Over the course of all our interviews with interior designers we have been struck by the long hours they keep and how incredibly hard they work, and although he wasn’t complaining in the least, Philip Gorrivan has the extra responsibilities that come with having two school-age children, a daughter aged eight and a son of five. Add to that his wife who also works full-time, their involvement with various charities and the perfectionism inherent in this creative field and it all began to seem an impossible load. Nevertheless it was clear that this was a happy (and very neat) household. He clearly loves his work, manages to eat dinner with his kids every night and devotes his weekends to them. Apparently the whole family washes the dishes after dinner and the kids make their own beds … well we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on this because he’s so nice. And on the subject of neatness, something which we often ask about because so many designer are such neat-freaks, he said something that has intrigued us ever since. ‘I think neatness is essential—it’s essential to life.’
So we don’t know a great deal about you. We want to know about your background and career. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Portland, Maine, the son of a French Moroccan mother and a real Maine father whose family has lived in Maine for generations.
How did your mother take to life in Maine?
Well for many years she hated, er, she really disliked it. The weather especially … you know Maine is a really Yankee place … but now she loves it. What was interesting was that I grew up in this home where everybody else was very conservative, neighbors and friends, and I had this wild Moroccan mother. She had all this great Moroccan jewelry. No one knew how to place her.
Did she speak to you in French?
Yes, we spoke French
What sort of house did you grow up in?
The house I grew up in was an 1820s farmhouse, a big rambling farmhouse. I just remember growing up seeing all these Moroccan and French influences in the house that you wouldn’t see in other places. And my mother loved everything Modern. She was a real Modernist. And my father is a real conservative Yankee type. You almost could say, er, did you ever see Mr. Snow’s Chowder? It’s like a [picture of] a captain or fisherman, well that’s him, with the white beard.
So I’m guessing you’re more towards your mother in style but I want to know where the conservative streak is in you.
Well, no what’s actually interesting is that everything in our home was Americana and Victorian and my mother came along and tossed out a lot of things and all of sudden I came home one day and there was a 1970s eglomisé glass coffee table that came out of a thrift store in Miami and a real white shag rug!
But what reflects the more conservative side of you?
I’m still a big lover of early American furniture
And in your personality?
It’s funny because I find myself sometimes restraining clients, so I do have this conservative side. With one hand I like to bring out the best in clients and be exuberant but there’s always that little bit of restraint, and I think that must be the Yankee.
And your kids, are you conservative with them?
It’s very hard living in New York City, it’s really important to make values a priority. I try to raise my children the way I was raised.
I mean you have what might be thought of as a career that has a lot to do with materialism. How do you parlay that to your children?
Well, I think it’s wonderful that my children are growing up with nice things, just to have the stimulation and the exposure. But we’re not overly-exuberant.
Do you think that clients come to you because you have children?
That I don’t know. But unless you have children, you never know what it’s like living with the children.
It’s fascinating because you’re the first interior designer we’ve interviewed that actually has school-age children.
I have to say they’re pretty grounded. My children even since they were two and three years old, we never worried about anything getting damaged. And I tell my clients that too. I think it’s really important to live with things that you love and not worry about things getting broken …
So you’re not worried about your son knocking that porcelain horse off the table with his light saber?
He has a light saber in his bedroom and no, they don’t do that. And they use this room. We use this whole apartment. I think it’s important to introduce children to things that are finer, breakable because I think when you keep them away from things, that’s when they sneak in and get nervous and something falls over.
How about living in a mess though? In my apartment there are toys everywhere.
We have a little family room on the second floor and we also have a country house. That’s where all the Americana is.
It’s your alter ego!
Exactly. It’s where all the transfer ware is, and the quilts!
Where did you study?
I went to school in Vermont. My focus in high school was studio art and I always thought I wanted to be an artist, an illustrator, something in that field. I studied liberal arts in Vermont. Right out of college I got a job offer to work for Hearst Magazines on the publishing side and that kind of changed things. I moved to New York right out of college. I was at Good Housekeeping magazine. It was a great career experience working there.
Well, first of all it was working for a big brand. It involved a lot of travel and a lot of responsibility at a young age. I was also managing relationships like Fisher Price and Oneida, some of the big companies at the time.
How much of interior design is selling?
A big part of it is selling an idea, a concept. It’s constant selling.
Do you ever get tired of selling?
Not when you believe in what you do and you love it. I don’t even think of what I do right now as selling. I’m excited about it.
Did you formally study design? Do you think that makes a difference?
I did not formally study design, I just know I have a style that I’ve always loved and it’s been pretty singular for most of my life. Even my college dorm room was probably the most designed [space]
What did it look like?
Well my mother was always throwing out my father’s antiques and so I got some good hand-me-downs, and I had a sisal rug. Everyone hung out in my room. It was the hang-out room.
Do women find it attractive that you’re interested in this stuff?
I’d be bored witless by a man who talked about furniture all the time!
Really?! It hasn’t been an issue! [Laughing]
So how did you make the transition from your former career to this one?
I went from Hearst Magazines to an Internet start-up and sort of rode that rollercoaster. I ended up in this sort of venture capital area … I made a lot of money and sort of lost it. There’s a little bit more to the story. One of my first projects was working for Henry Clay Frick’s great-great granddaughter … she said if you ever decide you want to be in interior design, I love your style. I called her a week later … and then her neighbor hired me, and another neighbor hired me. I was still treating it like a hobby. Then 9/11 came along and I was working down on Wall Street and I went through just that whole thing and I was supposed to be in a meeting in the afternoon one of the towers that day, and my wife was supposed to be at the same conference … needless to say we didn’t go. I lost a number of friends. I just realized, and it may sound corny, but life is way too short and I wanted to do something I really wanted to do, not just work for the sake of making money.
You’ve done well in such a short time. When did the magazines start taking notice?
My first project was doing the Hamptons showhouse for House & Garden. No one knew who I was. It was tiny laundry room and I made it into an upholstered sitting room and it was really great room. It was room that Martha Stewart walked into and she said ‘Oh my God! It’s padded! It has padded walls!’ And the day after she was sentenced. And Leslie Stevens heard it and it was on Page Six.
How do you balance your work life and your home life?
It’s really, really hard. Most of my design friends don’t have children, in fact none of them do! And they work 24/7. It’s almost impossible to compete with. I can’t have meetings on the weekend. We have soccer on the weekends, the kids have lots of activities, they have birthday parties … my wife works full-time as well and she’s got a pretty serious job.
What time do you get home?
Lately I’ve been working until 11:30, 12 o’clock.
This sounds like a very, very high-level life. Do you think it’s worth it?
Yeah, we love being here. And I love what I do and I can’t imagine not doing what I do. I love it. And my wife loves her job … so we make it work.
You sound too good to be true …
[Laughs] It’s not always that perfect.