S. Russell Groves trained as an architect and has worked for very big names including Richard Meier and Peter Marino. He says it was Peter Marino who helped him go forward with something he had always believed—that the divide between architecture and interior design is unnecessary. Meshing the two disciplines continues to inform his deceptively simple designs that frequently give a great sense of volume and space, regardless of the actual dimensions. His own apartment was immaculate, small but perfectly formed, rather like Russell himself, and we had a wide-ranging chat—but sadly we couldn’t get him to gossip about Peter Marino … we’ll have to try and get our own interview.
I want to talk about growing up in Nova Scotia – that must be an amazing place to grow up.
Yes, it’s really beautiful. I grew up in small town called Sydney Mines in Cape Breton, so [it was] very rural … the beach, the forests, the mountains.
Is that sort of “in” you, when you grow up in those sort of surroundings?
I would like to think so. Definitely I have an appreciation of nature, whether it is in its own form or in the materials I use.
There are these great, vaulting spaces in some of work … you grew up with space! Is Nova Scotia in your work?
Yes … maybe in an abstract way.
Don’t you miss it?
Um … it’s beautiful but it is very rural … very remote.
Did you do all the stuff, the hiking and the fishing?
Oh yes. I was forced to. [Laughs]
Do your parents still live there?
Oh no, we moved here actually, and then to New Jersey when I was still quite young. But I went back every summer and I have cousins and extended family who still live there.
So you went to RISD but you didn’t initially study architecture, is that right?
It was kind of a circuitous path. I did go for interior design but when I got there, there was freshman foundation, which is all-encompassing: sculpture, drawing, painting etcetera. I dabbled in fashion design and almost went into that. I went back to the interior design curriculum and the dean at the time convinced me that I needed to go to architecture.
How did he do that?
He just felt it was more serious. I don’t think I even understood the difference back then. But even now, you know I’m an architect that does interior design – I’ve never really understood why it was divided in the first place.
Well we do find it very divided.
It’s odd, yes.
On the whole the architects live in a very different interiors compared to the interior designers. It’s the shell and the lines they’re thinking about. They’re very ascetic.
Yes. It’s very true. I find it very sad actually.
We’re rude about architects because they’re so cerebral and can be so priestly and we said this to Dennis Wedlick and he said that it’s because of the education—he said, “It’s one long hazing process.”
It is, absolutely. It’s very tough, very rigorous. And it’s really based on the drawing, the abstract. It’s not based on life, how people live and how the human being actually lives.
It is traditionally a fine art, one of the Greek fine arts and they look at it more like that, like it’s sculpture. They don’t look at it as a building that houses people and that’s where the disconnect comes in. To me, it should do the best of both things.
That almost seems like something you have to teach yourself afterwards.
I did have to teach myself that. Certainly when I worked at Peter Marino’s office—he’s an architect who does interior design very well—and he mentored me and let me cross that line. The projects I got to work on I could see all the way through from initial zoning and planning to fabrics and finishes.
Does he have a different persona from his media persona? He likes to send these conflicting messages—sort of married-with-a-child and then the biker leathers and so on.
I can’t go there, won’t go there … couldn’t even go there. He’s an enigma to me. But yes, he does like that kind of dichotomy.
Are you one of these architects like Frank Lloyd Wright who wants to design everything down to the door handles? I read that once he even designed a dress for his client to wear at the dinner party she was going to hold in the house he had designed.
Absolutely, definitely. I would design anything and everything. And we’re getting to do that, plumbing fixtures, light fixtures … we did a line for Swarovski.
[Sian] You do HGTV, don’t you? It’s so unrealistic, these projects. I wrote to Hilary Farr on Love It or List It and I said you know you can’t even install a Toto toilet in Manhattan for $30,000.
[Lesley] Did she write back?
[Sian] She did! She even looked up New York Social Diary!
[Laughs] I haven’t done it in a while. We did a loft downtown—it wasn’t a reality show. It was a makeover.
Those are joke too—I mean how do you do those makeovers for, like a thousand dollars?
What was the first one? Trading Spaces? It was the worst thing that happened to interior design because people just thought you could do everything in twenty-four hours—it’s absolutely not possible.
If you had to choose just three or four materials, what would your picks be?
Oh my gosh, that’s tough. Just three or four? Wow, that’s a really hard one, I have to think about that. The first thing that popped into my mind was shagreen … parchment … horn … bronze.
How about building materials?
I like humble materials … oak floors. My house in the Hamptons is very rough, very, very simple.
Yes, I read about that house—I think it’s the first time I’ve ever read a defense of linoleum.
It’s a very seamless linoleum that used to be used, at least when I was in grade school … it’s just a great material.
But it’s horrible! It’s depressing.
It has a horrible reputation yes—because it’s been used in institutions. I use it in two ways: in the bathroom, black-and-white, like a checkerboard pattern and then seamlessly in the kitchen, in a neutral, paper bag color.
You didn’t seriously set out to create “the feeling of a janitor’s closet” [a quote from the article] did you?
[Laughs loudly] The idea was the old school room, kind of Bauhaus … certainly the bathrooms did look like a cross between the janitor’s closet and the nurse’s infirmary. It was kind of a tongue-in-cheek idea.