Looking out of the windows of Alan Tanksley’s studio near Flatiron is a quintessential New York experience. Skyscrapers rear up at you on all sides and, if you were to take a bath, you might almost feel that you could stick your arm out of the window as you lie there and touch the Empire State Building. It’s like a wraparound crash course in New York architecture. At night it must be a jaw-dropping sight. No wonder then, that this decorator is very happy, dare we say contented, with where is both in his choice of apartment, and his general place in life. He was very polite in the beginning and then, without losing any of the good manners, loosened up into a bit of self-mockery. He has a way with words and he’s rather handsome, we thought.
The view here is extraordinary … I think I know this building, my brother-in-law lived here once.
Everyone has lived here, or partied here, or slept with someone in the building. I’ve lived here for 15 years. It’s my golden handcuffs because I’ve never felt that I want to go outside and commit to buying anything, especially now that the prices are stupid, and really stupid. But when I come home, I’m just so pleased.
In terms of the interview, I don’t know if you have seen this column …
I have … and I saw Vincent Wolf in the flower market this morning …
And what did he say?
Well, you know what? I didn’t ask him and I wouldn’t have asked him about this because you were very, um, I thought very forthright. I actually skimmed most [of the other designers] but I read him because I admire him.
He has an artistic temperament. What is your artistic temperament?
My artistic temperament really is collaboration. I mean when you say that, typically artistic temperament means ‘difficult’, you know. Anybody who produces as much as we have to produce can be difficult because of the pressure.
Atop this English bleached rosewood sideboard from R 20th Century is a collection of objects including a grouping of hood ornaments from Hudson, New York; A head purported to be Diana Vreeland by Roget from Malmaison Antiques, and a French 1930s lamp with Edison filament bulbs from Balasses House in Amagansett.
Does it always mean difficult or does it mean just not necessarily wishing to please?
Well, I think it can mean many things.
But it’s a hard thing in your job because you have to have it in order to have some flair, but you also have to work for and with people, whom you have to please. How do you tackle the tension between those two things?
Well, when we are at our best we can use our experience and that is to be nimble … and to listen, of course … you know pearls of wisdom that have been told to all of us and that we can practically recite in our sleep. It just keeps coming back to listen, to be patient, not to be as reactive as we tend to be. There’s patience that’s involved, and that’s difficult.
In what way?
In every way, every way … establishing that trust
How do you go about establishing that?
Well, it depends very much on the client. I tend to be somewhat procedural … I don’t mean in a rigid way …well, I sort of mean in it in a rigid way. The way that we take a project on is to engage them in the work we’ve done and show them the work in picture form and tour them around town to a few sites that we’ve worked on. Then we kind of get them involved. Also during that process we give a lot of information out, especially for people who haven’t done it before, practically everything they assume about the process is wrong.
What do they assume?
Well, they assume it’s going to go their way. For instance, it’s very easy to delve into conversation about the end product, (a beautiful room or what they think is a beautiful room) when one has to start with ‘what are your goals and objectives?’
Some designers have branded themselves. Do you think that you represent the other school, that you are not so identifiable?
Well, that [branded designers] is more than ever what everybody is sort of looking at and speaking about. I’m not so identifiable. It’s taken me a bit of time to recognize how actually you can see my work from one project to the next, you know it’s steeped in a sort of understanding and general adherence to scale and proportion that I cut my teeth on at Mark’s [Hampton] and quality … knowing those things really from the old school that I was fortunate enough to fall into.
What do you think of this worrisome word ‘eclectic’? Does it tell you anything?
It is a fall back word that we have yet to better. That’s all it is. It tells you that you’re not stuck in the 18th century room or absolute contemporary but that your mind is open to the interesting mix. I try to not use it because, just as you’re saying, it’s a troublesome word. When it was first coined, it was fantastically original and it’s just that it’s become worn out. But I think the basic idea of it is unchanged. And the basic appeal of it is unchanged.
Did you start out training as an architect?
No, I went to school in Arizona. I believed I wanted to be an architect. I grew up on Long Island but I was born in Texas. My parents are Southerners. My father’s passed away but my mother is from Jonesbro, Arkansas and my father is from Nashville, Tennessee. So I grew up without a New York accent on Long Island. My father was a pilot for American. The message always was that we were Southerners and we’re up in ‘their’ territory and ‘you’re going to have great old-fashioned Southern manners.’
And do you?
Absolutely. I’m so grateful for it. I grew up in a happy household, a very, very happy household and there was discipline. Elders were respected and it was ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘no ma’am’ and you didn’t do anything otherwise. There were gentle reminders and it was constantly fed to us. And you know at 47, at the tail end of one the last generations of old-school manners …in a group, and I would say I’m older than everyone in this room … [Sian snorts derisively] …oh by far! Um … [grins …starting to laugh] ..oh pshaw …
Sian: That’s manners. Lesley: No, that’s flattery.
It’s called ‘decorator insincerity’. That is what I coined years back when we were at Mark’s [Hampton] and we were a very happy group, in this sort of atelier … it was a really great place to work …pressure …Jesus! But it was that kind of gallows humor that came when you were under the gun … anyway, when we had just ‘maneuvered’ through something, whatever it might be, I said ‘I’m learning by leaps and bounds and one of the first things I’m learning is the art of decorator insincerity.’ [laughs]
Where do you go for sanctuary, to find your own head?
I have to say, you’re sitting in it. It’s sort of like the story of my apartment being so good and so appropriate for what I want and really nothing more. And where I go is into the company of great friends who have wonderful places and I’m so grateful for that opportunity. And I also know that a lot of my friends who have these great places, as more and more of us, you know, generationally own more things, have the same complaint: there’s no one left to visit them anymore. So I’m always welcome!
What about design inspiration, where does that come from?
I’ve got to be careful here … I don’t want to say it doesn’t really come from magazines …sometimes it does but it’s not my biggest source.
Do magazines actually get in the way of inspiration? Don’t they make you anxious?
They can make you incredibly anxious. But that’s that whole ‘compare and despair’ world. This industry fuels on compare and despair. I think I have an appropriate approach …and that sounds really stuffed-shirt so I’m not sure I want that to be the words …it’s stuff and things and gathering and you know, just padding our existence out. So much of it seems unnecessary.
I see you have a jazz piano CD lying there. Do you listen to a lot of music?
You know I don’t love jazz, which is probably why it’s sitting there unopened. It’s not meant as an editorial at all, it’s just happened to be out and I didn’t get to throw it in the closet of … which you can’t see. I do love music. I just bought Beck’s new CD and I think it’s the best thing ever. I love Beck.
Do have people over for drinks or whatever? What do you like to drink?
Aha! Now you’re gonna get that vodka that you got out of Vincent Wolf! You can drink and smoke cigarettes in here, I don’t care. I smoke in the evening with drinks and since it’s night every night … I have drinks … many of them … God this is a tell-all isn’t it? What I really love is bourbon. You know, it’s too delicious, that’s the problem with it. It’s really tasty, very tasty.
You have to drink it slowly.
One could drink it slowly, it’s true …
From what we’ve heard, it sounds like you really like to be with people.
I love being with people. I would say that most of the people I know realize I’m better with people than alone. Okay … now I’ve said it!