We interviewed Marshall Watson on Valentine’s Day, which, if you remember was also the day of a fierce and gusting snow storm, one of those days when New Yorkers make a point of going about their business as normal, despite the weather. And so did we. Part of Marshall Watson’s great kindliness showed immediately when he insisted that we wear huge fluffy slippers, which he promptly provided, instead of walking about in our socks (our snow-encrusted boots remained in the hallway). His office and living spaces are adjoined and were elegant, flower-filled and we couldn’t have found a nicer place to hole up in – or a nicer interviewee. He has a lovely eager quality about him and is obviously kind to the core.
Well, we made it and we’re so glad that you’re here … I mean I didn’t know what was going to happen …
If no one had showed up today … I’m really glad you’re here. I had the feeling after being up at five o’clock this morning (and we had flowers by eight o’clock) … oh, I thought, ‘they’re going to cancel.’
Especially when flowers are involved, we like to make sure we get here.
All these women were looking at me thinking what a wonderful husband I must be because it’s Valentine’s Day!
Well they look lovely. This is a wonderful space. Who are your design heros? Oh, hundreds! I like John Nashe, anything from the 18th century because they had such an incredible sense of proportion … um … then I like Richard Neutra from the 1950s, and then from the 1910 to the 1930, many of the great New York and Philadelphia architects.
Before we started recording you said that you had lots of things you wanted to talk about. What were the things you wanted to say?
Well, it’s just that, you know, what we try to emphasize in this business, it’s like clarifying the design, clarifying what the space looks like, clearing the mess, clearing the clutter, clearing the lines that don’t work. It’s not necessarily that it has to be symmetrical, even though it’s really obvious I like the drama of symmetry and I frequently buy things in pairs but also it’s part of being clean and clear and classic. And even though everyone says they’re classic, we really are influenced to a large extent by 19th century classicism and the early 20th century classicism.
What about technology though? How are you with so much technology that has to be incorporated?
In our design approach the first thing that I’m always going to look it is ‘what is the original intention of the apartment?’ And if there is something left from the original, then it’s great to see how they originally used it, even though I know that … look, I interviewed for a project on Fifth Avenue and they really wanted to gut the whole kitchen and make a eat-in kitchen\family room. It was a crime to do it to the apartment. There was a magnificent butler’s pantry … they even had the original ice boxes … I said: ‘Would you ever consider that we still give you an eat-in kitchen, all of the wonderful technology and a very fluid space but that we preserve this?’ I didn’t get the job.
I read that you also like Scandinavian design and that you had lived in Denmark. Why did you live in there?
I was an exchange student. It was when AFS was really a big deal and I was from Kansas City and you had to have good grades and you had to do well in certain things, then they would choose you and the community helped you. And they really trained you. I had a six-week language program. It was the first time I had lived away from home … it was the first time for a lot of things [raises his eyebrows].
I actually speak Norwegian, but Danish is harder to speak.
Well, Norwegian ain’t much easier. I can understand Norwegian better than I can Swedish. I can read Norwegian. I used to be an actor and I used to try to read the Ibsen plays in Norwegian, which was sort of cool.
Oh, you were an actor? How was it being an actor?
Well that was literally 30 years ago. I had terrible stage fright. What brought me to New York was that I was on a soap, As The World Turns. And then I did Broadway. My first Broadway show was a flop.
What part did you play?
Oh, just this very young guy. [It was Ernie Ross]
So then did you say ‘okay I’m not going to be an actor anymore and I’m going to be a designer’?
I had always studied design. When I was at Stanford I studied design. I made my living as an actor. When I came here I went to FIT at night, and I was actually on the soap. There were two people, and we always wanted to leave work early so we could get to our evening classes. And Meg Ryan [the other person] wanted to be a journalist and I wanted to be an interior designer. And I ended up being an interior designer and Meg Ryan ended up being Meg Ryan … I mean this is really like … this is such ancient history.
Why are you so shy about your past, like you didn’t want us to talk about the fact that you were also once a bodybuilder and you don’t want to talk so much about acting?
People will focus on it instead of what I’m doing now. People find it very interesting that I was an actor and it was a great part of my life and I was very successful but it’s not who I am now.