Friday, May 1, 2015

Michael Tavano

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch

One thing we haven’t asked many interior designers is how well they did in home economics—it seems an obvious question now that we’ve interviewed Michael Tavano, whose home ec teacher believed early on that Michael’s sewing skills would lead to success. And so it has come to pass. He started off as a florist, running four flower shops in Boston where he also began creating the tablescapes for which he subsequently became well known. Eventually he moved on to become a fully-fledged designer as well as being a judge on a successful BBC television show, “BBC House of the Year” and will be the Master of Ceremonies for the IFDA “Take a Seat” auction on May 27th. He currently lives in a Harlem prewar, which he shares with his partner, Lloyd Marks and their two little rescue dogs, Bartley and Brisbee.

Before you were an interior designer, you were a florist. Why did you leave that profession?

Well, the busiest times when you’re a florist are the holidays, and I realized that there was no such thing as a holiday. My family is very important to me and I was never able to spend time with them. I am trained as a florist—there’s actually a trade school for it—and I was running four flowers shops in Boston, doing huge events like events at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and so on. I was always doing the design work and sewing my own draperies and other designers started seeing that work. I still have my sewing machine! I actually learned how to sew in high school in home economics.
Michael designed the lobby of his West Harlem building. Strict budgetary limitations required clever design solutions. The leather wingchairs are from Z Gallerie; the light was purchased online from Wayfair.
In the front entryway a painting by an Indian artist is mounted atop a wall covered with strung metal beads. The foo dogs are from Brimfield flea market. Looking towards the front entrance. The series of prints on the left side are from Alpha Workshops; the photo by the door is by Rick Lew.
A sequined curtain made in Michael and his husband Lloyd Mark's workroom, Marks & Tavano, adds glamour to the upstairs bathroom.
Favorite objects, photos and art are arranged atop the guest bath shelves.
Do they still have home economics on the curriculum these days?

You know I don’t know … it was co-ed, not just for the girls. I know for years my home economics teacher kept talking about me and my success and how sewing can bring you success. [laughs]. It’s a skill that not only is satisfying but for me when I’m very stressed out I go to the worktable and start stitching. Long live handicraft! That’s our tag line.

So how did you make the change from the events and floristry to design?

Well the clients [at events] started asking me to work on their homes. I actually still have my very first client in Boston, which is kind of scary to say. I’ve done their daughter’s nursery, the teenage room, her dorm room and then her first home.
Michael reconfigured the former master bedroom into a separate dining room. He added blue glass ornaments to perk up a glass chandelier from China. The turquoise-and-white porcelain was purchased at Grace and Favor in Brooklyn and the table and chairs are from a Pier antique show.
A painting of a cityscape by Victor Ortale dominates the west wall of the dining room.
A pair of ceramic foo dogs, a mercury ball, and faux topiary fills the dining room window ledge.
A view from the dining room into the front entryway.
A stunning landscape photograph is by Andrew French. A closer look reveals the shot is of Michael and Lloyd in a rowboat on the pond in Central Park. The vintage Blenko glass decanter is from the old armory in Hudson New York and the fresh strawberries were for us.
A colorful abstract painting by Keith Redman was a wedding gift to Michael by close friend Virginia.
You did her dorm room?!

That was fun. It was IKEA. It was like a day thing. We went to Target and IKEA, just grabbed things and went back to her dorm room and put it all up. It was just a blast. Oh my God, [her friends] were all so envious!

Where do you put IKEA in the design pantheon?

I always find some great little pieces every now and then. You have to have a critical eye. These screens come from IKEA (indicates some metal screens in the living room) and they had these screws, which I replaced with the little brass balls.

So when you make these tablescapes for which you are known, what’s the starting point?

