We already knew that decorator, Brett Leemkuil, was known for his Tony-Duquette influenced Hollywood flair but we weren’t quite prepared, when we stepped in off a street in Sunnyside, Queens, for the wonderful theatricality of his studio apartment. Full of sumptuous color, low lighting and glamorous swags of tasseled silk, in our era of glass, metal and carefully empty surfaces, it almost seemed to be a defiant statement. He does say that he can do beige: “Beige is a lot harder than you think.” That may be so but this is much more fun.
When we Googled you, we kept finding that it said you were a decorator in Green Bay, Wisconsin … is that right?
Don’t ask. My husband is a professor and in the world of academia you go where the job is offered. He is the director of a theater department at St. Norbert College.
So you did live in Wisconsin? Tell us how you coped.
I didn’t. I thought I could do weddings and stuff. It’s 1982 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. What’s really weird about it, there’s a town about twenty minutes away called Appleton, so you leave Green Bay and you go to Appleton and there’s a Williams-Sonoma in Appleton … there’s a Macy’s.
Wasn’t it kind of nice being in 1982 for a while?
I’ve lived it once. I can’t do it again. They want everything to be pleasant and nice. [puts on a Wisconsin accent] “Oh you know if you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say anything at all.”
You sound like an extra out of Fargo. I think I want you to continue the entire interview in your Fargo accent.
Yeah … they lie to your face and smile.
So you prefer the New York direct way.
I do. I think in business you need to be. Otherwise you’re wasting time and time is money.
Where did you live before you came to New York?
Well, my family is originally from the mid-West and my father was in the Coast Guard. First he was in the Navy … we travelled a lot. I was born in Hawaii. And we settled a while in North Carolina on the coast. I consider myself very Southern.
Yes, you’ve got that in your [real] voice—well as far as my British ear can tell.
I’ve tried my best to get rid of it.
But there’s that stereotypical thought … if you heard my stepfather, you’d think, boy, what wagon did he just fall off? Yet he’s extremely intelligent and so on.
Anyway, on to your style. It’s more and more rare that we come across someone who dares to use the word “theatrical” about the way that they decorate or design and you don’t seem to be ashamed about it all …
No. And you know this is a conversation with Hutton (Hutton Wilkinson was Tony Duquette’s business partner and collaborator) and I have constantly. People think you’re a one-trick pony and it’s really disturbing, you know that this all you do. I do beige—I can easily do beige. I can do tonal.
Perhaps anyone can easily do beige.
Beige is a lot harder than you think. I don’t want people to think I’m a one-trick pony. Very rarely do you get a client that wants … this [indicates his own interior]
But nevertheless do you lie awake at night decorating fantasy palaces?
Absolutely. I love Deco. You know what I hate? When everything is new. I want to see some timeworn Deco pieces and some Lucite and fabric will just make me go crazy. When I was down on 38th, 39th street, I saw this fabric that was literally just covered in feathers, like little white feathers and I thought wouldn’t that be dynamite to use as window treatments? You know Art Deco, like a bathroom maybe, all done in black-and-white marble …
Tell us about living in San Francisco in the 90s. It sounds like such a long time ago.
Yeah, I met a very dynamic woman and we were together for ten years before we got married and then it went horribly wrong. I was doing retail, floral stuff … I owned a floral store. It’s a lot of work for very little money. It’s still there. It was called Fresh.
And how did you decide to move to Sunnyside, Queens?
The first time I lived in New York I lived on the Upper West Side, literally right behind the Natural History Museum, loved the neighborhood. I’m also of an age now where I wanted more space. I love to cook. I started looking around Sunnyside and I was delightfully surprised at what you could get for the money. I like the greengrocers. I like the fact that I have six fishmongers—like real fishmongers. And there’s two butcher shops—real butchers. I don’t go out that often. I don’t go to gay bars. I’d rather cook. I’m at a different part of my life.
So how does it work with your husband? Does he go back and forth? How long have you been married?
We go back and forth. This will actually be my second wedding anniversary. We got married on Christmas Eve. You can never forget it.