Priscilla Ulmann is a designer who is seasoned enough to know that she doesn’t need to cover all the bases — she’s not going to be doing an all-white, empty room anytime soon. Her style strengths lie in what she describes as a “Bloomsbury look” using a warm palette of reds, yellows and greens skillfully combined with really nice “stuff”: books, paintings, pretty objects and comfortable furniture. She ran her own design firm for twenty years before joining McMillen in 1995 and Parish-Hadley in 1997. She then revived her own firm, catering to what we feel is an enlightened clientele of people who want welcoming homes where wine can be spilled on forgiving fabric, dogs can doze on deep couches and books can be read by lamplight late into the night — well, at least the look of all that … do people still live that way? We hope so.
Judging from your emails, you seem to be a very conscientious person—would that be a correct impression?
Many people have said that.
Would you say that you are meticulous in your design … although with this idea of good taste, you don’t want things to be too meticulous, right? How do you achieve that? You don’t want things to be too tight.
No, I don’t want things to be too perfect. I don’t want them to match too well … they sort of do somehow go together when they get thrown together. I don’t have one chair that matches.
In a sense this style gives you much more liberty than a crisp, modern style.
Which is not my style anyway. It never has been and it never will be. But yes, you’re right. I don’t ever have to worry about anybody spilling on anything. It’s sort a Bloomsbury look.
I did read one of those Franklin Report things where one of your clients, I guess, had said something like, “She doesn’t like modern design”, which I suspected wasn’t completely true.
It’s not a hundred percent true. I do like some of the architecture a lot. I’ve always thought it would be fun to have a glass box of a house hanging over a mountain or something like that … at the same time, what do you do with your stuff? You can’t hang anything or put it against any of the windows. You pretty much have to put your three pieces of furniture in the middle of the room.
Yes, with that style everything has to be so perfect. Architects in particular are less forgiving.
Architects basically don’t like designers. We ruin their idea of the space. They have a visual in their head of how the finished space is going to look, which is probably the three chairs and “their space”. And I like the space—I love the space—but I also like to sit somewhere and have a reading lamp. In a bathroom, they tend not to think about where you’re going to put the laundry bins.
Did you know you wanted to be a designer? I know you also worked in magazines for a while, as a fashion editor.
The reason I stopped working for Town & Country was that my husband was sent to Paris for a year [for work] and … after Paris I started working for somebody else. [At another point] my former partner Meryl Scott—we were both very young—were working as interns for Mark Hampton. When he went off to work for David Hicks, we both sort of looked at each other and said, “Well … we’ll just start our own office.” So we did and we did so well. We decorated our offices exactly like we lived there—it didn’t look office-y at all. And everything in it was for sale.
I guess that was quite innovative at the time.
We’d seen a lot of English shops that are like that—the owners actually lived there. They might have a big house in the country and have a smaller flat in London but it was done up and decorated and everything was for sale. You pretty much had to make an appointment with them to go see it. We thought, now that’s a good idea because a lot of people don’t have any imagination, so if you put it all together, they get it.
You worked for both Betty Sherrill and Albert Hadley … give us an idea of how different they were to work for.
Oh … they were totally different! I got along really well with Betty, which nobody thought I would, but I did. The reason I went there to begin with was because I decided that I wanted to learn about licensing. Then I found out it was actually quite easy to do.
What was she like to work for?
I got on with her because she did not completely terrify me.
What did you learn when you worked with Albert Hadley?
A better sense of scale … it was almost more not what to do than what to do. For example, if we had five candlesticks on this table, one of his pet peeves was that he would hate it if you grouped them all in one arrangement. He could not stand that. He would test everybody. I think I’d been there half an hour before he told me to go off into one room in the office and they had gotten a new shipment of furniture. He told me to arrange it however I wanted to and he wasn’t going to come in until I was done. So I was almost done and there were the candlesticks … and I don’t happen to love that [grouped] arrangement either but there was this load of a candlesticks that I hadn’t put anywhere yet and they were piled up—and you would know that’s when he walks into the room. So then I got bawled out for that arrangement.
So how did he like the candlesticks?
Two … one on either end of a mantel.
But what if you have five?
Then he would take the other three away.
Albert always had a red cashmere throw (red-red, a real sort of Parish-Hadley red, it’s a wonderful red) in his office, over his chair and we had a brown satin, sort of 50s-looking sofa in one room which I thought looked a little cold. Anyway, I pinched the red throw from out of his office and put it on there, expecting to hear about that one. He came in, looked at it and didn’t say a thing—but he went out and bought another one for his office.
I’ve been to Albert Hadley’s apartment on 85th Street and it was actually very modern.
Yeah, it wasn’t much. I thought that he and Mrs. Parish made the perfect combination. She could overdo things and get too ruffle-y. A great example is the famous Astor library, those bookcases—the red lacquer and the brass trim—who didn’t love them? It was one of the most iconic rooms that came out of Parish-Hadley. His adding that to her chintz sofas and pillows, it was just fabulous.
You live without a kitchen … well you have the hot plate. Do you cook at all?
I can cook whatever I want. I have a bigger hotplate with two burners that I actually never use. The other thing is I have Marché Madison four doors away.
That’s a good kitchen! So I just completely love this fun fact about you, which is that your great grandfather was the composer John Philip Sousa—did you have to listen to a lot marching music when you growing up?
Only when I was dragged off to Washington for some installation or a building was being dedicated to him, something like that. I’ve heard plenty of Marine Corps marching bands.
Are you musical?
I’m not at all. I’ve only done two things in my whole life. One was fashion and the other was interior decorating. I haven’t done anything else. To me it’s the same mental process—it’s putting things together.
I remember one thing you said to me at a Quest Christmas party—you said you can wear clothes from H&M but you have to have a good purse and good shoes.
I still think that.