By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge Photographs by Jeff Hirsch Our conversation with designer Mark Epstein started so entertainingly that we forgot to put the tape on and, alas, did not capture the precise details of a story involving a client who owns a house in Africa as well as a collection of African antiques. One day this client tried to shock Mark by informing him during a phone conversation that “he was busy waxing his phallus.” The thing is, the client had hired the wrong designer if he thought that sort of thing was going to render Mark speechless … he’s been in the business ‘FAR TOO LONG.’ Actually we couldn’t quite imagine any situation in which Mark might be lost for words … (although his beagle, Molly, gives him a run for his money—boy, did she have a lot to say, or at least, bay.)
So you’ve been in this business for a long time …
Forever. I’ve been in this business for 35 years.
So nothing fazes you, right?
You know what, not much does anymore. It seems like basically I’ve heard it all once before—it’s always exciting, there’s always some new thing that can go wrong—like nobody has ever called me to discuss waxing their phallus before—but you know. I mean I’ve had a client who told me [he mouths “mafia”] that “in our business we sit with our back to a wall.” We had to put bulletproof glass in. Fifteen minutes into a meeting, the wife starts crying and she shows me the tickets that the husband had in his jacket pocket from Disneyworld and she hadn’t gone … he’d taken his 21-year-old girlfriend.
A view into the living room. In the right corner a rendering for a current Fifth Avenue apartment project is stored in a pair of Asian vessels.
Two Josef Albers prints hang on a sliver of wall between the front living room windows. A Jacobean oak coffee table standing atop a cowhide rug displays a box of fresh flowers, books, a lusterware bowl and a bronze cast of a dolls head from the 26th street flea market.
A niche is the living room is filled with tangerine-colored lusterware, alabaster vessels and white ceramic Asian pots.
I said let’s go have a cup of tea … I need a drink. I’ve had clients slip envelopes of cash under the door because I’m doing their hook-up place …
And how does that make you feel?
[Shrugs] Cheap. Honey, in this business you see it all. As a very fancy client once said in her 5th Avenue bedroom, “Honey, you’ve designed the underwear drawers. You know the stains.”
Ew, that’s disgusting! Are you world-weary?
When I was 14 and I took a prepping class with some artist in Tribeca, I came home and I said to my mom, “I’ve found my vocation.” She said, “No, no, no. You need a form where you can use your art to be a yenta. Basically you’re a people person and you basically just want to be talking to people.” She was really quite right. I talk for a living. That’s what I do. I’ll be talking to nine o’clock tonight—that’s my last meeting.
A large drawing 'in the style' of Matisse by a New York artist hangs next to a signed Matisse drawing.
Standing near custom chairs covered in a ginger-colored linen velvet, is a pair of Asian vessels holding rendering for a current project.
Looking across the coffee table toward a German oak secretary in the corner of the living room.
The coffee table is carefully arranged with favorite books and objects including a lusterware bowl, porcelain candlesticks, a French lacquer box and a bronze doll head.
One of a pair of acrylic ball lamps from an antique store in Palm Beach stands near a tray filled with faux fruit and vegetables.
Standing atop a custom panel end table made out of honed granite is from right to left: an industrial glass lens, an Asian stone disk from Dallas Boesendahl, a glass sculpture by a Mexican artist and a wooden prototype of a Model T steering wheel. The framed butterflies are Mark's 'homage to Damien Hirst'.
Yes, if you’re not good at it, then you’re unlikely to be a successful interior designer.
It’s a huge area of what we do. For example, I have a client now and I’ve done her home, not sure if it is the eighth or ninth time and I know her forever—her kids call me Uncle Mark—I said, “How is the banquette that came Friday?” She said, “I hated it the first few minutes.” I said, “I hate it too but everybody is scared when stuff comes in. Your eye is used to looking at emptiness or another piece of furniture and then even though you’re prepared for it …”
So that’s how you talk them down—also what you say is very true.
They’ll say,“The dresser is so big.” And I say, “Don’t go in there for a few hours. It’ll shrink.”
How do you cope with all the talking you have to do—don’t you need a break?
There are a few nights a week where I have to be alone. I just can’t talk anymore.
Displayed in the living room German oak secretary is a collection of pear-shaped objects, Corinthian capitals and leather bound books. On the desktop are silver framed family photos and more favorite objects including a French lacquer box and a crystal and silver spider vessel.
French bronze doré candelabras are temporarily being stored in a corner next to the living room secretary.
