If someone wanted an example of the differences between true professional and amateur or mediocre interior design, they could do no better than use Brian McCarthy’s lovely apartment as a case study. Although he himself is clearly a disciplined person, his apartment is so gracious that there is no sense of stiff perfectionism or stage management. It is faultless, not a single mistake of scale, proportion, mix of eras or color and conveys the effortlessness of someone who, through both training and instinct, really knows what they are doing. He knows how to be interesting with very high-end furniture and artwork, without veering towards anything like ostentation, and that is true of his personality as well, confident, friendly, humble … there’s just one, tiny, fascinated observation … his laugh … sorry, Brian, but it’s pure Vincent Price. Surely we’re not the first to say so?
There is such nice light in this apartment, really beautiful …
I looked up and down the West Side before I bought this, nearly seven years ago this October. My old apartment had a very gracious, almost European, kind of Parisian feel to it and it had a real sense of entry. And everything else I looked at had no sense of entry. You sort of walked in and you were in the apartment.
Why is a ‘sense of entry’ important, do you think? Is it the tunnel to the cave?
Because I like to set it up. It’s makes you feel more comfortable. It gives it a home-like feeling. For all of us who are kind of living in these tree houses, it’s important. It creates a sense of privacy from your neighbors.
The rooms are very nicely proportioned.
It’s the original plan. This building has never been sliced and diced. It used to be a rental. Earl Blackwell had a penthouse above me, then he died. Barbara Walters used to live in the building … and the woman who wrote Gentlemen Prefer Blondes [Anita Loos], so it’s always had an interesting collection of tenants.
I was interested in something you said about seeing old wallpapers as being akin to old textiles and we wanted to talk to you about the current ‘controversy’ about old things, in particular 18th century French antique furniture. I don’t think that they are valued anymore in the way they once were.
I have a lot of young clients that are my age and younger who want good 18th century English, French, Italian, whatever. Now, it’s getting mixed up with other things and to me that’s the fun of continuing to work with this. I’m in Europe anywhere from ten to fifteen times a year and I hear from all the French dealers ‘What’s happening to our market? Are you worried about it?’ I’m not worried about it at all.
When you first started out, what would you say your errors were?
Um … I think maybe trying too hard to do too much in a space. I think it’s one of the biggest mistakes that a lot of decorators make.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Maryland, in Betheseda. Both my parents are basically New Yorkers and for me, well, I went to Pratt … when I decided on Pratt and Pratt decided on me, when I arrived in New York, it was like ‘This is it. You’re at home. It doesn’t get any better than this.’ And I’ve never lost that.
Did you want to be an interior designer as a kid … does anyone want to be that when they’re a kid?!
No! [laughs …THAT laugh!t] … I probably shouldn’t say that. My fantasy in life as a kid growing up was being on the back of a horse and so that’s all I ever really wanted to do …I just stopped competing five years ago.
Why did you stop?
Because it was too time consuming. All I did was train and compete … I kind of felt like I had given up my life for all these years to just do that. I made a very conscious decision to let it go. My best friend [Peter Wylde] represents the United States and was on the last Olympic team that won a gold medal in Athens, and I kind of live vicariously through him.
What do you like about riding?
Oh my God … it just takes me out of my life. It takes me out of this world. I get on the back of a horse and everything disappears. You can’t be focused on this animal and be thinking about work, or anything else for that matter … it’s developing a kind of rapport or dialogue with this animal. It becomes a question of trust, and if they trust you they will really go out on a limb for you. They will do just about anything.
And falling off?
Oh God yeah. I never got really hurt. I mean I’ve had horses crash and flip over and do things like that but I was really lucky.
You worked for quite a time (from 1983 to 1991) for Parish-Hadley, how was that period in your career?
I was so spoiled at Parish-Hadley because Albert is a gentleman and Mrs Parish, who I loved … I never really worked that closely with her and I would say that she had more of a temper between the two. Albert had really no temper. She was the tougher of the two to work for. But she was a lady and Albert was a gentleman so we learned in a very different atmosphere and there are a lot of decorators that I know where there was a lot of tension, a lot of stress, a lot of anger, a lot of yelling, a lot of screaming …it’s like growing up an abused child.
You mean if you work for a screamer you end up being a screamer? Right. It’s just not my temperament. I have a temper but my temperament, as such that I will almost always hold it in check.
You seem very disciplined.
I am. [laughs]
You seem to want to go to the top, testing yourself.
Oh yeah, always … I get bored really easily too. It goes back to ‘Whose voice is it at the end of a job? Mine or the clients?’ I don’t want to look through the pictures of all the jobs I’ve done over the years and say: ‘Oh my God, I did this [the same thing] here .. and … here and here and here …’ I like really strong clients. I like them to have a really definite point of view.
Do you think you attract a certain type of client?
Ultimately you do, but it takes a little time to get there. They are basically, intrinsically good people. You can tell quite early. It’s like going on a blind date with somebody and they start to ramble on about their dating history and it can kind of tell you ‘I don’t want to go there.’
How often do you go on blind dates?
Um … well I’m in a relationship. Actually maybe twice and Danny [his partner of fiveyears] was one. We met at the Hudson for a drink and it was so dark we couldn’t find each other …
Who set you up? Our dentist! If you need a good dentist …