As we said to designer Richard Mishaan at some point in our lengthy interview, “we thought we were going to be talking about if mid-century design is in or out and so forth …” but what we did talk about instead was how entrepreneurial he is. It does not detract from the fact that he is a confident designer of interiors, furniture and textiles, not to mention his successful days in fashion as well as owning his own store for seventeen years, Homer, that sold the work of the world’s top designers. On his own website he is described as “expansive”. He seems to see opportunity everywhere but when pressed to explain how he does it, he tried but didn’t really know. “You’ve got to be smart.”
Born in Colombia, as a boy he moved every second year to the States. He studied Fine Art at NYU and architecture at Columbia but when he graduated in the Reagan era, found there were no jobs in New York so he went to work for a friend on Seventh Avenue. Deciding he could go it alone in the fashion business, he designed athleisure wear before it was a “thing”. Eventually after scoring a photo shoot with Bruce Weber and lucking out through various other contacts (“I’ve had the luckiest career in the world”) he ended up designing high-end clothes and getting spreads in Vogue. For reasons relating to the family business he shifted away from fashion and when that came to a close, he gradually moved into real estate. He bought and sold property in the Hamptons that, twenty-odd years ago, was going relatively cheap (as well some property that he worked on in the city. It was from there that his interior design business started and now, as he puts, “we’re doing it all.”
Let’s begin at your beginnings …
This is very funny. Are you going to start from the beginning-beginning? Do you want to start way back with my parents? My mother’s parents went to Colombia because my grandfather worked in fats and oils—he grew African palm—and he was one of these innovative pioneers. He met these engineers in Germany and France and they said that the optimum climate was Colombia. My [Ashkenazi Jewish] grandmother was like a fish out of water. She was fancier than my grandfather. Then the war breaks out and her family is taken away to camps. After the war, my grandmother thinks they’re all dead … and then … you’re going to make me cry now … her sister and her mother call and say we’re alive and we’re in Denmark. They lived in Denmark for the rest of their lives.
So you are part of all a legacy of European Jews who spread out across the world after the war, really aren’t you?
Yes, there are all these Europeans who embraced Colombia. My grandfather became incredibly successful but he also really loved it. It was like colonial times. It was a much gentler, nicer time. And it was a great, great life. So, in the sixties, there was the first guerilla group and they started to kidnap people—what they wanted was, and I guess with great advice by the man himself, Fidel, was to destabilize a country by chasing out the people at the top.
Which were people like your family, I guess? Did you have to have bodyguards and things like that?
Well, every second year we would leave Colombia and come to the US, to Florida, so I went to nine schools in twelve years.
How did that affect you? It must have been awful!
Er … I can make friends quickly.
And high school and college was where?
I ended up in Miami and then I went to Emerson College for two years, then I came to NYU—I got a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts and then after that, I went to architecture school at Columbia.
So having been back and forth in these ways, would you say you were ambitious at this point or were you just too mixed up to know what you wanted to do?
I was an oddball anyway. If this didn’t work out and my parents said that I had to go back to either Florida or Colombia, I was not going to be a happy person. So I came here [to New York] with the idea that this is going to work
Why did you decide to study architecture?
The historical aspect of architecture is what most interests me. Stylistically, the way that things evolve. There are cycles in history and they are reflected in architecture, from very minimal, like the Renaissance. The harder life gets, people cleanse themselves— it’s there in history and anthropology. I think where my heart lies [though] is with more ornate things. I just don’t see why not!
What do you mean by “the harder life gets, people cleanse themselves” ?
Well I don’t know why but it’s like if you realize at certain points like coming out of a lot of wars, like the Renaissance, it’s very sparse, it’s almost like modernism, but then it gets gaudier and gaudier, more Rococo and Baroque, then there’s the Industrial Age, and it’s more about function again.
In terms of architecture, how do you think that informs the style of today? Do you think we’re moving out of one trend and into another?
