Brian J. McCarthy is best known for the way in which every design he creates is highly personalized for each client. What they have in common is his exquisite taste, marrying quality antiques, texture, color and art so beautifully that his rooms may make you catch your breath. His own apartment, just steps from Central Park South, became one of our favorites when we first interviewed him some ten years ago. It has since undergone another transformation by gutting two of the main rooms, adding a scored plaster finish to the walls, dramatic cornicing and new baseboards. A couple of Claude and Xavier Lalanne bronze crocodile tables now flank the entrance into the dining room where the walls were given a warm chocolate brown Venetian plaster finish. New contemporary art purchases have also been added to the mix, striking a perfect balance of variety, comfort and above all, quality. “We lived in our apartment during the construction. It was hell. We’d never do it again but we are very pleased with the results,” explains Brian. Alas, major renovation, even for a master designer, can try one’s nerves.
So with all these huge new buildings suddenly rising around you, has it had an effect on how you live in this space?
I mean for me, it’s misery. It’s pain and suffering … having said that, I have to remind myself that I’m not usually sitting here during the day, looking out a window. But like, this chair—I can’t sit in this chair looking up at this new Extell building that’s going up because it just offends me so much.
Don’t we have to be a bit philosophical in a sense that this is a city and cities are always changing and building? Don’t you think it’s something we have to accept?
Absolutely. But what’s happened in this neighborhood should never have been allowed to happen to the degree that it’s been allowed.
What would have been acceptable then?
A more normal size—because it’s completely thrown off the scale of Central Park South. And with this Extell building, there’s going to be a huge Nordstrom’s on the ground level but they’re not going to even touch the interiors because there’s such a glut [of high-end apartments] It’s just going to sit there for years.
Why did you decide to make some changes to your own apartment?
It sort of happened in stages because one of the things I did very early on was simply raising all the doors. Four years ago we basically gutted these two rooms and the maid’s room. We did all the cornicing and baseboards and the plastering. It was hell! I would never do it again! We would climb through the dust and into a bathroom with no door.
I was listening to a podcast of you being interviewed and one of the things you said has changed is that clients don’t have time to actually be with you in person, that you used go on shopping trips to Europe and ate meals together and so on. That must diminish the enjoyment of the job somewhat.
You’re really chasing people to try to keep up with their schedules. I feel like it’s such an important part of the learning process. I always talk about the scrapbook—it’s also the memories that you create doing these big projects. These things are once in a lifetime.
So it was always stunning in here, and now … it’s morphed into something almost otherworldly, it’s so amazing. How do you do it?! I have an anti-decorator philosophy if you will, which is that I just buy things I like and hope they go together …
But that’s what makes a home. But all of this … okay, fine there were certain things, I thought, “Oh god that would be perfect there.” But what happens is that it’s always with those first few purchases—that sets you up because it begins to create the voice. And you start to ask yourself, “Does this all live interestingly together?”
[At this point, Danny Sager, Brian’s partner of sixteen years joins us. Danny also works with Brian.]
How has the internet changed your job—has it made things worse instead of better?
Yes. It makes clients more impatient. You hear more bellyaching than you used to.
And you have to see things in person, right? Especially something old. But there doesn’t seem to be much in the antiques stores. No one goes into them.
It is down to nothing now [in the actual antiques stores and galleries]. Paris, almost nothing, London, almost nothing, New York, nothing. Even online there are so few dealers who are dealing in any real quality or anything that is individual or expressive or unique. People just can’t make a living out of it.
How do you see that as a loss?
On many different levels. To me the most basic is for anybody younger who is coming up in this industry to not learn by seeing, touching, sitting in … you simply cannot get it from a photograph. Even after thirty years of this, I still don’t trust photographs.
I wonder how young designers are going to learn—how their learning process is going to be limited if they’re not exposed to antiques of real quality.
Some of them might go on tours if they’ve signed up to programs but when I left Parish-Hadley, I started going to Europe and I didn’t have a client that was paying for me to go, but I, in my head, knew how important it was for me to expand my horizons. I also got to know all the great European dealers.
So what is going to happen to the world of antiques?
Until the market starts to come back, which I don’t think we will see in our lifetime—you know … it won’t come back. It will go on the auction block for thirty cents on the dollar.
So you worked for Parish-Hadley and I found out something that I hadn’t previously known about Albert Hadley and that was he was really interested in numerology. Do you think that tipped the balance when it came to offering you a job there?
It did for sure! Because Albert had whittled it down to two people and Albert’s secretary asked me one day, “Mr. Hadley wants to know your birthday and time of birth.” And shortly after that, I got the job. I thought it was great—my numbers added up!
Your parting was painful, I read.
Yes, not because of Albert but because of Mrs. Parish. I had always talked to Albert about the day that would come when I started my own business. The way the whole thing transpired was that Bunny [Williams] was wanting to be a partner and Mrs. Parish wasn’t making anybody a partner. So Bunny left and then they decided that they wanted to make five of us partners. Later when I decided that I wanted to leave, I was in California, biting my nails, and I called them to say I would like to have an appointment with Mr. Hadley and Mrs. Parish in Mrs. Parish’s apartment, not the office. I handed in my resignation and Albert could not have been more supportive and at the time Mrs. Parish said, “Darling, is there anything at all I can do for you, just let me know.” But [a few days later] she called and read me the riot act up and down … “You’re making a big mistake. You can’t possibly have your ducks in a row.” She was feeling betrayed.
I suppose that’s understandable. When you look back at that transition, would you ever have imagined that you are where you are?
No. Ignorance is bliss. I mean if I go back to my senior year at Pratt, I thought, “You know what, if I can just get a good job, I’m going to be really happy with just a good job.” Then getting that job at Parish-Hadley, suddenly the idea of how I saw my world and what I wanted to do with my life began to grow and change. Coming out of that Parish-Hadley school, which couldn’t be any better [as a training], I had to try to shed some of that too and get my own voice.
What sort of things do you think you might have shed then?
Just style, in a way. The very traditional aspect of what we did … Albert Hadley was already doing things that were Jean Michel Frank-inspired … and I wish I had more time with him doing things like that and that’s the kind of thing I began to develop on my side.
I know that you’ve been working for a long time on fitting out an enormous luxury yacht—can you talk a little bit about how it is to do the interiors of a boat?
Everything is to the millimeter. There’s no forgiveness. The biggest difference is that I’m involved in every design meeting and every drawing, which is something that I never get involved with because the architect handles all of that. But I am involved with the boat designer in all and every minutiae. It’s because the boat moves. It’s four years under construction and it’s 350 feet long.
What is the look of the interiors?
It’s a little bit early-20th century inspired. My client, when he commissioned this boat, his inspiration was the Titanic.
Um … that’s an odd inspiration considering what happened to it.
Well, from the outside this boat looks like a speedboat, it’s so sexy. But he wanted the Gilded Age. I said, “It needs to be edited.” So now it’s burl wood, rose wood, macassar, sycamore and palm wood. There are lots of interesting finishes. I hope that I will have the opportunity to do another boat because I’ve learned so much. It’s so complicated. It was mind-numbing at times.
And another thing that’s interesting about you is that you were a professional show jumper—is that right?
Well amateur, not professional. But I did all the big shows and after college I started riding again with George Morris, who has trained the most Olympic riders in US history.
Were you an Olympic hopeful?
No. I couldn’t afford it! I would have loved to have done the Olympic trials. I gave it up six years ago. I don’t have time. But I loved the horses and I loved the jumping, but also it’s an out of body experience. I mean you get on and the whole world just drops away. There isn’t one thought of decorating in your brain.
What can replace that?
Well, I’ve kind of replaced it with gardening. With our house upstate, I’ve created a monster of a garden—five acres of full-on insanity.
So this is a quote from your partner, Danny: “Nothing is ever quite perfect enough.” Is that true? What is perfectionism about?
Insanity. Honestly, it is. I grew up with my father who was so fastidious. He would come home from a day at work and he would walk around the house and pick up lint and he would sometimes run the vacuum cleaner. I got that gene. It just doesn’t escape my view. If you want to be really good at something, it can always be better.