So we’re going to be talking more about you in this interview, rather than about design. We’re not going to ask you so much about whether or not you like furniture on the diagonal.
You know, there are no absolutes … although there are certain things that I hate like glass tops on skirted tables and weird little idiosyncratic things … I hate roller suitcases. It’s just the sound, the clack, clack, clack. It seems like the end of civilization … but then I’ll turn around and like Oscar [de la Renta] will be carrying one and it seems so chic, right on the money. He’s not like schlepping something but gliding tall and erect.
Are you nostalgic? What about the current mania, say, for flat screen tvs?
You know what? I’m so naturally not interested in technology. I do have a flat screen tv and literally, I got a BlackBerry just yesterday, but I do think that computers are the work of the devil. They create so much work where a simple phone call or conversation would be more efficient.
Is there a period of history that you would like to have lived in?
You know what? It’s always changing but certainly the 18th century is always so incredibly … you know … but it’s the smell I’m concerned with. But to me the whole thing of fantasy and Baroque-ness and decadence … but I probably would have been a peasant and it would have been horrible! In your fantasies you’re always in the court! I also used to have a fascination with Edwardian England.
Your apartment seems to be ‘thirties swank’.
Do you think the cost of that elegance was great social anxiety?
I mean certainly anyone who makes their business about taste is subjecting themselves to a degree of … kind of … do you know what I mean? Because you’re judged on what you think is attractive. It sort of creates a kind of snippiness that you see in this industry and I sort of have moments of it. I love the things I love and you know, to hell with it! Right now, and it wasn’t always this case, I do think people like what I like now.
What sorts of things would those be?
Well, color and Baroque-ness.
What are your own influences?
I would say, like, fashion. Avedon’s book 1944 – 1977 is a huge inspiration. The illustrations of René Gruau are a huge inspiration. That kind of taste of late 1950s, early 1960s glamour.
How did you get your start in this business?
I was a film major at NYU and when I graduated in 1991 there were maybe ten directors working in New York but I just didn’t really feel like moving to California, which is where that industry really still is. And I always loved design, so I went to work for John Rosselli, and he really honed my eye. And after I worked for John, I went to work for Bunny [Williams] for five years.
What did you specifically learn from her?
She taught me everything I know! How to break down a house and set it up, how are you going to use a room, the best ways to do floor plans, really super practical decoration … and how to run a business and a budget.
Are you interested in set design?
I’m still interested in set design. I mean who wouldn’t be? The only thing that I wonder about, I’m so used to doing everything high end decoration and set … I always look at Merchant-Ivory films … and it’s all sort of borrowed and spackled and sort of done on the cheap … and yet it doesn’t look that way, that’s the sort of miraculous thing about it. I could certainly come up with ideas, but I wonder about the execution.
What sort of movies do you like?
I just saw Little Miss Sunshine and I thought it was absolutely fantastic! And Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, is totally one of my favorite films. And Gosford Park. I found it as tight as a little drum, just wrapped up in tissue and bows and delivered to me on a silver platter.
Do you watch them more for visual content than anything else?
If a movie is beautiful, I can suspend disbelief like no other person. Like Gattaca – everyone thought was so boring but I could watch that movie again and again because it’s so beautiful.
How do you deal with people who aren’t visual?
I’m fascinated [by them] because I’m so visual. And I don’t have that more analytical way of thinking.
But to get to where you are in New York takes more than just a visual sensibility.
You know, I return every single phone call. I answer the phone, which is more than you can say for most.
Are you ambitious?
To a point. I mean I think ambition is the part of life that makes you get up in the morning and go. You have to have it. But I don’t ever want things to start ruling me. I want to enjoy my life.
What do you do to decompress?
Travel, vacation. I love nothing better than sitting on a beach. As a family we go to Jamaica, to Round Hill. I go with my brother-in-law and my sister, who have three little boys, and my parents. My sister and brother-in-law live downstairs [on the bottom two floors of the townhouse]. It’s fantastic.
Are the little boys welcome upstairs?
Of course! Yeah! Absolutely. There’s one that’s five and the twins are 19 months … er, the twins don’t come up as much …
So you have a built-in family.
Oh, it’s great because New York is such an isolated place.
What does home mean to you?
Being able to let it all hang out. Home is something that’s beautiful and loved. I spend tons of time here, I’m a real homebody. I love to entertain. One on one, just relaxed. A friend of mine came over for dinner on Saturday night and we just sat in the garden.
What did you cook?
We had a cucumber mint soup to start and then we had a salad. And then cold fillet with ratatouille. I’m very domesticated.
Are you a worrier or a perfectionist?
I would say I probably am a worrier. I care a lot.
How does that manifest itself?
Oh, lots of lists. Endless lists.
Are you easily hurt?
I have a thick skin and not a lot gets to me, but … I don’t put up with deliberate cruelty and there are a lot of sadistic people in New York. I have been up against that in my career, early on.
How about rejection?
Oh please! That one I don’t care about. In this business you get rejected all the time.
Do you have any small snobberies?
Roller suitcases! Roller suitcases!
Not glamorous enough for you?
by Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge • photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch