By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch
Todd Black’s resumé includes designing elaborate sets for Victoria’s Secret back in the day when the concept was lingerie-in-a-posh-English-country-house and working as a “below-gofer” at Interview magazine. Along the way he acquired a Masters in the History of European Decorative Arts from Cooper Hewitt and eventually struck out on his own to form his own interior design business. Our conversation ranged pretty widely but was mostly dominated by Todd’s terrier, Puck, who had more to say than all three of us put together and eventually took a loud, growling dislike to the tape recorders—a first for the HOUSE column (although JH once got bitten by a designer dog who shall remain nameless).
[Sian] So I was fascinated to learn that you grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania – my mother grew up there and I used to go there every three months as a child.
Yes, I grew up in South Lancaster … it was all farmland and there were a lot of the Amish still living there and they tend to pass the land down from generation to generation and although they don’t really sell to developers, it has really developed. But it’s still beautiful. I go there at least once a month ...
Hanging in the front entryway is a 17th century portrait of St. Francis de Sales, the Patron Saint of Journalists. Todd purchased the painting in an antique store in the south of France.
A small assemblage is by close friend and artist, Clay Witt.
Todd maximized the living room space by creating several seating areas in which to gather. The painting on the far wall, simulating lines on a chalkboard, was painted by Todd.
Looking into a corner of the living room. The standing lamp is from Flos. The pair of coffee tables is from Morgik.
An abstract lithograph by Jerald Ieans hangs above a custom sofa covered in a Henry Calvin fabric.
A pair of custom club chairs covered in fabric from Holly Hunt is topped with leaf pillows from Gumps. Todd found the small African stool at a now-closed shop on Greenwich Avenue.
The living room is a welcoming mix of textures and styles. Nearby a wire chair from Laurin Copen Antiques stands next to a small African stool.
Is the dog okay? [There is lots of busy to-ing and fro-ing, whining and barking.]
He wants to eat the stuffed raven that I put out on the dining table.
Oh, the creepy raven. Anyway,how integrated are the Amish with the rest of the community living in those areas?
They’re very integrated—it’s not like they’re so separated from everybody. My father was a dentist and he had Amish patients. They sell their fruits and vegetables—and their shoofly pie—and a lot of them are craftsman, so it’s not uncommon that your carpenter or the person that is installing your fireplace is an Amish person.
On the far wall a mirror reflects light from the river views of Todd's Upper West Side apartment. The sconces are by Christian Liaigre and a Noguchi table sits between custom chairs.
In the right corner a large African mask found at a pop-up shop, family photos and a vase full of banana leaves are arranged on a custom table.
Peeking into the dining room. Nearby a stone wheel from Zona serves as a coffee table. Todd created an imaginative tablescape by placing a Buddha head, small stone bowls from India, an Elsa Peretti orchid pot, and a vase filled fill with banana leaves atop a footed lacquer serving tray.
A view of Riverside Park from the living room window.
On the far wall a photograph by Steven Meisel from Staley Wise Gallery hangs near an African ladder from Tucker Robbins.
A collection of objects and photos are arranged upon a walnut side table from Ann Morris Antiques. The water color by Ripley Albright sits behind the table.
Photos of Winston and Wallis stand near an oxblood-and-celedon glazed Chinese vase.
Do you think it had any kind of effect on your thinking, having had an opportunity to observe the way they choose to live?
I do think that—it’s funny because I was talking about this in terms of [my trip] to India, which sounds like the strangest comparison—but there is this sense in both communities of a different standard. It’s more about being content. They don’t have the same kind of materialistic cravings that we all have. There’s a certain point where enough is enough.
Yes, I suppose there is always a battle between ambition and contentment … are you more on the contented side?
I try … I try. My family was not remotely involved in the agricultural industry, but just being out there, you really come to appreciate nature. I mean when I driving home from New York, I see [the Amish] plowing their fields with mules.
A topiary and more photos of Puck are arranged atop a round table from Knoll.
Puck making himself comfortable among the sofa pillows out of Christopher Hyland fabric ...
How did your trip to India go?
The first time I was in India, I wanted to get a sense of what India was all about, not my concept of India. My concept of India and what it really was were two completely different things. I think I was really expecting a Third World country. I was expecting to be confronted with mind blowing poverty and unsanitary conditions everywhere. But what I got was something completely different. There is this impression of “we have this raw energy that we’re trying to harness but we’re still not sure how the modern world works.”
What was your route, so to speak, to a career in New York?
Oh, I always wanted to live in New York. After I left home, I moved to New York. My first job in New York was working for Interview magazine, which was really, really fun. I just got it randomly … like from an ad in The New YorkTimes or something. We were like, below-gofers … we were paid something like $12 000 a year. Andy Warhol had just died but Fred Hughes was still there and Brigid Berlin was still there as the receptionist and her dog would be running around. The writers were people like Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney. I remember going to lunch at The Odeon when the Odeon was still cool and there were all the parties but ultimately I decided that this was fun, but now we have to figure out what we really want to do.
Looking beyond a wire chair from Laurin Copen into the dining room.
Photos of Todd with his dog Winston hang in the bedroom hallway.
A photograph of Andy Warhol's "Poppies" from Hamburg Kennedy Gallery hangs on a wall near a metal shelving unit made by Morgik .
Puck stands on an embroidered pashmina from Andraab that Todd purchased during a recent trip to India.
Steel shelves by Morgik are filled with design books, CDs, a flat-screen TV and other electronic equipment.
A ram's head from a hunting expedition taken by Todd's father in Alaska hangs front and center over a headboard covered in horsehair fabric from Clarence House. The decorative pillows are from John Robshaw.
In the master bedroom, a pair of club chairs covered in a mohair fabric from Clarence House are topped with linen velvet fabric pillows from Christopher Hyland.
An African stool holds a collection of small boxes acquired during various trips over the years.
A Sufi mask from Srinagar and a sitting Buddha are arranged upon a side table in the master bedroom sitting area.
A group of artwork including engravings by Delacroix (top middle) and Gericault (right) as well as a photograph by Patrick Demarchelier (bottom center) hangs on a bedroom wall.
An eerie 19th-century mask from the William Lipton Gallery is displayed in a Lucite box.
Bedtime reading is stacked on an 18th century English hall chair. The reading light is by Philippe Starck.
Contents of the companion night table.
A small zebra skin footstool with stacked books stands next to a wire trash bin.
And how did we do that?
How did we do that? Well, we left and we moved to Italy. I figured out that I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and New York is not the best place in the world if you don’t really know what you want to do. So I hung out in Milan and then from there I moved to San Francisco … I was grasping at things … I was thinking about becoming an architect and I started taking classes at Berkeley. Then there was that huge earthquake [in 1994]. I just thought, you know what? I just have to go. I have to get back to east coast. My family was there. All my friends were there. They were the people who would be honest with me and tell me what I needed to do.
And what did they tell you?
I went back to my parents and I sat down and made a list … you know like they tell you “Make a list [titled] ‘If you could do anything in the world, what would you do?’”
I wrote down design of some sort, or movies. I ended up getting a job with an interior design firm with no experience. Design wasn’t as glamorized as it is now.
I also ended up doing some styling work. I worked for Victoria’s Secret [laughs] back in the day when they were doing their elaborate sets and trying to be very English. That was the original concept—it was suppose to be taking lingerie but making it very classy and we had to build elaborate sets that looked like an English drawing room … and now my dog is drinking your water.
Puck checking out the "creepy raven" from Deyrolle on the dining room table. The table was designed by Joe D'Urso. He is using metal chairs from Laurin Copen antiques to support his front paws.
Looking into the living room from the dining room.
The stuffed raven from Deyrolle in Paris stands near a dry point of trout, which was found in the Adirondacks.
Todd's dining table is elegantly outfitted in Tiffany crystal, Christofle silver and china from Bergdorf's.
A view of the kitchen though the dining room Murano glass chandelier.
The original fixtures of the main bath retain its pre-war charm.
Well I shouldn’t have put it on the floor … what other changes have you seen in over time since you started work as a designer?
Oh well, 1st Dibs has changed the landscape completely. I know Michael Bruno very well … but all of a sudden these to-the-trade sources are open to the public. A fabric showroom now – they all have websites. They might not sell it to you but it gives the client too much information. A big part of being an interior designer, is [being] an editor. When I go into a meeting with a client, it’s you know, three options—that’s what you get: A, B and C. If you hate them, we’ll go back but who wants to take clients to the D&D building. I know some do but it’s overwhelming—every showroom has 20 000 fabrics.
[At this point Puck, who has been investigating the tape recorders with close attention begins to growl and then bark very sharply at them when he realizes there is something moving inside.]