By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch
“This place looks like a souk!” claims designer Christopher Stevens of his warm, colorful little apartment tucked away in the West Village. We loved it, as we always do with apartments that have a vital sense of the person who lives there. In his early twenties, Christopher started out working in the development offices of both the Guggenheim and MoMA and our conversation turned, in part, to the bumpy career paths facing young people as they try to find their place in the world. Well established now, it wasn’t so easy for him: “I knew I wanted something more from my future and that did not involve eating tuna out of a can surrounded by cockroach traps.”
So tell us how you got your start in this business.
My first job out of college was for a local yokel out where I grew up. I grew up in New Canaan Connecticut—the preppy town. We weren’t sort of doing the whole WASPy thing—I’m a stealth Jew. My father is Jewish but he changed the name. This is a “stage name.” You know, Connecticut is only an hour away but there’s a whole different vibe there. I came to New York in 1999 to start working in interior design.
Beside the entry is a 1930's Swedish inlaid chest with a classical motif from B4 Antiques in the East Village. The lamp and jug are by Robert Picault, a '60s Vallauris potter and are eBay finds. The portrait is of Christopher and is by Elliott Hundley, an LA based artist who shows at Andrea Rosen Gallery. The portrait dates from when Christopher and the artist were both studying in Rome.
Christopher's Brompton folding bike is the perfect solution to quickly getting between home, office, jobsites and vendors. The African necklaces on his closet door are dress up items he throws on when he is out with downtown friends, mostly picked up from various Africana boutiques around the city.
"I like arranging all my 'finds' in still lifes," says Christopher. A cast iron dinosaur skull sculpture, a piece of '60s West German pottery and a plaster bust sit together on a funky Austrian Secessionist secretary from Bonhams that is fronted with a bronze relief of Dante Alighieri. The secretary contains home-office "junk".
The Polaroid by Andy Warhol is of Harry "Helen" Morales one of the transgendered subjects of the "Ladies and Gentleman" series. Christopher's good friend Corey Grant Tippin was responsible for finding the transgendered models for Andy and was given the photos following their sittings. "The prints and paintings of the ladies go for big money but their identities are largely forgotten so it makes me glad to be able to tell a little of their tale," says Christopher.
How Jewish do you feel?
More Jewish now, especially now that I’m dealing with so many Jewish clients.
I am a bit surprised because I looked at your website and I did not expect your home to look like this.
You know everything here is me. It’s not for anybody else’s eye. This is what I like. My approach with clients is very different. I’m a people-pleaser by nature—I think many decorators are. I’m the kind of person if, you know, the dog is running around and nobody’s minding the child because all the tiswas is happening, I’m going to pick up that child and I’m going to take care of that dog.
What did you think you were going to become? Did you set out to be an interior designer?
So I went to Penn where I studied art history and communications—[interior design] was not on the radar. My father is an investment banker but he started out in radio. He was actually a DJ here in New York. He was “Good Guy” Gary Stevens. He married my mother who is English and we had a Jaguar in the garage and a big Union Jack on the wall. She was a BOAC stewardess … so that happened.
"Little inter-relationships between the elements always catch my eye. Here for instance, the way the light on the ceiling is reflected from the Gujarati bedspread I picked up in India," says Christopher.
Christopher was fortunate to know the late Albert Hadley and this "wall of inspiration" in the kitchen was itself inspired by the Albert's own office pinboards.
The top of the refrigerator has become a catch-all for photos, vases and other miscellaneous possessions.
"My little kitchen looks out over an overgrown shared garden in the back and I love watching the birds visit while I make my morning tea. I even had a red tailed hawk back there one winter," says Christopher. The mugs are by Ittala, the tray is by Duro Olowu for JC Penney and the teapot is vintage Desimone from eBay.
The view from the kitchen. Someone on the ground floor in the building behind him has a litter of puppies and they have been running around in the back garden. Christopher claims he could watch them for hours.
