By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge Photographs by Jeff Hirsch
A natural storyteller, Ronald Bricke is a designer who has been in the business a long time throughout its shifts from swags and country French and on into our era of Internet shopping, flat screen TVs and bookless rooms. There is an old-world courtesy about him and he can do that thing that only designers can do, which is describe a room in vivid, visual detail so that you can see it right there. He can also do a rather good impression of Salvador Dali.
I have something that I have to talk to you about straight away, which is that you once won this prize that was judged by Salvador Dali and the Duchess of Windsor!
It changed my life. In my last year at Parsons there was a scholarship, offered by [an Italian] duke, and the scholarship involved five months of studying in Europe. I desperately wanted to go to Europe—my parents couldn’t afford it—and I kept trying to think of ways to get there and I kept failing. The competition was to design [the interior] of a Palladian villa, the Villa Malcontenta outside of Venice, for the American ambassador and it was supposed to reflect both Italian and American taste. The frescoes were absolutely beautiful—they were like ghosts because they had worn off. I upholstered all the furniture in Fortuny fabric and then I took the same fabric, reversed it and put it on the walls. I had the ceiling re-frescoed in sepia. This was a hypothetical design.
In the foyer a photograph by Wang Wusheng, 'Celestial Morning' from the Barry Friedman Gallery hangs behind a Flemish inlaid table. Silver urchins by Junko Mori, a Valdavian stone sculpture (1580 B.C.), a 1st century A.D. Roman torso of Hercules purchased at auction, and 'Silver Mist', a ceramic box by artist Kondo Takahiro are carefully arranged atop the table. The table is mated with a 1982 stainless steel mesh ottoman designed by Hans Ullrich Bitsch.
A view across Ron's living room.
A glass and steel side table is filled with carefully arranged art and objects, including a silver Wiener Werkstatte vase, rock crystal and an early Greek head. Behind the sofa is a 1st century Roman statue purchased at auction.
Looking across the marble top coffee table by Gae Aulenti. A ceramic pumpkin by Hans Hedberg stands next to a Roman torso and a pair of French style silver candlesticks.
How did they get this panel of judges together? Did you meet them?
Actually it became a bit of a scandal. The school had told us all to leave and to come back at 5 o’clock. The judges were arriving at 3 o’clock. Then I got a call and was told to get over to the school immediately. So I went over immediately and as I was entering, the Duchess was leaving and she said, “I hope you’re the winner.” And I went upstairs—Dali and the Duchess had been left just hanging around—they’d finished judging at 3:45. And then they didn’t want to stick around.
Oh no! Had they left any comments?
Well, the following day, I think it was The New York Times announced that judging had taken place and I think the comment was, “The first prize was won by Ronald Bricke who was nowhere to be found.” The school then asked me to apologize to the duke because he had promised to give the scholarship for seven years (I was the second recipient) and he was now no longer going to give the scholarship. I asked what I was to apologize for and they said, “Being late” but I said, “I wasn’t late, I was early.” When I discovered that five other people might not get the scholarship, I did it. I wrote and apologized. But [the duke] never gave the scholarship again. His statement to me was, “Good try. I know the real story.”
A fauteuil covered in a Clarence House fabric stands near a cipollino marble table. Standing atop the table is a brass vase by Gustave Serrurier-Bovy and a ceramic sculpture by Kishi Eiko. The large drawing is by artist Frank Boros.
Free standing glass shelving is filled with a combination of coral, glass and ceramic sculpture, including work by artist Roy Hamilton (top right) and Dale Chihuly (fourth shelf, right). A paper star standing on top of a small African chair was a gift from designer, Jeffrey Bilhuber.
The original parquet floor was transformed, creating a whimsical, geometric abstract pattern by covering select sections with a protective masking, applying the first stain color and then reversing the protected areas to apply the alternating, second stain color.
A bronze turtle, formally a fountain, peeks out from under the marble Gae Aulenti coffee table.
An unusual ceramic vessel by Roy Hamilton stands next to a Pre-Dynastic Egyptian pottery jar (3400-3300 B.C.)
