|You live in a place with lots of beautiful smooth surfaces, would you ever go camping now?
Yeah! I’ve been on camping trips, river rafting. I’ve gone down the Salmon River in Idaho and I’ve gone through Botswana, in all the tented camps although now the tented camps are pretty grand. I remember thinking ‘Here I am where there are hippos bursting out of the water and at the same time in the same world there’ll be taxis honking on the streets of New York.’ It seemed amazing to me.
What is your favorite city?
I’m so predictable. My favorite city is Paris. It’s painfully beautiful. It’s been my favorite city since I was 14. I shelved books in a public library for two years to afford a trip when I was 16. I remember walking through the Left Bank until I could get to the river and I literally wept. I’m a total Francophile. I love how impossibly difficult they are.
Did you know then that you would be drawn to a career like this?
In a way ... I mean little boys didn’t dream of growing up and being decorators. I was interested in houses so I thought I would be an architect. One of our neighbors was a builder and he would give me all his building magazines and I would trace the houses.
And then another friend at that time was having a house decorated in Great Neck by Robert Denning and Vincent Fourcade in a style of which I had never seen … so maybe that’s when other ideas started to come.
|Did you study architecture?
Oh, now you’re going to blow my cover. No, I studied liberal arts at Trinity College, so I went from a Jewish community to the least Jewish college I could get.
How have your tastes changed over the years?
There has definitely been an arc. When I was a kid I thought the sun rose and set by Billy Baldwin. I grew up in a house that was filled with Herman Miller and Saarinen tables, which I liked a lot. And then I went to work for these wonderfully eccentric men Denning and Fourcade, where it was full on Napoleon III, over-the-top, pattern and fringe and pink-and-green lampshades, seven rugs lying on top of each other. It just blew my head off! And I was seduced. It was very much that sort of Rothschild taste. From them I learned about fanciful thought.
Tell us about your time with Parish-Hadley.
They were two really strong, really unique people and I sat between them and worked very closely with both of them for 16 years. At that time Albert [Hadley] was moving back to Billy Baldwin, that kind of clean, classic taste and, going back to the arc of my taste, I thought, ‘Well, I’ve traveled now and this is really where my heart is.’
But Sister Parish was still doing chintz, wasn’t she?
Oh absolutely! Mrs Parish was totally instinctual. If you asked her why she was doing something she’d get frustrated because she couldn’t tell you why and she didn’t want to tell you why. I mean she’d been going in and out of houses for 200 years. And there she was working with this Jewish boy from Long Island and she would say the most wicked things. But I wasn’t cowed by her. She would say these horribly anti-Semitic things and I would just sort of bash her back and say ‘boring WASPs’. She had a great sense of humor and she wasn’t fragile at all.
|What does Albert Hadley have that other people don’t have?
Manners, taste, generosity. Everything you hear [about him] is an understatement. When I get cranky and really cross in the office I think, ‘Oh God am I being the boss Albert was? And I sort of rein myself in and correct myself.’
Why did you leave?
I left with absolutely no notice, no forethought. The honest answer is that the population of the office had changed. There was great friend of mine, [Gary Hager] who was also a decorator with Parish-Hadley. We were the young guys and we thought we would take it on to the future ... and then ... you know ... Gary got hit by the AIDS bus and life changed. One day I thought ‘I’m not enjoying this the way I used to.’ With all due respect to Albert, and I said this to him directly, ‘It seems silly to make a choice about my future based on a 78-year old man.’ Typical Albert, he gave me a drinks party in the office to send me off. I could burst into tears because I have so much feeling for him, [voice cracks] I really try to be ‘that guy’.
Are you ambitious?
Well, apparently I am!
What kind of fantasy project would you like to do?
I’d like to do a set design for a ballet, anything by Balanchine.
What are you reading?
The Lincoln biography by Doris Kearns-Goodwin.
|Are people nervous about inviting you over in case you judge their taste in décor?
I’m not a 24-hour-a-day decorator. I can switch off totally. Only once in all the years did I get up from a dinner table and say ‘Thank you. I’m sorry I can’t in good conscience leave this apartment with the furniture where it is.’ He had all this rental furniture which he had pushed all over the place. So, we were eight people and we all picked the furniture up and moved it around and he was super-happy. I wouldn’t be that cheeky now.
Are there any current fads that you dislike?
Mediocre seventies furniture. If I see another abalone shell Verner Panton lampshade, I’ll get up on a chair and rip it down.
Do you ever lie on this couch and eat potato chips?
No … but only because I don’t really do that. I mean I sit here in my sweat pants and read the Sunday Times, if that’s what you mean.
|Are you instinctual or are you cerebral?
I think I’m the evil spawn child of those two [Parish-Hadley] Although I will always pull down the books off the shelf in the office, I think mostly I start, at least, from an emotional place.
Are you a car person?
I have a little 1966 cream-colored Mercedes Convertible (She’s definitely female. She doesn’t come into the city, doesn’t like to get herself dirty and wet.) I keep her in East Hampton where I have a tiny place, the size of this table, built in the sand dunes.
|If you could decorate a house outside of the US, where would it be?
India, I think, on the water, say in Udaipur, or perhaps Kerala.
Do you do anything creative at the weekends?
I’m the least artistic person in this business! I don’t paint, I don’t cook …
What time do you go to bed? Are you a good sleeper?
I go to bed late, too late. I sleep like a child.
— Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge