“No one ever hires us to do yellow,” says designer Scott Sanders. “I love yellow.” He sounded a little regretful—designers, like all of us, have unrealized dreams—but he has had something of a charmed career. His very first independent design job, a mere week out of Parsons, was a 175-room hotel in Miami, owned by the Rubell family … and it all went from there. Not that he hadn’t paid his dues beforehand, working many years as a store manager for Ralph Lauren—he worked full time while studying for his design degree. Eventually he secured for himself the position of Ralph Lauren’s first in-house interior designer until things changed in that one fell swoop. It was a project that might have given even a seasoned designer some pause. “I think if I had been smarter and older, I probably would have been really scared but I was so excited and at that point, I was just, “Oh sure!”
It’s been a while – I saw you at the Kips Bay a few years ago …
Right, that crazy duplex double apartment on the West Side!
How do you feel about doing show houses? A lot of decorators have mixed feelings about them.
They’re very fun because you get to create something from inside of your head … a perfect example is that no one ever hires us to do yellow and we did a yellow living room in [a New Jersey] show house. You get that out of your system and then you can move on.
Now why does no one ever hire you to do yellow?
I don’t know. I love yellow. It’s so happy. Show houses are so much fun because I also got to do a ‘70s TV room one time and a red-and-white pool. Yeah, I did this in 2003 when House & Garden was still around. I got the last space at one show house, which was the pool, a horrible pool with a red brick terrace. We built red-and-white striped awnings and we did red garden boxes with topiaries, sprayed all the furniture red and used red-and-white striped upholstery from Ralph Lauren—I still run into people who say, “Oh my God, I loved your red-and-white pool.”
We quite often hear that sentiment: “when House & Garden was still around”. It’s as if designers date things from before or after House & Garden, as if it represents some kind of watershed moment. What do you think of the changes where everyone looks at interiors online and not in magazines?
I think it’s cyclical because there are new things coming around. Du Jour magazine may be doing something on the home; and you just have to look at how beautiful Elle Décor is now. And all of the Cottages & Gardens magazines … they’re opening more and more regional magazines. There’s something to be said for having a magazine in your hands, looking at it – and I like tearing out pages. I love that!
So we’re going to talk about Ralph Lauren because that’s where you sort of launched yourself. How did you end up being the first [interior] designer at Ralph Lauren?
I started as a store manager … I went in one day and I quit because I had gotten accepted to Parsons—[although] I wanted to continue to work while I got my degree. And the wonderful people at Ralph Lauren said, “We want you to stay. What can we do? Will you go to Madison Avenue and work on the Home Collection?” Within three weeks of being there, we got a new floor manager who saw that I was connecting with people and designing rooms for them and selling more things. [The floor manager] was very smart and saw this is as a business opportunity. The day that I graduated from Parsons, they said they would create my own department and I would officially be the first in-house interior designer for outside clients.
So when you started to design “for real” so to speak, how did that come about?
The word just got out. Literally a week after I graduated from Parsons and [Ralph Lauren] gave me my title and I got my cards … this lady walked in. That was the beginning of everything. She said, “You know, I’ve heard about you.” [laughs] I had no idea who she was and we sat down and she said she wanted to get to know me … where was I from? Did I have a sister?” And so on. I thought, “Who is this crazy lady?!” I tell her this story now but she doesn’t remember. Anyway, [after the conversation] I went on vacation and when I got back there was a set of plans—and she said that she wanted me to meet the whole family … we set a date and the entire Rubell family comes in. Then I figured out who they were. And they said, “We really like you and we’ve bought this hotel and the name is Beach House and we just want you to create it around that name.” They gave me complete carte blanche. One hundred and seventy five rooms, 1500 feet of public space … I helped with uniforms, china …
Didn’t you want to run and hide under a big boulder or something?
I think if I had been smarter and older, I probably would have been really scared but I was so excited and at that point, I was just, “Oh sure!” I still remember the day the opened in Miami … Mera [Rubell] comes over and she grabs my hand and she says, “You know, I just have to tell you this. I didn’t always quite understand what you were talking about and what you were going for but you were so passionate about it I thought, well, I’ll just go with it!”
You didn’t feel at any point that you were in over your head?
No … no.
What happened to the hotel in the end?
It’s gone now. Someone bought it because the real estate was so valuable. And they tore it down and built a Richard Meier building … [I felt] very sad. But you know, the world changes … [that hotel] opened up my career.
So what are the practical concerns when designing a hotel?
Durability … we use a lot of leather and vinyl. Everyone in the industry is moving towards putting in platform beds because you get rid of that awful bedskirt that always looks dingy and it’s always falling off. The other thing is that no one really wants a bedspread anymore … you want to feel like you’re the first person whose ever been in that room. For The Lord Baltimore Hotel, it’s a crisp white sheet with the logo of the hotel imprinted on the sheet.
I read this article years ago about how filthy hotel quilts are … about how much sex people have on top of the quilt … now the first thing I do when I walk into a hotel is get rid of it.
I know! You don’t want to touch it. It’s just shocking what people do … throw their suitcases with the dirty wheels on top of the bed … I’ve seen so much.
You grew up in Ohio – tell us about Ohio.
Well it was a little town called Piqua, population 18 000 people. My father and grandfather were builders and developers. Between them I think they were responsible for about 25 percent of the houses in the town. I would go with them to pick out materials and they saw that I had an affinity for it. So by the time I was 12 or 13, I would go by myself and pick out interior and exterior finishes, things like the brick, the colors of the shutters, the light fixtures, the carpet … they built spec houses.
And your taste helped sell the houses?
Yes. Of all the houses I only had one that ended up being an issue. It was 1976 and I was 13 years old. I thought we should do a “Spirit of ‘76” house. It was two-story, red brick colonial with Wedgewood blue shutters on the outside, which was fine but the inside had red shag carpeting, Wedgewood blue cabinets with red countertops and Minutemen wallpaper. It was fabulous and no one got it.