Adrienne Neff

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch

Designer Adrienne Neff lives in an airy pre-war apartment just across the street from Fort Tryon Park, a somewhat overlooked but wonderful part of the city. The apartment, with its modest rent, is quiet enough for reading Marcus Aurelius and for her twice-daily meditation. It’s also close enough to green markets so that she can buy ingredients for dinner; on the day we were there, she was cooking bay scallops with cauliflower, cream and shallots for dinner. The way she lived in her home all seemed so serene that we left feeling oddly envious, and—contrary to what you might think—we’ve long gotten over apartment-envy.

Just a short walk from Adrienne's apartment: A spectacular view from Fort Tryon Park.
So tell us about this area and why you chose to live here.

Sure … I’m a native New Yorker so I’ve lived in every possible neighborhood imaginable.

How does this compare to the other neighborhoods?

It’s very quiet and residential. It’s got a lot of parks and I just wanted more space, more light, a big pre-war apartment and this is rent-stabilized, so it’s super reasonable. And because when you’re kind of a whacky-creative, it’s means you can keep your overheads low and I like to travel a lot; I like money in the bank.

It gives you freedom.

Yes, it gives me a lot of freedom, which is terrific. And I have my office in mid-town, right by the D&D building so [living here] is kind of like a little weekend experience. I like to cook a lot and there’s some terrific green markets in the neighborhood—they’re the same stall holders who sell at Union Square.
Photographs in the entry: clockwise from the upper left are by Simone Niewig, Bart Michiels (lower right) and Michael Smith (lower left).
A photograph by Myoung Ho Lee hangs to the left of a pair of geometric prints by David Roth. A still life by Laura Letinsky hangs above a photo of an ice house by Scott Peterman.
Looking into the step-down living room from the entryway.
A photo by Lisa Kereszi hangs above a1960's Swedish white lacquer sofa from Larry Weinberg.
Two photos by Alec Soth hang above a small sofa table with fresh flowers.
What about cool coffee places or restaurants?

There’s a new place, La Marina, that’s just opened. It’s right on the waterfront. You can sail your boat up and have brunch, looking at the view of the Hudson River. And Bette Midler did a huge renovation [of Fort Tryon Park] and she’s got these fantastic landscape designers in—every weekend you go to the park and there’s just flowers in bloom, and garden tours, and baby skunk running around … and the New Leaf Café is right across the street—Bette Midler helped revive it—a beautiful little stone building in the middle of the park.

How long have you lived here?

Two years. I was looking for a space that would help show off my wallpaper line because [this apartment] gets a lot of light and it’s big and airy. I was living downtown for eight years on Grand Street—I worked for Thomas O’Brien—it’s a very vibrant neighborhood but it’s very small and narrow and crowded there’s nothing green within a mile.
A photograph of a teddy bear by Kent Rogowski hangs above a photograph of and interior by Jessica Backhaus. The lampshade is made out of Adrienne's wallpaper line.
A family photo stands near a grouping of pinecones.
Japanese ceramics are arranged atop steel shelving in the kitchen.
A childhood photo of Adrienne's dad with his cousin stands atop a kitchen shelf.
Adrienne, who loves to cook, uses a variety of oil and vinegars in her recipes.
A photo of the young Churchill is posted atop the refrigerator.
Raku and other Japanese pottery line the kitchen counter.
A view from the kitchen toward the front entryway.
Your view out of this window is of an athletics running track—when you look out and see people training, does it make you feel guilty and force you to get out to jog or something?

Yes … it’s like I’ve got to get out and run in the park.

I wanted to ask you about your first job which was in publishing. How far did you get?

I took the Radcliffe Publishing program at Cambridge one summer and then I worked for W.W. Norton—you’re probably familiar with The Norton Anthology of Literature—and they publish terrific poetry and prose. They publish Michael Lewis, Adrienne Rich and that whole Patrick O’Brian series. They asked me to choose artwork for some book covers, so that kind of got me excited but I didn’t see a long term career path. I worked in the subsidiary rights section. It was kind of a combination of sales and PR, so I wrote pitch letters and I sold excerpts. I did really well at it. I sold excerpts to Playboy, the New York Observer … it was fun. And it was good experience because in my job I have to write a lot and I have to market myself.
Adrienne's view from the living room window.
Yes, nothing you do is wasted … it’s ‘not doing’ that’s the problem. Why do you think you went into that area first?

Well, I’d never worked as a student so I didn’t have any work experience. You don’t really know until you start to do something … and it’s all very intuitive and [influenced] by what your parents do. My mom was a teacher, an English major and my dad ran his own business. I think I had this entrepreneurial gene, so eventually I wanted to get out and be independent.

And how did you initially parlay that into a design business?

I applied for a scholarship with Sotheby’s—and they offered me a scholarship—you know my family was like: We’ll pay for law school, we’ll pay for business school but if you want to do something in the arts, you’re on your own.  It was a wonderful introduction to the art world and we made all these trips across the US.

And what did you hope it would lead to?

Working in art and antiques.
Looking into the master bedroom and bath.
A vintage Moroccan rug was purchased from a dealer in Paris.
The master bed is covered in sheepskin and metallic woven throw from India.
The master bedroom ceiling fixture, a shell design out of silk, was designed by Adrienne for her Hampton Showhouse room.
The walls of the master bedroom are covered in Adrienne's 'Renjyu' pattern. The pattern was inspired by Japanese pottery.
A bedside lucite console from CB2 holds a vintage lamp from Historic Materialism with a shade made out of a textured Phillip Jeffries wallpaper.
Adrienne added interest to the master bath by hanging a colorful block print by John Robshaw above the subway tiled half-wall.
Well, you did—you went and worked for Larry Weinberg, didn’t you?

Yeah, so it did! Larry’s wonderful. And I worked for Thomas O’Brian before that. Working for him was amazing because he is an interior designer and he then he started doing all that product design work for Target.

What did you learn from that then?

Thomas O’Brian has a great eye—he went to Cooper Union—but he’s also a great businessman. It’s really hard to get that combination.

Are there any design trends you loathe?

Taxidermy—I’m really sick of the taxidermy … dead animals.
The living room walls are covered in Adrienne's custom 'Open Onion' paper. Hanging atop the wallpaper is a print by Hugo Guinness, which inspired the design.
Looking across a custom sofa into a corner of Adrienne's living room. The shade of the standing lamp is made out of one of Adrienne's wallpaper designs.
A view of the living room towards the front entryway. A coffee table from Hudson Furniture stands atop a chunky hemp rug from Pottery Barn.
Adrienne's flat screen TV stands atop a console form Crate & Barrel. In the corner colorful boxes are actually a climbing gym for her two cats.
A 1970's lamp with a shade made out of Adrienne's 'Jagged Agate' pattern stands atop an Eero Saarinen Tulip Table.
Adrienne commissioned artist Fawn Krieger to create this whimsical papier maché remote control arranged atop her coffee table.
If you were to advise someone wanting to start out now in interior design, what would your advice be?

I would tell them to skip interior design school—it’s kind of a waste of time. I think Fine Arts is very helpful, like color theory, sketching, learning 3-D programs … all those practical things—but I think you have to work for a firm to learn the business side. Learn how to negotiate. Learn how to haggle and be comfortable with it. Don’t be afraid of it. Haggle with everybody!

That’s become more accepted now.

Yeah. When I was raised, I was taught to be a good girl and just kind of obey the rules and jump through the hoops. At first I was apprehensive but now I’ve come to embrace negotiating and enjoy it more.

Did you learn to do it naturally?

It’s kind of sink or swim—you won’t get paid!