Designer Nancy Boszhardt has lived plenty—she’s been a dancer, a hippie, a flight attendant and, briefly a posh wife in a posh house in Boston. She can also cut wood with a chainsaw, cook a Thanksgiving dinner for her seven siblings and their families and run a very successful design business. If all of this information is delivered with a natural self-irony and a lot of (quite giggly) humor—underneath she’s intensely independent and tenacious but also very warm—for us, she wins this year’s charm award.
So you grew up in Milwaukee, and you were one of eight kids, were you? Where were you in the pecking order?
I was the second oldest, so a lot of caretaking. Three girls and five boys in that order. My mom got very sick and she died at 51.
Oh, so it fell to you to pick up some of the pieces.
I would say so.
[It turns out that Sian, Jeff and Nancy all went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison … much Badgers talk ensues even though none of them really follows football.]
What did you major in at college?
I majored in criminology and dance.
So the idea was that I was going to go women’s prisons and teach them dance and that would bring them happiness and joy. I was twenty-one you know … [Giggles]
Well, that’s very original.
I loved my passions … ballet and dance and er, [the nature of] violence … what I always wanted to do was, always, was to live in New York City and travel but there was no money in our family so, I realized that my job as a criminologist would really be a caseload of 150 juvenile delinquents in New York and not in women’s prison teaching beauty and dance. We were all trying to figure out what were going to do and somebody told me that they were interviewing for flight attendants in Chicago. So I got rid of all my hippie stuff and put on my one camel-colored skirt … put on my bra … and got on a bus and went for an interview and they hired me.
And that was a job you enjoyed, wasn’t it?
It was such a good job for me. At that time the airline [industry] was very elegant in a way. I got my wish to be based in New York and my flights were all international, so that was exactly what I wanted to do. I got to travel to Paris and London and Rome. I would leave the crew immediately and go to museums. I took ballet classes in Paris. It was extraordinary.
How long did you do it for?
Do you still dance?
I don’t dance anymore. I do Pilates all the time.
Why did you stop?
Age … time. I stopped flying and I got married briefly. We lived in a fancy house in Boston and I had a whole other life that I’d never had before—we had a ballroom and things.
Did you meet him on an airplane?
On the airplane going to Paris … he wrote me poetry.
How did you like living in a house with a ballroom?
I loved it! I brought my friends over—we had tea and concerts. It wasn’t showy at all.
And so when the marriage ended, was that when you decided to study interior design?
My parents had always said, “When you’re in trouble, go back to school.” So I got into Pratt and got a Masters degree and came back to New York. I did also go to New Hampshire and live in the woods for a while … [starts to giggle again]
And what were doing in the woods?
I had cows and chickens and ducks … oh my God! Before I met my husband and after I came to New York, I met someone and we lived together—he decided he wanted to live in the woods. I lived there for five years. I was still flying, three days on, four days off and I was able to take care of the garden and the animals. The house was heated by a wood stove, so I had a chainsaw he gave me for Christmas one year … it was red.
Of all the lousy Christmas presents people get, a chainsaw ranks pretty high … even if it was red.
I was not thrilled. I used to drop ten pounds every fall because I had to split wood. When you are stacking cords of wood, it is extraordinary how many calories you burn. And so I never want a house again—I always want a doorman. I felt sometimes like I was in the middle of an ocean trying to figure out what to do next—there was always a problem, always something to do. For a good reason, that [relationship] ended and I met my husband on the way to Paris.
Was that the first and last husband?
Yes, the one and only. I didn’t do it again. No children.
How old were you when you went to study at Pratt then?
I was in my forties when I went back to school. No … late thirties.
That was very brave. How did you know you wanted to do interior design?
I did love working on the home we had in Boston and I also knew that I wanted to have something that was practical but I [also] wanted to be creative. I had been taking art history classes and writing classes … I fancied myself as a writer … but I knew that wasn’t going to give me a career either.
What did you learn from working with Bunny Williams?
I learned a tremendous amount. I learned to be a businesswoman. She made sure the business ran. I used to get a kick out of her—when she was doing a job, she was very animated and very real. Oh my God, is there grit!
Is that what you’re sort of proudest of—that you’re a businesswoman?
I am very proud of that.
It’s quite a thing to support yourself and no man is supporting you at all.
Nope, no man. It is a big, big deal.
Do you think the fact that you grew up with not much money means that you have made very sure that you’re not going to be poor?
I’m sure that is true. I try to throw things away and it’s hard. I love the things that I never had. I still get in a taxi and think I’m so lucky that I can pay for a cab. It’s not a crime to be wealthy. I was also raised Catholic and the Catholic religion often teaches you that poor is beautiful … I don’t buy that at all.
Why is it that some decorators, and you’re one of them, can create warmth and there are others, even though they use textures and colors, still fail to create that warmth?
I have a theory about that—I don’t know about other decorators, so I’m not going to speak for them—but I really make an effort … it has to have a soul of some kind. I try very, very hard to get to know the clients.
You seem very relaxed—and assured. You’re not guarded.
That’s so good to hear. I always think of myself as goofy. I don’t want to be guarded. I want my work to be intimate. What I don’t like when I look at magazines is when I have to ask, “Well who lives there? There’s no person here that I would ever understand or want to get to know.”
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I love the theater. I love the opera. One of the reasons, I live where I do is that I can go straight down the road to the Lincoln Center.
Do you go with girlfriends?
I have some girlfriends but I do a lot on my own. I spend a lot of time by myself—I am in heaven with that. I think it’s my childhood because I was never alone as a child. Everything was shared—I mean when you were in the bathroom somebody else was banging on the door. I like to travel alone.
Where do you like to travel to now?
I try to go to London every year over Christmas because it’s a place for a woman to travel by herself. I always stay at a beautiful hotel—The Connaught. I travel on Christmas Day to London and then we—[laughs]the royal “we”—go to the theater and have high tea. I go shopping—it’s heaven for me, so relaxing.