Caryn Schacht joined her mother’s design business when her mother persuaded her to give up on the film industry. The final humiliation of being fired from a production assistant job on a new NBC mini-series the night before the job even started made Caryn rethink her life. Apparently her mother, who has now passed, did not mince her words and called her “a schmuck” for putting up with the vagaries of making movies. The decision to join Lorin Marsh, the accessories showroom founded in 1975 by Lorraine Schacht and Sherry Mandell, led not only to a career but to a newfound closeness between mother and daughter: “It took our relationship to a whole other dimension. It gave us something to talk about all the time, something of substance.”
So you didn’t start immediately in your Mom’s design business—at what point did you decide to go ahead with it as a career?
So the business started in 1975 and I was finishing up college and starting my career, which was filmmaking. I moved out to LA for a summer, worked on a film and decided I couldn’t stand it.
What did you hate about it?
I just didn’t like the way LA was so spread out. I didn’t like not walking places. I didn’t like meeting people who were only in the film business—they were very superficial and uninteresting.
But what did you imagine it would be like?
I was more focused on my craft and what I wanted to do in the film world. I thought I wanted to direct films … I guess. I’ve always loved the camera. I majored in film and photography—I spent hours in the darkroom in college. But the type of photography that I really loved, I could never make a living doing.
Sometimes doing something you’ve always thought you wanted to do can be the best way to find out that you don’t actually want to do it.
Yeah … I mean when you work on a film and you spend eight hours doing the same four sentences in different light or a different direction, you realize that it’s boring.
You don’t realize it until you do it. I still love taking pictures although I find it hard to do as a hobby now with everything else going on.
So you came back to New York … and?
I came home—I grew up on Long Island—at that time my parents had gotten divorced, my mother had started the business and she was living in an apartment in the city. After being in LA, I moved in with her and thought I would just work in the film world here so I got this job on a mini-series called “Nurse”. They called me at midnight the night before I was supposed to start working and they said, “You’re fired. NBC had cut back the budget and you’re was the first to go.” I hung up the phone, my mother walked into my room and she said, “Who was that?” I said, “Can you believe it? I just got fired and I didn’t even work yet.” She said, “You know? You’re a schmuck.” She said, “I have this business … why don’t you try it? If you don’t like it, you leave.” And she was right—I tried it.
What were your first duties?
Oh … whatever. I did everything from wrapping packages to writing memos …
Can we hear your description of the business and the showroom and how it started?
So it started out as an accessories business—just accessories. My mother had been an interior designer and she saw this as a real hole in the market because showrooms and accessories didn’t exist then. She started this business, by the way, with two other women, and that was another thing that wasn’t happening in those days, for women to start businesses and travel all over the world.
What was it like working with your mother?
Everyone always asks me that. I loved it. It took our relationship to a whole other dimension. It gave us something to talk about all the time, something of substance; it gave us an opportunity to travel together.
Had you always been close?
No, not at all. We were not close at all when I was growing up but then we started to work together and we found this connection about the business and other things. My mother was wonderful, interesting, dynamic and funny.
So you saw all these things through more adult eyes.
Yes, and that’s very different. She was very young-spirited also. She loved to party, she loved her friends—she would hang out with me and my friends.
What did you like about the work?
I think I liked that it was always different; there are so many different elements to it.
Do you still like the same things now about it that you liked then? What about the influence of the Internet pitted against the physical presence of the place like the D&D building?
For a very long time I was like, “Why do we need a website? Who is going to buy a very expensive piece without coming in and touching it or sitting in it or knowing the quality?” But over the years, people do [buy online].
What kind of house did you grow up in? Was your mother, like a bored housewife who wanted to do something more?
It was house in the suburbs, beautifully decorated by my mother. I think she started as an art teacher and was always itching to do something … she had that suburban thing with the golf club and so on … I think she was bored. This is a funny story: When I was maybe in fifth grade, my mother had my art teacher come to our house and make a full size life plaster of me. So in the basement was me and my very strange male art teacher, who wore a wig … and I was probably 11 and he would be plastering, like a cast, my entire body from head to toe … I mean no one could ever do that now!
That is creepy!
But I had this [piece] for the longest time, me at 11 sitting like this [she perches on the edge of her chair] but you know as a kid you don’t know what is going to be of value to you. I left it at a friend’s house and one day they sold their house so I told them to get rid of it.
Oh! Maybe one day you’ll be in a flea market or somewhere and suddenly be faced with your 11-year-old self sitting right there!
Yes, maybe I’ll see it again!
Now that this business is getting tougher, in order for designers to survive and differentiate themselves, don’t they have to do custom?
Well that’s what we do but the problem with custom is that it’s not so easy. When a designer is doing a full scheme and they have the wall covering and the carpet and the furniture and the lighting, it’s not so easy to say, “Let me make a dining table too.” That dining table, at least the way we do it, is intricate and involved and requires so much expertise and follow-up—how much can one person really do? It would be almost impossible for a designer to do every single piece custom rather than going shopping and saying to their client, “Do you like this? Yes? Okay let’s buy it.” It’s not practical for every single piece to be custom.
In what way would you say that your tastes have changed from when you were younger?
I think your tastes change all the time but with experience your tastes change faster. I never liked fussy things—I more or less always liked straighter lines.
But you started in the 1980s when there was lots of gilt and lavish window treatments and so forth.
That was how I entered the world of design, when there was rococo and gold leaf and carving … the more the better. I didn’t like that and I never liked it. The first thing my mother taught me was that you don’t have to like it.
It’s not my style either but when I look back now, I have a sort of nostalgia for the exuberance of it.
I understand that. I agree. And I’m so happy when I go around other showrooms that I started when I did because it gave me a background that people starting today will never have. Those [1980s] things are hard to make and it’s not happening anymore.
The whole industry has shrunk at the higher level and expanded at the CB2 or Restoration Hardware level.
Yes, someone we were talking to said the whole of New Jersey is furnished by Restoration Hardware—why do you think it has such a grip on everyone’s imagination?
Price. Scale. And they sort of marketed it in a very smart way by bringing in these European designers who created the whole panache. It’s not rustic but it is laid back. It’s comfortable and it isn’t overly decorated.
What’s your prediction for Mid-century Modern? Is it ever going to go away?
You sound like you’re ready for it to. I think it will. I think people are starting to move towards something else …
If only I knew!
And what do you do when you’re not working?
Well then I spend my time with my [ten-year-old] daughter … although I don’t know how many more times I can watch “Frozen”.