There is a brittle wit and energy to Jeffrey Bilhuber that belies a more serious person. His range of reference is impressive, as is his ability to rarely say anything boring. Occasionally there is a sense that what he says is slightly rehearsed, and it probably has been, but only miliseconds beforehand in his very quick mind. He works at a relentless pace, producing elegant, historically-nuanced yet modern interiors and his own home is no exception. Some time after we interviewed him, he decided to become a father, so we would be curious to ask him some of the same questions in a year or so -- we're willing to bet that the answer to our final question might be somewhat different.
What I was first interested in when I read about you was that you started off in hotel management. Was that a kind of entry into the design business?
What I thought was really sort of perplexing was that no one ever told me that you could have creativity and business in the same sentence. So I was not encouraged even though I was a very creative child … I ended up going to Cornell University to study hotel administration. It was really about, at the end of the day, making a buck. I only lasted about three years in the business. I ended up at the Carlyle, which is good, and I really thought I was going to change the world. Remember this was 1981 and there really was no such thing as creativity within the hospitality industry. The idea of a boutique-driven hotel was non-existent. What people really wanted was what I call the ‘Hilton-ization’ of the hospitality industry. You wanted familiarity, you didn’t want individuality, and of course the nature of creativity is self-definition.
So how did you make the move to this career?
In my third year I ended up moving to the housekeeping department of the Carlyle and I was responsible for working with Mark Hampton’s office, who was doing in-house redecoration of the rooms. I ended up thinking ‘Aha, this is fascinating. Here is this man, Mark Hampton, who seems to be at the top of his field … here was somebody who had managed to actually put creativity and business together.’ And I thought ‘Why didn’t I think of this?’
Above: In the living room, slipper chairs designed by Jeffrey flank a 10 ft. long sofa covered in velvet by Jack Lenor Larson with Samuel & Sons bullion fringe. Above the sofa hangs a drawing on linen by Jean Cocteau. The Chinese style coffee table was purchased at Chrisitie’s.
Left: One of a set of four 18th century gilt armchairs from Christies is perfectly positioned on stenciled wood floors in the living room.
A stuffed peacock found on Ebay stands on a pedestal from Niall Smith in the living room. The convex mirror is from Harbor View Antique Center in Stamford.
Above: Looking across the living room.
Right: Peeking into the library cum guest room. Light and objects are reflected in the tangerine colored lacquer ceiling.
In a corner of the living room from top: ‘Mask,’ 1981 by Robert Courtright, represented by Marlborough Galleries, and a water of a chestnut blossom (ck).
Had you already found yourself drifting towards redecorating, say starting with your own room?
Oh always! But I mean that’s just something that you do. I mean the most important moment in a young child’s life, one of the most important, is when your mother turns to you and says ‘Darling, what color would you like your room to be?’
And what did you say?
I picked a particularly revolting color. It really was just this side of old guacamole … but I was so thrilled that I had a voice. It was an incredible thing because you really felt that you could control your environment. Not only could we pick the color but we were actually allowed to pick wallpaper, but we were only allowed one wall. It was hilarious. I got my one wall which was a plain stitch chevron and my nasty guacamole and then I got a shag carpet, which coordinated all these different moments in a truly revolting fashion … mustard, guacamole and Snickers Bar brown. But it definitely brought it all together. And I raked. I don’t know if you remember this but when you bought shag carpet, it was ‘Buy now and get the rake!’ You would get a rake and you could click it on the back of your door and you would rake your shag! I was there for years raking my shag.
But it wasn’t about design, it was about personality. Little did I know that that is what interior decoration is there to do. You’ve seen my book, haven’t you? Anna Wintour wrote the foreword and she said ‘Jeffrey is the kind of designer who takes your own taste and makes it better.’
Deerskin rugs provide a soft landing. A garden seat by Tozai Home is s handy place to rest a drink.
A view through the library into the living room.
In the library/guest room studded brass nail heads are a clever twist on a paneled room.
A pair of resin bowls from Treillage sit atop a handsome Gustavian secretary from Evergreen Antiques. The 1930’s mirror is from Gerald Bland antiques.
A bust of George Washington stands next to two prints of Native Americans.
Above: A series of hand colored lithographs of Native Americans by McKinney and Hale from The Philadelphia Print Shop hang on walls upholstered in fabric from Groves Brothers.
Left:A collection of resin antlers surrounds a recessed Sony television in the guest room.
Why do you think taste come to define us so thoroughly? I don’t remember our parents being so conscious of taste and what it said about them.
Because we’re smarter! We’re smarter! I guess there weren’t as many options and you were not encouraged to think as an independent. That was almost rebellious. Politically it was the Kennedy era, post-War and we were optimistic and we had a relatively stable economy, we had a roof over our head and that was enough. When it came to the interior design industry back then, only the very richest of people who had any sensibility hired interior designers and that was it. Tycoons only.
Yes, that idea of expressing yourself through your home environment, or even your clothes, was not nearly as strong.
Yeah! I mean if you wanted to wallpaper you went to the hardware store. That’s where I got my feature wall. Remember those hilarious carpets which would be stacked up like a slide and you would get on the top and slide down them? …anyway what I really wanted to say was that I’ve been at it [interior design] for 22 years now and through an enormous amount of effort I have become very successful and very proud of my accomplishments and it wasn’t easy. I approach it through the back door. I approach it as a business man.
Jeffrey's essentials and fresh Daffodils in the entryway.
Brown and white gingham fabric from B. Berger covers the wall and table of the dining room. A 1930’s U.S. map belonged to Jeffrey’s Great Aunt.
Looking past the 1940’s chandelier into the corner of Jeffrey’s dining room. A collage by Richard Giglio hangs above a late 19th century rattan chair with Japanned panels purchased at Sotheby's.
A special gift from a friend, a limited edition book of Madeleine Castaing’s house in Paris.
Custom brass shelves holding Jeffrey’s ‘reference library’ stand behind a late 19th century, rattan chair with Japanned panels bought at Sotheby’s.
No time for cooking, Jeffrey comes home to healthy meals prepared by Almond Ryan.
What is the most effortful part of your work?
A lot people still don’t understand that … it’s a Herculean amount of work to deliver projects on time and on budget.
And what would you say got you to the top?
Well, my business reputation preceded my creative reputation. But my creative reputation is a man who brings a sort of edited clarity.
What would you say, after all these years, would be one way to distinguish between art and design?
The difference? Between art and design? Well, I mean design is a process, it’s a building process. Art is a creative process which is from the heart, it is spontaneous. You can’t paint a painting from left to right, it doesn’t evolve that way. Art is abstract and design is linear. That’s the key difference. I never think of art remotely in the same context as decoration.
Above: A portrait of Great Aunt Gertrude hangs above the master bed. Jeffrey commissioned artist Nancy Lorenz to add designs of gold leaf on resin to the de Gournay wallpaper. A deerskin bedspread and pillowcases by Pratesi cover Jeffrey’s bed.
A Gustavian chest from Evergreen Antiques is topped with a pair of lotus lamps purchased from Greg Jordan estate sale at Christies.
The Bilhuber family tree.
Bedtime reading. Jeffrey is getting ready for the birth of his first child this summer.
Jeffrey placed a recent photo of Great Aunt Gertrude into the back of a of childhood portrait of Gertrude.
It’s all in the details: an exquisite upholstered arm by Luther Quintana.
An amazing replica of a mahogany door was faux painted by Mark Uriu decorative painters.
Is there anything that you’re dying to work on that would be a challenge to you?
Like any great American decorator, the White House … The last one in was Clinton who used that woman, Kathy Hockmeister or whatever her name was … I never heard from her again … but you know I do think its rather bizarre that each administration has the opportunity to redecorate our nation’s house and, you know, what makes many times for a great president is there everyman quality as they rise from a middle-class averageness to lead the people but unfortunately they have quite middle-class taste. Obviously it was the Kennedy administration with Jacqueline who got it right. At least she understood you have to build from your history, recall the very best from your past in order to set a beacon of light, a shining example of American achievement.
Are you very patriotic?
Oh! You know, if any people ask ‘Who is your favorite interior designer?’ Thomas Jefferson. That’s not about being patriotic. I understand American roots. It’s incredible to think that as a statesman he could live abroad and bring back pieces of furniture with him that would influence the White House, influence his own country house. He brought Italian architectural studies which would help him understand order, symmetry, balance. That’s a political point of view too. Refinement is a political ideal, and an intellectual one … we’re getting very lost now, you know. We haven’t gotten at all into gingham walls …
Well, we like it to be a conversation. What do you do when you’re not designing?
How subject are you to doubt?
• bySian Ballen and Lesley Hauge • photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch