Our interview with interior designer, Irwin Weiner, took an unexpectedly comic turn when we wound up talking about his absurd experiences as a gay man conscripted into the South African military. He has superb comic timing and is such a nice, intelligent man — the kind of person who you hope you’ll be seated next to at the dinner table. From a design perspective, he’s an eclectic shopper and his Upper West Side apartment was full of either lovely or quirky things, many of which he has found at flea markets and tiny antique stores all around the country.
I read that at your house in Bucks County you have a swimming pool in the shape of an Absolut Vodka bottle.
That’s true actually. It is this funny thing. The pool was built in the 60s and it just happened to be a rectangle with rounded corners at the one end and it kind of looks like an Absolut Vodka bottle.
Oh, so you didn’t do it deliberately.
No, no. Sorry to disappoint … [laughs] … Liberace had a piano-shaped pool … I’m not an alcoholic … I don’t love vodka that much!
I couldn’t put my finger on it but there was something about the pictures of your house in Bucks County that reminded me of your home country, South Africa.
There is something about it. The rug is a mohair rug from South Africa. There is some of that sensibility.
I was wondering what you think about ‘Africa inspired’ rooms … for example I don’t like safari lodges anymore…
I don’t either. It’s very ‘themey’.
Let’s talk about the economy. What do you see ahead for this business?
Can you tell us a little bit about where you grew up? I grew up in Harare [Zimbabwe] and Sian’s brother lives in Johannesburg.
I grew up in Cape Town. Did you ever go up in the cable car to the top of Table Mountain? At the foot of where the cable car is, is the little neighborhood where I grew up. I didn’t realized how privileged we were until I went back.
Let me tell you what I know about white South African society. They don’t take very kindly to sensitive, gay, arty people.
What! [clutches the edge of his chair in mock horror and then laughs uproariously]
Is that true?
Um … where do I begin? I was also in the [South African] army by the way.
Ooh, you and Geoffrey Bradfield!
Oh really, he was there as well? That’s interesting. Yes, I was in the army in South Africa, which [at that time] was mandatory for white men and I was openly gay and that was a very interesting discussion. And they were actually quite accommodating. It was very interesting because first of all gay issues are very big in South Africa (this would have been in the 80s) … But it [the army administration] was like the Keystone Cops. You had to fill out this form which said: Are you a drug addict? Yes or No; Are you an alcoholic? Yes or No; Are you a homosexual? Yes or No.
And of course all the gay guys I knew were there in the same intake as me all said no, and I said yes. I said it’s not my problem, it’s your problem. I’m gay and if you don’t want me here then let me go.
So did anybody respond to that question?
Yes. The next day the Jewish chaplain came to see me and said well, I read your questionnaire. I said, oh, I thought that was confidential! He said, well … I’ve spoken to my colleague, the Christian chaplain and we feel you should have therapy. I said: What sort of therapy? You mean just talking about it? … I said: Can I have the therapy during P.T., you know the physical training part …?
[We’re all laughing very loudly] … so I went to my one and only session but it was such nonsense and such rubbish. I could argue the guy right under the table. I had studied graphic design, I had been to university already, so it wasn’t as if I was 17 years old.
What happened in the end?
I was a real survivor. I was very diligent, did my thing. And then after boot camp, which was about three months and you could go to officers’ training … and they approached me to do officers’ training. They wanted me to be in charge of the next intake where they were going to make a barrack of only gay guys! [More howls of laughter from us]
So they were going to corral you all together! It’s like a gay comedy sketch! How did it change you or shape you?
Obviously it made a man out of me.
But you did the whole two years…
It was the most fun you can imagine. First of all the whole thing was very, very comical. It was like the Keystone Cops or a Carry On movie. You didn’t have to think for two years as long as you did what you had to do from eight o’clock in the morning to five o’clock in the afternoon, you could have fun. I happened to be transferred to the division that was actually the propaganda department. They didn’t want to call the propaganda department the propaganda department, they wanted something more subtle. And they called it Psychological Action. So of course we couldn’t wait to answer the phone: [puts on barking military voice] ‘Psychological Action, good morning!’ These were kind of cushy posts and in order to be transferred to a cushy post, but you had to be educated, had gone to university … you would end up with all these guys from art school. You cannot believe the joking that went on. Of course we knew that we were out of there at a certain date, not like the lifelong military career people who were there because they couldn’t get jobs elsewhere … there are a lot of similarities [with South Africa at that time] to the U.S.
Yes, I can see that.
Especially like the Bush-Cheney thing … Cheney even looks like P.W. Botha, the whole arrogant, aggressive, bully-their-way-out-of-it thing. For South Africans it was frighteningly laughable and totally familiar.
This is something that might interest an interior designer: Cheney had no seating area in his office, just his desk and you sat in front of it when you came in. Joe Biden had to put armchairs and couches in.
That’s interesting … very telling.
Did you ever think at that point that you find yourself on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, working as an interior designer?
I came here to go to FIT. In fact I was in the army when I applied. The funny thing was as part of the degree you had to take CUNY liberal arts courses and a phys ed course for credits. So I went to the registrar and told him that I had done two years in the South African army …
You mean you used it as an FIT credit?!
Can you believe it? So during the height of the apartheid years, my stay in the South African military was accepted by CUNY and I got a credit!
You have an eye for great stuff … you’re obviously a real shopper.
I am. I love flea markets. But one day I’m going to unload everything, get a little condo in Florida and travel the world.