Friday, October 18, 2013

Thomas Burak

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch

"More is more, less is a bore," says Thomas Burak and we loved his "more is more" Gramercy Park apartment that he shares with his partner of Fourteen years, fabric designer Michael Devine. In fact when Sian and I played our periodic game called: "If you were rich, which decorator would you have?" Sian put Thomas high on her list. Very soft-spoken, it was hard to imagine him as he once, if only briefly, was—a retailer in Kinderhook taxed by the irritating general public to the point of wanting to smash a glass on the floor. But his main incarnation has been, and still is, as a decorator with quiet confidence and a way of putting together gorgeous rooms in which things just seem to belong in place.


You know I dug you up by going through the vintage stuff on One Kings Lane [website] … I feel I should just know you but that’s how I found you—I saw your profile and I clicked on it.

The whole web thing just never ceases to fascinate me—how people find each other …

But there’s not much technology in these rooms, is there?

I do sit in here or in the bedroom with my computer but I’m just not a real techie person. You can’t live without the computer or the iPhone but you know …
Thomas carved out an elegant dining area from a second bedroom. A Swedish chandelier from David Duncan hangs over an octagonal dining table. The walls are upholstered in an Empire Lampas fabric from Schumacher. A tufted banquette by Phoenix provides comfortable seating in the dining room. The 18th century Swedish dining chairs are covered in horsehair. The gilt clock, also 18th century Swedish, was purchased during a trip to Sweden. A group of Sheffield silver candlesticks surround a silver vases filled with salvia and delphiniums. On the far wall a Bohemian mirror with a cobalt blue mirrored frame hangs above a Swedish mahogany chest of drawers.
A series of New Classical prints hangs above a tufted banquette. To the left a cobalt blue hurricane lamp stands atop a carved wooden pedestal made in Florence.
Looking across the dining room toward the gilt wood Swedish clock and a vitrine filled with cobalt blue glass and silver collected over the years. The blue silk curtain fabric is vintage Schumacher.
A stunning Dufour vintage wallpaper panel found at a Southampton antiques show covers the north wall of the dining room.
In the front entryway a pair of lamps from the Marché aux Puces stand atop a Swedish walnut chest of drawers.
I sometimes wonder if we [as the baby boomers] are the lucky generation. We can use computers and so forth well enough, not great but enough to get some benefits but because we didn’t grow up steeped in it, we can also put them aside …

And have a conversation! Young kids getting out of college today don’t know how to communicate!

Do you have interns?

I don’t. I try to do as much as possible by myself. I really like it that way. Sometimes I can just do it better myself. I hear from other designers that none of the young assistants want to go out and shop. They all want to do it on the computer.

How did you start out in design?

I started out in interior design and advanced forward and ended up as Vice President and Creative Director for Schumacher. That involved designing fabric, directing and I had a staff of ten people. That was about 12 years ago. It was very, very fulfilling in that you came up with an idea or a concept and then [after] a lot of steps along the way, you would get a piece of fabric on a roll that represented the concept.
The kitchen cabinets are filled with a collection of silver and mulberry transfer ware.
Thomas gets good use out of a vintage cook book.
Thomas served us a silver tray filled with fresh fruit, cheese, salmon and pate.
Looking down the main hall. The walls are painted in a gold strié and the tiger pattered carpet is from Patterson, Flynn and Martin.
A painting of a Russian peasant hangs on a wall of the main entrance hall. In an entrance hall niche a pair of gilt Italian candlesticks from the Marché aux Puces and a tray filled with cut crystal decanters stand atop a French Empire server from J.F. Chen antiques. The sunburst mirror is from John Rosselli.
Hand painted canvas panels purchased from an Armory antiques show line the walls of the front entrance hall.  The black and gold bracket is from the Marché aux Puces. A Flemish tapestry by the famed Gobelins factory in Paris covers a section of the front entrance hall wall.
Are textiles your first love?

I would say they are. It really is what gives a room personality. Textiles are really art.

Do people still ask you to make a room that looks like this living room?

Yes, a variation of it. But maybe they would want modern art incorporated into it. If I were to change things in here, then I could see incorporating some modern art … I’m not going to but I could see it!

What are people most anxious about when they hire a decorator?

Timing … delivery. [The client will say] “Gee you know, I can’t make a decision … are you sure that that is going to work?” Well yes I am because I suggested it and I suggested it because I know it will work. If you go through too much hesitation, you know it’s not clicking between you and the client.
A view across Thomas and his partner Michael Devine's living room. The walls are covered in a brown satin Schumacher fabric and the antique Oushak carpet in an unusual brown hue was purchased years ago from a rug dealer on Madison Avenue.
Fresh roses stand atop a tole tray table purchased at an Armory antiques show.
A late 18t th century French gilt mirror hangs above a carved English mantle. The French bergère chair is covered in a damask from Schumacher.
On the far wall of the living room a pair of marble busts flank a sunburst mirror and neo-classical prints. The tufted "invalid's chair" was built with a mechanism where the attached ottoman pivots, flips and slides under the chair.
On the far wall a pair of Italian sconces from the Dupont estate flanks an English lacquer and bamboo server. The French side chairs are covered in a custom embroidered horsehair from Schumacher.
Thomas and Michael's elegant and comfortable living room is filled with antiques and objects collected over the years.
A pair of Italian sconces from the Dupont estate flanks a Victorian lacquer and bamboo étagère. The French side chairs are covered in a custom horsehair fabric from Schumacher.
Plum-colored fabric from Pierre Frey with fringes cover a 19th century "invalid's chair" that was built with a mechanism where the attached ottoman pivots, flips and slides under the chair. The portrait of a man is by Russian artist, Guk.
A detail of the Victorian bamboo and lacquer étagère.
Two 1950's portraits by Russian artists hang near a standing lamp from the Marché aux Puces. The custom shade is from Blanche Field.
I do other kinds of writing and I’m never really sure if something I’ve written is good or not but designers seem to be very sure of their work almost all the time—is that true?

It’s a visual that you have. Once I start presenting fabrics and furniture, I can see that room already finished. That was the hardest thing for me to learn when I started out in this business.

How does this apartment differ from your house in the country?

The house in the country is much smaller. What we did in the country is that we ended up buying a small building in Kinderhook, which also had a storefront. We lived on the floor above and we opened a gift and accessory home store … and we discovered that retail isn’t as much fun as you think it is.

Oh—why is retail not as much fun as you think it is?

I shouldn’t say this but it’s terrible dealing with the public. For example, we had these beautiful glasses, like Venetian glass, very thin … [imitates a customer] “Why are these glasses so much? They’re plastic.” What I really wanted to do was take the glass and smash it on the floor. It was horrible! The store only lasted a couple of years. The concept of doing the store I loved … as long as there were no customers!
One of a pair of wall hangings from the Marché aux Puces hangs behind a side table that displays cloisonné vases. English tea caddies and a bronze urn are arranged atop the other side table.
A pair of bronze Empire lamps from an antique store in North Carolina and bronze urns from Niall Smith stand atop a table from Kittinger. Nearby a British chair is covered in a neo-classical toile fabric.
Looking towards the main hallway.
Thomas (left) and Sian each in their purple and fuschia loafers.
Spectacular views across Gramercy Park towards uptown Manhattan can be seen from the living room of Thomas and Michael's apartment.
Aside from your weekends in the country, where else do you like to travel?

We go to Paris a lot but one place I really want to go to is St. Petersburg. I’m fascinated by the Russian style. There’s something about the grandeur of it and the guts of it. I also have a great affinity with Swedish furniture. They took the best of French style and refined it.

What do you do to relax when you’re in the country?

I don’t know that I ever relax.

We never interview anybody who relaxes!

I complain about having to do so much stuff but … it’s sort of like 24/7 and I enjoy what I do. I get to spend other people’s money. It’s really great! It’s really fun. [laughs] But I have to be out there and doing things. I become obsessed with things. I can wake up at three o’clock in the morning thinking, oh my God, this would be better, that would be better.
In the master bedroom built-in bookcases filled with books on art and design flank a custom iron canopy bed by Morgik. The marble column lamp was purchased in Budapest.
A Biedermeier chair stands next to a writing table by Baker. More Russian portraits hang on the bedroom shelves.
Fresh parrot tulips fill the bedside writing table.
Closeups of some of the Russian portraits that are displayed throughout the apartment.
Vintage toile fabric pillows top a custom iron canopy by Morgik.
Portraits of Italian philosophers hang above a French armoire.
A pair of sconces from Milan flanks a French armoire.
A group of favorite monkey prints fill the walls of the master bath.
A monkey bar of soap stands in a transfer ware dish. The gold-plated fixtures are from P.E. Guerin.
You’re known for doing great tablescapes—what does it take to make a table look nice even if you haven’t got a lot of money?

[Pulls a face at the “not a lot of money” part and mutters] I far prefer the money … okay I would say great flowers—but not just plonked in the middle.

You wouldn’t have jam jars with flowers in them then?

We once had jam jars with name cards on them, filled with homemade jam and the lids had Michael’s fabric on them. [Michael Devine, Thomas’s partner and fabric designer]

But money is nice …

Er, it’s aways helpful, it really is … [laughs]. That’s the way I like clients: funny, money and taste.