“This place looks like a souk!” claims designer Christopher Stevens of his warm, colorful little apartment tucked away in the West Village. We loved it, as we always do with apartments that have a vital sense of the person who lives there. In his early twenties, Christopher started out working in the development offices of both the Guggenheim and MoMA and our conversation turned, in part, to the bumpy career paths facing young people as they try to find their place in the world. Well established now, it wasn’t so easy for him: “I knew I wanted something more from my future and that did not involve eating tuna out of a can surrounded by cockroach traps.”
So tell us how you got your start in this business.
My first job out of college was for a local yokel out where I grew up. I grew up in New Canaan Connecticut—the preppy town. We weren’t sort of doing the whole WASPy thing—I’m a stealth Jew. My father is Jewish but he changed the name. This is a “stage name.” You know, Connecticut is only an hour away but there’s a whole different vibe there. I came to New York in 1999 to start working in interior design.
How Jewish do you feel?
More Jewish now, especially now that I’m dealing with so many Jewish clients.
I am a bit surprised because I looked at your website and I did not expect your home to look like this.
You know everything here is me. It’s not for anybody else’s eye. This is what I like. My approach with clients is very different. I’m a people-pleaser by nature—I think many decorators are. I’m the kind of person if, you know, the dog is running around and nobody’s minding the child because all the tiswas is happening, I’m going to pick up that child and I’m going to take care of that dog.
What did you think you were going to become? Did you set out to be an interior designer?
So I went to Penn where I studied art history and communications—[interior design] was not on the radar. My father is an investment banker but he started out in radio. He was actually a DJ here in New York. He was “Good Guy” Gary Stevens. He married my mother who is English and we had a Jaguar in the garage and a big Union Jack on the wall. She was a BOAC stewardess … so that happened.
How does having a British mother affect you? Do you like Marmite, for example?
Um … I can tolerate it. But having a British mother … well, I like florals. I pull one of those [chintzes] out with clients and it doesn’t even make it out of the bag—they’re like “No!”
I read that you also worked at the Guggenheim and MoMA.
Well I fell in love with art history … I was hemming and hawing as to whether I could make a go of it as a gallerist or an art dealer. I mean what were those things? These were not people I was in touch with. So I graduated and I got an internship at the Guggenheim in the development office where I was locked in the basement making coffees and stuff.
What kind of insight has it given you having worked a little on the inside of these places?
Really, a sense of how much money matters inside those institutions. Not so much that it drives the curatorial mission, because it doesn’t, but there is so much work that curators have to do and the directors have to do to keep that money coming because they’re hugely expensive. I really wanted to do things way above my station and be involved with art but there really is a Chinese wall. The curators do not want to know from you that you are dealing with the dirty part—they want to do their scholarly thing and press the flesh. To be a successful curator, you really have to know how to get the money coming in. A little bit of foundation money is not going to keep them going.
Also, now they do these blockbuster shows that they didn’t use to do.
That also started to happen around the time I was there. The “art industry” erupted and contemporary art blew open, hype, hype, hype. I had to get out of the Guggenheim because I wasn’t going to make a dime and I got a job in the development office at MoMA. I was thrilled—there were benefits, health care and $26 000 a year – ohh I had arrived!! And the job also involved some background research. I could get into the library and read. It wasn’t the cultural machine like it is today. But in the end it was 9 – 5 punching the clock …
It sounds dull.
It was. And I had a little bit of crisis, frankly. Whatever the road was, it was going to be long and low. I don’t have a trust fund … but I am a spoilt kid from a nice suburb with a good education; I didn’t have a lot of debt. I knew I wanted something more from my future and that did not involve eating tuna out of a can surrounded by cockroach traps.
So how did you make the transition?
I moved home. I was 23 and didn’t know what to do. But I did sort of shack up with a guy and he introduced me to one of the local decorators in Westport. Through a social connection I was hired by Greg Jordan’s office as a design assistant. I didn’t know what I was doing. But there’s nothing like getting in the trenches and actually doing it. My talent, if I have any talent whatsoever, is “figure it out.” But the office was really exciting. Architectural Digest had just cast their light upon [Greg] and he had been anointed by Paige Rense in the AD 100, so I got to see that.
And how did things proceed?
[Eventually] I got a job with Marcy Masterson. She had just done a tremendous job at 740 Park—talk about blowing my mind. Her great knowledge is antiques and that was awesome for me. After that I went to work for Noel Jeffries. I learned how to manage all the many moving parts.
So your personal look isn’t, on the whole, what I imagine many clients want. What is your approach when you first meet a client.
Clients come armed today with so much information. It’s not just a few tear sheets—they’ve been watching shows, they’re on Pinterest … they’re coming with a lot of unsorted ideas. And people really digest the zeitgeist even though they don’t really know they’re doing it. They want it to look like the blogs and the magazines.
So I’m looking at your bookcase here and a lot of your books have nothing to do with interior design—there’s a lot of books on political history.
Oh yeah, if I’m reading for myself, I read a lot historical fiction or non-fiction. My mother says if the ketchup bottle is the only thing to read in the room, I’d be reading it.
What do you do when you’re relaxing at home … cookingand eating?
What’s that called … cooking and eating? I’m a real committed bachelor—mostly I open up a can and there you are.
When are you going to meet the love of your life then?
Good question. I tend to really gel with people who have a foreign background … I don’t feel necessarily of one place myself.