Friday, June 19, 2015

Debra Blair

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch


Since getting rid of stuff seems to be all the rage now—to whit Maria Kondo’s best seller "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up"—we found ourselves talking with designer Debra Blair about downsizing for her clients. “I’m a lot more militaristic ” she said crisply dispensing with the Kondo philosophy of only keeping things that spark joy. “I just tell them what works and what doesn’t work.” Enough said.

There’s nothing about you on the Internet! Do you know that?

Really? I’m not very good at social media. I do these essays monthly, called  “inspirations” and it’s going to be a blog but at the moment it’s an email blast. Like this month I’m calling one “Three Shades of Green”…

You can’t say anything like that now because of that dreadful book.

It is a little play on words. Another essay was on the d-word, which is downsizing. Many of my clients are downsizing now.
In the front entrance hall a light from Sirmos illuminates a black-and- while marble tile floor.
A photograph of an atelier in Florence by the photographer Bill Binzen, hangs above a Spanish hall chair covered in a tapestry fabric from Scalamandre.
A photograph by George Ross of the family's Lakeville, Ct. property. Debra's now grown son's J.R. and Blair deBart.
The living room's elegance has stood the test of time (and raising children). A tapestry of the Bay of Naples hangs above a sofa covered in a silk fabric from Scalamandre. Debra found the tapestry as a young girl in a garage when her family moved to a new home. The French Empire chandelier is from Marvin Alexander.
Looking across a custom cocktail table from John Boone, Inc. into the living room's second seating area. The custom armless banquette is topped with a pillow made of vintage Fortuny fabric.
A Queen Anne chinoiserie chair is positioned near a vintage carved teak tea table made in the Philippines.
An iMac and iPhone are positioned front and center atop the living room cherry secretary. A small collection of Staffordshire teacups was a gift from a friend.
So what is involved in downsizing? What do people need to know?

It’s a lot of work for the designer. Basically they’re moving into something smaller or they’re consolidating the number of houses they have. Subconsciously they keep looking at you and they’re thinking, “Why did you make me buy all this furniture and now it isn’t worth anything?”

How do you get around that?

You smile a lot—and just not pay any attention to it.
Looking into the TV room from the adjoining living room.
A mahogany open armchair from Keller Williams is covered in a tapestry fabric from Scalamandre.
An Empire lamp, family photos and a majolica dish from Debra's Majolica collection is arranged atop a Chippendale end table.
In the TV room, the needlepoint Aubusson rug is from Stark Carpet, Co.
Debra created a comfortable TV/family room with built-ins for TV and stereo equipment and durable yet attractive upholstered furniture.
A view into Debra's husband, Richard deBart's study. Majolica dishes are arranged above the family room entrance.
A hallway leading to the family room is lined with bookcases.
Looking into the TV room from the hallway.
What do you think of this Maria Kondo book? Have you come across it? Her rule is to throw out any possession that doesn’t “spark  joy”.

I haven’t read it. I know about it. I’m a lot more militaristic than that. I just tell them what works and what doesn’t work. You need someone with an objective eye.

And are people happier when they’ve unloaded all this stuff?

I think they are. You know why? Because they keep the things that are most valuable and important to them, and whatever isn’t really important to their life falls away.

What do you think of the concept of storage? People love storage but my view is that all it represents is the comfort of knowing that the stuff is there—you’re never going to use those things again.

I don’t even think it’s that. I think it’s the comfort of not having to make a decision.
We have a big house in Connecticut and it was built in 1929 so it’s got enormous amounts of storage … closets, closets, closets, closets. And as a result all I do is take things from here up there. I never get rid of anything.
A caricature of Richard.
Hunting prints line the walls of the powder room. The brass sink and fixtures are from Waterworks.
A wall leading to the study displays a caricature and photos of husband Richard.
Richard's handsome study with leather chairs and mahogany furniture has a decidedly masculine tone. Horseback riding, golf and cars, Richard's interests, are all represented in the décor of the room.
Mahogany bookcases and storage unit house a bar as well as family memorabilia.
Ah, that’s the other rule of storage. The more of it you have, the more you’ll fill it. You probably should encourage people to move into places with less storage if they genuinely want to downsize.

Yes but it makes them very nervous especially if they’re moving from the suburbs into the city. They absolutely get a panic attack because everything is just [about] storage … it’s like you live in a big chest of drawers. Honestly, I keep saying to them your lifestyle is different here. You don’t go to Costco and buy 400 rolls of paper towels.

Designers often seem to me to be people who aren’t subject to that much self-doubt, in the sense that they’re pretty decisive—I suppose they have to be.

You have to be because that’s what your clients are paying you for.

You’re not faking certainty?

Oh you could never fake it. If they think for a second that you’re wavering, that’s a bad thing because they really feel insecure. It’s your job to be decisive but it’s also your job to listen.
Peeking into the dining room, an antique crystal chandelier from Susan Silver hangs above the Hepplewhite dining table and Chippendale dining chairs. Serving as a ceiling medallion, a plaster frame from Sirmos is mounted above the chandelier. Unlike most Manhattan apartment dwellers, Debra and her family use the formal dining room for daily dinners. A large pair of Chinese urns with gold dragons flank a large mirror and an antique rug.
The large wall mirror opens up the space and provides additional light.
Debra found this landscape by artist Barclay Rubincam, a student of N.C. Wyeth at a Salvation Army store in Chadds Ford, PA.
Did you study design at college?

Actually I was an art major. I decided in my sophomore year at high school that I wanted to be a designer. I went into my guidance counselor and she looked at me like she had no idea what I was talking about. She said, “Just get your art degree and when you come out, you’ll figure it out.” That’s what I did.

A lot of people we talk to say that they met with the same blank looks when they said they wanted to be interior designers. That wouldn’t be the case now. Design is almost over-subscribed.

The first interior designer I ever met was someone that worked at a department store and my mother was re-doing her house. That’s how I became acquainted with the interior design … unless you lived in New York City, you didn’t know about it.
The boys' bathroom with a double washstand and tiles from Waterworks.
The family kitchen is outfitted with raised panel and glass front cabinets from Wood Mode.
Blue-and-white transferware plates hang above one of the two kitchen sinks.
More views of Debra's spacious family kitchen.
Cook books and past issues of Gourmet magazine share shelf space with Le Creuset ovenware and a blue-and-white transferware soup tureen. 'The boys' childhood art hangs above the washer/dryer.
The family bulletin board. J.R. and Blair's growth charts are still on the pantry door.
Something we talk about quite often is how our parents’ generation furnished their houses for comfort and, I guess, conformity but it wasn’t to do with self-expression in any way.

I don’t think there were a lot of choices out there back then. I remember shopping with mother and she said to the designer, “Did you see the movie ‘Elvira Madigan’? That’s the color I want.” And I was so impressed with that. It was like celadons and yellows [she wanted]. I remember the interior designer looked at her, like, Wow! No one has ever said that to me!

What do you think of the way that has changed? We can all have nice designed things now at affordable prices.

I’ve never thought of this before but Bloomingdales really was visionary. I was working there when they did the Indian promotion in 1978. It was the first one [of those promotions] on a massive scale. They took the entire furniture floor and turned it into model rooms. They did this massive show on India, and this was before people really went to India. It was mind-boggling. It was theater.
A group of famed Redouté Rose prints line the far wall of Debra and Richard's bedroom.
Debra and Richard's bedroom is painted in a soft celadon hue, Georgian Green from Benjamin Moore. The bed is covered in linens from Casa del Bianco and a coverlet from Garnet Hill.
Atop the skirted bedside table family photos share space with a Tiffany clock and another a majolica dish.
Custom built-ins provide extra clothing storage and a place for the flat screen TV.
A series of framed drawings of pin-up girls by Alberto Vargas, cover the walls of Richard's dressing room.
In the master bath an antique chest of drawers was converted into a cabinet for the sink. The wall tiles and fixtures are from Waterworks.
And it was affordable?

A lot of it was. And it was all sold off the floor.

Now, as a last question, I guess we want to know if you’re by any chance related to Tony Blair?!

Oh, I wish I was.

You do? Why?

Yes, I could just tag along, picking up his design … you know … being his designer.