Interior designer Richard Mervis and his partner, real estate developer Jeffrey Rosen, have the most extraordinary apartment, a renovated Upper East Side duplex that took years of planning and patience to complete. They lived on a lower floor of the building and the apartment on the top floor was occupied by a long-standing tenant, the last sponsored apartment in the building. Richard and Jeffrey purchased the apartment, along with the roof rights and the tenant, who was an amazing woman of 93, passed away when she was 103—making them landlords for an unwitting ten years. Then the work began as they shaped the two floors into the gracious, elegant space that it is today.
Well I must say, you live around the corner from me and this is an extraordinary apartment but I tried to dig up anything I could on you and I could find nothing. Tell me about your career and how long you’ve been doing this?
I’ve been doing this for a little over thirty years, which is hard to believe. I have a background in architecture. I actually got my feet wet doing commercial projects, very high end hotel interiors. Then I just took a leap of faith and started doing my own thing.
How did you get your first clients?
My first client was a neighbor – I haven’t thought about him in a very long time – he owned, and still does, an advertising agency and he asked me to renovate and decorate his new apartment. It was my first opportunity—that job was published in Interior Design magazine, about a million years ago. And from there … you just start collecting clients.
I have a lot of very loyal and repeat clients, which is probably why I’m very much under the radar.
I think in this economy, designers that have been around the block rely upon that core. It’s much harder for the newer, younger ones.
It seems like they have to do the whole promotional marketing of their image.
I know, I know. [sighs] It’s probably something that I should have been pursuing throughout my career but I did get publicity and I’ve always had work. I have to be very honest with you – clearly the industry is not what it used to be. The furniture market has changed radically. Small showrooms have been gobbled up by large showrooms. There are a lot more interior designers out there. I don’t want to say there’s a lot more competition—there’s just a lot of designers out there.
People think they can do their own interiors.
And to some degree they can. I mean everything is so accessible now. The market is unbelievable. I mean catalogs are so sophisticated. TV programs have become very sophisticated as far as do-it-yourself real estate stuff.
But what can’t they do, do you think, as a designer?
I don’t think they can easily create a cohesive design scheme. You could probably copy something you see in a showroom or in a catalog or on television but I don’t think there’s a lot of creativity in that. There’s no uniqueness to that. You can probably create one room but you would have difficulties doing an entire home. And most people get totally lost when it comes to architectural renovation. I do a tremendous amount of renovation work.
Don’t you think that’s changed over the years—people are buying these pre-war apartments and they want to gut renovate them into something more modern. Why are they buying the pre-wars to begin with?
I think the trend really is to buy more contemporary spaces. I really do. That’s why these high end luxury condominiums are doing so well now. If there is the square footage and the ceiling height, then that becomes very desirable for people who want a more contemporary look. Because otherwise you’d have to take a classic Park Avenue or 5th Avenue apartment and gut the hell out of it.
So what’s going to happen to all these buildings on the Upper East Side? They’re all these pre-wars with very small kitchens and small bathrooms.
I think slowly but surely all those small kitchens and small bathrooms will all be enlarged. There’s always going to be a market for an Upper East Side residence.
Where did you grow up?
In Jamaica, Queens.
Do you ever want to leave the Upper East Side – now that you have this apartment you might never want to leave?
I don’t know … I mean it is kind of stuffy and the restaurants are … stuffy and boring. It’s not an exciting neighborhood so I always have fantasies of moving downtown but it is so much more expensive downtown. You could not replicate this space downtown for anything even vaguely affordable. I’m still loving this apartment but ultimately, we will change.
Why is it that people don’t want the traditional look anymore—they all want modern?
That’s a really good question. I think as much as anything it is a trend. I think the mid-century furniture trend is waning.
It’s very hard to determine if we like things just because they’re popular.
You’re absolutely right. It’s very easy in this industry to do trendy work. You look through any shelter magazine and 75 percent of it is trendy, and those vignette shots where they’ll shoot a tablescape which anyone could create. It’s more difficult not to be trendy. Younger clients want what they see in shelter magazines or on television. Older clients, and I’m talking about my clients specifically, are more sure of their own taste.
So you have been with your partner for over thirty years … where did you meet?
Yes, a little over thirty years. We met at a party.
And he’s a designer too. What’s his name?
He is, and a very successful real estate developer. His name is Jeffrey Rosen. He’s doing well in this crazy economy.
So did you get married?
No [laughs] I knew you were going to ask this question!
And I knew that was going to be the second question! We’re talking about it. It’s very strange after thirty years. I think if we had met, like two years ago, the romance would still be there but after thirty years it’s a whole different kind of experience—I know how strange that sounds. But you are about the hundredth person to ask and the first person to ask was Jeffrey’s mother: not if, but when are you going to get married?
Do you think the relationship would be any different if you got married?
No. We’re completely committed to each other. The only reason we would get married—and we probably will—would be as an act of solidarity. I think it’s just setting another example and I think that’s really, really, really important. And we’re in a precarious situation as to where our presidency is concerned—and I’m a little concerned about that.
Was doing this apartment a collaborative project?
I think I took a primary role but there’s nothing that we didn’t both agree on.
People always fight over renovations don’t they?
Yes, and perhaps more so after the fact. I didn’t put enough heat in the bathrooms upstairs and so they’re always freezing, and I never hear the end of it.
In your next life do you want to come back and pick another career?
In my next life I want to come back as a client. I stole that line from someone else but that’s what I want to be.