Scott Bromley is most famous for having designed Studio 54, but he has also designed a vast range of other buildings: high rises when he worked for Emery Roth & Sons, well-known restaurants and private residences, in particular on Fire Island, when he started his own practice in 1974, as well as the hottest nightclub in Moscow, the re-design of the only Richard Neutra house in San Francisco and the extraordinary B’Nai Jeshurun Temple in Short Hills, New Jersey.
In his youth, fresh from McGill University in his native Canada, he worked for Philip Johnson, having met him coincidentally on a train. He was invited back to the Glass House, where Johnson served him the first Negroni of his life. Scott Bromley is one of those people – special things happen to him because he has such charisma. It doesn’t hurt that he is tall and good-looking, but there is very little vanity to him, and, best of all, a little subversive humor that seems to be more and more of a rarity these days. We hadn’t been in his apartment two minutes before he had opened a bottle of wine (vaguely transgressive at 11 am in the morning) and then he invited us to sit down on two elegant chairs that he had designed himself. ‘We call them the blowjob chairs’ he said, airily. We’re not easily fazed, so we forged on with the interview …
You’re a lot of fun and you’re making jokes but I have a sense that underneath it you’re very serious-minded.
I used to be very shy. So painfully shy. And then when I thought, if I had to run a business, and I was brimming with ideas … I thought if I was ever going to be able to express that, I have to get out there and do it. And I went to EST and all that stuff, but …
Yeah, I see all these East-West things around.
Most of this stuff is found from the street, which is called ‘mongo’ – did you know that?
There’s a whole book called Mongo … and anyway, a smile and a pat on the ass and I started to get along … my father was very gregarious.
How did you make yourself less shy?
I tried to do everything differently that I did normally. Like if I watched Channel 4, I watched Channel 7, if I ate cereal for breakfast, I ate eggs. I’m not very shy anymore but way down under I’m basically very shy because you came in and I said some silly things, like ‘did you bring money or drugs?’ which kind of breaks the ice but that isn’t really my general M.O. – so you’re right about that.
But to get to where you are and having people take you seriously means that you have to deliver, which you do.
Yes. This whole business … a little talent, a lot of luck.
I think a combination of patience and obsession leads to success.
And it’s being able to project your vision, that’s communication. I’m dyslexic. I never read a novel until I was about 40.
What was the novel that you read?
Oh it’s a great story. I’ll try to do it quickly. I had my own office, I didn’t care what time you came into work as long as you put in like seven or eight hours. All I cared is that you got the work done on time when you said, so it was presentable. And I would come from nine to six, and so would the office manager, Russell Morris, and he was reading this book every day. I came in and he would be reading the whole day. I said, you know Russell, if we don’t send out bills, we don’t get any money back, and if we don’t get any money back, we can’t eat, and if we can’t eat, we fall down and we’re out of business. And the next day he was reading, and he said: ‘I can’t stop reading this book.’ I said ‘Tomorrow, if the bills aren’t out, you’re out.’ The bills got out. I arrived early that morning and on my desk was this tome. It was something by Stephen King, called The Stand. So I took it home that night … with a dictionary and a yellow pad … oh … [points to the tape recorder] are you listening to this stuff? Oh God! … well, I took the book home and every word I didn’t know, I looked up and I got through maybe 12 pages in two hours. I was hooked, hooked on the story, and the next night it was 15 pages, and the next night it was 30 pages, and bingo! Now I always carry a book with me. I have these three books … this is a great story, have you read it? [picks up Cormac McCarthy’s The Road]
That’s a very disciplined approach. Are you very disciplined?
I’ve learned and I’ve repeated it. In ’57 I had Hep C, like Pam Anderson and I, we had Hep C. And it was life threatening. I went through this Interferon stuff, where I was jabbing myself every day … and after five years I started to get depressed … and they gave me Wellbutrin but I didn’t like how it worked, so I decided I’ll try my old trick again, I won’t shop at the deli, I’ll shop at the other one nearby, I’ll take my dry cleaning to this one and not that one, I’ll ride a bicycle to work and instead of going Ninth Avenue, I’ll go Eighth Avenue … just to break the routine. And all of a sudden I wasn’t concentrating on me so much, I was concentrating on how to get through the day in a reasonable way.
How did that work creatively?
I don’t know. I’m always just full of ideas. It just sort of comes. It’s like, you know, idiot-savant. It’s just ingrained.
But most people are too lazy to change like that.
They did a story in the Times about Hepatitis C and I said to my doctor, listen, if you have anybody who wants to call me, they must call me. I got calls from all over the world and I would just chat for a long time. Hopefully it did some good.
Do you always have time for people?
Yes. We’re on this little blue planet to help each other out. It’s the only thing I’ve figured out.
Did you have a lonely childhood?
No, I had a brother, who was six years older – so I got hit in the head a lot. But Marge and Ed were great. [he always refers to his parents as ‘Marge and Ed’ or ‘Large Marge and Big Ed’] We used to
have a four-part harmony in the car and sing, and I saw my mother pee beside the road more times than you would ever want to know. ‘Eddy, Eddy, pull over! Pull over .. wooded scenery!’ In another hour the same thing. We had a good time with my folks.
I had an impression of you growing up, self-sufficient in the Canadian wilderness.
Yes, I can fix your car, I can fix your washing machine but I couldn’t read a book. And I was a pianist and a swimmer. But I wasn’t such a great pianist because I couldn’t read the music very well … but once I had it in my memory …
I read somewhere that when you went to college you couldn’t decide between architecture and medicine.
Where did you find all this? I took architecture because ‘A’ came first in the alphabet [laughs[ … all that 3D stuff was really easy for me to deal with.
You actually seem like an architect with a good personality. A lot of architects are dull, I have to tell you. They don’t laugh. They’re really intense.
I think that they’re over-cerebral. I tell the kids at my office if you’re not having a good time, go home. Life is too short. We’re like a pinprick in this. And you don’t know when the bus is coming … and I’m very aware, I had Hepatitis C, and you might as well have a good time or go home … I ain’t kiddin’ honey, I ain’t kiddin’.
What does your partner do?
He’s a producer at the Film Society at Lincoln Center, so he’s the one that knows all the luminaries. He just did the thing with Diane Keaton, which got great reviews. He’s the greatest guy … I’ve known him for 37 years but we’ve been together for eight years.
What’s the difference between a luminary and a celebrity?
I think it’s just two different words. I learned to say both of them … I don’t think I ever say ‘movie star’ now. We throw a party here every year for Valentine’s Day and a few ‘luminaries’ come – and a few hookers. When I first moved in here, this place was loaded with hookers. I was not a big threat to them and I like everybody … I can talk to a doorknob … and I got to be friendly with a couple of the kids and still am. They come to the Valentine’s Day party and the unofficial subtitle of this Valentine’s Day party is ‘Hookers and Hollywood Stars’. People come up to me and say ‘Which one’s the hooker?’ I just direct them to the nearest woman and hope they haven’t met before.
I read that when you designed Studio 54, you talked about creating ‘visual eroticism’ and I wondered how you achieved that without being tacky.
Well, shadows and suggestion.
What did you think was important when you designed it?
That you could be a voyeur and a luminary. When I walked in it hit me: everybody wants to be a star. Everybody wants to be on stage. That’s why we made the stage the dancefloor.
Are we all exhibitionists at heart?
Don’t you think? We all need a little bit of ego else we wouldn’t get out of bed.