Sian Ballen, Lesley Hauge and Jeff Hirsch
What to say of a single apartment so lavishly decorated that its rooms and their contents fill the pages of an entire book? “Fifth Avenue Style” (Vendome Press) by the designer Howard Slatkin was published in part because of the pressure Howard’s late mother put on the reticent designer to make a record of at least one of his projects: his own New York apartment on what he calls “upper, upper, upper Fifth Avenue.” Creating the book was, he says “a whole new ordeal”.
For the HOUSE column the apartment was, in its exquisite excess, somewhat overwhelming—and we’ve seen a fair few apartments. We were, however, fortified by tea and perfect little cucumber sandwiches served by a white-jacketed butler. In order to properly give the space its due, we’re splitting the column into Part One and Part Two (to be run next Friday) because if we don’t, you’ll come away dizzied from it all—we certainly were.
We know that you mainly spend your time in New Jersey but I guess this was the only Manhattan apartment that met your needs …
I told my broker that this is what I would like: a “handyman special”, a real wreck that I could not hesitate to gut. It would have to be on upper, upper, upper 5th Avenue because I don’t come here often so it would be easier to come off the George Washington Bridge. Where I was before, in the 60s, it would always take an extra 40 minutes to get here. Between 83rd and 84th can take between 10 and 15 minutes.
Yes—I really thought it out. You know, what would induce me to spend more time here? That didn’t really work out but it is easier to get here now.
Let me ask you, what is your definition of “Fifth Avenue Style”?
Um … oh gosh … that’s a very hard question to answer. And I’ve never been asked that before, so good for you for asking it. I will say that I don’t love the title [of his book, “Fifth Avenue Style”] … it was the choice of the publisher, who I love. One of [my titles] was “Imperfect Apartment” because in the book I talk about what I did wrong and what I would do differently today. It seemed all the other titles for the foreign market, which was a big market as it turned out, they need a title that immediately defines what it is.
So what is it that makes you uncomfortable with the title?
I think it’s pompous.
How would you describe this particular style yourself then?
You know I’ve always been so very private. This has been a whole new ordeal—which I think is maybe what my mother had in mind. The last thing she could do, that was within her power—and she was the best mother possible—was, okay: “I want to see what you’ve done recorded because you’re too reticent.” So what I’ve learned since the book came out is how people define it; I’ve viewed it through others. Some people say they love it because it’s so understated and so simple.
I find that very hard to believe!
I know I have very nice things, and I’m very blessed but there are people who have things that are in a whole different category, museum quality pieces. So for those friends and clients, they’re seeing it through their filter. And then there are other people who look at it and think it’s so grand, I couldn’t sit on the furniture. It is all where that person is coming from and it has nothing to do with me.
A lot of people call it “ a little palace”.
Yes, I see that and my reaction is: “What palaces have they been to?” [laughs]
It is not as overpowering as I thought it was going to be …
I’m glad you say that because other people say that you couldn’t fit a person into the apartment because it’s so cluttered. It is cluttered and it is full of stuff … yet others say it’s spacious.
Well, as you say, people see it through their own filters … but we’re interested in your filter. How is your home in New Jersey different to this apartment?
Oh, it’s much more casual, much more lived in. I was born and raised on the same street where I live. My entire life’s journey has been three houses!
I know you’ve had a lot of reaction to the book. Is that because there is kind of fantasy in this apartment? Why do you think people have had the reactions they have had?
Yes, I get marriage proposals … and it certainly isn’t because of my picture on the cover!
You are very private—there’s nothing much about you on the Internet.
I’ve never sought the limelight and I’ve never needed it. I like doing my work and I like leading my little life. I’m not very social and all of that.
Are you shy?
Maybe you could tell me if you think I’m shy. I don’t think not wanting your name in the papers or the magazines necessarily means you’re shy. I don’t feel private. It’s just that I’m living a life that is not recorded. And it’s helped my career because the clients I have had I think greatly love that I understand privacy.
Privacy is commodity now—we sell it off in pieces to the marketing machine.
I really think the last luxury, the greatest luxury, now is that you can be private.
Tell us about your early days as a designer. Did you train?
No! In fact I was a designer for two years before I knew there was a D&D building. Mrs. Parish told me about it. I had always been interested [in the field] and my mother said the light bulb went off in her head when I was ten and we were in the Victoria and Albert Museum—she saw how excited I was looking at all the furniture in there. That’s what makes me think it’s just DNA and part of your genetic makeup. Mrs. Parish wanted to hire me early on. I was working in New Jersey back then.
So you went the long way around …
Totally! But it also made me. It taught me to be very resourceful.
I remember you had a store as well.
You’re absolutely right. And you know I’m not superstitious and I don’t believe in omens but I promise you that on the day we opened, the first person to walk in was Mrs. Onassis. Oh God, I could hardly talk!
Did she buy anything?
Yes she did. She bought a whole bunch of pillows for her son and her daughter. And that was the start of a lovely business relationship.
And your candle business—that became an enormous success, didn’t it?
I started doing that in my mother’s kitchen, making them all by hand. The reason I started doing it was to create a special scented candle for each client that I had. But you know, at 3 a.m. in the morning, when I was trying to get the wicks into the wax, I just thought to myself, there has to be a better way! [Eventually] my brother and my sister-in-law came on board …
You spend most of your time in New Jersey, as you say. What do you make of the way that people laugh at New Jersey and New Jersey style?
I think it’s lovely that people’s connotation of New Jersey worldwide is from television … the New Jersey Housewives, the Sopranos … the Jersey Shore. They don’t think of the Essex Hunt, the gardens, the horses … and that’s just fine. For me I think that anything that keeps people away …
What’s the best of New Jersey for you?
My roots. It’s my home. I still take my shoes to be repaired to the same man and he remembers my late father who died when I was 15.
What kind of projects are you working on at the moment?
Well one of them is an apartment on the [Park] Avenue and it’s being done in a sort of 19th century Balzac style, which is fun. And there’s a country house on Long Island, which is being done in a very cool palette and there’s an apartment in Monaco …
What would you do to make a Balzac room?
You know it was the first time in the 19th century where comfort at home of prime importance, that sort of deep, seductive comfort as opposed to the formality of the Empire period. They used cottons, velvet and needlework. For this particular place, they had a lot of serious contemporary art and now they just find it so cold and gallery-like. So we’re going the opposite.
So did you read lots of Balzac to get your ideas for this apartment?
I love Balzac. I get more inspiration for rooms from writers than anywhere else, particularly Tolstoy. That’s my source because your mind fills in the blanks … you read, “She just jostled the arm and the wine spilled on the silk …” so you’re imagining the damask … you just start visualizing the rooms and the lives lived in those rooms.
Yes, I wish shelter magazines had more people in the rooms. Martha Stewart used to always have people in the rooms when she did an interiors issue of her magazine.
She’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. Just think about it. She’s made an empire out of home keeping. She’s made it respectable; she’s made it honorable; she’s made it interesting and in a post-feminist world, it was a four-letter word. When I was in college, it was just heresy to say that you like knitting or say that you liked to do laundry! I think she’s been the greatest influence on interior design in our lifetime.
Yes, you’re right. And look at these little sandwiches you’re serving us. Martha would love them. My mother still serves these at tea time … but she lives in Africa.
I love the concept of the tea at 4:30 pm! But you say to an American, come over for tea and they just stare at you and say, “Do you mean cocktails?”
Oh dear … I’m eating this sandwich and now Winnie [Howard’s terrier] has drooled all down your jeans and they’re so perfect …
Oh, she can drool anywhere she wants. She’s my little doll.