“I guess at the end of the day, I’m a romantic,” is how the poised interior designer, Maureen Footer describes herself – a romantic with an MBA, that is, hard won she admits for someone who naturally gravitates towards the arts. “It took some naïveté out of my view of the world,” she says. She once wanted to be a dance critic and was a ballet-dancing debutante who went to Wellesley and grew up in a grand house in San Francisco but is now happy with her elegant little New York studio apartment furnished with antiques that she sees as alive with the narrative of the past. Antiques she says remind us that “It’s not all about me here in 2011—the human race and its aspirations have been going for thousands and thousands of years.”
So how long have you been living in a studio apartment?
You know I’m so bad with sequences – it was one of those things when you just think you’re going to be passing in and out but it suits me wonderfully.
It’s easy, just to have a studio.
It is if you live alone. Everybody needs some privacy and their own little retreat, but you can’t do that with two here. So for me, it’s just perfect. I grew up in a house with a conservatory, a ballroom and a paneled library and all of that but pretty much since I moved to New York, life changed radically! [Laughs]. I grew up in San Francisco but I was reading, from about the age of nine, The New Yorker, just dying to get to this city.
What did you find when you came to New York then? Did it live up to expectations?
I think it did … there is an energy and an autonomy and a very cosmopolitan spirit in New York and I always feel it’s the one place that really pushes you forward. It’s very easy to be complacent in other places.
It’s exhausting too, don’t you think?
That’s what my mother says when she comes to visit. But when you live here you learn how to carve out your own rhythm. My favorite place in the world is my bathtub and my second favorite place is my bed. I take two baths a day … I really don’t like showers … water dripping down my back—it’s creepy!
Yes, I’m British, so I like baths too. You must do well in France too.
Yes, I do.
Googling you, I found out that you wanted to be a dance critic – do you have a background in dance?
I’ve always loved [ballet] and it’s sort of the way I learned to listen to music. When I was at Wellesley there was a professor who wrote for Dance Review and he used to write about New York City ballet and it was so vivid you didn’t even have to go to the ballet … it captured everything and I was an English and French major and I thought it was just the most amazing use of language and I wanted to do all of that.
Did you dance at all?
Not seriously. I got up to pointe shoes.
So why did you decide to do an MBA?
Well, you only need so many dance critics and at the time, when I first came to New York from college, I worked at Vogue magazine and there was this wonderful girl who was a copywriter there and we took ballet classes together—and her name was Holly Brubach … who ended up winning a National Magazine award [for writing on dance] … I’m kind of not the most competitive person in the world and I thought this is really Holly’s territory. At that point, I took the already-discovered path. At that time, I wasn’t sure what to do. It was the eighties … the world of finance and leveraged buyouts … the go go world at the time.
Did you struggle to do the MBA?
I think that’s a very astute question—and yes. I think it took some naïveté out of my view of the world. It took away the fear—a lot of my clients are very impressive people and I’m not even quaking in my shoes trying to justify an invoice. I went into investment banking for a couple of years … one morning [a colleague] walked in and said, “I can’t wait it’s the weekend and Barrons comes out on Saturday.” [Laughs] And for me a weekend means I get to go to ballet class and stay in bed late and read a novel … it was the light bulb moment.
Do you feel dread now—overwhelming projects or anything?
Not really. Sometimes I need quiet space. I’m working on this book [about the decorator, George Stacey] and I find when I’m overwhelmed what I really need to do is stop looking at all the facts and think about what’s in between the facts, what’s the narrative and the story … and it’s the same for anything in design. The older you get, the other things are just like … mechanical.
There’s got to be something to be said for experience.
You can only do what you can do and you’re best just focusing at one thing at a time and then you can knock them off the list. If you try to do ten things simultaneously, nothing gets done well. Nothing gets finished.
You have a sophisticated, classical style—do you ever feel the pressure to bend to trends?
You always have to keep your voice there or you’re not excited about it and it loses its coherence. On the other hand, this is a service business. I’m not in a studio with my paint palette doing whatever I feel like doing.
I notice a book over there with the title “Debutante” and you were a debutante—what did that entail and when you look back on that, do you kind of roll your eyes?
For me it didn’t entail very much because the traditional summer when you go to all the parties and meet people, I spent in Japan. In my opinion, the idea of being introduced and put on the marriage market, is definitely an outmoded idea but one of the nice things is an introduction to a more adult life. You meet people, you learn how to talk to people. You stop being one of those monosyllabic teenagers.
Don’t you eventually learn that anyway?
I think we all get it.
[Being a debutante] seems bigger here … in Britain it doesn’t really exist at all any longer.
Part of it is, that in Britain, people already know their place in life. In America, the great American story is that those places can change. We’re so fluid. Being a debutante or whatever, for so many people is a way to mark their territory.
Are you nostalgic?
Not about that … and I want to point out is the reason that book [“Debutante”] is there is that all of those people were clients of George Stacey.
No, I know you’re not trying to singlehandedly bring back the debutante…
You know where I am nostalgic, is—and I was reading an interview with Tom Ford—we must be about the same age—and he said, people used to actually compose their thoughts and write them in notes to other people. Now it’s an email with abbreviations and there’s no punctuation. There’s something about doing things in old-fashioned way, I think we’ve missed something.
It’s hard to know what we’ve sacrificed and what we’ve gained. That old-fashioned charm is very time-consuming.
Also, I’ve kind of been living in the 1930s [for the book on George Stacey] and I’ve been looking at these old Vogue magazines, but it’s not even the formality of protocol and courtesies … but just the way people dressed! The perfection to put your sportswear on, you know! [Laughs] With all tradition, you kind of need to think, does it make sense? I am big on handwritten notes and I try to get those out the next day while the party’s still fresh and I love to stop and entertain, which I try to do once a month.
What do you do?
I can put up six at a table and I love to cook. The trick of getting [it right] is to see how much I can in advance so that I can sit here with my guests. I look to make things like a navarin that can come out of the oven and I want it to be elegant.
Do you ever watch TV?
I don’t have a TV … I did miss [not having one] for the royal wedding. I had to get up at four a.m. and go over to [a friend’s] house for the royal wedding …
Was it worth it?
It was. I guess at the end of the day, I’m a romantic.