With all the DIFFA tables that I’ve done, it was always through our travels. When I travel, I collect china. That’s what I buy when I travel. So I’ll see something and think, ‘That would make a great table.’ Ninety-nine percent of the time it starts with the china or a particular piece of glassware.
A porcelain sculpture picked up at the Paris flea market fills a living room window ledge.
Black feather fringe and a turquoise blue border give the living room draperies added dimension.
I wish we still had tables all decorated like that, perhaps say in restaurants. It’s all white linen now and the wine glasses are all the same. I suppose it’s not practical … but dinner parties maybe … I don’t go to them, so I don’t know.

I think people can be intimidated by it. I do think when the table is set, there should always be something unusual, something that draws the eye. Shop through your house, I always say. Just because it’s in your living room doesn’t mean it can’t go on your dining room table.

It such a celebratory thing to do.

It is because it’s something interesting that makes guests stop and become present to receive the meal. It clears their minds and creates conversation.

How about yourself, do you entertain and lay the table creatively?

We do. Lloyd is a great cook and every Saturday, I would say, at our country house we have eight to ten people over. I ask Lloyd what he is cooking, or I say, “I really want to use these bowls. What can we make?”
Looking into Michael and his husband, Lloyd Marks, living room. The metal trellis dividing the front hall from the living room is from Ikea, which Michael enhanced with custom brass accents.
A blue glass chandelier hangs above a pouf covered in blue leather from Moore & Giles. Michael adopted the Art Deco armoire from a client. A pair of vintage chairs were transformed with blue paint and reupholstered in JAB fabric. The pillows are made of 'City Kitty' from Perennials.
A series of prints, which are images of Michael's rug designs, flanks the living room armoire. Blue lampshades from Broome Lampshades add a bit of pop to vintage table lamps that Michael found at a flea market.
The mid-century chairs were recovered in a chocolate leather from Moore & Giles.
A painting of an interior by Victor Italia is composed in complementary yellow and blue hues. The sofa is covered in an ultra-suede from Kravet and the stripe pillow fabric is from JAB.
Vintage coffee tables are topped with gardening and art books as well as the requisite coasters and the sometimes-necessary magnifying glass.
So I’m British and I know who Laurence Llewelyn Bowen is—your co-presenter on “BBC House of the Year”. He is the butt of many jokes in the UK but he’s also a huge design star there. What was that experience like?

He was wonderful to work with. He’s such a funny guy.

For all his dandy, larger-than-life image, I don’t think takes himself too seriously …

Er … [hesitates then laughs] … there were issues with other people. I really enjoyed working with him but it just didn’t affect me that way. I just gave it right back to him. He’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant with being able to repeat verbatim what he said two minutes ago and none of it is scripted, so when they’re coming around to do the second camera shot, he says exactly what he just said, verbatim! I found that absolutely entrancing!
Bartley and Brisbee's toys are on display under a vintage living room chair. Both dogs are rescues.
A photo of Michael with Linda Jonas is placed next to a vintage table lamp and other favorite objects.
A compact kitchen with wood-fronted cabinets and stainless steel appliances is tucked into a corner of the apartment's open living space.
Peeking into the living room through the metal trellis.
Vintage glass is arranged next to a vase filled with white orchids. The kitchen window ledge. A bonsai jade tree and fresh garlic from their garden in the country stand next to a photo of Bartley.
Bartley stays close to Michael.
How did you end up doing this show?

It was through the gay mafia, I always say. [I have] a very dear friend here and I’ve gotten to know his family really well and his brother is with the BBC. He called me and said “I want to throw your hat in the ring for this show, are you interested?” And I sent him a video of me that I did on my phone. And within a month and a half, I was there shooting. They wanted a US designer to throw into the mix.

Can you describe the show?

It’s three houses per episode and each homeowner puts their house up to be judged. It’s a very rigorous judging because the BBC is very strict. It’s about color, architecture, style. Does it fit the landscape? Does it fit the personalities of the owners? There are three judges and I was one of the three. And Laurence Llewelyn Bowen was the presenter. It’s about good design.

Would it translate to the US?

We’ve tried but they really want to sensationalize it, which I don’t like. I’d love to do it properly. Do you know anybody who wants to do it?
Looking down the living room staircase. The below ground floor was originally 'bonus' space tacked on to the upstairs apartment. Michael transformed it into a sitting/dressing area and master bedroom.
A Charles Eames chair and ottoman inherited from a client and a mid-century floor lamp provide the perfect place to enjoy the stacks of design books.
Michael and Lloyd's handsome closet and dressing area provide ample hanging and drawer space for both of their wardrobes.
Family photos are displayed on the built-in dresser. A Buddha statue smiles knowingly through a semi-transparent shade.
Lloyd's colorful sneaker collection and 'his side' of the dressing room closet.
I want to ask about how much of this exposure, DIFFA tables, show houses, TV exposure and so on, actually turns into business?

It’s so hard to quantify that. There are people who don’t do it at all and are so successful, so many people that are under the radar and have huge business.

I read that you when you started your product line, you travelled a lot to India—do you still go there?

I don’t. I had that company for six years and it was everything, everything you could possibly dream of and I was so unhappy.


Because I was managing thirty-five road reps; I was taking care of all the sales. I wasn’t being creative. My creative time was the eighteen-hour flights to India. I loved India.
An outdoor space accessed from the downstairs dressing area was covered in snow when we did our mid-winter interview.
Two prints depicting images related to the Holocaust were purchased during a trip to India. A photo collage by Julie Brimberg hangs above Michael and Lloyd's bath towels.
A painting by an Indian artist, bought on Michael's once-frequent travels to India and a set of prints depicting Greek warriors are both displayed on the marble bath walls. The charming lighting fixture hanging above the medicine cabinet is by Lumens.
Peeking into the master bedroom from the downstairs hall.
To create a glamorous backdrop in the master bedroom Michael covered an existing wall with bead chains and the silk pleated curtains made from Bergamo fabric. The tufted headboard and the wall treatments were crafted by the Marks & Tavano Workroom.
A crystal chandelier hangs near a cityscape by Boston-based artist Victor Ortale.
A pair of foo dogs which were given to Michael by his parents on his 25th birthday, fresh flowers and the TV controls are arranged next to a lamp made by Michael.
A photo of Michael's parents when they were in their early 20s.
A flat screen TV surrounded by silk pleated curtains hangs above a white lacquer chest from Hue Modern. The vintage wing chair was repainted and recovered in velvet from JAB. The rug is from CB2.
More photos of Michael and Lloyd's family and friends.
What did you learn about India through working and going there so often?

My office was in Bangalore but I went all over except Kashmir. I did a lot of work in Jaipur. I didn’t want to go to Jaipur because I wasn’t interested in block printing but my agent said “No we’re going. We’ll just go for the day.” I went and I showed the factory owner my drawings and he grabbed [them] … they were my only ones. I went back the next morning—they had carved the blocks and printed the collection. I stayed there and I learned how to block print with a master block printer, in a shed, wearing a lungi, which is a little diaper thing, covered in ink all over my hands. There was this rag I could wipe my hands on and as I was wiping, I realized there was this great pattern I was creating. I grabbed it and said, “Can we do this?” I spoke no Hindi, he spoke no English—it was all about communicating through creativity—and we carved a block with my fingerprints on it.

That way of knowing a culture is an unusual entry point.

It changed my life. There’s a very different mind set about dealing with nature … having a life. I mean in the US would never think of closing a factory for a football match or because it’s the monsoon. I have a very clear sense of what I will and won’t accept. My weekends are my weekends. And my employees’ weekends are their weekends. Success is to me that I’m able to give back and still have a very good life where I can travel and not have to be so concerned about finances. I don’t care who you are, you’re always concerned about finances no matter how much money you have. I really count myself extremely fortunate … we have a good life.
Michael cuddling with Bartley and Brisbee.