Designer Bennett Leifer (pictured with his partner Benni Frowein) made the decision to major in both art history and business in college, not a combination that many choose but one, as it has turned out, very well suited to running an interior design firm. He agreed with us that he was “practical” but it is a dull word to describe someone who is so thoughtful and knowledgeable. He’s definitely conscientious and structured, or even “regimented”—his somewhat harsher word, not ours. His design work is refined and precise and we imagine his standards are almost punishingly high, most of all for himself.
So I read somewhere online an account of your typical day—your busy day. I’m curious as to what you did before this meeting and what you’re going to do afterwards.
Oh, I’ll tell you. So before this meeting, we woke up at seven—we had guests coming over so I went to the flower market and I bought some fresh flowers, came back and Benni is excellent at styling flowers, so we styled together. I ran to a meeting on 18th Street for some upholstery we’re doing for a client and went over fabric layouts. Then I ran to the office and gave the finishing touches to presentation that we’re working on that has to go out tonight and then I ran back here, got dressed and here we are.
So you’re very structured—you don’t seem to waste much time.
I have a tendency to over-commit … just for my own sanity I keep things very regimented.
In your field, things are mostly out of control, aren’t they?
I studied business and art history—I’ve always had an aptitude for numbers and organization. I’ve always said I’d rather spend time on the front side overthinking it than have to deal with it when it gets delivered.
So this combination business and art history—how many people were studying that?
As far as I know, no one else. My father worked at J.P. Morgan and he wanted me to be a business major and I then I fell in love with art history … I came home and I said, “You know, Dad I’m going to change my major,” and he said, “Well if you love it so much, you can actually major in both.”
He told you that or you compromised on that?
It was more of a firm direction.
You seem very practical to me.
I think “practical” is a sliding scale—I think it’s dangerous to say that “practical” is defined by these bullet points. For me this foyer is practical. It’s just the two of us and we like to walk in and we have bags [to put down] and when we entertain, we like to set up a bar on the center table. Everyone else in the building has it as a dining vignette or an extra room. For me it’s practical to keep it austere and fairly empty—it depends on what your definition is.
Ooh, it’s not like interviewing Jeffrey Bilhuber …
[Benni, Bennett’s partner interjects] We know Jeffrey well …
But nevertheless, I did read in another interview that you were inspired by the Great Gatsby—that’s quite romantic, isn’t it?
Yeah—this building was built in 1928 … there was this era of boom in design and industry and freedom. I love neo-Gothic architecture and that period right before Art Deco …
What do you love about it?
Um … what do I love about it so much? That’s interesting. I like your questions. I … love that there’s a glamour to it but that it’s a bit restrained. When you think of the fashion, it’s little a bit more risqué and the materials are still beautiful and the women are still ladies—they’re not showing too much. My dad used to have a lot of those travel posters with the trains and the ships—and you know, they’re hard pieces and firm colors but there’s a softness to them. Things fade into one another.
It’s just more of a feeling …
But it was quite a decadent era wasn’t it?
But decadent in way was that there was still, like a set of rules … can I ask you a question?
When you say this is not like interviewing Jeffrey Bilhuber, what does that mean?
Well, his every answer is dramatic and he will go off onto wild flights of quite emotional, almost confessional expression to show the way he is invested he is in his work and in our last interview how difficult it is to keep his design energy going—he kept using the word “Herculean” to describe the task. He’s impassioned.
I’m so jealous of that because you know everyone has that. I come home and the stories I tell [Benni] about work—it’s like a theatrical play. But then at this young stage of my career there’s this pressure to be very like “Well yes of course I’m on top of this and here’s my goal …”.
Well I was being facetious when I said it—sorry. For a lot of established designers, that’s part of their game really—it’s partly how they distinguish themselves by building a larger-than-life persona.
It’s interesting because some of the larger designers who would fit that archetype, I noticed a trend in design a few years before I started my company where clients, at least in my limited experience, were responding less to that … less to the high reimbursable bills and the high fees showing up in chauffeured car. It’s interesting because experiencing some of the slowdown times and me connecting with clients on a very like, real equal level, I think it sort of helped formulate how I work with people now.
I think that is a very astute observation. I think in today’s business world the larger-than-life type designers are becoming more and more rare … I don’t know if that is how it works now.
It’s a service industry. I think they want to come over and have a beautiful elegant dinner with me but then also see me tying up the electrical cords after installation.
Well the financial model was different as well.
The billing was a lot more veiled. You could buy something at auction and for whatever level of restoration or their touch on it and then sell it on their letterhead. I’m very transparent. At the end of the day I give them a binder with all of the vendor invoices.
Also interior designers were often very close friends with their clients—does that still hold true?
For me it is—but in a very authentic way. There are some clients I consider friends and some clients that I’m very friendly to. Then there’s one client I have who is basically like family.
I’ve always wondered though, about mixing money and friendship in that way—isn’t it very tricky?
Before I start a project, it’s very line item, a very intense budget. We go into it having a very clear understanding.
Did you realize going into this job that you’d have to have this level of people-skills?
What’s always been interesting—I like your questions very much because you’re making me think about things I don’t normally think about—but [with my peers] I’ve not always been the most popular or had the most friends but in the sort of dynamic that I work with, like not doing well in a class and negotiating with a teacher to get a good grade based on some extra-curricular activity—I’ve always been great at that. So people-skills in terms of a specific dynamic have always been easy for me, like [obtaining] a tangible goal.
Are you maybe shy?
Not shy … a little guarded. I overthink things a lot too. I’ll go to a dinner and have one extra cocktail and the next day, I’ll be like, “What exactly did I say?” … Or maybe even without the cocktail.