In his new book, “Jeffrey Bilhuber: American Master” (Rizzoli) designer Jeffrey Bilhuber describes his work as “sort of a wonderful burden”. Thirty years into his career, he’s bearing that burden pretty well but, as he pointed out frequently during our interview, for all its (mis)perceived superficiality, making it as an interior designer is hard—and it’s even harder to keep going. “That takes a Herculean amount of energy and effort each day,” he declared in his engagingly emphatic way. He’s as much the performer as he was in our last interview (Us: “We’re going to tape you.” Him: “Where? To the wall?”) and, fueled by his particular brand of nervous energy, his show is still on the road.
Your book was a lot of fun to read as well as to look at …
Well writing a book is a personal journey … and this is my fourth book, so I think I’ve managed to fine-tune my message. It’s wonderful to write a book because you get not only to share your knowledge but you get the joy of hearing yourself! Many times, you don’t get to be the audience. I mean when I’m in my studio, you know, preaching to my clients, there’s all great information in there and I’m able to articulate myself very well but when you have to reflect, it’s a great opportunity to think about what matters. I’ve been at this now for thirty years and there’s a certain weight of authority to it now. This is a tough business!
Why is it tough?
It’s a minefield of missed opportunities. For anyone to last five years, let alone ten years, fifteen, twenty or thirty …
A minefield of missed opportunities? What do you mean?
Well, it’s a very difficult field to run on a business level and to run it really well and to continue to succeed and to continue to be at the top of your game. That takes a Herculean amount of energy and effort each day.
And what is all this effort and energy directed towards?
Remember that I am an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur’s greatest fear is that without them, their business will collapse. So each day, you get startled into the realization that you have to immerse yourself in your job. Each day for thirty years you have to do that same thing. You have to be invigorated every morning.
It’s a bit like a chef going into a restaurant—you have to cook good food.
You have to produce a winning meal every night if you’re going to stay four-star. It is very clear to me that design and business go hand-in-glove. When you realize that there are so many people depending on the decisions you’re going to make each day. That’s a huge responsibility, not just for the fourteen people I have in the office and their families, but we [also] have hundreds, hundreds, of tradesmen who bank on every decision that we make, the upholstery workrooms, the carpet sellers, the weavers, the fabric providers, the painters, the decorative painters … all these people are waiting for the word from Jeffrey.
You said that one of your motivations is to pin down what makes us “modern”. What does make us modern?
Modern is a point of view. Modern is how you see the world. It is being responsive to the world as it changes around you. What makes you modern is to be of your time.
Designers are barometers of change. Our antennas are up. We need to be able to see what is coming our way that is intriguing, or invigorating or compelling.
Why did Givenchy give you a job when you were relatively inexperienced? Why did he take a chance on you?
People saw in me qualities that I in fact couldn’t see in myself. They saw a talented, very creative, focused young man.
You say that it is very important to be of your time. But when I look around here, well, how do you say that this apartment is of our time?
I’m not speaking about these rooms specifically [when I say that]. When you look at American Master, you’ll see an enormously diverse body of work. All of it is telling us something of how we live our lives today or how others choose to. What is important to understand about what makes a modern world, is that you can no longer simply stay myopically focused in one business or another. You need to be diversified, whether it’s in design or in banking. What makes us modern is to be receptive. These rooms are modern to me because they’re a direct response to the city. A direct response.
That’s an interesting definition of modern, although I don’t think anyone is going to see these rooms as modern. Anyway, you said in the book that you prefer “the painful approach” to your work, the “can-we-pull-this-off?” and all the handwringing—I guess you just have a great deal of nervous energy, right?
Yes, I do! I have an enthusiasm; I have an effervescence. I am a showman. I like a bright light and I like a big audience and I like a stage! You have to be a performer because you’re selling a point of view. You’re helping people see things that simply aren’t there! It’s a Herculean task. It takes a Herculean amount of energy. If I ever choose not to be a decorator, I would be a very good cult leader.
You’re an evangelist. You could be a televangelist! You like the word “Herculean”. I might ask you to name his twelve labors. Don’t you just get tired sometimes? [Sian adds: “I’m getting exhausted just listening to you!”]
[Laughs] It’s best to just keep moving forward. [Hesitates] Ten years ago, during a very, very profound and insightful moment, I had to ask myself, “What is this all for? Where is this all going?” And that’s when I made the very appropriate decision to start my family.
Yes, let’s talk about that then.
In and of itself, it created a bubble that I needed. It’s a way that I can, on an intimate side, on a quiet side, share my love, my passion, my creativity. And I can learn from someone who is openly and honestly going to share their world with me. As lovely as all these objects here, something I say to people is that, what we’re making here is an investment in living, not an investment in furniture.
Did you fall in love with your son immediately?
I had to do a lot of investigating and planning. Just the whole process of fertilized embryonic transfer versus adoption—I didn’t want to adopt, I wanted to start my own family. It was ten years ago—it was really difficult for a single man to get any information about how to start a family. It was a different world. No one even told you that there was an option.
How did you get on with the crying and the sleepless nights and the diaper changing and the vomit … you know all of that?
Well that was lovely! [he is not being sarcastic] Oh my gosh, it was burden-free. It was very simply part of the job. I knew what I was getting myself into.
What sorts of things do you and your son like to do together?
We do as many things as we possibly can including just sitting down and chatting together. Christoph is very proud of his father, most specifically writing a book. You know for an eight-year-old, their lives revolve around books and he knows of his father as an author, as a writer. He’s bursting with pride about that.
How much time do you have for him?
We have breakfast every morning together. He comes bounding out of his room in his uniform, sits down at the breakfast table and we start each day with an hour together. Weekends, we’re always together.
What do you do at your country house at the weekends?
I dash about and look for pretty things.
Does Christoph come with you?
He would much prefer to play soccer or to drive his go-kart. He’s an enormously confident young man. I’ve no idea where that came from.
Um … you don’t see yourself as confident?
He’s socially skilled … I was a social observer, as a young man.
So I think we asked you last time to what extent you were subject to self-doubt and you said something like “Not at all”. Is that still true?
What did I say? About what?
Oh no, never. You are looking at the alpha dog. [pauses] You really did do your homework.