Friday, December 23, 2016

Frank de Biasi

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch


Perhaps we have to stop talking about the times when people went to the trouble of writing real thank you notes and when tables were set with silver that they didn’t mind polishing (or perhaps didn’t mind paying other people to polish.) Somehow we can’t get away from a romance with all that gracious effort and neither can designer Frank de Biasi. The difference is that Frank actually goes to those kinds of efforts, evidenced by the fact that his apartment, which he shares with textile and fashion designer Gene Meyer, was so beautifully decorated for a Christmas party to be held the night of our interview.
Frank grew up in Richmond, Virginia, where things, he says, were done very properly. As a junior in college, he became a card-carrying Francophile after a year spent at the Sorbonne and, over the course of a career including stints at Christie’s and head of interiors at Peter Marino, bought an apartment in Paris, where things are also done properly. But perhaps something is shifting—his latest project is the renovation of a house in the Tangier casbah, where, he told us, there remains traces  of a 1950s American bohemian atmosphere and things are done a little less properly … “there’s a freedom to do whatever you want.”

I like this quote where you say, “the true value of home lies not in its Instagram appeal but in the quality of the lives lived there.” So do you want to elaborate on that?

Did I say that? So why would I have said that? Because I believe it. I decorate for myself and my three houses … and [then] I do things for clients. I was at Peter Marino for twelve years … lots and lots of different styles. I’m all about appropriateness.
Frank and his partner, textile and clothing designer Gene Meyer, decorated their lower Park Avenue apartment for the holidays. Christmas baubles hang from a tole chandelier. Amaryllis and Christmas garland are arranged atop a George I oak sideboard, which was once the bottom half of a Welsh dresser. The painting, "Villa Urbana" is by Philip Taafe.
A small spruce tree, fully dressed for Franks and Gene's holiday party later in the evening, stands on top of a late 18th century American tilt-top table. The entry hall's settee is covered in a Rose Cumming fabric; the rug is by Gene and Doug Meyer and the artwork is by Mika Tajima.
A closer look at the mini tree.
Holiday ornaments hanging from the tole chandelier welcome guests into Frank and Gene's always-festive apartment.
A pomegranate, berry and pine garland runs across the entry hall's oak sideboard. The hand-painted wallpaper is by San Patrignano.
An illuminated crystal cube by Alessandro Mendini, c. 1970, stands atop a side table by Jacques Adnet.
But just to get back to the Instagram thing—this room [Frank’s living room] would be a room that would be entirely well-suited for Instagram. What is it that you’re saying you don’t want?

My relationship with Instagram has changed. So when I first started, I was trying to understand what it was. I’m from the South. My family is very conservative. I grew up in in a very conservative way, Catholic, in the South … yeah. I never really wanted publicity. I just wanted to be behind the scenes, doing my decorating for interesting clients and collectors. I’ve engaged [a publicity team] and that was big deal for me.

Most people we interview say they don’t like doing self-promotion and publicity, which is interesting …

… but now with Instagram it’s a whole new world! I enjoy the voyeuristic aspect of it! I also like keeping in touch with friends to see where they are in the world. I’m also a recent Facebook person—only in the last three or four months. I’m still on the fence about that.
Gene's portraits fill the wall of the bedroom hallway.
The vibrant green dining room with overflowing floor-to-ceiling bookcases has also been transformed for the holidays. The walls of the dining room are filled with Majolica plates and objects collected over the years.
A table covered in a quilted green fabric is layered with garlands and Christmas ornaments. The whole pineapples, a traditional Southern sign of friendship and hospitality, welcome guests into the room.
The frame of the dining room door and all the other rooms are painted in a mix of shades.
What have you retained from your conservative upbringing?

The idea of appropriateness and doing things in a proper way—old-fashioned things, thank-you cards, proper phone calls, saying exactly what you mean, not giving everything away at one time.

You mean a kind of reserve?

