Laura Montalban

Laura Montalban and I were not exactly identically dressed when I walked into her elegant apartment, but we do own approximately the same number of +J Jil Sander for Uniqlo jackets and coats (i.e. almost all of the line) as well as few key H&M pieces. Considering she was design director of Bill Blass for 32 years and I know almost nothing about fashion, I was thrilled that she had given these affordable clothes her blessing  (and I confess I went out the next day and bought yet more). It goes without saying that she looks better in all of it—she did start out as a model—and there’s the famous actor genes too: her father was the handsome Ricardo Montalban and her aunt was the gorgeous Loretta Young, half-sister to Laura’s equally stunning mother, Georgiana Young. Glamorous heritage or not, she has had a long and productive career as a design director and made the move into interior design in her late fifties, eventually settling at Dorothy Draper & Co. before going more or less solo.

So you’re still with Dorothy Draper & Co. as a senior designer – are you mainly doing hotels?

I am [with the company] and Carleton Varney who owns the company is no longer doing residential—it’s just hotels. I’ve cut back somewhat and I’m designing for my own clients. I’ve been doing that … going on for ten years now. I’ve kind of slowed down a little, I’ll be honest with you. And I’m liking it. When I take on something, I’m a little picky. Luckily I can afford this now.

Your whole background is really interesting and we’ll talk about that …

It’s involved! [Laughs]

When I was looking at the photographs on the Dorothy Draper website of the hotels there was a certain Hollywood glam to some of them but this apartment is very restrained and elegant.

That’s because of working with Bill Blass. I worked for him for 32 years—in the article you might want to say a little less! [Laughs]. I could not help but be influenced by the man.
A Japanese millstone from Treillage, a metal star and a classical lamp from Niall Smith stand below a print of a Roman arch.
Was that your first ‘proper’ job?

Well I came to New York—I had always wanted to live in New York—and in the first week, I just walked the streets … I was just so thrilled to be here. I really wasn’t interested in going into the film business. Design interested me. My grandmother was a very, very well known interior decorator in Hollywood. I worked for her. She was very, very discrete but her client list was phenomenal. Her style actually was a lot like Bill Blass. Comfortable. It was quality. It wasn’t splashy Hollywood. But actually I started out as a model.

Oh, I didn’t know that.

It’s a good way to get your foot in the door, if you’ve got what it takes. I worked very closely with Bill Blass. I got really bitten by the design bug and I loved working with him. He was the best!

What was he like?

Just the most generous, interesting, funny man—and the most stylish man I’ve ever known. He was an absolute fantastic interior decorator. Every place he ever lived in became iconic.
The living room couch is custom and is topped with a pair of pillows from Ralph Lauren. On the wall above, flanking an English mirror, is a pair of Italian intaglios of the two Caesars and a pair of French 19th-century antique iron sconces.
A pair of Clarence House leopard velvet covered stools faces a coffee an American 1920's iron coffee table with a black glass top from Niall Smith. On the far wall is a German Biedermeier secretary and chair also from Niall Smith.
Atop the coffee table a collection of English treen boxes is carefully displayed in an English brass and wood tray. The orchid is from Miho Kosuda.
A stunning iron pagoda tops a Biedermeier chest of drawers in a corner of the living room.
So how did you work your way up from being a model to becoming design director of Bill Blass?

In fittings was where it all started. Whenever we’d have a fitting and I’d put a dress in – maybe it’s the little bit of actress in me, I don’t know, but Bill could always tell whether I liked it or not and [the garment] was always rough and needed adjusting. I started putting my two cents in. And I didn’t know how he’d take it. I mean with a lot of designers you’re not to open your mouth! It’s: “Keep your figure and stand there!” I opened my mouth—a lot! And I started to collaborate with him on design, little by little. It took a long time. Finally he started a line called Blass Sport –  a great name, like “passport” – a sports wear division, because that’s how designers make money.

And he asked you to oversee it?

Yes I got it. I had an office and a whole separate floor.

Did you train formally?

Bill Blass taught me – like a private tutor. And I worked with the seamstresses and I watched and learned.
Burnt bamboo shades add a contemporary flair to the living space. The iron standing lamp is English.
A side view of a Biedermeier cupboard from Garvin Mecking. On the far wall, hanging high above the living room secretary are 19th century prints views of London's River Thames.
A 19th-century English, ebonized carved wooden urn stands atop the Biedermeier secretary.
The lion heads are actually iron water spouts salvaged from a house in Boston. They are displayed atop a pair of custom pedestals from Niall Smith.
Displayed atop the living room Biedermeier secretary is a photograph of a Tuscan landscape from 'The Life and Love of Trees' by Louis Blackwell. The small iron pug is a stamp box.
What happened to change things? How did you go from that to this, so to speak?

Bill sold the company and I was up in the air as to what I was going to do. So I thought … Oscar [de la Renta]? I was dying to go back to Paris. Paris to me is like heaven on earth. The beauty of it! The authenticity of it!