Arranged atop the of the living room German oak secretary are favorite objects including a collection of lacquer, ivory and bone boxes and most importantly, photos of Mark with his dog, the very talkative Molly.
Looking across the living room towards the front entryway.
Molly, taking a break from talking.
You studied at Pratt and Joe D’Urso was one of your teachers—what did you learn from him?
Space. When I went to Pratt in the '70s, I in fact took two courses in the graphic design department because it was just assumed that once you created this model of space that you could carve out of something, you put in black industrial carpet, two pieces of Mies Van der Rohe and one red flower and you were set. I thought maybe there was a way to elaborate on that. But Joe is a genius and he explained to me about space and plans, and whether it’s the tablescapes I create using my objects or a room plan with a layout of a built-in, I’ve got that graphic spatial geometry from Joe D’Urso.
Tablescapes … that’s a very interior designer term. It’s the sort of word that might be used in a parody of interior designers.
The genius of tablescapes forever was David Hicks.
[Sian] It’s the name of a good book …
I’ve been planning on writing it for you-don’t-know-how-many years.
Two Josef Albers prints hang on a sliver of wall between the front living room windows. The pine columns were purchased at a Hudson antique store.
A mix of contemporary art hangs on a polished Venetian plaster wall in the main entryway, as well as an antique mirror and a trompe l'oeil painting from Cory Margolis Antiques.
An American Hardware cabinet in the dining room serves as storage for Mark's extensive fabric sample collection.
A grass-cloth covered wall in the dining room is filled with watercolors by good friend and artist Jeremiah Goodman.
A colorful floral arrangement is the centerpiece for the dining room table set with William Yeoward crystal, Tiffany flatware and antique creamware pottery.
A synthetic curtain separates the dining room from the design office.
Dining room shelves are lined with a collection of black ceramic Asian pots, creamware, shagreen boxes and more design and art books.
But are tablescapes fashionable? We keep saying the cozy look is coming back but so many people don’t want anything old.
Old has gotten a great shot in the arm right now because green design is so important and there’s nothing more green than vintage or old. I tell people to buy 18th century furniture.
What do you buy?
I won’t look [for things to buy]. I’m selling my house in the Hamptons, which is a huge life-changing event. I’ve had it for 31 years. It’s too static. What is that? 15,000 weekends that I’ve gotten on the expressway to go to the Hamptons. I don’t want to know that that is the next 30 years.
In the master bedroom a pair of portraits purchased in Stowe Vermont hangs above a headboard by Phoenix Custom Upholstery.
Mark's light-filled corner bedroom is painted with an amber-colored faux finish by Jennifer Hakker of Applied Aesthetics.
An Asian bedside chest holds a collection of horn, skin and leather and wood boxes.
Looking across the master bed outfitted in Casa del Bianco linens and a fur throw from Barneys.
A small abstract work and an 18th century portrait hang above a French chest from Bermingham Antiques.
Family photos adorn the chest.
A wing chair covered in an amber mohair fabric and a footstool which was a gift from Jeremiah Goodman, covered in leopard fabric from Stark are tucked into a windowed corner of the master bedroom.
A flat screen TV hangs on a wall opposite the fur covered bed.
And what will you do if you’re not going to live that way any longer?
Travel. I’m young enough that I can do some exotic travel. I do go places [now] but I have always been afraid to leave my children i.e. my clients, for too long. But you know business has grown enough and I have a strong enough staff that if I leave for two weeks, you know what? They’ll deal with it. And with the communications we have today means I can answer questions from anywhere, instantly.
Where do you want to go?
I want to go to exotic places. I want to go to India. I want to go to Africa. I want to see the colors of India. I want to see the animals of Africa. I want to go to Asia to look at the architecture and the gardens. Life has been lucky to me. I’ve worked hard to achieve the things on my list.
More antique creamware pottery fills the kitchen shelves.
In a seating alcove off the kitchen a vintage 1940's chair covered in pony skin is tucked beneath a stone-topped table with an industrial iron base. Hanging on the far wall from top: an 18th century Italian still life, a landscape from the Stephen Haller Gallery and an abstract painting by British artist Simon Casson purchased at Art Basel in Miami.
A mirrored niche holds a creamware tureen and a feather drawing recently purchased at an L.A. gallery.
Antique intaglio medallions and a carved mirror hang on the grass cloth walls of the master bath.
Molly, tired after her interview.
What things were on your list?
Having a wonderful home, being in a position to give back, being healthy.
Are you contented?
Very content. I wake up every morning and I say, “Thank you God up there. You’re a good woman. You’ve given me everything that I need.”