|An unassuming exterior and up a narrow staircase to an apartment in the East 70s … and we were met with packing crates, boxes, tins of paint and art works stacked against jewel-colored walls. As a story, we loved it immediately but poor Samuel Botero, who thought we were doing a single portrait had only prepared one gorgeous corner for JH. Testimony to his gentle and courteous way with people, he graciously let us take pictures of what is eventually going to be another proof of his flair for spirited color, his eye for an arresting object and his visual sense of adventure.
When did you move in here?
Two months ago … we’ve just been so busy …
What is about this particular apartment that you liked?
Well we liked the working fireplace and the terrace, but also my mother lives just two blocks from here.
Is your mother the only family you have here?
I have some cousins in Washington but only my mother here. She’s 84 and she needs attention now. Her doctor told me initially ‘This is the beginning of senility and then all of sudden a few months ago he said ‘Well, you know actually your mother has the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease and its just a horrible thing to hear. And you know what is the most scary part of this is you begin to wonder ‘Is this where I’m going?’ I know for myself as I get older, I see more and more similarities. Oh my God, you’re writing all this down! [laughs]
|Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Colombia. My mother and my father separated. It was very hard. We had stayed in Colombia but of course everything became such a mess there and she really became a woman with a mission. I really admired her. She got herself a job in an export-import company in Easton, Pennsylvania because she had decided I was to be educated in the U.S. She was in her thirties and she came here with me, a thirteen-year old boy. We were a real immigrant story.
What were your impressions of the U.S.?
It was very exciting coming to this country. To arrive at Idlewild airport, what is now Kennedy. The building seemed so big! And they had this terminal with this big [Alexander] Calder mobile. It was probably about 12 feet but it seemed gigantic to me and I had never seen a Calder before. I thought ‘Wow this is incredible!’. Then the people who were supposed to greet us had had a car accident so we waited and waited and then in the end took a taxi to a hotel that no longer exists on 71st and Broadway. And the taxi driver really took advantage and I remember it cost $55, and that was 1958, so it was a lot of money then.
The next day we had lunch at an automat! (Horn and Hardart) It was like something from outer space. After that we drove down Broadway and I remember the Camel Sign at Times Square, with the circles of smoke coming out and then on to Penn Station, the real one, the old one, which was just mindblowing.
|And later on, when you started school? How was that?
It was bittersweet. It was very hard. I had to learn English. It was July and school hadn’t started and I didn’t know anybody. I spent all my time watching television and mimicking. Ricky Ricardo was the one I related to. He was the Latin guy!
But school was hard. First of all, it’s a very awkward age. I had braces and I was growing so fast. By the time I was 15, I was six feet and I had all these growing pains and sometimes my legs would give out and I would fall. And the school that I went to, they had not seen so many foreigners, so it was very difficult. And at the same time, my mom realized what she had done and had her own little crisis.
What had your life in Colombia been like?
We lived in Bogotà, which is an amazing place. The school bus used to go past the presidential palace and I thought I really want to go look in there. I had this vision that the president had this little machine that rolled out money and my mother was having a hard time. I thought if I could be president for five minutes, I could just make some money for myself and for her.
So I went to the teacher and I asked if he could help me write a letter to the president but he said, it’s never going to happen. So I went and bought some paper and an envelope and I wrote the letter by myself saying that I was a very clean little boy (I will not dirty your chairs), and that I wanted to be president for five minutes. And sure enough there came a letter to my mother and one to me and I went. I was seven. It was in every newspaper in the country. I remember the president came out and he was very short and I was very tall [for my age] and he took me to his office where there was this beautiful mahogany desk and I sat there for the pictures to be taken. A cadet in uniform then took me around and showed me into a huge dining room and there was single place setting for me with one bowl of strawberries and cream and he sat next to me while I ate. I had my fifteen minutes but they were very costly in school because a lot of the kids became very envious.
|What do you think a story like that reveals about you?
I’ve been comfortable always with a different level. There are good and bad people at every level. And I also learned if you want something, then go straight to the top.
We heard that you once had ideas of becoming an actor?
I didn’t want to be an actor – I wanted to be a movie star!
How did you get into interior design?
I won a scholarship to Pratt. It was really amazing because someone whose work I had always loved and who was my mentor really, was Ben Baldwin (not Billy Baldwin) and just before graduation he needed an intern for a project and he liked my sketches. It was like the Celestine Prophecy!
|What were the major turning points in your career?
If I had to go back in time and change something then I think one regret would be that I had an opportunity when I was in my early twenties I got an interview with Billy Baldwin and he liked me and wanted to hire me. But I also had another offer from American Airlines, which I took because of the great travel benefits. But it just became too corporate and I just quit.
I got a freelance job illustrating shoe catalogs. I had mountains of shoes in my apartment. I designed greeting cards, holiday napkins, I modeled. I freelanced for Ford & Earl Associates. [Through them] I ended up doing some work on Robert Sarnoff’s townhouse on 71st between Park and Madison. And that project opened my eyes to real high end decorating. Also that time [the seventies] Ken Scott, the fashion designer hired me to do his house in Mexico and I stayed there for a year and a half. I painted the ceiling chartreuse. I did everything green on green on green. Casa Vogue came and did it, and also House&Garden. And then I came back to New York looking like a parrot, with all these colored clothes and red and green shoes that looked like pimentos.
Then Yasmin Khan, who went to school with a very dear friend of mine, moved to New York and I did her apartment at the San Remo. She had three cats that were very destructive. I could never get anything finished for photographing but those cats kept me in business because every time I did something, they destroyed it and I had to do it again. Finally we got her apartment together and Paige Rense photographed it and that was my first AD.
They say that being in AD really does launch you.
Yes, absolutely, that and Kips Bay, which I did in 1979 and that changed my career.
Do you still work for Yasmin Khan?
She does her own thing but she lets me do her lampshades. She doesn’t like to do lampshades.
|How is both working and living together with your partner [Emery von Sztankoczy]?
It’s really perfect because there is creativity going on. The creative part of it is lovely, discussing things, it is very exciting. We have a great deal of flexibility in terms of going from one idea to another. Other designers have a ‘look’ and people go for that ‘look’. What I like to do is get into the client’s head and find out what their dreams are and bring that out visually and take them out of their comfort zone, then take them somewhere they wouldn’t have gone to.
It’s hard to do. How do you go about it?
It’s definitely hard to do that because it’s scary. It’s why they hire you. It’s to bring them places where they couldn’t go on their own. It needs a lot of intuition, a lot of observation. You kind of use the absurd, sometimes, to approach something.
How far can you take them?
Well, sometimes I’m more surprised by how far they don’t want to go, how scared people are. But I never force things on people.
|You were slightly taken aback when we said we wanted to take pictures of you with your boxes. Was that something that took you out of your own comfort zone?
Well I was a little surprised! [laughs]. I’d prepared a little corner for you guys! Look, it’s fine. I’m comfortable enough with myself to go along with it, but absolutely – you did catch me out!
You have traveled so much, especially with your work. Which city is your favorite?
London. I find it very comforting. And Venice, the memories seem almost like magic.
What are you reading at the moment?
I like biographies. I just finished one on Bette Davis.
What do you like to do if you have any spare time?
I go through periods when I like to sketch shoes. I love to draw bad girl shoes. That could have been another career for me.
• Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge
• Photographs by Jeff Hirsch
Thursday, May 18, 2006