So you went to work for Oscar de la Renta?

Yes, he was designing Pierre Balmain couture. I worked for him a little over a year and of course went traveling with him! He’s a dreamboat! But it was just not meant to be. What can I say? We came to an agreement that it wasn’t working.

Did you just have different sensibilities?

Different sensibilities … but different …. I don’t know. Maybe I was just burned out.
Wood matches popping out of a black marble striker are leftovers from Laura's former smoking days.
Horn snuff mulls from James Robinson surround a burl wood covered jar.
Shagreen boxes and silver objects from Daniel Barney antiques are carefully arranged atop an English sofa table.
So what happened then?

Well, this [working as an interior designer] I had wanted to do this for so long and I thought, “let’s give it a whirl.”

How old were you when you decided to do it?

Oh, in my late fifties.

That’s very brave.

I worked first for Jeffrey Bilhuber … that only lasted about three months, another one that was not meant to be. But you know what I got out of that? [She taps the computer on her desk] This. Wherever I had worked there had been secretaries—assistants, I mean—you don’t say ‘secretaries’ anymore! Many designers won’t go near a computer.

I took computer lessons and it scared me. I didn’t know if I could do it. And then I met Carleton Varney one night and he comes over—this is a smart man—and he got my number and he invited me to some black tie affair and you know, since I was becoming a lot bolder—because I’m not bold, I eventually asked for a job. And he took me on. I did all the grunt work, the shopping – I know the D&D inside out now and I didn’t think I would in the beginning.
The master bedroom is illuminated by a pair of antique mercury lamp from Niall Smith. A paisley bed throw and an antique kilim rug from Mark Shilen Gallery in Chelsea add a burst of color to the neutral tones of Laura's bedroom.
A what-not from Mill House Antiques in Woodbury, Ct. filled with objects and art books is given a crowning touch with a perforated metal Moravian star. The 19th century fern prints are from Graham Arader.
A fan shaped mirror from Garvin Mecking hangs above the master bed. An English cherry wood bedside table flanks one side of the bed.
A small telephone table from Karl Springer stands in front of a Biedermeier chest of drawers from Niall Smith. The orchid is from Miho Kosuda flowers.
A small English hall chair stands next to an Anglo-Indian chest of drawers, both from Niall Smith.
A bust of a woman presumed to be Pauline Bonaparte stands next to an ebonized Treen candelabra from Niall Smith.
Well, as needs must. So tell me about your childhood and your dad, Ricardo Montalban. I confess that as a kid I loved Fantasy Island.

Oh my, oh my! Oh dad. He was an adorable guy. My aunt [Loretta Young] was the big star.

But considering that you grew up with these names, it seems as if you had an unusually stable childhood in Hollywood. Your parents remained married.

You can say that again. Til the day they died, they stuck it out. They fought but they loved each other.
Looking into the dining room from the living room. The French prints were taken from a furniture catalog and were purchased from Arader Galleries.
A wooden Chinese lantern with etched glass hangs over the English drop-leaf dining table and Viennese Biedermeier chairs from Niall Smith.
Mirrored walls open up and add sparkle to the dining room.
A close-up detail of one of the Biedermeier dining chairs.
Peeking into the living room from the dining room.
What’s it like being a child or a teenager with a famous dad?

I don’t want to sound like a cliché or anything but it was just dad. I mean not that we didn’t have crushes. There were a lot of cute guys around …

Yes, but for you they weren’t just any cute guys! They were famous actors coming to your house for dinner.

I mean I had a crush on Marlon Brando for godsakes! But my aunt, you know it was the studio system, and they wanted you to be seen out and about with a glamorous partner. The studio would arrange dates and she had a list of names: Jimmy Stewart, Cagney … there they would be ringing on the doorbell for her. But dad, er, steered us away from Hollywood types …
Looking across Laura's office. A leather chair from Angelo Donghia is tucked under a custom desk and shelves.
The rug is from Madeline Weinrib.
Office shelves are filled with source books and interspersed with favorite objects. Black basalt medallions hang on either side of the shelves.
A group of abstract collages from a London Art school hang on an office wall. The walls are painted in Benjamin Moore Nantucket Grey.
A bookcase from Design Within Reach is an efficient way to display more of Laura's art book collection.
An ebonized French cabinet holds the television. Laura replaced all the original apartment doors with sets of double doors. "It gives the apartment a certain graciousness,' says Laura.
Looking across Laura's office. A japanned, 19th century-table from England holds an upside-down Japanese helmet filled with wicker balls. The African stool in the background is from African Hemingway Gallery.
Are you still an observant Catholic?

Yes. I go to St. John’s. It’s interesting, for years it used to be just old ladies but now you go and there are a lot more people there, all different ages.

What sorts of things do you like doing when you’re not working?

[Taps her computer again and whispers] This thing … before you know it, you look at your watch and you say, “Oh my God, it’s four o’clock in the afternoon!”

• Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge • Photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch