Traditional and sticking to it, Clare Fraser seeks to create the comfort and warmth she so prizes by favoring French furniture, antiques, rich fabrics and wall coverings. It might not be making the cover of Wallpaper magazine any time soon but then, given the pendulum swings of taste, you never know … and in the meantime she is not short of clients looking for this kind of elegance. She was honest about how connections and privilege have helped her along the way but they only take you so far. She may well fit the description ‘lady decorator’ but that doesn’t mean that she’s playing at it – she’s the real deal.
So, as you may have gathered, this is a conversation about you, rather than a particular project. Have you read any of the previous columns?
Yes … I have.
Which ones did you pick to read?
The women, of course.
Why did you go for the women?
Yes, interesting point, isn’t it? I think I read Geoffrey Bradfield too because I was really quite taken when he said design is innate. I really do feel that.
It’s instinctive rather than cerebral?
I think maybe it becomes cerebral …I don’t think it starts off [as a cerebral process]. You’re aware of things that you’re unaware of. I know I always wanted comfort. [As a child] I always wanted to get home to my room, which was pretty and comfortable. My friends’ apartments were cold and forbidding and there was nothing warm or enveloping about them. I felt my mother’s home was, right or wrong. And food too. I never thought my friends had good food! Ten years old … what do I know?!
A view of the dining room from the foyer. The stenciled dining room floors are by Mark Giglio.
In the front hall a gilded wood and marble Louis XV hall table was purchased at Sotheby’s. The silk damask cover chairs are from Matthew Schutz and a pair of wall sconces, also from Matthew Schutz, once belonged to Otto Kahn’s daughter.
A Regency portrait from Stair and Co. dominates the rear wall of the dining room. The painted dining room chairs are Portuguese copies of English Hepplewhite ballroom chairs. The dining room table was a Russian officer’s travel table.
Getting ready for cocktail hour. A porcelain cabbage by Dodie Thayer was purchased in Palm Beach. A view of 19th century Copenhagen hangs above the table.
In the breakfast area, a rooster from John Rosselli sits between a pair of Chinese pagodas from William Wayne and Co.
Clare loves to cook on her Viking Stove.
Photos of the apartment taken for a design magazine article.
Where were you? Where did you go to school?
I was in New York. I was in Beekman Place. I’m a New Yorker. I went to Chapin.
And is food still important to you?
Oh yeah … oh in a big way. I can cook for 20 or 30. I don’t do a 40. I enjoy it. My friends would have lamb chops and peas … I don’t know. I just didn’t like it. I wouldn’t eat it.
What did you like to eat?
Oh I don’t know! … Just good food. It’s part of having taste, so to speak. To me it’s all wrapped up together. To participate in an aesthetic sense. Certainly what I do [design-wise] is dressy, it’s certainly not today’s style but it’s comfortable.
In the bedroom hall, silver lined, faux painted panels and trompe l’oeil blue and white porcelain plates painted by Mark Giglio, along with real plates, are reflected in an18th French mirror purchased in San Francisco.
A painted country Swedish chair sits beneath blue and white plates in the bedroom hall.
Looking down the bedroom hallway.
One of a pair of Louis XV green velvet chairs purchased at Kips Bay fills a corner of the sitting room. The desk is English 19th century from Florian Papp.
The ormolu clock on the desk in the sitting room is from Matthew Schutz.
In the corner of the sitting room, a bookcase is filled with leather book fronts.
Gracie wallpaper lines the walls of the guest bathroom.
Looking down the bedroom hall with a birds eye view of the trompe l’oeil plate by Mark Giglio.
How do you feel about trends coming and going, about a style becoming dated?
It doesn’t worry me. I could change at my age? No. It’s evolution … most people don’t decorate after the age of 40 or 50. I think about it sometimes but I move on. There are things that I would change in here but my husband is not that happy with it. I love Art Deco.
The thing that is interesting about you is that the way you are dressed, your sculptural jewelry and the clean lines of your clothes, is at odds with the background. I could see you sitting on a Corbusier chair.
