By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch
We always love to hear of designers when they have had previous incarnations as something else and Louis Navarrete (pictured right), like a surprising number of designers we have interviewed, was once a dancer—a ballet dancer to be exact. Very glamorously he danced for the Ballet Monte Carlo where he was invited to the homes of people like Princess Caroline of Monaco and Karl Lagerfeld—exposure that helped train his eye. “I look at design like dance—everything has a line.”
His own Washington Heights home, where he lives with artist Ric Best (pictured left) and their two cats, is a real home: colorful, not too perfect and full of the warmth of a place lived in, not arranged as a stage set. We had the easiest of chats on a snowy day in this lovely part of Manhattan. Incidentally, we learned that there is a move afoot to rename Washington Heights, “Audubon Heights”, which we thought sounded rather good.
This is so welcoming and there’s a good arrangement for us all to sit down and chat—you’d be surprised how often we go into an exquisite residence and there isn’t any real place to sit and chat.
It’s part of our rule. We went to a friend’s apartment and there was nowhere to sit—Ric is 6 feet 4 inches and there he was sitting on these 18th century rickety Italian chairs and we couldn’t put anything down on a table because it was all filled with bibelots. We were so uncomfortable! We’re boys! It’s home. We like to sit down … [Ric adds] and destroy everything.
Lining the walls of the main entrance are "Digital Bloom'" photos by Louis' partner Ric Best.
A small pencil drawing by Jim Bloom hangs above an 18th century portrait of a French aristocrat purchased at M. Fulkerson Philadelphia.
In the main hall, a terracotta bust of Hercules from the Antiques Emporium stands atop Biedermeier bookcase from Bernd Goeckler.
A leftover Santa's hat is tucked into a corner of the hall. The umbrella stand is turn-of-the century American art pottery.
Photos of a 1930s drag queen hang in a corner of the main hall.
"Angel" by Ric Best.
I was curious when I read on your website something about “transitional” style – what is transitional style.
Transitional is for people that don’t know whether they’re traditional or modern.
Um … indecisive, you mean?
[Laughs] I guess it’s a word that I generally don’t like to use but when I was living in Philly, everybody wanted to be transitional so I was like … okay.
Is it the same as “eclectic”?
It is but I think eclectic is a little more odd.
Looking across the living room. A photograph by Ric, "Sebastian", hangs above a leather sofa from Crate & Barrel. The sofa pillows are from Pottery Barn and West Elm. The curtains are in a silk linen from Pindler and Pindler.
So what are they transitioning from?
Usually from a very badly decorated home. But they don’t want period [style].
When you say you were say you were trained in the classics does that mean that you read Greek and Latin?
No, I read Palladio and Vetruvius … and Bunny Williams.
I like that, Palladio and Bunny Williams falling under the category of the classics. Now, you were born in Cuba, weren’t you? When did you leave?
I left in 1968. We moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey. We did the Florida thing for two weeks and decided that we didn’t like Florida. We didn’t want to be there with all the expats, so we moved to New Jersey to be with all the expats [laughs]. I have to [hand] it to my mother—I never really realized at the time how hard it was. It was a struggle.
A side table from Williams Sonoma Home is filled with books and topped with a glass lamp from West Elm.
Renfru poses for Jeff. Nearby, leaning on the windowsill is a 19th century portrait of a lady. (Louis and Ric call her "Dorian Gray").
Arranged upon the living room table are family photos and bone decorative balls placed atop 19th century Sheffield silver candlesticks.
On the far wall, "Heaven and Hell" by Ric Best hangs next to a bronze sculpture of the "Discus Thrower" from the foundry of M. Barbedienne. The 18th century stool is from the now-closed Eagles Antiques and covered in an antique carpet.
Renfru poses for Jeff. The oriental carpet is from Rug and Home Gallery in Hawthorne. Arranged on the coffee table is a pair of Quan Yin hands and an English inlaid tea caddie.
A view across the living room toward the front windows. The Georgian bookcase is from Art and Industrial Antiques.
When Louis found this 18th century Georgian bookcase at Art and Industrial Antiques it was in lying in a corner in several pieces. It's now the focus of the living room.
Arranged atop the living room coffee table is a pair of Quan Yin hands, an English inlaid tea caddie and a 19th century English transfer ware sugar bowl filled with flowers. The small shell was picked up on vacation.
"Alchemy" by Ric Best and a 1960s print of yellow-and-gray circles by an unknown artist hang above one of a pair of gate-leg tables Louis purchased from a Thrift store in Redbank, NJ. The small print on the left side of table is by Franca Trippa and Fritollino from "Dances of Sfessania" by Jacques Callot and the panels on the 19th century box depict ballerinas. Both the print and the box are from Norman Crider.
A close up of the bronze "Discus Thrower" from the foundry of M. Barbedienne.
A view across the living room into the main hall.
So you grew up speaking Spanish?
Yes. My mother speaks English but she doesn’t practice. We were sort of well off in Cuba and we had to leave everything. My mother came to a different country; she had two kids, didn’t speak the language and we were on welfare … for about two weeks then my mother got a job and sent us to Catholic school. My father stayed in Cuba because this was supposed to be short term and everybody was going to move back eventually. But “eventually” turned into forty years …
And you were also a dancer in the Monte Carlo Ballet – you must tell us about that!