The macarons are from La Maison du Macaron and the cookies from the Union Square Greenmarket. The mid-century Italian black onyx topped coffee table is from Hiden Galleries in Stamford.
The apartment is a rental and so the bathroom has not been renovated. For now, towels bought in Istanbul, a shower curtain from West Elm and a mid-century Dutch plaque hung on the wall lends it a bit of character.
The two little wall brackets were found in a junk store. "The tops," says Christopher "remind me of eyelashes."
How does having a British mother affect you? Do you like Marmite, for example?
Um … I can tolerate it. But having a British mother … well, I like florals. I pull one of those [chintzes] out with clients and it doesn’t even make it out of the bag—they’re like “No!”
I read that you also worked at the Guggenheim and MoMA.
Well I fell in love with art history … I was hemming and hawing as to whether I could make a go of it as a gallerist or an art dealer. I mean what were those things? These were not people I was in touch with. So I graduated and I got an internship at the Guggenheim in the development office where I was locked in the basement making coffees and stuff.
What kind of insight has it given you having worked a little on the inside of these places?
Really, a sense of how much money matters inside those institutions. Not so much that it drives the curatorial mission, because it doesn’t, but there is so much work that curators have to do and the directors have to do to keep that money coming because they’re hugely expensive. I really wanted to do things way above my station and be involved with art but there really is a Chinese wall. The curators do not want to know from you that you are dealing with the dirty part—they want to do their scholarly thing and press the flesh. To be a successful curator, you really have to know how to get the money coming in. A little bit of foundation money is not going to keep them going.
In the combined living/bedroom area, the sofa is from Crate & Barrel and is covered in plain linen. The circular jute rug is from Pottery Barn. Art over the sofa includes "Drapery" by Matthew Palladino and a James Bidgood photograph.
The throw on the back of the chair was purchased from a weaver in the mountains of Ecuador.
The walls are "Autumn Orange" by Benjamin Moore. "It's not too punchy and makes everyone's skin look gorgeous at night," says Christopher. The club chair is his custom design made by J&P Decorators in Long Island City and is covered in a two-ply tattered canvas by Castel.
The mirror on the left is Syrian and sits above a console from Niall Smith. The 1960's white faux bamboo étagère serves a TV stand and also holds his collection of travel guides. The armchair was bought at a junk shop, stripped and given a new seat in a Claremont woven fabric.
The photo is "Pan from Behind" by James Bidgood from Larry Collins Fine Art, Provincetown MA.
The floral pillows are covered in a Designer's Guild fabric and are leftovers from the "Rooms with A View" event in Southport, CT. The ceramic hanging light in the corner is circa 1910 and was a great find in Denmark.
The bookcase by Coudannes, Paris was purchased through Lars Bolander.
The view from the couch.
Also, now they do these blockbuster shows that they didn’t use to do.
That also started to happen around the time I was there. The “art industry” erupted and contemporary art blew open, hype, hype, hype. I had to get out of the Guggenheim because I wasn’t going to make a dime and I got a job in the development office at MoMA. I was thrilled—there were benefits, health care and $26 000 a year – ohh I had arrived!! And the job also involved some background research. I could get into the library and read. It wasn’t the cultural machine like it is today. But in the end it was 9 – 5 punching the clock …
It sounds dull.
It was. And I had a little bit of crisis, frankly. Whatever the road was, it was going to be long and low. I don’t have a trust fund … but I am a spoilt kid from a nice suburb with a good education; I didn’t have a lot of debt. I knew I wanted something more from my future and that did not involve eating tuna out of a can surrounded by cockroach traps.
The coffee table has a book-matched black onyx top. William Klein's Rome book is a reminder of Christopher's favorite city and the happy months he spent there studying.
A Napoleon III prie-dieu is stacked with some of Christopher's reading – lots of non-fiction and the odd biography
The urns are painted plaster copies of grand tour objects.
