Bruce Bierman is undeniably a sweetheart, a lovely Jewish boy who showed us his hilarious and touching Bar Mitzvah video from way back when – all stiff sixties hairdos, long white gloves, platters of bright food – and him, shining little boy, kissing and kissing his doting relatives. But he did grow up. His aim, both in his life and in his design is to establish harmony, which he does by assessing what it is that is going to be the most problematic, facing it and then solving it, measured step by measured step. His own temporary apartment in the flower district, which he shares with his longtime partner William Secord and Rocky the Dandie Dinmont, is small and serene. We hope we get invited back again when he is finished with the renovations of his loft, and we can rewind that video.
This place has views that make you dizzy. We thought you lived in a loft downtown.
You know timing is everything. We decided to renovate the loft and the only way to do [that] is to move out and to get the work done. So we found this place that really just fits the bill, and coming from a 2500 square foot loft, we decided, okay we’re going to look at that this as an adventure. And right at the same time (I’ve been doing a lot of work down in Florida), we bought an apartment down there.
Where did you buy the apartment?
The apartment is in West Palm Beach … it’s on the 30th floor. I don’t want to sound pretentious, that’s why I said West Palm’ instead of Palm Beach.
Is it really in Palm Beach?
No …it’s West Palm Beach. It’s a penthouse in the Trump building and Bill said ‘I don’t want to live in West Palm, and I will never live in a building with his name on it.’…. anyway it was very difficult to find a place with high ceilings, a view and they take dogs. So, I finally had a look and Trump has two towers there … the name is not on our building. It’s on the other building.
You should have been a lawyer.
That reminds me of a story when we were doing a project for a client, who we’d never met and when I walked in, he looked at me and said ‘You look exactly like my first wife’s divorce attorney.’ And I said, ‘Well, look at it this way. It’s not going to cost you that much.’ What else can you say?
You said that you don’t like to sound pretentious. Is that something that worries you?
You know interior designers … you know my life is more substantial than what I own or, you know, where I stay when I travel. It’s fun but it’s not … I guess I find if a client comes to me and they’re like that, it’s not the right client for me.
What to you is substantial? I think it’s values. A certain set of values. If someone had to ask me, ‘Well, what’s your mission statement?’ I would say that our motto is ‘There’s no such thing as a decorating emergency.’ And if people smile, I know I can work with them. If they don’t, I can’t. But really the mission statement for me is the attainment of the inner peace. How do I achieve that and how do I put that into the work that I do?
What makes for inner peace?
Well, I think it’s a lifelong process that we have to work towards.
And design-wise, how do you know what is going to create that for a client?
Well, you have to kind of put this together but I think that whether a client comes to me or to Mario Buatta – totally different styles – they say the same thing: I want it to be warm and inviting, I want it to work for my family, I want the furniture to be comfortable …no one comes to me or any designer and says: I want it really intimidating and I want it impractical and uncomfortable and I want to spend a lot of money on expensive fabrics that are very delicate. They all say the same thing but they think they’re saying something different … and what I find is that the most important thing I do at the beginning of the project is listen, really listen.
What do you listen for? I guess it’s a process of figuring out how people actually live as opposed to how they think they live.
That’s it exactly. They say a lot of different things and a lot of them can be conflicting … I want a TV in the living room but I don’t want a TV in the living room. In our first schematic design phase we talk a lot about costs, value, budgetary concerns and time frames because all the those things … it’s like the elephant in the middle of the room. No one wants to talk about it. But the thing that happens is that once you agree on the budget, then you can enjoy the project. Most designers I know don’t want to talk about budgets. I go right for it. Once you get all those things, I just find with the client, something’s lifted. Now, I don’t know if that adds to inner peace but what it adds to is to being professional.
How does this carry over into your personal life, in terms of talking about something difficult?
I just go right for it. I don’t know any other way.
You don’t strike me as someone who flares up. How do you bring down that impulsivity? Everyone has moments of it.
I’ve never really gotten anywhere by yelling at a contractor, or anyone else. You know what? I’m coming up on 30 years in this business and one of things that I know is that everything is resolvable. It’s like when you yell at someone else, you don’t feel good.
How sociable are you? Parties? Do you like dancing?
I think one of the things for dancing that is very hard for me is that I lost a lot of friends with AIDS and one of the things that we all used to do was go dancing, and so dancing … it brings up a lot of sadness for me.
Is there anything you just hate or find ugly in design today?
You know what? When you say that: ‘Is there anything you hate?’ It’s such a strong word. What do I hate? I hate certain politicians …and I don’t even hate them, I just don’t understand. Hate is a very strong word.
You originally trained as an architect – do you have a favorite architect, one who inspires you?
I tend to go back to architects in the 1920s, because it was a very new period. It was new technology, it was a very exciting time.
And all these glass walls we have now? What do you think of those buildings?
I like what they look like but they’re very problematic to live in. It’s not just that people in the street can see you, the people two floors down, two floors up … you’re completely exposed.
What sort of house did you grow up in?
[laughs] I grew up in Fresh Meadows in Queens, very middle class neighborhood. Most of my friends grew up in apartment buildings and we lived in a detached house, and we had a tree in front of the house, and a front lawn. So I always felt that we were very well off. My mom always wanted us to look good, we always dressed well and the house always looked very nice. Her favorite color was yellow and every room in the house was yellow, or had some yellow in it.
How do you feel about yellow now?
Um … I use it … but it’s not my first color choice. If you knew my mom … my mom’s 87 and lives at the Bay Club, which is like on the water in Queens … she’s in incredible shape. She walks two miles a day, exercises all the time, goes to every show on Broadway. Up until a year ago she was volunteering at an AIDS organization … and [laughs] she also comes into my office a half a day a week.
And what does she do there?
Terrorizes me … she normally comes in on Thursdays and she said to me, ‘How come you always have appointments out on Thursdays?’ I said to her: ‘You know what mom? Being an interior designer named Bruce and having your mother come to work with you. It’s like just a little too much for me to handle.’ [laughs]
What’s wrong with ‘Bruce’?
Well, you know Bruce is always like a decorator or a hairdresser … actually getting back to family things, my mother was very happy with having two children, two girls, but my father always wanted a boy so they made an agreement that if she would try to have another baby, he would carpet the house for her. He used to go around and say to me: ‘You know we got rid of that carpet years ago, and you’re still here.’