I guess I was kind of reserved, but less so now. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, so it was really, really conservative but what I hold most dear about my experience there was the architecture. I guess most people grow up there as Anglophiles and I turned into a Francophile. When I was a junior, I went to live in Paris and went to the Sorbonne. It changed my life. It changed my life. One of the most useful things I did in college was learn to speak French.
The candlelit dining room later that evening.
Tell us about your house in Morocco that you’re building.

Well I’ve been going to Morocco for sixteen years, to Tangier. We have a lot of friends there and we just go there and we meet people. It’s a wonderful place. It’s the meeting place of many cultures—where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean, where Europe meets Africa. There’s just such a beautiful history of cultures clashing, not clashing, but melting and mixing. People there are really quirky.

Does it still have that Paul Bowles romance about it?

It does. And the decorating thing is a big deal. Every time we’re there we go on house tour!

Why does it bring all these aesthetes together to decorate all these marvelous places?

Because there’s freedom. And the cost isn’t so much. There’s freedom of color; there’s freedom of materials and patterns and styles; there’s freedom to do whatever you want. It’s not so expensive there so if you make a mistake, it’s not the end of the world.
Vintage photos fill the walls of the guest bath.
Gene's portraits and drawings make up parts of a book he published, "Gene Meyer's Chapbook" (published by Elena Prentice in Tangier, Morocco) line the walls of the bedroom hallway.
Maybe there’s freedom from judgement.

... er ... we judge. [laughs]

So what do you do all day?

There’s a lot of parties. It’s like America was in the ‘50s. We have costume parties and it’s relaxed … like, “oh I got drunk and I spilled wine …” No one cares. There’s a history of giving parties… it’s hard to explain. It’s very old fashioned. There’s a new group of people coming in.

What sort of people are there already and what sort of people are coming in?

Lots of older people, writers, artists, antique dealers, decorators, and more of the same are coming in but younger. There are no bankers; there are no hedge fund people, no people in insurance.
Frank and Gene's bedroom, once a typical white box, was turned into a cozier space with blue ticking-stripe walls and furniture covered in handmade quilts by Gene's great- grandmother.
Looking across the quilt-covered bed towards the flat-screen TV. The snakeskin console was designed by Frank; the photograph of a male nude is by Jack Pierson.
What did you learn from your experience working at Christie’s?

I studied International Affairs at George Washington, which made me eligible to do everything and nothing. Back then temp agencies were really important, so there was a job at Christie’s. I went into estates and appraisals, which was amazing.

That’s a brilliant way to start a career in interior design.

It was perfect! It’s like an international house tour for six years. I learned so much. It was pre-pre-pre-pre everything, pre-Internet, pre-FedEx … we had carbon paper and dial telephones. We would have to produce a document that stated exactly everything that was in a room, so I’m really good at listing and describing things. I saw so much. I could tell fakes from copies and revival from period, which nobody can do… don’t get me started.
A stunning obsidian-and-glass bead tree sculpture by Misia Sert, c. 1920, stands in a bedroom corner next to childhood photos and decorative plates.
Bedside tables are filled with favorite objects, family photos and novels.
Why did you decide to move away from that and into decorating?

Well, now you’re in estates and appraisals and there was that thing where you’ve learned to become a generalist and [you have to make the choice to eventually become] a specialist in one of the fields that Christie’s offers and I just couldn’t decide what I wanted to specialize in. And I found it very limiting. I love it all. By chance I went to appraise an architect’s home and he worked for Peter Marino … I was hired basically on the spot.

What did you have that Peter Marino wanted?

He wanted somebody that was good at something. And I was really well versed in art and furniture and the auction world.

So you knew stuff.

I knew stuff.
Stacks of design magazines and novels find a home on a vintage fabric- covered chair. The photo of Frank and Gene was taken at a charity benefit for ACRIA back in the early 2000s.
The apartment's wrap-around terrace and magical city views, including this one of the Chrysler Building, was a big draw when Frank and Gene were looking to move from their former Soho loft.
Frank's balcony dressed up in Spring.
A Moroccan pom-pom blanket is now the master bath shower curtain.
So how did you deploy that skill?

I was an assistant. I started off at the bottom, which I was fine with. My first project was to do a very large country home in France. The client was a big collector; I could speak French; I knew the flea markets. It was perfect.

Didn’t you feel out of your depth at all? Did you dig up somebody to help you or did you just wing it.

A little of both but I’m also a self-learner.

But that skill you have … it’s just that I don’t think there’s going to be another generation of antique collectors or people who decorate with antiques.

I don’t think so either. All the antique dealers say it’s coming back but it’s not. I mean, I’m a maximalist, so I wish it was.
Looking down the bedroom hallway towards the front entry hall.
Looking towards the kitchen from the front entrance hall.
Frank and Gene supplemented their kitchen space by converting a front hall closet into additional storage space.
Frank and Gene, keen cooks, "make-do" in their galley kitchen.
The eye of this new generation is trained in a different way. It’s Apple—all smooth and sleek, no embellishment.

My eye is trained with history. Nobody is going to Tiffany’s and registering for their twelve butter plates and for their silver. It’s so sad. If I hear one more person say, “I’m not buying silver because you have to polish it …”

Well we’re nostalgic for it but wasn’t there also a lot of formality? Perhaps we’re better off without that?

Really? Oh, I like the formality. I like to know where I stand. I like to know that someone is taking the time to acknowledge what I’m doing. I think we need those rules. Life’s not easy. You need to write your thank you notes. Silver needs to be polished. You need to join the adult human race and not just lounge around in front of the TV and have your bedroom look like a hotel room.
Reflecting Frank and Gene's personal approach to decorating that "more is more", the living room is filled with an appealingly layered mix of furniture, fabric, art and objects. The curtains leading to the outside terrace are a John Rosselli linen edged with a red tape.
A pair of coffee tables/sculptures in resin is by Fredrikson Stallard for David Gill Gallery in London. An Indian sign painting of a tiger hangs above a sofa by Maison Jansen. A side and club chair are both covered in chintz from the 1940s. The fabric was originally a pair of curtains and was purchased at the Marché aux Puces.
A close up of the coffee tables by avant-garde designers, Patrik Fredrikson and Ian Stallard.
People seem to want that kind of anonymity though. Who do you admire as a decorator?

Certainly Peter Marino—his versatility. He was always pushing for new things, always looking out for new ideas. And I find nowadays people don’t ask questions.

I know what you mean … although perhaps saying that is something of a huge generalization … perhaps we’re just becoming old and cranky.

It is younger people [who don’t ask questions] … there are so many things that I don’t believe. If somebody tells me something I say,” Really? But did you ask this? Did you ask that?”
Frank and Gene incorporated much of their furniture and shell collection from their former early 1940s Miami house, giving the room a slightly tropical feel. The late 18th century American secretary is an heirloom and the pair of bamboo étagères are from the Marché aux Puces.
In another seating area a mirror purchased on the South Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach hangs above a sofa by Maison Jansen. The small wicker stool is by Franco Albini.
There's always plenty of greenery indoors and, in the warmer months, the terrace turns into a potted roof garden.
Gene purchased this playful tiger rug during a trip to Nepal.
Poinsettias on top of the heirloom secretary add holiday color.
This bronze table by Ingrid Donat is from the Friedman Benda Gallery.
A vintage photo of the street in Tangier, Morocco, where Frank and Gene are building their future home. The building is next to heiress Barbara Woolworth Hutton's famed palace "Sidi Hosni."
So you mean critical thinking? It’s that they lack? I guess there’s also no replacement for experience.

That’s what I love about my job. Gene, (Frank’s partner] is in fashion, where it’s all about everything being new, new, new. But with decorating, it’s all about history, come on. It’s about appreciation of history and historical design and art history. It’s so important.

But is that what people want?

I don’t care. It’s what I want.