I was sixteen or seventeen years old and my mother didn’t know I was taking ballet class for years! There was an audition at the City Ballet for the Ballet Monte Carlo and I went and I got in. I was there for about a year.
Looking down the bedroom hall.
The two cibachrome prints of inside the Holland Tunnel are from Ric's "Turnpike" series.
A 19th century Russian icon of Our Lady of Kazakstan, and an Indian mask hang in the main hall.
What became of your dance career then? Did you just decide at some point that you didn’t want to do it any longer?
No, no. I broke my leg—on stage during The Nutcracker. I was the Candy Cane. It was New Year’s Eve and I had danced something like fourteen shows in a row and it was my night off but somebody decided they didn’t want to dance that night. I was already home having a nice little drink and someone called to say I had to get to the theater right away. So I went on stage and snapped my knee … I had to have a transplant. They use cadaver muscle.
They do?! It must have been agony! Did you shriek in pain when [the break] happened?
I was going through a hula hoop at the time … I thought I had broken my shin and I went to hold it in but what happened was my knee cap was at the back … I sort of bounced off stage and on New Year’s Eve everyone [in the company] plays tricks, so they thought I was playing a trick.
In the study an Empire-style bookcase found in an antiques store in Philadelphia is filled with Louis and Ric's collection of art and architecture books.
In Louis and Ric's study a vintage frame hangs above "Glass Hat" , "Mercy" and "Expectation", all by artist by Neal O'Brien.
The study also doubles as a home office. The shelves are filled with books and design magazines.
The study desktop is neatly arranged with essentials and family photos.
Do you still dance?
Yes—I take ballet class about three times a week. There’s this Russian teacher there and she goes [puts on aRussian accent] “Ooh you can dance … vaarry beeeutiful.” The trouble is you still think you can do everything … and you can’t. I’ve become Margot Fonteyn. I do everything with my eyes! [laughs—and shows us how he uses hiseyes]
And what about the move into becoming an interior designer then?
[Ric] We were living in Pittsburgh and he got a full scholarship to Parsons, which was incredible, so we moved to New York.
[Louis] They give you a test and that was how I got in. I had always been interested in people’s homes and when I was in Monaco and in Europe, I was in a sort of very fancy circle of people who had beautiful houses. I got to see Princess Caroline’s house and Karl Lagerfeld’s house—you know dancers from the company get invited to those places.
A painting by artist Neil O'Brien hangs above a bed from West Elm. Vogue Regency mirrors from New Orleans hang above a pair of William IV style end tables.
A 19th century cartonier originally used for storing documents now acts as a clothing bureau in the master bedroom.
Bedside essentials share space with family photos and some favorite objects.
Stunning bedroom curtains were constructed out of a combination of vintage wool and border fabric from Lee Jofa. The bronze Grand Tour statues are from a New Orleans auction and the William IV desk is from a Christie's East auction.
A group of oxblood Chinese porcelain vases stand atop of a linen draped table.
Everybody loves a dancer. They’re beautiful people to have around.
[laughs] I was young! I was an ornament!
But it is a punishing profession.
It’s hard. You have to have a very strong work ethic.
So what did they ask you to do in the test to get into Parsons?
I can remember a few of the things. You had to design a chair. You had to do a self-portrait and an office for a psychiatrist. You had to write an essay and you had to design a traditional house. I did everything in watercolor, very elaborate watercolors and I was very scared because, you know, it was Parsons. And sure enough everyone else did all these hard line drawings and I got in with my watercolors. I think they were bored of all the hard lines – you know, “I want color!”
Art, including 19th century studies and a small pencil drawing of a table by Leon Bakst given to Louis by Norman Crider, fill the walls of the chocolate colored bathroom.
Well, they’re looking for flair. They can teach you all the other stuff.
Yes. You can’t teach flair. It’s like being an artist. You can learn the technique but you can’t teach what to paint—which is what Ric says all the time.
After Parsons did you become an assistant?
I was an assistant with Thomas Jayne. He has a very meticulous approach. But I was thirty and I was old, the oldest in my class but it was the best thing because I had the work ethic already, even though I didn’t do my projects until the very last second. I think about things for a long time and then I just bang it out.
In the dining room industrial steel-case shelving holds Ric's extensive comic book collections. A globe lantern hangs above an octagonal Regency table surrounded by Jansen chairs.
A Grand Tour replica of a garden folly stands next to a pair of 19th century candlesticks.
A bronze statue of Mercury from Victoria Henley stands atop a 19th century cartonier.
Louis and Ric love to entertain. The kitchen in their upper Manhattan rental makes the most of limited space.
Annabelle looks out the kitchen window.
Renfru, momentarily distracted from her meal.
I liked on your website where it says: “Clients will not be subject to an ever changing coterie of interns.”
…which is true! I learned that from Bunny [Williams]. She always insisted on having the same people go to the same clients all the time. I only do two or three projects a year and I’m very hands on about it.
How do the two of you work together?
[Laughs] By computer!
And how would you describe your style … your design sensibility?
Oh … bohemian. Oh … Comic Con meets Downtown Abbey! That’s what a friend of ours said when he came here. [laughs].