To our shame neither of us had ever been to Greenpoint where designer Charles Krewson lives in his idiosyncratic apartment full of strong color and artwork—there is nothing that is not visually interesting. His mother is German and his father was in the Air Force, so he grew up living in different parts of the world including Europe, and he says Greenpoint with its vigorous Polish population reminds him of some of the places he knew in his childhood. And we did end up talking quite a bit about our youth … about long lost things such as cassette tapes, Fiorucci clothes, learning to touch type and the days when young people in lowly jobs could afford to live in Manhattan apartments—and pay the rent themselves.
This is a wonderful apartment—it’s very confident. Did you study design or train to be a designer?
No, no. I dropped out of school and moved to New York.
My parents live in Washington D.C. but I grew up all over. My mom is German and my dad is American. They met in Europe. I was born in Kittery, Maine. My dad’s family originally came over with Peter Stuyvesant and I still have lots of family in Pennsylvania. My dad was in the Air Force so we were in France and in North Dakota and all over …
Is that the same as being an army brat?
It’s very similar to that. Both my parents worked in the government. My mom was the German-Dutch specialist at the Library of Congress until she retired.
Wow, I didn’t know that they had those kind of specialists.
Thomas Mann had that same job. There is a Slavic specialist, a Spanish language specialist … all kinds.
Do you speak German?
I do. We always speak English as a family. The only time we ever speak German together is when we are in Germany with Germans. I learned it because my grandmother spent a lot of time with us. And I spent summer vacations with her.
So the dropping out of school can’t have gone down so well with your parents.
Oh, they were horrified. But I found an apartment and I could afford to pay for it myself so what could they say?
What did you do?
I worked for a record company. I was like a Guy Friday for a man who constantly sent tapes of the [proprietary] music to people in the recording studio to try to get people to record [covers], like “Moon River” or whatever it was. I found this job because I was an ace typist.
I am an ace typist too! I was volunteering at my son’s school library and all the kids were fascinated that I could touch type … they kept saying “How do you do it without looking?!”
There were no computers for us! I’m still a whiz on the keyboard! ASDF … there were all those drills and then they would time you with a stopwatch and everything!
Well I learned because my parents said I could always fall back on getting a job as a secretary … listen to us … secretaries, typing, tapes, record companies … none of them exist anymore! And a nineteen-year-old Guy Friday being able to afford an apartment in New York City …
Exactly. I think my first apartment on 10th Street and Third Avenue was $200 a month … but I wasn’t the most responsible worker … Studio 54 was open in those days. Eventually I met Stuart Greet who was a wonderful interior designer who had the most amazing clients and he had an antique shop. He hired me—also for my ace typing skills—and he taught me how to work up proposals for the clients but also how to flog off some of the antiques to them.
Which antique store was it?
It was at 783 Madison Avenue. He had the whole townhouse. He was real old school. He went to Mallett, bought the stuff at Mallett, doubled the price and people bought it!
How could you double the price of the stuff at Mallett?!
Well, this was the late ’70s … but he graciously did give 20% discount to people in the trade.
And you were still able to afford your New York apartment …
And to go to the clubs. And buy my Fiorruci clothes.
[Sian] I bought a pair of Fiorucci green jeans.
[Lesley] What were your favorite Fiorucci clothes?
I think I bought a pair of see-through parachute silk pants. I remember a knock-off Cartier tank watch with green lizard and green plastic that I was very fond of. The star that goes on the top of my Christmas tree is from Fiorucci.
And so I guess this lowly job in the antiques store led to a career in design?
I loved the antiques and I loved the responsibility when [Stuart] started allowing me to go to the job sites with him. That was his main focus. He had the antiques as a way to lure customers.
How does one lure customers today?
You know, it’s always been the same: word of mouth.
Your designs are quite lavish and dramatic … extravagant almost.
I work with a lot of collectors so they come with that attitude. And my job is to make the rooms, and the collections, look pretty. I moved [eventually] to another design firm and then I switched to Werback-Jacobsen. Richard [Werback] was one of the original people involved in designing Studio 54. In those days he used colored gels on the track lights and they were very big on banquettes … everything was done in satin. We used coffin satin. It was very chic.
And cheaper! Isn’t it interesting how much you can learn from one person who knows a lot, one mentor as opposed to a whole degree or formal qualification?
Totally. Even with computers, I have a coach and I find that if he shows me how to do things, it sticks in my head so much better than when I’m reading the manual.
I think if you’re a visual learner, which you probably are, that’s what works. I wonder if that was why you dropped out of school—they don’t make allowances for different kinds of learning.
Well, I also wanted to call my own shots.
What are the setbacks, would you say, faced by interior designers?
Well, you know … you’re dealing with millionaires. And the worse thing you can do is make a millionaire angry.