Ron likes to create different levels of interest to attract the eye, including small tables filled under other tables and in this case, a blue painting by fashion designer and artist Stephen Sprouse.
Well then, how was the actual trip?
It was a phenomenal trip. We traveled to five countries; we studied and painted there.
What would you have learned from a story like that, about being forced to apologize?
I didn’t have any problem apologizing when I found out that, whoever was at fault, it was going to mean others might not get what I had already won. A couple of years later when the Duke and Duchess had passed on and they had a sale at Sotheby’s, I discovered there was large blue velvet box with the cipher of the Duke and Duchess and when you opened it up there was a folder, also with a blue velvet cover and cipher, and when you opened that up, there was a [photograph] of the judges, the Duchess and Salvador Dali and Mrs. Houghton [wife of the former chairman of the Met] and on the other side, it said, “Ronald Bricke was the prize winner.” I have no idea why they kept that!
A drawing by Frank J. Boros hangs on a wall behind a fauteuil. A cipollino marble side table displays a Gustave Serrurier-Bovy brass vase and ceramic sculpture by Kishi Eiko.
A small glass and steel table by architect Robert Whitton is intentionally placed under the cipollino marble side table with an Egyptian gilded carved-wood head of an ibex.
A sculpture and a wall sculpture by Martine Vermeulen are arranged next to a brass vase by Gustave Serrurier-Bovy and two ceramic sculptures by Kishi Eiko.
Did you buy it?
Of course I bought it! I have it in the closet. I did meet Dali later, at a cocktail party that was exhibiting his jewelry. There was a little tiny woman who I was talking to and she had one of his necklaces on. It had lions’ heads covered with diamonds and splashing out of their mouths were diamonds and they cascaded into an emerald necklace. She was wearing a white strapless dress and she said, “This is very heavy,” and she took it off and handed it to me. All around her collarbones were these big red welts and I was surrounded by security in seconds.
So did you fall in love with Europe after your trip at the age of twenty?
I did but I had never traveled by myself before and I had never handled my own money. I was so nervous about overspending that I kept a booklet and recorded every single penny I spent. I still have it. It’s amazing how inexpensive Europe was then. And I thought the food in England was horrible—it was!
Separate seating areas in the living are arranged to maximize seating space and create interesting vignettes.
A view through the glass towards a second seating area.
Light from a terrace permeates Ron's living space. Nearby the Egyptian revival stool is from Garvin Mecking.
A chair by Guido DeAngelis has been recovered in a white canvas fabric and accented with a cheetah throw and pillow.
A terrace filled with greenery and dramatic garden sculpture brings the outside into Ron's living space. In the corner is a Picasso plate and a Roman Silenus sculpture has been placed in the center.
You have a place in Paris. My husband was suggesting going there and suddenly I didn’t know if I wanted to. I haven’t been for so many years and I now have this sense that it’s turned into a soulless theme park. Is that true?
No, it’s so marvelous to walk around. There’s the Aquaduct, with plants growing upon it—it’s like the Highline but it’s French—it’s more glamorous! The food is also wonderful. It’s not classic French anymore. It’s international.
So we also wanted to ask you about doing the Elsie de Wolfe townhouse. How did that come about?
A client of mine was re-doing an existing house and I started that work when they also bought the townhouse on Sutton Place. It had been renovated in the fifties. The library was original and it had wallpaper that I believe Elsie de Wolfe had put up. Downstairs there was linen fold paneling imported from Europe and that was beautiful. Everything else was trash. I tried it to bring it back up to a period space. One of the troublesome things I had in doing it was that the client looked at my colors and wanted it fresher. I wondered how to accomplish this. I was at a gallery and they had some drawings of Gustavian living rooms and Swedish interiors. I looked at these and I thought, “That’s it, I’m going Swedish!”
A pair of Gouda ceramic vases from Stair Galleries in Hudson stand atop a coffee table by T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings.
Stunning Egyptian Revival chairs from Garvin Mecking are placed at one end of a coffee table.
A view into the outdoor terrace. The Egyptian Revival planters are from Stair Galleries
A pair of sumo wrestler frogs, a rock crystal and a group of lively bronze turtles are arranged atop the window ledge.
