Friday, October 30, 2015

Jeffrey Bilhuber

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch


Click to order Jeffrey Bilhuber: American Master.
In his new book, "Jeffrey Bilhuber: American Master" (Rizzoli) designer Jeffrey Bilhuber describes his work as “sort of a wonderful burden”. Thirty years into his career, he’s bearing that burden pretty well but, as he pointed out frequently during our interview, for all its (mis)perceived superficiality, making it as an interior designer is hard—and it’s even harder to keep going. “That takes a Herculean amount of energy and effort each day,” he declared in his engagingly emphatic way. He’s as much the performer as he was in our last interview (Us: “We’re going to tape you.” Him: “Where? To the wall?”) and, fueled by his particular brand of nervous energy, his show is still on the road.

Your book was a lot of fun to read as well as to look at …

Well writing a book is a personal journey … and this is my fourth book, so I think I’ve managed to fine-tune my message. It’s wonderful to write a book because you get not only to share your knowledge but you get the joy of hearing yourself! Many times, you don’t get to be the audience. I mean when I’m in my studio, you know, preaching to my clients, there’s all great information in there and I’m able to articulate myself very well but when you have to reflect, it’s a great opportunity to think about what matters. I’ve been at this now for thirty years and there’s a certain weight of authority to it now. This is a tough business!
Jeffrey created a cozy seating area in the front entryway by using wall mirrors to open up the space. A coarse linen hopsacking curtain tempers the expanse of crimson wool carpeting that connects the rooms of the gallery. On the far wall the Bilhuber family tree hangs under an abstract collage by New York artist and illustrator Richard Giglio.
When planning the drawing room Jeffrey referenced the interiors of New York's Gilded Age (1868-1900) and the exuberant architecture of the Belle Epoque period in Paris. The result is a sophisticated salon that gives the feeling of being in a private club.
Fresh flowers are arranged atop a Renaissance Revival table. The nearby reading chair is covered in original gros point needlework.
To capture sunlight the ceilings of the living room are wrapped with a gilded and carved fillet molding. On the far wall a carved gilt sunray is mounted on a wall mirror that was once the entry to the apartment study.
Why is it tough?

It’s a minefield of missed opportunities. For anyone to last five years, let alone ten years, fifteen, twenty or thirty …

A minefield of missed opportunities? What do you mean?

Well, it’s a very difficult field to run on a business level and to run it really well and to continue to succeed and to continue to be at the top of your game. That takes a Herculean amount of energy and effort each day.

And what is all this effort and energy directed towards?

Remember that I am an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur’s greatest fear is that without them, their business will collapse. So each day, you get startled into the realization that you have to immerse yourself in your job. Each day for thirty years you have to do that same thing. You have to be invigorated every morning.
The cosseted environment of the living room is set off by suite of Belle Epoque furniture covered in original gros point needlework and damask.
Wall mounted directoire sconces with purple candles actually get lit every evening. A contemporary Chuck Price sculpture perches atop a 17th century Dutch seascape.
A tall fluted and gilt column, topped with greenery stands in front of an 18th-century gilt American wall mirror with original glass purchased from Harborview Antiques Center.
A view across the living room into the front entrance hall. The walls are covered in an amber moiré silk.
It’s a bit like a chef going into a restaurant—you have to cook good food.

You have to produce a winning meal every night if you’re going to stay four-star. It is very clear to me that design and business go hand-in-glove. When you realize that there are so many people depending on the decisions you’re going to make each day. That’s a huge responsibility, not just for the fourteen people I have in the office and their families, but we [also] have hundreds, hundreds, of tradesmen who bank on every decision that we make, the upholstery workrooms, the carpet sellers, the weavers, the fabric providers, the painters, the decorative painters … all these people are waiting for the word from Jeffrey.

You said that one of your motivations is to pin down what makes us “modern”. What does make us modern?

Modern is a point of view. Modern is how you see the world. It is being responsive to the world as it changes around you. What makes you modern is to be of your time.
Designers are barometers of change. Our antennas are up. We need to be able to see what is coming our way that is intriguing, or invigorating or compelling.
A stunning Carlton desk with raised sides for privacy divides the two seating areas of the drawing room.
A large oil portrait of Jeffrey's ancestor Christian Friedrich Bilhuber, which was lost for many years then rediscovered and purchased on eBay, hangs above an emerald velvet-covered sofa.
Looking across the drawing room.
Methodically stacked pictures in gilt frames convey the feeling of a 19th century salon.
Art is stacked counter-intuitively. A Dutch landscape is installed at standing height, bracketed by a larger work on paper above and a small plaster bas-relief below.
Looking into a corner of the drawing room. A small flat-screen TV is the only indication that the room has entered modern life.
A bowl of clementines and a pair of crystal candlesticks with more purple candles are arranged near a photo album opened to portraits of Jeffrey's son, Christoph.
Why did Givenchy give you a job when you were relatively inexperienced? Why did he take a chance on you?

People saw in me qualities that I in fact couldn’t see in myself. They saw a talented, very creative, focused young man.

You say that it is very important to be of your time. But when I look around here, well, how do you say that this apartment is of our time?

I’m not speaking about these rooms specifically [when I say that]. When you look at American Master, you’ll see an enormously diverse body of work. All of it is telling us something of how we live our lives today or how others choose to. What is important to understand about what makes a modern world, is that you can no longer simply stay myopically focused in one business or another. You need to be diversified, whether it’s in design or in banking. What makes us modern is to be receptive. These rooms are modern to me because they’re a direct response to the city. A direct response.
Peeking into the breakfast room from the kitchen.
Everything about Jeffrey's design of the breakfast room is meant 'to coddle'. A mélange of porcelain plates, oil paintings and contemporary drawings are hung atop Mauny French 19th century block print pattern wallpaper.
Colorful fresh flowers perk up a perfectly set table.
Jeffrey's recently released book "American Master" (Rizzoli) is placed front and center on the breakfast table.
An 18th century portrait of ancestor Johann Christoph Bilhuber hangs above a 19th century English server that displays a group of crystal decanters and gold leaf compotes.
A 1940s chandelier is dressed up with gold and tangerine silk shades.
A hand painted corner cabinet displays a collection of arrowheads that once belonged to Jeffrey's grandfather.
A view of the kitchen with contrasting navy bottom and cream upper cabinets, finished in crystal knobs.
That’s an interesting definition of modern, although I don’t think anyone is going to see these rooms as modern. Anyway, you said in the book that you prefer “the painful approach” to your work, the “can-we-pull-this-off?” and all the handwringing—I guess you just have a great deal of nervous energy, right?

Yes, I do! I have an enthusiasm; I have an effervescence. I am a showman. I like a bright light and I like a big audience and I like a stage! You have to be a performer because you’re selling a point of view. You’re helping people see things that simply aren’t there! It’s a Herculean task. It takes a Herculean amount of energy. If I ever choose not to be a decorator, I would be a very good cult leader.

You’re an evangelist. You could be a televangelist! You like the word “Herculean”. I might ask you to name his twelve labors. Don’t you just get tired sometimes? [Sian adds: “I’m getting exhausted just listening to you!”]

[Laughs] It’s best to just keep moving forward. [Hesitates] Ten years ago, during a very, very profound and insightful moment, I had to ask myself, “What is this all for? Where is this all going?” And that’s when I made the very appropriate decision to start my family.
In the guest bath Mauny flocked wallpaper in 'salon vert' and an Italian 19th century mirror set inside a shadow box. A bas-relief head of a Roman boy hangs above a Jeffrey's sketch of a tented garden room. The room was completed for the Roger's Memorial Library designer showhouse in the mid-1980s.
A snapshot of Christoph is tucked into a corner of the guest bath mirror.
Southern views show a glimpse of the new apartment towers on 57th street, the Hearst building and the Time Warner Center.
Looking west towards Central Park.
'This is my Edward Hopper view east", says Jeffrey.
Yes, let’s talk about that then.

In and of itself, it created a bubble that I needed. It’s a way that I can, on an intimate side, on a quiet side, share my love, my passion, my creativity. And I can learn from someone who is openly and honestly going to share their world with me. As lovely as all these objects here, something I say to people is that, what we’re making here is an investment in living, not an investment in furniture.

Did you fall in love with your son immediately?

I had to do a lot of investigating and planning. Just the whole process of fertilized embryonic transfer versus adoption—I didn’t want to adopt, I wanted to start my own family. It was ten years ago—it was really difficult for a single man to get any information about how to start a family. It was a different world. No one even told you that there was an option.
In Jeffrey's bedroom De Gournay wallpaper has been given an irreverent splash of gold-resin paint by artist Nancy Lorenz. Nearby, a dramatic peacock called George stands atop a fluted pedestal.
A noir needlepoint covered chair is often a repository for bedtime reading.
More family photos, spare change and other necessities are arranged atop a Gustavian chest of drawers.
Whimsical prie dieu chairs with elaborate bullion fringe are positioned at the bottom of the master bed.
Pratesi linens and a Guanaco skin bedspread purchased from Nina Griscom and reconfigured by Dennis Basso covers Jeffrey's custom bed.
A splash of gold-resin by artist Nancy Lorenz adds a shot of energy to the corner of Jeffrey's bedroom.'Light' bedtime reading is positioned atop an English triple-tier table with a clever cut-down edge for spilled glasses.
How did you get on with the crying and the sleepless nights and the diaper changing and the vomit … you know all of that?

Well that was lovely! [he is not being sarcastic] Oh my gosh, it was burden-free. It was very simply part of the job. I knew what I was getting myself into.

What sorts of things do you and your son like to do together?

We do as many things as we possibly can including just sitting down and chatting together. Christoph is very proud of his father, most specifically writing a book. You know for an eight-year-old, their lives revolve around books and he knows of his father as an author, as a writer. He’s bursting with pride about that.
Looking across the bedroom into master bath. George the peacock perpetually gazes at himself in a gilt convex mirror.
The master bath. The sink is set into a painted French console. The wallpaper is from Farrow & Ball.
How much time do you have for him?

We have breakfast every morning together. He comes bounding out of his room in his uniform, sits down at the breakfast table and we start each day with an hour together. Weekends, we’re always together.

What do you do at your country house at the weekends?

I dash about and look for pretty things.

Does Christoph come with you?

He would much prefer to play soccer or to drive his go-kart. He’s an enormously confident young man. I’ve no idea where that came from.
French hall lanterns are suspended from the ceiling of the bedroom corridor. Jeffrey used Fatto a Mano trim on top of hand-blocked paper to give the space a sense of structure and architecture. Peeking into Christoph's room.
Jeffrey transformed his former library into a room for his grade school son. He kept the studded brass nail heads and wall finishes but added kid-friendly furnishings.
An oversized corkboard is filled with Christoph's artwork and a map of Seal Harbor Maine that was a gift to Christoph from Martha Stewart during a visit to her home 'Skylands'. A low table displays recent Lego projects.
Toy model helicopters and a 'Woodie' share space with a gilded Adam lamp.
A small side chair is positioned next to Christoph's daybed. More stuffed animals and toys are stored in baskets and containers at the head of the bed.
Apple green shelves with white wicker storage baskets stand in front of the former opening to the drawing room.
A touching photo of the Jeffrey's parents with their newborn grandson, Christoph.
Um … you don’t see yourself as confident?

He’s socially skilled … I was a social observer, as a young man.

So I think we asked you last time to what extent you were subject to self-doubt and you said something like “Not at all”. Is that still true?

What did I say? About what?

Self-doubt.

Oh no, never. You are looking at the alpha dog. [pauses] You really did do your homework.