Friday, March 19, 2010

Bill Brockschmidt

Bill Brockschmidt, an architect, designer and partner (with Courtney Coleman) of Brockschmidt & Coleman shares a cozy studio with his partner of 20 years architect, Richard Dragisic (pictured left). They also have a house in Sicily, which they have almost finished renovating. Their New York studio is warm and stylish and filled to the brim with quirky objects and classical furniture including a harpischord that was reassembled for Bill in a Staten Island workshop. 

At he beginning of the interview he was a tad bashful but with a bit of coaxing it became clear that this is a man who enjoys a full life. He loves to entertain and cook (he makes pasta from scratch) and on occasion, after a glass or two of champagne, breaks out and plays ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on the harpsichord.

Richard Dragisic and Bill Brockschmidt.
I read someplace that you knew you wanted to be an architect when you redesigned your neighborhood, [to look like] … was it the Royal Crescent in Bath [in England]?

That rings a bell. I used to set up a drawing board and look at books. It wasn’t necessarily my neighborhood—my neighborhood was a suburban neighborhood and I thought this would be a more interesting neighborhood, so I came up with the Royal Crescent in Bath scheme.

And how old were you at the time?

Probably when I was in elementary school.

And how did you even know about the Royal Crescent in Bath?

Oh, just looking at different books. I grew up outside Richmond, and then, Winchester, Virginia and we used to go looking at plantations and Williamsburg and historic things, so I was always interested.

Why do you think that kind of architecture was so interesting to you at that age?


Um … I suppose it was beautiful and had some resonance. I remember looking at books of French chateaux and Georgian houses … when I wanted to be an architect, it was because of buildings like that populated the earth.
Looking towards the dining area from the living room. The south wall bookcases also serve as (very scary) stairs to the bedroom loft.
An oversized crocheted string-and-bead chandelier from Dixie Highway is suspended over the book and object filled Directoire-style dining table. Watercolors and etchings with classical themes covers the north wall of the studio. The Grisaille print at the top was inherited from a client and has the nickname ‘Scary Babies.’
Have you been to Bath? It’s funny because I was watching the BBC series, Emma, the Jane Austen one, and it’s just the lifestyle was so polite and discreet and mannered. It’s so removed from the way we live now. Was that part of the appeal to you, that it was a very gentrified, different time?

I think so. One of the reasons we live in this space rather than a space that has a more conventional bedroom, is because it’s more about having a place to invite friends over and entertain. Sometimes we think what a pity people don’t come calling. [But then] We had one friend who rang on the doorbell once and it terrified us!

Did he leave a calling card?

No! [laughs] … but it’s kind of a shame that we live in times where people don’t spend time in each others’ homes as a regular thing.
One of a pair of white ceramic lamps found in an antique store on Dixie Highway flanks a custom linen colored sofa. A pair of ceramic turtles from the estate of designer, Pauline Trigere sit atop a small tripod table from Tepper. Hanging above library steps that now serve as a bar is a 1998 painting of a gladiator by artist John W. Kelley.
A lacquer table from Mrs MacDougall at Hinson stands atop an early Besserabian carpet from ‘Rugs on Stone’. The red and yellow découpage ashtray is by John Derian.
A side view of ‘The Classical Wall.’ A watercolor by Courtney (Bill’s business partner) of the Mexican adobe that he and Richard rented hangs above a photograph of a Corinthian Capital by Walker Evans.
Entertaining at home is so different than going out. It’s so much more relaxed but New Yorkers just don’t do that.

Except for the shopping part. That’s what kills us every time. It always takes multiple trips to different stores to get whatever you want … the pumpkin oil for some special dish and only one store has that.

Do you actually shop that way? That’s a very European way of shopping … an antiquated way of shopping.

It’s a kind of excursion almost … if we had to do that every day it would drive us crazy. But we’re lucky we have that kind of neighborhood.

This apartment really is different from the way people decorate now. It’s so cozy. I’m so hoping that people are starting to realize that these sterile boxes are not fun to live in.