Now I’m going to get really trippy and you’re going to die laughing. After I left the fashion industry I ran into somebody and they said, “Why don’t you take the real estate development course at Columbia?” And I enroll. This was around 1993 … and then I have to write a dissertation, which I don’t, so I don’t get the diploma. So like two years ago they invite me to the alumni thing and they go, “Richard we want to use your name in the Architecture School and the whole thing,” and I go, “Well, I’ll give you the money but I didn’t graduate.” So they go, “Well why don’t you do it now?” And they also say to me that I also have to take one course … it was like, “Oh my God, this like hilarious! Now I’m going back to school!” Anyhow, my dissertation was about the pendulum between the real estate development that’s happening right now in the city between 15 Central Park West and 157 West 57th Street (also known as One57 or “The Billionaires’ Building”) being the two most expensive buildings. [My question was]: Is it modernism or is it traditional-classicism that really captures the dollars? And I thought in the end it would be traditional-classicism.
Why did you conclude that?
There’s a part of our hearts that seeks the past. And it’s got this built-in heritage, even if you’ve got none of it. The Ralph Lauren thing.
People automatically think that anyone with any wealth from Colombia have obtained it through drugs—presumably that’s been a bit of a pain in the ass to you over the course of your life?
Colombia got a totally bad rap. People were like, (drops his voice) “Are you a drug dealer?” Do you know what’s so funny? When we moved to Miami—it was the time of Miami Vice—and my father bought this giant, funniest boat that was bright yellow and he goes, “What do you think we should name it?” and my brother goes, “Colombian Gold.” So we had a boat called “Colombian Gold”. My father had no idea.
That’s a riot! But, we have to ask you, how did you get into design?
Well when I applied to architecture schools I thought they’re never going to accept me at Columbia but I might as well just try and when they did, I was like, “Oh my God, they must have found the wrong application.” And I go and I fall completely in love. You know there are different components—in Europe they call it interior architecture and now that’s what I’m doing.
Can you tell us about your fashion detour?
All the jobs in architecture weren’t in New York because there was nothing being built—there was a great recession because it was the Reagan years—so I go into fashion—I go to help a friend of my father on Seventh Avenue and he would import clothing. After a year, I go, “You know what? I can do this my myself.” You see my father was also in the textile business in South America. I started with an idea for a company that was “athleisure” (laughs) before athleisure even existed. And I don’t know where in the world I decided to call it “classical things” in French: Choses Classiques, and we get a lot of traction. And we’re manufacturing everything in Hong Kong—China hadn’t opened up yet—and we sold [the merchandise] in [places like] Bloomingdales … and everywhere.
Would you call yourself just naturally entrepreneurial?
Yeah … [laughs] I’m like the consummate merchant.
What does it take to be a good entrepreneur?
You know what? Everything I’ve ever sold, I’ve wanted one for myself. And [in terms of a business] you need to realize why something isn’t working and come with solutions. I just knew how to source things and how to buy things.
How do mean you “just knew”?
[Laughs] You’ve got to be smart. I don’t know … [you ask] what’s missing? And then you find it … necessity is the mother of invention I guess. I don’t know … I don’t know.
What is your attitude towards money then?
What is my attitude towards money? It makes life much easier. And I do love good things …
We thought we were going to be interviewing an interior designer as well as someone who had worked in the fashion business and we thought were going to be talking about if mid-century design is in or out and so forth …”
Let’s talk about it! It’s much more important.
I don’t think I want to. This is much more interesting.
Well, I did a Kips Bay room. My first Kips Bay room – we got clients and three years later I do my second room and there’s this gentleman who is in the room and he’s looking and looking and he’s kind of like looking a little too carefully and he says, “Would you be interested in designing furniture for a company?” and he goes, “I’m Manfred Scheller and I’m the president of Donghia.” So we started designing for Donghia. [Explains how that lead to a co-branded project with Sony and how that lead to designing offices for the president of Sony … ]
So another success! You’re one long success story!
Did I go looking? I guess I was looking … we’ve done hotels, we’ve done retail stores, we’ve done homes … we’re doing it all. I have had the luckiest career.
I think that adversity does inform who you are.