A crystal ball used to create rainbows in the room.
Looking across the seating area towards the dining space. A gold-leaf 17th century Italian mirror was stripped of its tinting to reveal the silver underneath.
A Roman sculpture of Diana from 1st-century A.D. stands in a corner of the dining area and a Roman Silenus sculpture in the window.
Dutch (1790s) chairs purchased at a William Doyle auction surround a white lacquer Parson's table that expands to seat up to eight guests.
What were the colors? Did it work?
The colors of that period were chalky white, pink, pale blue, lemon yellow—but it’s the way they handle it. And it worked in the townhouse too. The client said, “Perfect, we’ll do it.”
It’s interesting with those 19th century Swedish interiors because they take French style and then do something else entirely with it. It’s less frivolous.
They simplify it. It’s more spacious. It’s not as dense.
Views of the kitchen. The brushed stainless steel and deep grey lacquer cabinets are from IKEA.
Ron and his partner Michael Hill are avid cooks. Their galley kitchen produces meals for frequent dinner parties.
What was it like working for Angelo Donghia?
I started as a [general] assistant but then I became Angelo’s assistant. He took me to this one house he did when we first started. I had never been exposed to something so fresh—it was bright green and white. I remember a table in bright green gaufrage velvet and the floor was painted white. I was just mesmerized by what he had done. But one day a woman came in and Angelo had forgotten to put it into the appointment book. We had nothing done. Angelo turned to me and said, “Ron, would you go into the sample room and get me Mrs. X’s color scheme?” I went in and started pulling together things in about fifteen minutes. I came back and I said, “Angelo, I have never had the opportunity to present a color scheme to a client. Can I do the presentation?” He said yes, without knowing at all what the color scheme was. And a couple of months later, I was a designer in the firm.
How has business changed over the years?
Enormously. I feel sorry for young kids today because there’s so much more for them to deal with. When I started at Yale Burge there was a “system” – there was one plaid, one stripe, one solid, one floral and it was all only to the trade. But it was simple then.
What made it simple?
Because people came for a look. They came to Yale Burge and the look [we offered] was country French. The look is more varied now.
In the bedroom hall a wall sculpture of a plaster hand hangs above a photo 'Ephemeral Moment' by David H. Gibson and a still life photo 'Still Life with Broken Glass' by D.W. Mellor.
Peeking out of the master bedroom towards a wall filled with Calder gouaches.
A Moroccan tassel hanging over the door to the bedroom.
A metal sculpture by Japanese artist Junko Mori towers above a faux zebra rug in the master bedroom and a Roman sculpture of Nike on a 19th century bull sits on the window sill.
A desk designed by Ron is topped with a 1950's alabaster lamp and a 1940's ceramic vase from the Marché aux Puces that holds palm leaves and sits on 19th century frog stand.
Favorite objects including African money sculptures and a photo of Ron and his partner, Michael are arranged atop the dressing table.
Ron wrapped the bedroom in white curtains that can be opened or closed to reveal different groupings of art hung on the bedroom walls.
Reflections of the master bedroom from a wall of mirrored closets.
Ron designed this whimsical bed frame 'held up by the back of a turtle'.
Venetian style mirror with doors from Paris next to a Louis Lieberman paper sculpture.
Ron and Michael's bedroom is filled with art that can be hidden but also rotated into view by simply opening or closing walls of curtains. The metal sculpture is by Japanese artist Junko Mori. The watercolor of the Piazza della Signoria (Florence) is by the designer himself, Ron Bricke.
A Roman sculpture of Nike from Christie's stands near a bronze alligator atop the bedroom windowsill.
Do you ever watch HGTV shows?
I’ve been on HGTV. I did a duplex on Park Avenue and I think I did the Elsie de Wolfe house—it was just taking people through. I don’t watch the shows—I check them out as opposed to watching them.
I like that distinction. What would you say you still get from your job?
I have a client who collects outsider art. We did the apartment to house that—tons of it—and it’s very colorful. I called to ask how she was and she said, “Every night when I go to bed, I pray and you’re included in my prayers because I look around and your apartment gives me so much pleasure.”