Friday, June 8, 2012

Charles Krewson

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch

To our shame neither of us had ever been to Greenpoint where designer Charles Krewson lives in his idiosyncratic apartment full of strong color and artwork—there is nothing that is not visually interesting. His mother is German and his father was in the Air Force, so he grew up living in different parts of the world including Europe, and he says Greenpoint with its vigorous Polish population reminds him of some of the places he knew in his childhood. And we did end up talking quite a bit about our youth … about long lost things such as cassette tapes, Fiorucci clothes, learning to touch type and the days when young people in lowly jobs could afford to live in Manhattan apartments—and pay the rent themselves.

This is a wonderful apartment—it’s very confident. Did you study design or train to be a designer?

No, no. I dropped out of school and moved to New York.

From where?

My parents live in Washington D.C. but I grew up all over. My mom is German and my dad is American. They met in Europe. I was born in Kittery, Maine. My dad’s family originally came over with Peter Stuyvesant and I still have lots of family in Pennsylvania. My dad was in the Air Force so we were in France and in North Dakota and all over …
A view across the living room. A 1930's blue glass top coffee table was purchased at a vintage store in Williamsburg.
The Ikea bookcases, which are filled with art and design books, were gold-leafed by artist Christopher Tanner.
A French chair is covered in Donghia fabric.
Bookcase details with Ganesh sculpture from India.
The mirrored side table is a junk store find.
In the living room corner a work by Jane Kaplowitz hangs opposite two encaustic oil paintings by Jan Green. The side table is vintage Knoll, the lamp is a 1940's signed Seguso piece from Venice.
The living room is a harmonious blend of disparate colors and patterns. The sofa fabric is from Joe's Fabric Warehouse and the rug was purchased at a store near Prospect Park.
Is that the same as being an army brat?

It’s very similar to that. Both my parents worked in the government. My mom was the German-Dutch specialist at the Library of Congress until she retired.

Wow, I didn’t know that they had those kind of specialists.

Thomas Mann had that same job. There is a Slavic specialist, a Spanish language specialist … all kinds.

Do you speak German?

I do. We always speak English as a family. The only time we ever speak German together is when we are in Germany with Germans. I learned it because my grandmother spent a lot of time with us. And I spent summer vacations with her.
Hanging above a Serge Roche plaster table are artworks from left to right: Robert Hawkins, Amir Fallah, Tabboo! (top), and Hunt Slonem (bottom). A small side chair is covered in Edwardian cut velvet from England. On the far wall, a painting by Robert Giles hangs above an engraved invitation to Studio 54. To the right is a work from artist, Patrick Abbey. Vintage Warren McArthur aluminum chair.
Looking down the main hall towards the kitchen.
Christopher Tanner gold-leafed this small side stool.
A drawing by Robert Hawkins (David Bowie has the mate) with a vintage cyanotype photograph. From top to bottom: An encaustic painting by Jan Green, a Kaz cartoon from Matthew Marks Gallery, and a collage by Rupert Goldsworthy. In the background, Charles in conversation.
In the bedroom hallway, from the left a glitter drawing by Christopher Tanner, three pen and ink drawings by Moriceau + Mrzyk, and a painting by Christopher Brooks.
An abstract work by Christopher Brooks hangs next to a print by Rupert Goldsworthy.
A view down the art filled bedroom hallway. The rug is from West Elm.
A view down the bedroom hallway toward the main bath. The painting on the left is by Canadian artist, Attila Richard Lukacs.
So the dropping out of school can’t have gone down so well with your parents.

Oh, they were horrified. But I found an apartment and I could afford to pay for it myself so what could they say?

What did you do?

I worked for a record company. I was like a Guy Friday for a man who constantly sent tapes of the [proprietary] music to people in the recording studio to try to get people to record [covers], like “Moon River” or whatever it was. I found this job because I was an ace typist.

I am an ace typist too! I was volunteering at my son’s school library and all the kids were fascinated that I could touch type … they kept saying “How do you do it without looking?!”

There were no computers for us! I’m still a whiz on the keyboard! ASDF … there were all those drills and then they would time you with a stopwatch and everything!
A large curved window floods the master bedroom with light. The chandelier is from an East Village shop.
Hanging above the master bed are two abstract lithographs by 1960's artist, Henry Pearson. The orange sheets are from ABC Carpet and the wall sconces are from an antiques store in Philadelphia.
Flanking the master bed are cabinets from Charles's husband, Richard's fraternity house that were repainted by artist Chris Tanner.
A pair of brass Buddha lamps stand atop the elaborately painted bedside chests. Richard's side of the bed has a silk carpet he brought back from India.
Richard's side.
On Charles's side: upon the red travertine top is a Viennese mother of pearl magnifying mirror.
Mercury glass and crystal balls line the master bedroom windowsill.
A turn-of-the century desk is surrounded by artwork.
Well I learned because my parents said I could always fall back on getting a job as a secretary … listen to us … secretaries, typing, tapes, record companies … none of them exist anymore! And a nineteen-year-old Guy Friday being able to afford an apartment in New York City …

Exactly. I think my first apartment on 10th Street and Third Avenue was $200 a month … but I wasn’t the most responsible worker … Studio 54 was open in those days. Eventually I met Stuart Greet who was a wonderful interior designer who had the most amazing clients and he had an antique shop. He hired me—also for my ace typing skills—and he taught me how to work up proposals for the clients but also how to flog off some of the antiques to them.

Which antique store was it?

It was at 783 Madison Avenue. He had the whole townhouse. He was real old school. He went to Mallett, bought the stuff at Mallett, doubled the price and people bought it!

How could you double the price of the stuff at Mallett?!

Well, this was the late ’70s … but he graciously did give 20% discount to people in the trade.
A collection of Buddha's and other favorite objects are arranged atop the desk shelves.
To the right of the bedroom desk hangs a 1992 work by Robert Flint (top) and Eva Gruen (bottom).
The wall sculpture is by Garry Hayes.
A vintage photograph, a photo of Studio 54, a 50-franc bill and a vermeil Masonic medallion are grouped together.
Stereo speakers, sunglasses, a painted elephant, photos and other favorite objects line the shelves and top of the bedroom desk.
A 1992 photo by Robert Flint hangs above a drawing by Eva Gruen. Richard's university diplomas hang in a corner of the master bedroom.
Mr. Bojangles.
And you were still able to afford your New York apartment …

And to go to the clubs. And buy my Fiorruci clothes.

[Sian] I bought a pair of Fiorucci green jeans.
[Lesley] What were your favorite Fiorucci clothes?

I think I bought a pair of see-through parachute silk pants. I remember a knock-off Cartier tank watch with green lizard and green plastic that I was very fond of. The star that goes on the top of my Christmas tree is from Fiorucci.

And so I guess this lowly job in the antiques store led to a career in design?

I loved the antiques and I loved the responsibility when [Stuart] started allowing me to go to the job sites with him. That was his main focus. He had the antiques as a way to lure customers.

How does one lure customers today?

You know, it’s always been the same: word of mouth.
A blur painting of an insurrection by Rupert Goldsworthy hangs above the den doorway.
The flat screen TV stands in a corner of the tangerine colored den. A boldly patterned rug was bound from a remnant found in a rug store near Prospect Park.
A large photograph by Christopher Brooks hangs above a French Deco chair from Robert Altman. The small corner '70's chair is covered in fabric Knoll.
Two works by John Gibson hangs above book cubes from Design Within Reach. Two watercolors by '80's artist Craig Coleman.
A sculpture by Swedish artist Bruno Schmidt stands atop the den windowsill. Nearby, stacks of back issue The World of Interiors are topped with a small votive candle.
Hanging above an English chest of drawers is artwork by Steven Hammel, Christopher Tanner and Christopher Brooks.
A gnome figurine from Kartell stands next to a comfy chair covered in a Rose Cummings leopard print fabric.
A multi-colored acrylic 1960's ceiling fixture is suspended from the den ceiling.
Your designs are quite lavish and dramatic … extravagant almost.

I work with a lot of collectors so they come with that attitude. And my job is to make the rooms, and the collections, look pretty. I moved [eventually] to another design firm and then I switched to Werback-Jacobsen. Richard [Werback] was one of the original people involved in designing Studio 54. In those days he used colored gels on the track lights and they were very big on banquettes … everything was done in satin. We used coffin satin. It was very chic.

And cheaper! Isn’t it interesting how much you can learn from one person who knows a lot, one mentor as opposed to a whole degree or formal qualification?

Totally. Even with computers, I have a coach and I find that if he shows me how to do things, it sticks in my head so much better than when I’m reading the manual.
Charles re-designed the kitchen—it's also a place to hang more artwork.
A 1980's self-portrait by MacDermott and MacGough (left) hangs next to two vintage photos of The Bridge of Sighs in Venice.
Views of the Manhattan skyline from the rooftop.
Views north of Long Island City.
Looking south to McCarren Park and Williamsburg.
I think if you’re a visual learner, which you probably are, that’s what works. I wonder if that was why you dropped out of school—they don’t make allowances for different kinds of learning.

Well, I also wanted to call my own shots.

What are the setbacks, would you say, faced by interior designers?

Well, you know … you’re dealing with millionaires. And the worse thing you can do is make a millionaire angry.