There is a brittle wit and energy to Jeffrey Bilhuber that belies a more serious person. His range of reference is impressive, as is his ability to rarely say anything boring. Occasionally there is a sense that what he says is slightly rehearsed, and it probably has been, but only miliseconds beforehand in his very quick mind. He works at a relentless pace, producing elegant, historically-nuanced yet modern interiors and his own home is no exception. Some time after we interviewed him, he decided to become a father, so we would be curious to ask him some of the same questions in a year or so — we’re willing to bet that the answer to our final question might be somewhat different.
What I was first interested in when I read about you was that you started off in hotel management. Was that a kind of entry into the design business?
What I thought was really sort of perplexing was that no one ever told me that you could have creativity and business in the same sentence. So I was not encouraged even though I was a very creative child … I ended up going to Cornell University to study hotel administration. It was really about, at the end of the day, making a buck. I only lasted about three years in the business. I ended up at the Carlyle, which is good, and I really thought I was going to change the world. Remember this was 1981 and there really was no such thing as creativity within the hospitality industry. The idea of a boutique-driven hotel was non-existent. What people really wanted was what I call the ‘Hilton-ization’ of the hospitality industry. You wanted familiarity, you didn’t want individuality, and of course the nature of creativity is self-definition.
So how did you make the move to this career? In my third year I ended up moving to the housekeeping department of the Carlyle and I was responsible for working with Mark Hampton’s office, who was doing in-house redecoration of the rooms. I ended up thinking ‘Aha, this is fascinating. Here is this man, Mark Hampton, who seems to be at the top of his field … here was somebody who had managed to actually put creativity and business together.’ And I thought ‘Why didn’t I think of this?’
Had you already found yourself drifting towards redecorating, say starting with your own room?
Oh always! But I mean that’s just something that you do. I mean the most important moment in a young child’s life, one of the most important, is when your mother turns to you and says ‘Darling, what color would you like your room to be?’
And what did you say?
I picked a particularly revolting color. It really was just this side of old guacamole … but I was so thrilled that I had a voice. It was an incredible thing because you really felt that you could control your environment. Not only could we pick the color but we were actually allowed to pick wallpaper, but we were only allowed one wall. It was hilarious. I got my one wall which was a plain stitch chevron and my nasty guacamole and then I got a shag carpet, which coordinated all these different moments in a truly revolting fashion … mustard, guacamole and Snickers Bar brown. But it definitely brought it all together. And I raked. I don’t know if you remember this but when you bought shag carpet, it was ‘Buy now and get the rake!’ You would get a rake and you could click it on the back of your door and you would rake your shag! I was there for years raking my shag.
But it wasn’t about design, it was about personality. Little did I know that that is what interior decoration is there to do. You’ve seen my book, haven’t you? Anna Wintour wrote the foreword and she said ‘Jeffrey is the kind of designer who takes your own taste and makes it better.’
Why do you think taste come to define us so thoroughly? I don’t remember our parents being so conscious of taste and what it said about them.
Because we’re smarter! We’re smarter! I guess there weren’t as many options and you were not encouraged to think as an independent. That was almost rebellious. Politically it was the Kennedy era, post-War and we were optimistic and we had a relatively stable economy, we had a roof over our head and that was enough. When it came to the interior design industry back then, only the very richest of people who had any sensibility hired interior designers and that was it. Tycoons only.
Yes, that idea of expressing yourself through your home environment, or even your clothes, was not nearly as strong.
Yeah! I mean if you wanted to wallpaper you went to the hardware store. That’s where I got my feature wall. Remember those hilarious carpets which would be stacked up like a slide and you would get on the top and slide down them? …anyway what I really wanted to say was that I’ve been at it [interior design] for 22 years now and through an enormous amount of effort I have become very successful and very proud of my accomplishments and it wasn’t easy. I approach it through the back door. I approach it as a business man.
What is the most effortful part of your work?
A lot people still don’t understand that … it’s a Herculean amount of work to deliver projects on time and on budget.
And what would you say got you to the top?
Well, my business reputation preceded my creative reputation. But my creative reputation is a man who brings a sort of edited clarity.
What would you say, after all these years, would be one way to distinguish between art and design? The difference? Between art and design? Well, I mean design is a process, it’s a building process. Art is a creative process which is from the heart, it is spontaneous. You can’t paint a painting from left to right, it doesn’t evolve that way. Art is abstract and design is linear. That’s the key difference. I never think of art remotely in the same context as decoration.
Is there anything that you’re dying to work on that would be a challenge to you?
Like any great American decorator, the White House … The last one in was Clinton who used that woman, Kathy Hockmeister or whatever her name was … I never heard from her again … but you know I do think its rather bizarre that each administration has the opportunity to redecorate our nation’s house and, you know, what makes many times for a great president is there everyman quality as they rise from a middle-class averageness to lead the people but unfortunately they have quite middle-class taste. Obviously it was the Kennedy administration with Jacqueline who got it right. At least she understood you have to build from your history, recall the very best from your past in order to set a beacon of light, a shining example of American achievement.
Are you very patriotic?
Oh! You know, if any people ask ‘Who is your favorite interior designer?’ Thomas Jefferson. That’s not about being patriotic. I understand American roots. It’s incredible to think that as a statesman he could live abroad and bring back pieces of furniture with him that would influence the White House, influence his own country house. He brought Italian architectural studies which would help him understand order, symmetry, balance. That’s a political point of view too. Refinement is a political ideal, and an intellectual one … we’re getting very lost now, you know. We haven’t gotten at all into gingham walls …
Well, we like it to be a conversation. What do you do when you’re not designing?
How subject are you to doubt?