It was fun interviewing Larry Laslo. He had a fascinating lack of hesitation in forming swift, witty replies, honed, no doubt by years of television presenting and public speaking. If there was a somewhat practiced feel to some of what he said, then it was redeemed by an underlying sense that he was also laughing at himself as he performed. He doesn’t do things by half measures and he’s not afraid of introducing drama to an interior. He’s a really knowledgeable, experienced designer and it shows. His apartment is so confidently put together, and if it looks a little Christmassy, it was because we interviewed him December, drinking the best, and most potent, eggnog we have tasted.
I read somewhere that you quite frequently do a presentation called ‘The World According to Larry Laslo’.
I certainly do.
What can you tell us about the world according to Larry Laslo? It’s a very grand title.
Well, first of all I do everything without any paperwork. I’m just there and I’m talking. And it’s very simple to talk about things you know. Basically it’s a design lecture.
What do they like to hear about?
They don’t really want to see all my products and everything. They really want to see design solutions, they want to hear funny stories about my clients, they want to see glamorous rooms. They don’t want to see ten shots of my furniture and fabric and all that …and they love the stories about school.
Do you think part of being a designer is being an entertainer?
Oh absolutely. If I ever give my day job, I’ll be a stand-up comic. I did five years of QVC. I had the Larry Laslo Home Show.
What was that like?
It certainly prepares you to edit your conversation and … painful. I would look at myself and see what not to do. They gave me no training … there’s Camera One, there’s Camera Two, there’s Camera Three … what you do program out of your speech is the ‘I … um … uh …’ and I heard myself say ‘faaabulous’ eight times in one sentence. People who knew me knew I was goofing on it a bit but the audience loved it.
Why did you do it?
It’s a good way to get your name out there. And I had a lot of products. I designed products for Mikasa and Royal Limoges. People would actually come on the street and ask me for autographs … that was when they also thought I was Andrew Lloyd Webber, for which I was not flattered. And what was the other one I used to get too? … Mike Myers … and Frank Langella … I didn’t mind that so much.
Andrew Lloyd Webber looks like Thomas the Tank Engine.
[laughing] Right! So many people would say they thought I was Andrew Lloyd Webber. There was this performance in London and these two women ran up to me and asked me to sign the program. I said ‘Listen to me. Do I sound English?’
But does that pressure to put yourself out there get to you?
No it can be fun. Even when I went to the White House many times … and Andrew Lloyd Webber was about ten people in front of me and then Clinton shook hands with him, got to me and said ‘Didn’t we just do this?’ I said ‘No Chief, I’m Larry Laslo. Nice tux’ So he does a full turn and says ‘Do you think it fits okay?’
He has this way of making people feel like they are the only person in the room at that moment.
… Sometimes they were.
What’s that you’re drinking?
Eggnog. Would you like one? It’s Christmas … I would never have one of these in June.
I’ll take one. We always drink what our interviewees are drinking. [an assistant returns with a powerful eggnog] … So you’ve lived a very grand life then … White House …
I’ve lived a very interesting life, that’s for sure. I started off as a painter and illustrator and I thought I really don’t want to just sit behind my drawing board just painting and illustrating, so, as luck would have it, Bergdorf’s hired me to re-do the entire store. That was a wonderful job.
Just straight out of the blue?
Yeah! Well, no. I was doing the Bloomingdale’s campaign and [Bergdorf’s] had a lot of faith in me. The store was really a tired old store then. I opened up all the windows and made it very current and very chic.
What did you show them that made them have such faith in you?
[Sighs] I don’t know … I don’t know. I asked for a three-windowed office because I needed light for my orchids and I needed a secretary and I had to re-do the office before I could move in … and I said to myself, ‘They won’t give me the job’ but they did. [Laughs almost conspiratorially]
And then you did Takashimaya …
That was a wonderful job … and believe me it was the first and the last time I heard money was no object. That was a great store to do … and Bergdorf’s. Barneys was very stylish and Bendel’s was still there and very stylish but Bergdorf’s, as far as I’m concerned is really the only store in New York that has style. They’ve retained almost everything I’ve given them. They’ve retained their own identity. It was very important that it retained its elegance and its hipness at the same time. Being elegant and being hip aren’t always two things that jive.
How did you create that?
Instinct. You really don’t sit and think it out. Gut. There are times when you want to think out a solution. You know, I wanted Takashimaya to have an Asian feel but I didn’t want it to be overly Asian. And I also avoided all the clichés of the moment (which is why it still looks good today.) No concrete floors, no halogens with tensers, no crappy stuff. Beautiful marble or gorgeous wood …slate walls from England …columns from South Africa. And it held up.
And that was the first time a florist was involved[in a department store.]
Well, that was not supposed to happen. The architects were Philip Johnson and John Burgee and they wanted an homage to themselves. They wanted the first floor empty and I said no. New Yorkers need eye candy. Nobody’s coming into a store that’s empty and wondering what’s upstairs. They don’t come in! So I got Christian Tortu and we actually expected it to lose money … but it was the eye candy. And it happens to be the most successful part of the store.
What for you is the distinction between design and art?
I think they’re one and the same thing.
How good are you with technology?
I’m so low-tech, I’m no-tech!
Where did you grow up?
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, went to school in Philadelphia.
What kind of family did you grow up in?
A very sweet family with absolutely no taste at all.
Taste is tricky subject.
Ah, well there’s the old, famous Diana Vreeland line: ‘I am not against bad taste. What I’m against is no taste.’
Did your mom let you do your own room?
No. Uh-uh. I had a very severe room with a plaster Virgin Mary on a cabinet and some little lace doilies and beds that, when you tried to undo them, they would break your fingernails. They were so tight. And no eating in bed.
Do you eat in bed now?
Are you kidding? It’s my favorite place!
What do you eat?
Anything from spaghetti to grilled cheese sandwiches. I love a late movie and a little snackette. I had a wonderful Colombian maid who would leave every Friday and she would iron the sheets within an inch of their lives. She’d say [puts on a Colombianaccent and high-pitched voice] ‘I iron the shitz Meester Laaallo [wags his finger] … nooo chicky boom and nooo spaghetti!’
So you’re not a neat freak? You can let go?
There’s the display side of me, which you’re looking at here … and then you know, when I get dressed my bedroom looks like Filene’s Basement.
You have beautiful clothes. You like to shop? What have you bought recently?
Ohh, what have I bought recently? A beautiful cashmere Hermès jacket, which I’m wearing for you today.
If you were to have a go at defining glamour what would you say it is?
I think it’s a state of mind. The way you move, the way you tell a story … something simple as, you know, a stack of beautiful birch logs there instead of Duraflame wrapped-up log. You know glamour isn’t all about white satin and fur.
How would you describe your own sensibility?
You seem like a confidant survivor type. Have you always been like that?
Positive thinking. I remember when I started at Bergdorf’s and I tore apart the second floor and I stood there in the rubble and said ‘What the hell? Do I know what I’m doing?’
And how do you acquire faith in yourself?
Um … you just do. I must say it gets better as you get older. It’s the one good thing about getting older. You don’t question yourself.