Richard Gillette has a genuinely artistic sensibility that makes for painterly, even somewhat mysterious, interiors, a selection of which are now beautifully showcased in his new book The Art of the Interior (Rizzoli). He sees himself as both a painter and a designer and still does hands-on artwork for clients, the part of the job he finds the most satisfying. He is one of those New Yorkers whose youth belongs to the Patti Smith-Andy Warhol-Chelsea Hotel era but, after 25 years in a subsidized loft in Tribeca, has moved to an apartment in Battery Park that seems to float in space over the East River, a view so stunning and distracting, it was difficult to keep our minds on the interview.
So it says in the introduction of your book that you’re not a designer that goes out much and that you don’t have an entourage or go to that many charity events – why don’t you?
It is pretty much true but with the book and the promotional thing, and Rizzoli is hosting a book launch on the 24th and then after there’s a party that one of my clients is hosting and I thought, Gee, how am I going to get together enough people for that mammoth apartment but we’ve got over 100 RSVPs already, so I guess I know a few folks.
Are you not really a party person?
I’m not looking for the next client necessarily and I’ve been so blessed because somehow they come, and I always trust that they will come.
I also read that you’ve been inspired by all kinds of things, including a client’s dream.
Absolutely. The theme of this book really has to do with art that inspired the interiors. [Gestures towards his bookshelves laden with art books] You know, with my art history background, a piece of each of these [books] is lodged in my brain.
Are you able to explain the process of how you might work directly from a particular picture, how that might inspire a room?
You know, the key really nine times out of ten is where this house or apartment is.
So if something is on the Upper East Side, how would you approach that?
That already indicates somewhat of a traditional feeling … I have a weakness for the Park Avenue matron look … a little bit [smiles]
What about that look is so appealing to you?
Bits of that look … again the place, acknowledging that. If I get a job on the Upper East Side, immediately I think of Lee Radziwill.
Are there any particular artists at the moment that have inspired you?
I’m kind of stuck at the moment on photography and people like Bridget Riley who are very graphic. And black-and-white is the trend at the moment, black-and-white interiors …
Oh, I thought color was coming back.
If you look at the kind of overview … even the few times I do go out, restaurants have kind of run with this, the shops have run with it, the fabric stores … with touches of red … hey, look at the way you’re dressed! [Sian is wearing red, black and white]
Who are your painter heroes, if you had to pick three or four?
Ohh … that’s such a tough one.
Hey, I’ve given you three or four!
All right … I mean, I would say Jackson Pollock is so important, right up there. But then I just love Poussin, always have. Caravaggio, I would have to say … the list goes on and every day is a little bit different.
A lot of artists, like Monet for example, are very interested in interiors—they pay great attention to their own houses and paint interiors and so on.
Exactly—and so do people in the fashion world. And many interior designers are [also] painters or take photographs or started out as potters.
Do you have your own studio?
No longer. I had a studio in Tribeca for 25 years but I moved here and pared down.
Why did you want to pare down?
My loft in Tribeca was big, it was full, it was high theater. I lived there for 25 years and I was part of artists’ housing in early Tribeca. After all those years, a developer came along and when Tribeca turned into what Tribeca turned into, you know, tripping over baby carriages, I was paid to get out. I used to jog here from my apartment down to here to Battery Park and I used to look up at this building and think, My God! What a monster of a Beaux Arts, weird, fabulous building. So when I had to move, I only looked at two apartments [in this building]. I just put everything in storage and little by little sold it off to antique dealers – and it just feels really good!
Was it liberating?
Totally! I kept my books … but how could [any possession] compete with these views?
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in upstate New York but at 17, got on the train and just made a beeline for New York.
So I saw by your bedside you have the Patti Smith book [Just Kids] and you were saying how you love the book because you know a lot of people in it.
Well, I’m from that era. I lived on 23rd Street, I went to the School of Visual Arts on 23rd Street, I hung out at the Chelsea Hotel. And still to this day, I take yoga classes on 23rd—I’m like “I can’t get away from this damn street!”
How do you feel about the idea that New York has become sanitized and too safe now?
It’s kind of pointless to compare … it’s just so incredibly gentrified. The danger factor isn’t there. When I lived on 2nd Avenue and 12th Street, we were held up at gunpoint and knife point numerous times but it was fantastic to be there. A few weeks ago I went to La Mama to see something and I thought, Oh my God, it’s so different but hey! La Mama’s still there. And we saw something weird and wonderful and John Kelly did this thing about Egon Schiele … and you know it’s still there. And you can still go out at 5 am to a club and take the latest drug …
What is the latest drug?
[Smiles] I wouldn’t know. I am just clean and serene.