Born in South Africa, but established here on the Upper West Side, Mark Zeff was, in American parlance, a jock. In fact he might be the only jock to ever grace this design column, but it would be unfair to suggest that that is all he is. The artistic side of him seems to have eventually shaped his life and certainly his career, which has brought him large-scale hotel projects as well as the high-end residential work he also loves. He answered our questions directly and thoughtfully, relaxed from the outset. The little boy who was ‘bad at school’, and told by his Latin teacher that he was going to be a failure, turned out rather successfully. If the world were a fairer place, he would be able to send that teacher this profile, although he’s probably not so bothered anymore. (Strange, though, how those long-ago comments stick with us.)
It’s slowly dawning on me, after interviewing so many designers, that although they do a lot of press, they don’t really get asked that much about themselves …
That’s true, yeah … what makes them tick.
They, presumably, have to know what makes other people tick.
I think that probably the most important part of our lives, designers or architects, whatever we are, is really the ability to listen. And some designers listen very well and you can see that in their work, because then the work is different and changes per client.
You mentioned earlier that you don’t mince your words – do you think that is a South African trait?
I think so. South Africans are very confident.
A bit too confident. My sense is that they are also people who are ‘do-ers’
[laughs] I think the education system in South Africa promotes that. It’s strict, it’s English strict but it’s also very sports-oriented, outdoors-oriented. You’re always competing, so most of my schooling was wonderful. I played every sport in the world. And when you excel at sport, and when you’re encouraged to leave the bookish moment in your life and you are allowed to excel at sport, which is not the schooling system necessarily here, you either are good at it … and if you’re good at it, your confidence level is huge and you get rewarded for it.
And what about the poor souls who aren’t good at it?
That’s a problem.
And what sports were you good at?
Um … I loved cricket, I loved soccer and then I went to high school and played rugby, which I loved. My body didn’t love it. I played water polo, I played tennis. I wasn’t really good at running so I threw javelin instead. I did a lot continuously. My mother would literally come on the sports field at six o’clock at night and pull me off.
Are you still just as competitive?
Of course. Oh yeah, yeah. I’m only here to win. [laughs]
So what of losing?
Yeah … I’ve learned to lose …
That’s a very good question. I think I grew up with rejection. Because of what I am, and I didn’t know what I was good at. I was bad at school … my Latin teacher told me I was going to be a failure in life [laughs heartily]. I always was very artistic, continuously. I had a very good friend and he and I would go on holiday together and he I would paint and draw and collect things … I wish I kept those drawings because I used to do these, almost like, endless patterns …
Did you study as an architect initially?
I did. I wanted to do automotive design and was accepted at the Pasadena Institute. I wanted to do industrial design. And then by whatever, how God works sometimes, I met a friend of my father whose son had just come back from an English polytechnic and was raving about it … he said ‘Maybe you should talk to him.’ I looked at the guy’s work and it was superb and five minutes later I applied. Then I went to the Chelsea Design School where I did my BA in Environmental Design.
What was life like in London?
I was so poor in London. So it was dreadful, it was a struggle. I worked a lot.
How do you feel about money now?
I love the freedom and the ability to do the things that I always wanted to do. And I am humbled by that.
Did you grow up with money?
I did. But for instance my father made me pay for my bicycle. He said ‘Do you want a new one or an old one?’ I said ‘A new one’ and he said, ‘Well, I was going to buy you a secondhand bicycle.’ I said ‘Can I get a new one?’ And he said, ‘Okay, if you pay for half of it.’ It was hard. I hated them for that but I think it was great thing. My grandfather [who has since] passed away was a very successful man. He had come from Germany after the Second World War, a wonderful, wonderful guy and he had created an empire making women’s underwear … I’ll never forget standing in the stocking-making machinery part of the factory, and at that time stockings were made to flaw, to ladder because that’s what drove sales. And he said ‘You want to design and make something like this because this is what everybody needs. Don’t design only for the top people.’ And he was right.
Who do you admire in terms of mass design now?
I think IKEA is brilliant. I think their concept is pretty incredible.
Why do you think it is that we, as human beings, like and need pretty things?
That’s a great question. [pauses for a long while] … the most intelligent answer that I can come up with is that I think we have been taught, since we were very young, that kings and queens in their palaces, all the stories, the jewels, there is this sense that if you can surround yourself with beautiful things, you become important … but not everybody … I think it’s all about branding … ‘I want to brand myself.’
Are you sociable?
Yeah … we have lots of friends. I work very hard still so during the week it’s tough. We have a home in the Hamptons … and so … um … I’ve become a bit of recluse, I have to admit. By the time I’m finished at the end of the week, I’m done. I don’t want to talk anymore. I don’t want to pitch anymore … last night I was with a client for dinner and there were some friends of his and I had to sit and … deal … but that’s part of New York. I think that people that come to New York to do their thing, I mean I think that New York is probably the most spectacular place on the planet for allowing people to come here and excel at what they do.
Do you miss Africa?
Yeah! To be able to take your shoes off and roam around the bush, and it’s powerful! I still stand in a wilderness like that, at my, age … standing in the desert in Mauritania and there’s not a single sound or a single thing for as far as your mind can stretch … you just break down and cry.
Why not go back?
Oh I want to go back. It’s just that my wife being American with her family here … it’s tough. I think, hopefully she’ll burn out too and decide one day ‘Hermès?’… ‘Gucci?’…
Are you at that point?
Me? I was at that point a few years ago, ready to. But you know what? I say that but my career has gone into a really good moment right now and I’m really enjoying that for the first time in my life. To be able to choose my projects …
It’s often a long time coming.
Well somebody said to me something very interesting when I was young in New York. He said ‘It takes 30 years. You come to New York when you are young and full of verve and you’re running around nightclubbing and meeting all these people, and you collect all these people and you’re bon vivant of the city. Then the next ten years you’re really honing your reputation, becoming known in your field. Then, when you get to your third decade, you’re taking all those people that you know because they respect you … and that’s when it comes together.’ He’s right!
• by Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge
• photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch