We were shocked and terribly saddened by the sudden death of designer Mark Epstein this past Tuesday. Mark recently moved to a new apartment and our plans to interview him were quashed by COVID. Today we are rerunning our 2012 interview with him. Our conversation, which we failed to capture the exact details of (we were so entertained that we forgot to turn on the recorder), was a story involving a client who owns a house in Africa as well as a collection of African antiques. One day this client tried to shock Mark by informing him during a phone conversation that “he was busy waxing his phallus.” The thing is, the client had hired the wrong designer if he thought that sort of thing was going to render Mark speechless … he’s been in the business ‘FAR TOO LONG.’ Actually we couldn’t quite imagine any situation in which Mark might be lost for words … (although his dog at the time, a beagle named Molly, gave him a run for his money — boy, did she have a lot to say, or at least, bay.)
And he finally did write that “good book” he’d been planning on writing “for you-don’t-know-how-many years.” And it’s a beauty.
Our heart goes out to his loved ones. We will miss him!
So you’ve been in this business for a long time …
Forever. I’ve been in this business for 35 years.
So nothing fazes you, right?
You know what, not much does anymore. It seems like basically I’ve heard it all once before—it’s always exciting, there’s always some new thing that can go wrong—like nobody has ever called me to discuss waxing their phallus before—but you know. I mean I’ve had a client who told me [he mouths “mafia”] that “in our business we sit with our back to a wall.” We had to put bulletproof glass in. Fifteen minutes into a meeting, the wife starts crying and she shows me the tickets that the husband had in his jacket pocket from Disneyworld and she hadn’t gone … he’d taken his 21-year-old girlfriend.
I said let’s go have a cup of tea … I need a drink. I’ve had clients slip envelopes of cash under the door because I’m doing their hook-up place …
And how does that make you feel?
[Shrugs] Cheap. Honey, in this business you see it all. As a very fancy client once said in her 5th Avenue bedroom, “Honey, you’ve designed the underwear drawers. You know the stains.”
Ew, that’s disgusting! Are you world-weary?
When I was 14 and I took a prepping class with some artist in Tribeca, I came home and I said to my mom, “I’ve found my vocation.” She said, “No, no, no. You need a form where you can use your art to be a yenta. Basically you’re a people person and you basically just want to be talking to people.” She was really quite right. I talk for a living. That’s what I do. I’ll be talking to nine o’clock tonight—that’s my last meeting.
Yes, if you’re not good at it, then you’re unlikely to be a successful interior designer.
It’s a huge area of what we do. For example, I have a client now and I’ve done her home, not sure if it is the eighth or ninth time and I know her forever—her kids call me Uncle Mark—I said, “How is the banquette that came Friday?” She said, “I hated it the first few minutes.” I said, “I hate it too but everybody is scared when stuff comes in. Your eye is used to looking at emptiness or another piece of furniture and then even though you’re prepared for it …”
So that’s how you talk them down—also what you say is very true.
They’ll say,“The dresser is so big.” And I say, “Don’t go in there for a few hours. It’ll shrink.”
How do you cope with all the talking you have to do—don’t you need a break?
There are a few nights a week where I have to be alone. I just can’t talk anymore.
You studied at Pratt and Joe D’Urso was one of your teachers—what did you learn from him?
Space. When I went to Pratt in the ’70s, I in fact took two courses in the graphic design department because it was just assumed that once you created this model of space that you could carve out of something, you put in black industrial carpet, two pieces of Mies Van der Rohe and one red flower and you were set. I thought maybe there was a way to elaborate on that. But Joe is a genius and he explained to me about space and plans, and whether it’s the tablescapes I create using my objects or a room plan with a layout of a built-in, I’ve got that graphic spatial geometry from Joe D’Urso.
Tablescapes … that’s a very interior designer term. It’s the sort of word that might be used in a parody of interior designers.
The genius of tablescapes forever was David Hicks.
[Sian] It’s the name of a good book …
I’ve been planning on writing it for you-don’t-know-how-many years.
But are tablescapes fashionable? We keep saying the cozy look is coming back but so many people don’t want anything old.
Old has gotten a great shot in the arm right now because green design is so important and there’s nothing more green than vintage or old. I tell people to buy 18th century furniture.
What do you buy?
I won’t look [for things to buy]. I’m selling my house in the Hamptons, which is a huge life-changing event. I’ve had it for 31 years. It’s too static. What is that? 15,000 weekends that I’ve gotten on the expressway to go to the Hamptons. I don’t want to know that that is the next 30 years.
And what will you do if you’re not going to live that way any longer?
Travel. I’m young enough that I can do some exotic travel. I do go places [now] but I have always been afraid to leave my children i.e. my clients, for too long. But you know business has grown enough and I have a strong enough staff that if I leave for two weeks, you know what? They’ll deal with it. And with the communications we have today means I can answer questions from anywhere, instantly.
Where do you want to go?
I want to go to exotic places. I want to go to India. I want to go to Africa. I want to see the colors of India. I want to see the animals of Africa. I want to go to Asia to look at the architecture and the gardens. Life has been lucky to me. I’ve worked hard to achieve the things on my list.
What things were on your list?
Having a wonderful home, being in a position to give back, being healthy.
Are you contented?
Very content. I wake up every morning and I say, “Thank you God up there. You’re a good woman. You’ve given me everything that I need.”