A natural storyteller, Ronald Bricke is a designer who has been in the business a long time throughout its shifts from swags and country French and on into our era of Internet shopping, flat screen TVs and bookless rooms. There is an old-world courtesy about him and he can do that thing that only designers can do, which is describe a room in vivid, visual detail so that you can see it right there. He can also do a rather good impression of Salvador Dali.
I have something that I have to talk to you about straight away, which is that you once won this prize that was judged by Salvador Dali and the Duchess of Windsor!
It changed my life. In my last year at Parsons there was a scholarship, offered by [an Italian] duke, and the scholarship involved five months of studying in Europe. I desperately wanted to go to Europe—my parents couldn’t afford it—and I kept trying to think of ways to get there and I kept failing. The competition was to design [the interior] of a Palladian villa, the Villa Malcontenta outside of Venice, for the American ambassador and it was supposed to reflect both Italian and American taste. The frescoes were absolutely beautiful—they were like ghosts because they had worn off. I upholstered all the furniture in Fortuny fabric and then I took the same fabric, reversed it and put it on the walls. I had the ceiling re-frescoed in sepia. This was a hypothetical design.
How did they get this panel of judges together? Did you meet them?
Actually it became a bit of a scandal. The school had told us all to leave and to come back at 5 o’clock. The judges were arriving at 3 o’clock. Then I got a call and was told to get over to the school immediately. So I went over immediately and as I was entering, the Duchess was leaving and she said, “I hope you’re the winner.” And I went upstairs—Dali and the Duchess had been left just hanging around—they’d finished judging at 3:45. And then they didn’t want to stick around.
Oh no! Had they left any comments?
Well, the following day, I think it was The New York Times announced that judging had taken place and I think the comment was, “The first prize was won by Ronald Bricke who was nowhere to be found.” The school then asked me to apologize to the duke because he had promised to give the scholarship for seven years (I was the second recipient) and he was now no longer going to give the scholarship. I asked what I was to apologize for and they said, “Being late” but I said, “I wasn’t late, I was early.” When I discovered that five other people might not get the scholarship, I did it. I wrote and apologized. But [the duke] never gave the scholarship again. His statement to me was, “Good try. I know the real story.”
Well then, how was the actual trip?
It was a phenomenal trip. We traveled to five countries; we studied and painted there.
What would you have learned from a story like that, about being forced to apologize?
I didn’t have any problem apologizing when I found out that, whoever was at fault, it was going to mean others might not get what I had already won. A couple of years later when the Duke and Duchess had passed on and they had a sale at Sotheby’s, I discovered there was large blue velvet box with the cipher of the Duke and Duchess and when you opened it up there was a folder, also with a blue velvet cover and cipher, and when you opened that up, there was a [photograph] of the judges, the Duchess and Salvador Dali and Mrs. Houghton [wife of the former chairman of the Met] and on the other side, it said, “Ronald Bricke was the prize winner.” I have no idea why they kept that!
Did you buy it?
Of course I bought it! I have it in the closet. I did meet Dali later, at a cocktail party that was exhibiting his jewelry. There was a little tiny woman who I was talking to and she had one of his necklaces on. It had lions’ heads covered with diamonds and splashing out of their mouths were diamonds and they cascaded into an emerald necklace. She was wearing a white strapless dress and she said, “This is very heavy,” and she took it off and handed it to me. All around her collarbones were these big red welts and I was surrounded by security in seconds.
So did you fall in love with Europe after your trip at the age of twenty?
I did but I had never traveled by myself before and I had never handled my own money. I was so nervous about overspending that I kept a booklet and recorded every single penny I spent. I still have it. It’s amazing how inexpensive Europe was then. And I thought the food in England was horrible—it was!
You have a place in Paris. My husband was suggesting going there and suddenly I didn’t know if I wanted to. I haven’t been for so many years and I now have this sense that it’s turned into a soulless theme park. Is that true?
No, it’s so marvelous to walk around. There’s the Aquaduct, with plants growing upon it—it’s like the Highline but it’s French—it’s more glamorous! The food is also wonderful. It’s not classic French anymore. It’s international.
So we also wanted to ask you about doing the Elsie de Wolfe townhouse. How did that come about?
A client of mine was re-doing an existing house and I started that work when they also bought the townhouse on Sutton Place. It had been renovated in the fifties. The library was original and it had wallpaper that I believe Elsie de Wolfe had put up. Downstairs there was linen fold paneling imported from Europe and that was beautiful. Everything else was trash. I tried it to bring it back up to a period space. One of the troublesome things I had in doing it was that the client looked at my colors and wanted it fresher. I wondered how to accomplish this. I was at a gallery and they had some drawings of Gustavian living rooms and Swedish interiors. I looked at these and I thought, “That’s it, I’m going Swedish!”
What were the colors? Did it work?
The colors of that period were chalky white, pink, pale blue, lemon yellow—but it’s the way they handle it. And it worked in the townhouse too. The client said, “Perfect, we’ll do it.”
It’s interesting with those 19th century Swedish interiors because they take French style and then do something else entirely with it. It’s less frivolous.
They simplify it. It’s more spacious. It’s not as dense.
What was it like working for Angelo Donghia?
I started as a [general] assistant but then I became Angelo’s assistant. He took me to this one house he did when we first started. I had never been exposed to something so fresh—it was bright green and white. I remember a table in bright green gaufrage velvet and the floor was painted white. I was just mesmerized by what he had done. But one day a woman came in and Angelo had forgotten to put it into the appointment book. We had nothing done. Angelo turned to me and said, “Ron, would you go into the sample room and get me Mrs. X’s color scheme?” I went in and started pulling together things in about fifteen minutes. I came back and I said, “Angelo, I have never had the opportunity to present a color scheme to a client. Can I do the presentation?” He said yes, without knowing at all what the color scheme was. And a couple of months later, I was a designer in the firm.
How has business changed over the years?
Enormously. I feel sorry for young kids today because there’s so much more for them to deal with. When I started at Yale Burge there was a “system” – there was one plaid, one stripe, one solid, one floral and it was all only to the trade. But it was simple then.
What made it simple?
Because people came for a look. They came to Yale Burge and the look [we offered] was country French. The look is more varied now.
Do you ever watch HGTV shows?
I’ve been on HGTV. I did a duplex on Park Avenue and I think I did the Elsie de Wolfe house—it was just taking people through. I don’t watch the shows—I check them out as opposed to watching them.
I like that distinction. What would you say you still get from your job?
I have a client who collects outsider art. We did the apartment to house that—tons of it—and it’s very colorful. I called to ask how she was and she said, “Every night when I go to bed, I pray and you’re included in my prayers because I look around and your apartment gives me so much pleasure.”