Sheila Kotur

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We’re hoping that the elegant era of fashion illustration might make a comeback one fine day and Sheila Camera Kotur can then return to her original career wrenched away from her when photography triumphed. Not that she let it stop her drawing or illustrating or establishing a second career as an interior designer. Mother of two daughters well known in the world of fashion, Hong Kong-based designer Fiona Kotur Marin and former U.S. Vogue style director Alexandra Kotur, Sheila remarks, with British directness, that neither daughter ever “showed the slightest interest in being creative” when they were young. “[But] it must have been there,” she adds. “I think it’s osmosis. They were surrounded by it. We didn’t talk about it. It was the clothes I wore, my lifestyle.” Working mainly from home, for almost two decades Sheila created illustrations for many Condé Nast publications as well as advertisements for the likes of Bergdorf Goodman and Saks. One of those lucky people who is never bored, her little home office/studio in the Upper East Side family apartment is still overflowing with work and ideas.

Do you do interiors for other people—we haven’t been able to find out for sure!

Oh tons! I do tons! All the time! But I never publish and I never show it.

Why’s that?

Because I never show it. I walk away … do you know, I don’t know why.

Have you been asked to publish your work?

Well I used to be but I think they actually all gave up on me. Some of the things I’ve done are … quite nice!


In the foyer of Sheila’s Upper East Side apartment an 18th century British portrait hangs above a console table filled with favorite objects including carved bone crustaceans, silver candlesticks and a group of colorful purses by daughter, Fiona. The small portrait is by Sheila when she moved to New York in 1962 and the English porphyry lamps were purchased at Sotheby’s.
A reflection of the foyer from a large gilt mantelpiece that once hung over the mantel of Sheila’s mother home in England. A pair of crystal candlesticks flanks a small illustration by Sheila. The painted chairs are 18th century English.
In the front foyer a large portrait of Alexandra hangs atop one of the mylar panels from the set of The Wiz. “Alexandra’s portrait is all black. Now I am creating a painting of Fiona which is going to be all white,” says Sheila.
“Accessories” created by Sheila as an idea for a department store advertisement hangs on a foyer wall.

 Well you have a great sense of style.

I’ll tell what my personal thinking is, I think [interior design] is a service—I don’t think it has anything to do with anything else. You’re providing a service. Unless you’ve got something really to offer—anyone can do a modern room, anyone can do a period room, as long as you know how to put stuff together and where to get it from. I never felt that I was a Frank Gehry; I never felt that I was a John Saladino. They created a “look”. I’ve never created a “look”. I [just] create very nice, lovely rooms and my work has always been very individual—being an illustrator, I’ve never copied.

What kinds of projects are you doing now?

I’ve just done a house in Santa Fe—these two ladies who I’ve worked with for years and years. It’s a real fabulous old adobe. We did it very modern.

So you’re equally happy to do modern as you are to do any other style?

Well to be frank with you, I think everybody’s work looks alike anyway.

Do you mean that most designers aren’t as distinctive as they think they are?

Oh, I don’t know what they think—it’s more to do with what the client wants, frankly. I watched the movie on Frank Gehry and he said he had to see a psychiatrist for 30 years because when you do something so unusual, you’re not sure. It’s not that you’re not sure about what you’re doing [but] you are giving it to the public—I always felt this about Matisse—and they’ve never seen anything like it before and it’s bound to make you feel very insecure.

It requires courage and daring—they’re doing something original, and we don’t always like originality as much as we think we do.

Those are the people I totally admire. You see I know my limitations.


Peeking into the living room. On the far wall, “Wisteria,” one of six collages out of paper by Sheila hangs above a French chair covered in chocolate leather. Some of Sheila’s collection of 19th century mahogany columns from England are arranged on top of an 18th century Italian architect’s table fitted with a movable marble top.
A grand 18th French crystal chandelier hangs above the airy living room space. Two of Fiona’s sculptures are displayed on top of a pair of faux-marble painted column pedestals.
A collage by Sheila is mounted on a mirrored wall in the seating area of the living room. Sheila hand-painted the whimsical sofa pillows for a Lenox Hill Neighborhood House benefit and was so pleased with the results that she kept some for herself.
A red abstract painted by artist Donald Silverstein, with whom Sheila once shared a studio space, is propped upon a French demi-lune table. Tucked under the table is a small “Wiggle Table” by Frank Gehry. The mirror is 16th century Spanish and was purchased for Sheila by friend and designer Keith Irvine.

Now you started off as an illustrator, didn’t you?

I won a bursary in England that sent me to Paris. I had just turned 18. I was at Balmain first of all, then at Dior—of course Dior was over the top fabulous.

Why did you apply for the bursary?

You know when I grew up, children weren’t even … I mean they were coping with bombs—who cared about you? We were worried about our lives. In those days the British school system was wonderful. I had the most fabulous teachers and when I went to art school when I was 15 I had no idea that was I very good at art, but apparently I was. I had this fabulous teacher there—Maggie Shepherd, so elegant! I had a wonderful education there, architecture, design, anatomy—you were taught anatomy in England. You were taught everything! It was massive work but fantastic. Maggie Shepherd applied me to the bursary.


