could ever do that was creative. I wanted to take shop [carpentry] with the boys but they wouldn’t let me…I had to take home economics and to learn to sew. And I made the greatest skirt, it was multi-colored stripes but it fell apart! It looked great….but I don’t want to really play up the mid-Western thing because people always ask me these questions about my background.
What do you do if you make a mistake?
I don’t remember making mistakes because I’m too practical.
Would you say that you were an assertive person?
No…no…I don’t think I am. ‘Assertive’ sounds tough and I’m not tough, I’m soft…but I know what I want to do. [pauses] Was this the interview or now do we have to start it? Are you going to splice it all together and make me sound like a scholar?! And we never really hit that word ‘decorating’!