Yes. That’s the moving on. I was doing a Kips Bay show and one of the other designers was sitting having a sandwich on the stoop and he says to me: ‘You know that’s such an interesting about you Clare, you dress almost masculinely but you decorate so femininely.’ Maybe that’s the way I express myself instead of putting a Deco chair here. It’s cheaper! … It’s that comfort and warmth again. I want to surround myself in comfort and warmth … I didn’t like those lamb chops … it was measly and meager. And all that damn brown furniture, without any ormolu, without any pizazz!
How difficult was it to start your own firm?
Oh, it was easy!
Why was it easy? I’ve always heard it’s hard.
I think it was two people in a certain … everybody always knew that Liz [her partner] lived and breathed design …
Clare wrapped the master bedroom in this favorite blue and white print fabric from Country Swedish. Above the bed by hangs a Danish portrait of a lady bought at a Doyle auction. The pair of faux painted bedside commodes, originate from Sweden.
Bedtime reading. The rooster was purchased at Todd Romano.
And you were in a certain social bracket …that makes a huge difference.
Yes, absolutely. Huge. And between the two of us we knew a lot of people in New York. And there was no question, it was who you knew.
How long have you been a designer?
It’s an interesting juxtaposition. There really are two different kinds of designers. People from nowhere who have to fight and there are really more sort of lady decorators … I mean I have to tell you, you are a lady decorator.
Oh, I know it, absolutely.
But even if you’re a lady decorator, it’s still a tough business. How did you cope with the tough side of it?
Do you mean from the suppliers side or the clients?
A view of the living room. The Louis XV clock above the fireplace mantle was purchased from Matthew Schutz. Two 18th Dutch flower paintings bought in Stockholm hang on the mirrored walls.
A 17th century Italian landscape, which was inherited from Clare’s parents, hangs above the living room couch. One of a pair of Fu dogs standing on a gilt bracket was purchased at The Winter Antiques Show. The Chinese coffee table from Mrs. MacDougall was part of a screen.
An 18th century French mirror and an unusual French 18th century copper and ormolu samovar were both purchases from Matthew Schutz.
Looking across the living room into the library.
Painting of ‘Boy with a Hunting Horn’ by Gaultier d’Agoty, an 18th century painter to the French court.
A pair of Louis XVI chairs are covered in celadon silk from Scalamandre. French brûle parfum jars stand atop the marble fireplace mantel.
A living room table displays part of Clare’s large collection of blue and white Chinese porcelain.
How did you enjoy being a mother?
Oh yes! I don’t think I was a natural mother at all but I definitely wanted to have the children and I’ve never regretted it. I certainly do think people can have children and work. You just need good health. I think there’s a vast difference between mothering today and what it was.
Peeking into the pine-paneled library
In the corner of the library a portrait inherited from Clare’s mother. Sitting upon the coffee table from Florian Papp is working copy of a larger sculpture entitled‘Jonas the Whale’ by Swedish sculptor Carl Milles.
Family photos, a French 18th century clock and some more malachite objects upon the Louis XV library desk. The Thai head in the corner was a find from an antique shop on Third Avenue.
A collection of malachite objects sit atop an 18th century chinoiserie table in the library.
In what kinds of ways?
I think people are totally consumed by their children today and I really don’t think I was or we were … how are those kids all told they’re the best and the most brilliant? One or two of those kids aren’t the best and the most brilliant …when they find out, what’s going to happen to them?
What do you do when you’re not working?
I work all the time.
A gilt lion’s head purchased from an antique fair at the 67th Street Armory.
Are you an independent sort of person?
I don’t think so. I’m very dependent on my husband … we’ve had a marvelous life together. We’ve traveled all over the world together.
Where do you like to travel to now? Do you have any favorite places?
Now what we do is go to Baden-Baden. Again it’s going back to the cozy, comfortable. We go to eat and to talk and to hike. It’s very comforting and sort of old-fashioned … being taken care of.
Is there anything that you find ugly, say in modern design?
There probably is but I don’t know what, because as you’ve pointed out, I’m a person who has stayed in a rut … um…
We didn’t say that!
It’s what you implied [laughing] I mean you can’t look at me and say that I haven’t!
• by Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge • photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch