For someone who says he has to be busy all the time, Noel Jeffrey is remarkably relaxed. He is small and dapper and quick in his movements without appearing to be fidgety. He is also an affable, easy man to talk to, and one imagines, to work with, although we did not get a chance to talk to his wife [Lynn], with whom he runs his business. He seems quite content with the way he decorated his apartment several years ago, unlike many who seem compelled to change and revamp. We thought of him as a sentimental boy from Teaneck, New Jersey, close to his son and wife and, all in all, pretty happy with the way his life is turning out.
You have been in this business for over 30 years. What have been the key changes in the business?
Well, I’ve been in the business close to 40 years now. The changes in my own personal career…well, I did very modern work, very minimalist. I studied at Pratt, I did the Bauhaus and I did that until the mid-80s and then I switched – to this. But in terms of the industry itself, it’s gotten more difficult to do business, more difficult to get deliveries. Nobody stocks fabric anymore the way they used to… [and] I can’t even think of how I lived without e-mail!
What brought you to these other styles?
I saw the writing on the wall. I saw that nobody wanted that anymore. The 80s grew and you know...
A custom designed banquette and an Art Deco style faux shagreen-and-ivory table fill this comfortable alcove often used for ‘taking tea’.
A 1935 bronze by M. Le Verrier provides inspiration for daily workouts.
A crystal ‘Excalibur’ letter opener from Steuben was a gift to Noel from his mother-in-law. French Art Deco posters by A.M. Cassandre and Pierre Fix-Masseau hang on the wall behind.
The Bonfire of the Vanities? What do you think of that whole era?
Well, it really did happen! The 80s in our business … you know people couldn’t do enough. They couldn’t spend enough. It was as opulent as you could possibly imagine. Business was very, very good. And it was all traditional work.
Did you ever question that opulence?
No, you know something? I really love traditional. Now looking back on all that time [in the business], traditional design is the only design that endures. Modern design is very fashion-conscious so you can place it whereas [with] traditional design you can only place it by the colors that were used and perhaps the patterns. If you look back at modern design in the 70s, you know when it is. But if you look back at something like Sister Parrish did in the 70s, or the 60s, you can sort of tell but if you just changed a few fabrics … it’s good.
Personal photos of family and friends are scattered throughout the apartment.
Noel’s mother and father share space with other family photos.
How have the clients changed over the years?
Of course now you have a lot of hedge fund clients. I shouldn’t say that they’re too young to have all this money but they are very young! Very green and they don’t know what they’re doing. They’ve all this money at their disposal and I’m teaching…that’s part of what we do. We have to teach people how to spend money. It’s one thing to teach someone who is a little older and has bought some things but it’s another to teach someone who is 35. The money is brand new. When they buy an $8 million dollar house and they come to us to decorate it, part of them is thinking Crate and Barrel, to be very honest with you.
Well, what do you think of Crate and Barrel?
It’s a very good resource. I bought some furniture there for my son’s apartment. It’s not for my clients, really. I mean we’re using it right now for a maid’s room, so that makes them happy. But our clients really want custom everything.
Is there a period in history in which you could imagine yourself?
Well, either the late 18th century in France, which I read about constantly, or maybe in the Art Deco era, 1925 to 1935. In the early part of my career I was known for that and then I worked very hard to pull myself out of that because I was being pigeonholed.
What were your first breaks? What launched you?
Oh, Kips Bay Showhouse. I had already been published in The New York Times. It was, listen to this, the very first day of the Home section, ever, in 1976. My son had just been born and I did a beautiful nursery for him and they did a story on it. And the next thing the Times did was in my first apartment. We had a two-bedroom apartment and we had no dining room. But we had a bed in the center of the room and a desk at the back made of formica – it was the 1970s – and two little chairs. There was a lot of negative space. We gave dinner parties in that bedroom! So we would rent two round tables, sit-down dinners for 18 people, formal with crystal and china. I kept the bed in the center of the room. I did bolsters on it and made it a back-to-back sofa. And that was the story. Subsequently we did picnics – fake grass on the floor and baskets for everybody, and I think I had kites on the ceiling. And then Kips Bay accepted me and I got to do the master bedroom and on and on…
Above: Dennis Abbey worked closely with Noel to create this large mural, a personal version of ‘The Judgment of Paris’. The mural also serves to divide the living room from the dining area behind.
Right: An Art Deco inspired, L-shaped sofa, designed by Noel, is an effective way of using limited corner space.
Were you a diaper-changing father?
Yes. I did everything. I was the one that had to get up with him in the night. I mean we did have help but I’ve always been a very hands-on father. He’s in real estate now. I speak to him five times every day no matter where he is.
What bores you?
That’s an interesting question. I do bore very easily so I need to be constantly busy. I can’t sit still. I mean I read a lot. That’s the only thing that calms me down.
The formal dining room was converted into the family library. One of a pair of Swedish 18th century chairs with gilded bronze detail on the legs stands in the foreground.
Faux bois, Neo-Classical style bookcases that were designed by Noel, house a collection of books on Marie Antoinette and Louis XIV.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading a book called When The Astors Owned New York by Justin Kaplan. I like books like that because you learn a lot. It’s not really just about the Astors, but it’s about everything. I just got to find out how the hotel got to be called the Waldorf-Astoria. There were really two hotels built by cousins, side by side. And I also read everything on Marie Antoinette
What is it about her that interests you?
I’m not exactly sure why I’m drawn to this but one of the things is the style of the late 18th century, I just love it…and it gets me really upset to read these books because they were so very dumb, she and her husband. They really were not in touch. They could have gotten away, done the right thing. But they just didn’t get it because they were so divorced from the population. It continually aggravates me.
In the corner of the master bedroom sitting area, a 19th century gilded screen and a Louis XVI Bergère chair look as if they have come straight out of a Parisian salon.
Rose-colored silk damask covers the walls of the master bedroom. The queen bed is covered in Frette along with some antique linen and lace pillows.
Peeking into the master dressing room, a 1925 drawing by Jean Dupas hangs on the upholstered walls.
Does that touch something in you, the dangers of being too far removed from reality in a luxurious environment?
You mean in what I do? You know something that’s an interesting question because the reality of being wealthy is real. And I yelled at someone the other day about this [laughs]
because I had a resource of mine who makes very expensive furniture and he was complaining to me about being paid. He said to me ‘I’m not here to finance all my wealthy clients’ and I said: ‘You signed on for this. Rich people are different from you and I and they expect a different level of service and they expect things we like mere mortals, don’t really expect. How dare you complain about the hand that feeds you!’ So if you do what I do, whether it be interior design, jewelry or furs, whatever, you gotta go to a different level.
What does make them different?
Their expectations of quality are very high and their expectation of service are high. They are used to getting everything they want when they want it. They’re not ‘not nice’ about it, they don’t know anything else.
This remarkable macassar ebony Rhulman desk with sterling silver pulls was discovered by Noel at Christie’s several years ago.
Clockwise from above: An etched glass by Dennis Abbey works as a shower enclosure in the guest bathroom;
In the foyer, a 1925 Art Deco chandelier by Sabino purchased at Modernism;
Not one to skimp on details, Noel designed this ornate crown molding to make a bold statement in the foyer.
But is that only with old money?
Well, when you have money, you quickly grow into it. The money really changes you.
You gotta think rich when you do what I do. You’ve got to transport yourself into their mind.
What are your own attitudes towards money?
I’m not afraid to spend money. I don’t worry about money. I’ve always been able to make a living. Don’t forget I grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey. I knew there was such a thing as an interior designer, but not like this. I thought I was going to get a job and work and that’s what I was going to do. I didn’t ever have these expectations.
The grand piano standing front and center in the large foyer belonged to the grandmother of Noel’s wife. Custom-designed birds-eye maple hinged doors can be removed to reconfigure the space.
What do you find ugly?
Oh this may sound really trite but we give parties from time to time and I hate getting ugly presents. We have boxes of them that we take to the thrift shop. I mean people have the worst taste you can possibly imagine. Why do they do that? I mean give me a book! I love getting books, any book I get makes me so happy. I just got a gift this weekend, it was so awful that I couldn’t possibly describe it on the record! I couldn’t even figure out what it was! Oh, and a lot of people have these collections, say of Lalique or Steuben, animals, vases, dishes … and they think they own art. I say: Do me a favor, put it away and when you have a dinner party, you can put it all in the middle of the table, a few flowers among it…some candlesticks… and it’ll look great.
Are you interested in cooking – or just eating?
About two years ago I lost 30 pounds and, as you can see, I’m not a big person so 30 pounds is a lot. I went on that Zone Chef diet and I will live on that for the rest of my life. Now, I’m down to four days a week and the food is great. At the weekends we eat out a lot. Food is not so very important to me.
The dining area, furnished with a set of Biedermeir chairs from Newel Art galleries, was carved out of space from the oversized living room. The two French posters are by C. Gesmar.
A painted and gilded carved figure of Athena stands watch over the dining area.
The flip side of Dennis Abbey’s mural based on ‘The Judgment of Paris’ serves as both a practical and decorative solution in the dining area.
What’s your favorite drink?
You mean like liquor? Well, again, I don’t really drink, which helps. If I have one glass of wine a month, it’s a lot. I love to drink a margarita every now and then. But you know what my favorite drink is? Water.
What then, for you, are the other simple pleasures of life?
Reading a book. We have a house in Sagaponack. I like my gardens, I love doing gardens. And I go horseback riding three days a week. I’m just doing this two years and I’m doing English-style. Sagaponack is horse country.
Have you fallen off yet?
No. I’ve never fallen off and I don’t ever expect to! I just don’t! … I’m an optimist. [laughs]