Deborah French found her calling as a teenager when her mother sent her, against her will, to art classes on a Saturday morning where a sculpture teacher told her she had real talent. But as is the way of life, marriages are made and unmade, you move to another country (in her case, Greece), you move back, livings have to be earned. However it was her artistic spirit that helped her land jobs at places like Vogue and Ralph Lauren, as well as designing spaces for Ian Schrager and even making puppets for Jim Henson. Her first job out of college was making dolls for a major toy manufacturer. Now she has her own interior design business and has begun sculpting again, discovering that her original gift never left her.
You’ve had a very glamorous life! All these names of people and places where you’ve worked, Ian Schrager, Ralph Lauren, Vogue …
Yeah, but you work like a dog!
Yes, you have to deliver.
I remember when I was working at Vogue and somebody said, “Well what you do?” and I said, “Oh, well, I’m working at Vogue … ” and they went, “Oh, excuse me!” and I remember crying out, “You have no idea!” If you want to be humbled … work at Vogue.
Tell us about that. What did you like and what did you not like about that job?
Oh, it was unbelievable in every way possible. I had started out as a sculptor. I had met Alex Lieberman, who was the head of all Condé Nast. I met him at a book signing party and my sister knew him. He was a charming, charming man. And he said, “I’d love to see your work.” I thought, what a charming thing to say. But he called me up and asked me to come in to talk to him … I’ve always loved fashion and I had an interview and I went in with my sculpture portfolio for a job as a stylist. Anyway, I ended up as Polly Mellon’s assistant.
How was that?
It was totally “The Devil Wears Prada”—she is totally that character. But she recognized a fellow creative person … there weren’t really that many real creative people there. Out of character for her, she spoke on my behalf to Grace Mirabella and said, “This girl needs to be on her own.” And within six months I was the sittings editor.
What does that involve?
You’re kind of the art director/stylist/Vogue representative. They will give you the assignment: this is your photographer, these are the clothes, but not all the clothes—you have to get all the underpinnings, all the shoes, all the props, all the jewels, all the everything. And then between you and the photographer you pick out which models you want, which hair and make up people … you kind of direct that … it’s a lot more than styling and it was amazing but … [sighs and laughs] coming from a sculpture studio into this world with all the politics … I stayed there two years to kind of figure it all out, to have a job to do to support my sculpture.
Have you seen all these jobs as being jobs that support your sculpture?
No. What happened is that I married this Greek man. While I was working at Vogue I was also renovating this [her current loft]. That was my first taste of interior design. It wasn’t this at all [the current look of the loft] – it was a whole other thing. And I did these kind of temples inside. [laughs].
And was it then that you decided to build the amazing house in Mykonos?
Yes. The next thing I knew, I was moving to Mykonos—from this whole New York fashion world to living on an island in Greece.
Do you still own the house? It looks incredible. It looks like a sculpture.
No, I don’t own it, that’s over. But I did design it. I actually sculpted it to scale in clay first. But [traditional] Cycladic houses look like that. And then I did the drawings. We worked with, I can’t say “naïve” builders, but they were in the sense that they couldn’t possibly look at an architectural plan.
Is that why it looks so organic?
Yes—we also hid their plumb lines, literally, hid their plumb lines. They grew up in these crooked houses and they didn’t want a crooked house. Their pride was to be able to make a square house and I was saying, “No, no, no!” My ex-husband took all of their plumb lines one morning and hid them. He said, “You have to work with your eyes.” They were horrified. They said, “Don’t tell anybody we’re building this house.” But in the end, they were like “We did it!!”
Yes, it was published everywhere, wasn’t it?
Yes, everyone was talking about it. I remember walking in the town and there were these two old women and I started chatting with them. They wanted to know where I lived, and I pointed to the mountain and they said, “Oh the stone house.” I thought, well, they’re all stone houses but the thing was we had to get special permission not to paint it white. We had to go to the Architectural Committee of the Cycladic Islands. I knew that because it was high up, it was just going to pop off this mountain [if we painted it white.] We built it out of stone from the mountain and I even worked out a color formula so that the cement between the stones looked like earth, so it just kind of disappeared—and they got it. They understood. Three years later they made a law that if you built on any high point, you either had to do it in the natural colors. So we set a precedent.
As a sculptor, what is your medium?
Clay originals, life size pieces. Actually it’s funny, but I’ve started doing sculpture again as of March this year. It all just turned into architecture and design and I had to raise our son … but he’s 22 now. He just graduated and he just got a job! A good job! Just about a week before, he said, “Well you know, I could be a bartender.” I said, “But you don’t know how to mix all the drinks!” [laughs]
And you had to earn a living, I guess.
Yes, [after I returned from Greece] I was going around with a fashion portfolio, a sculpture portfolio and the portfolio of the two houses—especially the one in Greece because it got published a lot. It was little hard for me [to begin as an interior designer] because I had never even written out a purchase order.
What was it about your work that caught the eye of people like Ian Schrager and Ralph Lauren?
Well, they wanted interior design work, but with more of an original spirit. When I showed [the Ralph Lauren director of home design] the house in Mykonos, he said, “Oh I know this house. We’ve used it on inspiration boards for Ralph.”
Boy, that house really launched you in a way.
It did, it did.
How did you cope with intense bosses i.e. Ian Schrager?
[Zips her lips on the subject of Ian Schrager] … but with Polly Mellon, it was really interesting because in the end she was literally having me over to dinner with her husband and my baby—I was calling her “mom.” She loved me.
You have this resume and career of someone who looks as though you’re really ambitious and yet …
But I’m not, which is really funny. I’m glad you say that! Because I look at myself and say, “Gee, if I had just stayed in one straight line, I would have had a career.”