It’s never even really been an option. White has never really been an option for the color of the walls here … we like to collect things.
A close up of the double duty stair/bookcase.
Inspiration. A marble classical sculpture purchased at auction is ready for action.
The interior of a drop front desk is lined with ‘Adena Pin Ring,’ a hand printed wallpaper by Adelphi Paper Hangings.
Peeking into the front hall, which is also outfitted with a full kitchen cleverly camouflaged behind wallpaper covered folding doors. A charming diorama found at the 26th flea market hangs on a side of the bookcase wall.
Tell me what you love about David Adler. I read he was one of your favorite architects.

Well I think that era is a really nice era. It seems like people had a comfortable but really elegant way of life and it is expressed in the architecture. It’s not reduced at all, even though it is a cleaner look than the look that came before. It just looks like they enjoyed what they were doing.

Those were really big houses he designed.

But they weren’t showy.

Americans do love having big homes. Do you think with the economy now people are going to move to smaller spaces?

I hope so. You look back at the houses of the 1920s that everyone loves, but then they all have these extensions on the back. People have a lot more stuff than they used to have. It’s tricky to cram all of those things into a smaller house. The trouble with big houses is that a lot of times they just don’t get furnished or finished or used. It’s kind of sad.
A 1980s harpsichord assembled in Staten Island was painted by decorative artist by Osmundo Echevarria in classical motifs inspired by the designs of Benjamin Latrobe.
A landscape painting purchased at Christie’s hangs near the prized harpsichord.
A stack of reading materials include books on Sicily --Bill and Richard’s home away from home.
Tell me about your house in Italy. I want to hear about that.

We bought it three years ago and we stayed there for the first time in September. It’s taken three years to get it to a point where we could spend the night. It was a ruin—part cave.

How did you get to the point where you ended up buying a house in Italy? Most people just go to Duchess County or the Hamptons.


We fell in love with Sicily when we took a sabbatical for three months. We just kept wanting to go back and back. And then we thought this would be a great place to retire. The housing prices were increasing and we thought, why don’t we just do it now.
Two framed reposses representing St. Saint Agatha were purchased in Sicily. Gilt Art Deco sconces illuminate the stairway to the bedroom loft.
Black and white Chinese Art Deco vases flank a Pompeian gouache and a pair of colorful collages made out of butterfly wings.
Do you speak Italian?

A little … I guess we can communicate.

The food in Italy is astonishing … you’re going to end up old, fat and retired.

Well, we have to go up one hundred steps to get to our house … the one thing we haven’t been able to afford yet is a kitchen but in the meantime we’ve been cooking more in New York.

Have you ever made your own pasta?

We do. We’re actually good cooks but we don’t cook that often.
Additional storage space is cleverly camouflaged behind a curtain in the cozy bedroom loft. The bed is covered in Muriel Brandolini fabric and West Elm pillows.
Atop the bedroom ledge a terracotta statue of Mercury is perched next to a fragment of a column and a blue ceramic vase from Sotheby’s.
A view across the studio towards what Bill calls ‘The Classical Wall’.
Peering down into the dining area from the bedroom loft.
Turquoise shirred silk covers the chandelier cord.
The directoire dining table tastefully displays a collection of art books and objects.
Your apartment and your way of life seems so welcoming…

For us, well, what do we like to do? We like to entertain. We have fabulous parties here. The most people we’ve had was seventy. We also had a Halloween party. The Halloween parade goes right past here. The tourists come by and wave.

You have a harpsichord!

And it’s painted!

Do either one of you actually play the harpsichord?

Well, I play privately. I rarely play at parties unless I’ve had a lot of champagne … a harpsichord is a nice neighborly instrument because it’s not as loud as a piano … [Richard interrupts]: He can take a song like ‘Stairway To Heaven’ and play it on the harpsichord …

Bill: But only when I’ve had a lot of champagne …

• Sian Ballen • photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch