By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge Photographs by Jeff Hirsch
Deborah French found her calling as a teenager when her mother sent her, against her will, to art classes on a Saturday morning where a sculpture teacher told her she had real talent. But as is the way of life, marriages are made and unmade, you move to another country (in her case, Greece), you move back, livings have to be earned. However it was her artistic spirit that helped her land jobs at places like Vogue and Ralph Lauren, as well as designing spaces for Ian Schrager and even making puppets for Jim Henson. Her first job out of college was making dolls for a major toy manufacturer. Now she has her own interior design business and has begun sculpting again, discovering that her original gift never left her.
You’ve had a very glamorous life! All these names of people and places where you’ve worked, Ian Schrager, Ralph Lauren, Vogue …
Yeah, but you work like a dog!
Yes, you have to deliver.
I remember when I was working at Vogue and somebody said, “Well what you do?” and I said, “Oh, well, I’m working at Vogue ... ” and they went, “Oh, excuse me!” and I remember crying out, “You have no idea!” If you want to be humbled ... work at Vogue.
Hanging above the front elevator entrance is a group of hands from Morocco that are intended to protect the home.
Deborah's life-sized sculpture, "Cast Iron and Frail," watches over the dining area of the loft. An Italian chandelier, ca. late 1800s, from Legacy Antiques, hangs above the custom limestone dining table. The early 19th century French dining chairs are from Trove (1st Dibs).
A sculpture of an angel, from the Antique and Design Center on 25th St., stands atop a sideboard from Judith and James Milne. The wooden candlesticks are from Material Culture in Philadelphia.
A bouquet of fresh white flowers fills a vase from the Hampton Galleries in Stamford.
A gate from India purchased at Jacques Caranaques divides the living room space from the dining area.
Looking across the living room, the fluted Corinthian support columns are original to the loft.
A low U-shaped seating area designed by Deborah is covered with several Suzani pillows found on eBay. "Prayer" a work by photographer Ron Hamad from the Robin Rice Gallery fills the wall above the banquette.
Looking across the main seating area toward the casement windows and door to the master bedroom. Deborah found the windows and door at Demolition Depot and built the walls to accommodate them.
Vibrant fresh flowers perk up a coffee table, made from a 19th century grain grinder from India.
Tell us about that. What did you like and what did you not like about that job?
Oh, it was unbelievable in every way possible. I had started out as a sculptor. I had met Alex Lieberman, who was the head of all Condé Nast. I met him at a book signing party and my sister knew him. He was a charming, charming man. And he said, “I’d love to see your work.” I thought, what a charming thing to say. But he called me up and asked me to come in to talk to him … I’ve always loved fashion and I had an interview and I went in with my sculpture portfolio for a job as a stylist. Anyway, I ended up as Polly Mellon’s assistant.
How was that?
It was totally “The Devil Wears Prada”—she is totally that character. But she recognized a fellow creative person … there weren’t really that many real creative people there. Out of character for her, she spoke on my behalf to Grace Mirabella and said, “This girl needs to be on her own.” And within six months I was the sittings editor.
A sofa from Ralph Lauren is covered in Holland and Sherry velvet. The coffee table was made from an antique wood and iron window from Morocco.
A view across the main living area. A red lacquer box holds the remote controls.
A pair of lanterns from Pottery Barn flank 'Prayer,' a photograph by Ron Hamad.
Looking into a corner of Deborah's living room where the flat screen TV is set to a crackling fire. The small wooden 'brides' chair is originally from Afghanistan.
A view towards the bedroom wing. Deborah used refurbished casement doors and windows with frosted glass to allow light into both bedrooms.
A collection of books is carefully arranged atop a tin-covered sofa table.
Deborah's cat, Simba.
A view across the bedroom wing into the eat-in kitchen area.
What does that involve?
You’re kind of the art director/stylist/Vogue representative. They will give you the assignment: this is your photographer, these are the clothes, but not all the clothes—you have to get all the underpinnings, all the shoes, all the props, all the jewels, all the everything. And then between you and the photographer you pick out which models you want, which hair and make up people … you kind of direct that … it’s a lot more than styling and it was amazing but … [sighs and laughs] coming from a sculpture studio into this world with all the politics … I stayed there two years to kind of figure it all out, to have a job to do to support my sculpture.
Have you seen all these jobs as being jobs that support your sculpture?
No. What happened is that I married this Greek man. While I was working at Vogue I was also renovating this [her current loft]. That was my first taste of interior design. It wasn’t this at all [the current look of the loft] – it was a whole other thing. And I did these kind of temples inside. [laughs].
In the kitchen eating alcove a copy of a Botero painting, from a store in Venezuela, hangs above a Swedish banquette. Early 20th century French garden chairs, from Lauren Copin Antiques, surround a tile table from Morocco.
Looking into the kitchen, bright sunflowers fill a corner of the kitchen eating area.
In the kitchen Deborah transformed Kraftmaid cabinets by painting them a neutral gray and added a countertop out of Caesar stone composite.
A view into the cozy kitchen eating area. Fresh bread, fruit and wine are offered to us.
Looking towards Deborah's sculpture. The runner is from Central Carpet.
A French console from antique dealers Linda and Howard Stein is filled with books, photos and art. The still life painting by Marcello Boccacci was a gift from Deborah's mother.
Deborah's sculpture, "Sacophagus Situation," stands front and center in her back hallway. On the right is a self-portrait drawing by Deborah.
A group of landscape paintings inherited from Deborah's mother are hung on a wall of the back hallway.
Deborah's sculpture contains glass eyes.
A group of drawings by Italian artist, Enrico Donati, line a wall of the back hallway.
While on a family trip to Egypt in the 1970s Deborah purchased these Nubian baskets.
And was it then that you decided to build the amazing house in Mykonos?
Yes. The next thing I knew, I was moving to Mykonos—from this whole New York fashion world to living on an island in Greece.
Do you still own the house? It looks incredible. It looks like a sculpture.
No, I don’t own it, that’s over. But I did design it. I actually sculpted it to scale in clay first. But [traditional] Cycladic houses look like that. And then I did the drawings. We worked with, I can’t say “naïve” builders, but they were in the sense that they couldn’t possibly look at an architectural plan.
Is that why it looks so organic?
Yes—we also hid their plumb lines, literally, hid their plumb lines. They grew up in these crooked houses and they didn’t want a crooked house. Their pride was to be able to make a square house and I was saying, “No, no, no!” My ex-husband took all of their plumb lines one morning and hid them. He said, “You have to work with your eyes.” They were horrified. They said, “Don’t tell anybody we’re building this house.” But in the end, they were like “We did it!!”
Views of Deborah's fabulous house in Mykonos.
Yes, it was published everywhere, wasn’t it?
Yes, everyone was talking about it. I remember walking in the town and there were these two old women and I started chatting with them. They wanted to know where I lived, and I pointed to the mountain and they said, “Oh the stone house.” I thought, well, they’re all stone houses but the thing was we had to get special permission not to paint it white. We had to go to the Architectural Committee of the Cycladic Islands. I knew that because it was high up, it was just going to pop off this mountain [if we painted it white.] We built it out of stone from the mountain and I even worked out a color formula so that the cement between the stones looked like earth, so it just kind of disappeared—and they got it. They understood. Three years later they made a law that if you built on any high point, you either had to do it in the natural colors. So we set a precedent.
As a sculptor, what is your medium?
Clay originals, life size pieces. Actually it’s funny, but I’ve started doing sculpture again as of March this year. It all just turned into architecture and design and I had to raise our son … but he’s 22 now. He just graduated and he just got a job! A good job! Just about a week before, he said, “Well you know, I could be a bartender.” I said, “But you don’t know how to mix all the drinks!” [laughs]
In the master bedroom: a Japanese print from Demolition Depot hangs on a wall above Deborah's desk.
The chaise lounge was found on the internet and recovered in Scalamandré fabric.
A Suzani fabric was transformed into a bold headboard. The bedside chests are from Hampton Galleries in Stamford. The lamps are from the former 26th Street flea market.
A 17th century wooden church shutter was purchased at a Pier Antiques Show.
Design magazines and books fit neatly into a bedroom corner niche.
A vase of white roses stands next to a bedside lamp from the 26th street flea market.
The master bath. The tiles are from American Olean.
Simba is ready for his bath.
And you had to earn a living, I guess.
Yes, [after I returned from Greece] I was going around with a fashion portfolio, a sculpture portfolio and the portfolio of the two houses—especially the one in Greece because it got published a lot. It was little hard for me [to begin as an interior designer] because I had never even written out a purchase order.
What was it about your work that caught the eye of people like Ian Schrager and Ralph Lauren?
Well, they wanted interior design work, but with more of an original spirit. When I showed [the Ralph Lauren director of home design] the house in Mykonos, he said, “Oh I know this house. We’ve used it on inspiration boards for Ralph.”
Boy, that house really launched you in a way.
It did, it did.
Looking into son Ilias's room. The zebra drum is from 1st Dibs.
An oversized wall clock hangs above Ilias's guitar and amp. The desk chair is from Restoration Hardware.
A photo of New York at night, from Getty Images, hangs above a leather bed from Crate and Barrel.
Kuba cloth pillows are arranged atop a loveseat in Ilias' room. The racing photos are from Getty Images.
Deborah purchased the Ilias's roll top desk from an online auction. The leather chair is from Restoration Hardware.
L. to r.: Tintin walks Ilias's bathroom wall; Handmade 1940's worry beads from Greece hang at the entrance to the bathroom; Tintin's dog, Snowy.
How did you cope with intense bosses i.e. Ian Schrager?
[Zips her lips on the subject of Ian Schrager] … but with Polly Mellon, it was really interesting because in the end she was literally having me over to dinner with her husband and my baby—I was calling her “mom." She loved me.
You have this resume and career of someone who looks as though you’re really ambitious and yet …
But I’m not, which is really funny. I’m glad you say that! Because I look at myself and say, “Gee, if I had just stayed in one straight line, I would have had a career."