More items stacked on shelves. The selenite votives were vital during the Hurricane Sandy blackout. "I had no power for a week and I loved it. Perhaps I was born in the wrong century?"
So how did you make the transition?
I moved home. I was 23 and didn’t know what to do. But I did sort of shack up with a guy and he introduced me to one of the local decorators in Westport. Through a social connection I was hired by Greg Jordan’s office as a design assistant. I didn’t know what I was doing. But there’s nothing like getting in the trenches and actually doing it. My talent, if I have any talent whatsoever, is “figure it out.” But the office was really exciting. Architectural Digest had just cast their light upon [Greg] and he had been anointed by Paige Rense in the AD 100, so I got to see that.
And how did things proceed?
[Eventually] I got a job with Marcy Masterson. She had just done a tremendous job at 740 Park—talk about blowing my mind. Her great knowledge is antiques and that was awesome for me. After that I went to work for Noel Jeffries. I learned how to manage all the many moving parts.
The pastel on the left is by Irene Lipton and the drawing of the figure is an academic study from the 1920s bought at a pier show.
Orange walls glow when sunlight filters into the apartment. Christopher asked the landlord to leave the "beaten-up" floors as they were because he liked the patina.
To supplement the lack of natural light Christopher placed several mirrors around so as to bounce scarce light off surfaces. The bedside marble-topped iron table is from the Antiques and Artisans Center in Stamford, CT. The lamp is metal mesh encased in ceramic by artist Scott Daniel who works in Gowanus, Brooklyn.
The Indian bed is from John Robshaw and Christopher had it ebonized to give it a little more chic. Behind the bed is a portrait of Warhol Superstar Jackie Curtis by Leee Black Childers. The antler sconce behind the bed is by Jason Miller.
Looking across Christopher's bed.
He brought the mirrored Gujarati bedspread back from India and paired it with sheets from John Robshaw.
So your personal look isn’t, on the whole, what I imagine many clients want. What is your approach when you first meet a client.
Clients come armed today with so much information. It’s not just a few tear sheets—they’ve been watching shows, they’re on Pinterest … they’re coming with a lot of unsorted ideas. And people really digest the zeitgeist even though they don’t really know they’re doing it. They want it to look like the blogs and the magazines.
So I’m looking at your bookcase here and a lot of your books have nothing to do with interior design—there’s a lot of books on political history.
Oh yeah, if I’m reading for myself, I read a lot historical fiction or non-fiction. My mother says if the ketchup bottle is the only thing to read in the room, I’d be reading it.
Beside the bed: an 18th century Spanish colonial portrait of an unknown saint.
The 1969 photo of Warhol Superstar Jackie Curtis called "Jackie in a Taxi" is also by Leee Black Childers, a documentarian of the New York underground and rock n' roll scene of the '60s, '70s and '80s.
The classical head sculpture was found in an antique mall in Lake Worth, Fl. It shares space with an Erik Hoglund glass sculpture, a framed folio from an Ottoman illuminated book and Christopher's favorite candle, "Abd El Kader" from Cire Trudon.
The drawing is one of a set of graphite figure studies from the 1920s bought at a Pier Show. It's sitting on a Lucite easel from CB2. Behind the easel is a 19th century painted column with a plaster female nude on top. Christopher bought the sculpture from a local jewelry store that was closing down and had used the sculpture as a display piece.
The miniature on ivory is a portrait of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and lover of Queen Elizabeth I.
The repoussé metal table was found at a consignment store in West Palm Beach. It nestles nicely under a console he bought from Niall Smith when he closed up his Bleecker Street shop. "I miss that place terribly – I couldn't afford anything but just walking through was a real visual education," says Christopher.
What do you do when you’re relaxing at home … cookingand eating?
What’s that called … cooking and eating? I’m a real committed bachelor—mostly I open up a can and there you are.
When are you going to meet the love of your life then?
Good question. I tend to really gel with people who have a foreign background … I don’t feel necessarily of one place myself.