Looking into a corner of the living room: The illustration of Dorothy Lamour, partially hidden behind the French chair, was done by Sheila and is part of a 1962 Hollywood series. Nearby is another of Fiona’s metal sculptures.
“Wisteria” hangs above a group of 19th century wooden English boxes. The marble sculpture is by Fiona.
Sheila’s former assistant, Bruce Boyd, faux painted the wall of built-ins. On the top shelf is a small painting by Donald Silverstein; the caryatid standing below the painting once flanked a marble fireplace.
Another photo of the hand-painted pillows for Lenox Hill Neighborhood House Benefit auction.
On the far wall are three works by Sheila. Nearby a Mayan head is arranged on top of an 18th century Pembroke table.
Fiona’s ceramic sculptures from her days she was as an art student at Yale are arranged on a glass and wood coffee table. The bronze tray is from Thailand.


How did you like Paris?

I hated it. I had never been away from home before. Parisians are very, very different to the British. The women were very cold and very manipulative and very tough.

And what happened after that?

Well, my father loved horses and he was at Ascot and he was with his friend who was dating the editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, Theresa Ritchie, the Honorable. My father said, “When you’re in Paris, look up my daughter.” So she did. She said, “When you get back to England, show me your work.” Of course when I got back to England, I didn’t show her my work.

What did you have in your portfolio at that time?

My designs! Because I was a designer.


Sheila’s office. “It’s very “heavily used” says Sheila.
Sheila’s office wall completely covered in family photos and artwork by Sheila.
Issues of House Beautiful opened to Sheila’s country house, which according to Sheila, “has been photographed for design magazines at least eight times.”
Illustrations done for Fiona’s fashion line.
More illustrations spread out in the office. The peacocks were done for the garden party of Saint John the Divine.
More “reference” says Sheila. In the foreground is a photo of an oversized painting of the family that hangs in Sheila’s Berkshires country home.
A close up of family photos. From upper left: grandson Rex in his first grade class in Hong Kong. Bottom: Fiona kissing Rex at his birthday party. Right: Sheila and her sister Pauline.

At the age of 18, for Dior? How did you manage to do that?!

I’m going to tell you! In the end my father called her. She looked at my portfolio and she said I’m going to see where I can put you as a designer. And this was the time of the Rolling Stones, Vidal Sassoon, The Beatles, Carnaby Street—nothing was catered to young people before that. We were ignored, our generation. But suddenly they realized there was money there to be had. Theresa Ritchie said to me I’ve got a fabulous job for you.

And what was that?

She said, “Have you ever thought of illustrating?” She gave me eight pages in Harper’s Bazaar. The story was a fabric story and I had to design the clothes for the story and illustrate them. I then worked for Horrockses, which was a very successful business then … and one day the Queen wrote to the PR people and said she wanted to meet me.

Why?

Princess Anne was about my age and obviously the ladies-in-waiting children came and she would say, “Whose dress is that and it was mine.” I was introduced to the Queen.

What was that like?

Lovely! She wanted to hire me! First of all I started making clothes for Princess Anne and then I did the Queen’s cruise wear. Horrockses was a cotton house, you see.


In the dining room more “Wisteria” collages and paintings of amaryllis are mounted on mylar panels which originally came from the movie The Wiz. The small mirror was stripped, painted and gilded by Sheila.
Sheila’s collection of mercury objects is the focus of her dining room table. The chairs surrounding the table are by Frank Gehry. Sheila purchased them at Bloomingdales over 30 years ago. Sheila hand-sewed the pink and brown curtains out of Indian silk.
The kitchen, filled with silver collected over the years.


The home bar.

What sort of clothes did you design for them?

Oh … lots. Princess Anne is a fabulous woman, you know. I think she would have been a great queen. She does 540 engagements a year. Anyway, it was about then that I decided to start my own company but I said, “Before I’m going to start my company, I’m going to go to America.” I was about 20 or 21. So anyway, I came over and a similar thing happened.

What was that?

Well I thought perhaps I’ll design a collection while I’m here, so I called Vogue. No answer. I didn’t know you were supposed to keep calling. I called once. So I sent my work up to Glamour and I got a call saying, “Could you illustrate for us?” And they gave me eight pages. My style was very, very modern and they’d never seen anything like it before. But you don’t know you’re doing something unusual. Then I started being an illustrator for Condé Nast. I did it for 18 years. I also got married—we met and we were married within three months. I also tried designing. I was hopeless on Seventh Avenue. Couldn’t survive. They were so awful. The first thing they would say was, “You’ve got to copy this because it’s selling.” And I would say, “Why don’t I do it and let them copy us?”

Well, it does have a very distinct reputation. It’s very tough.

I think if you’re born in America, it helps. I just didn’t understand it.


A mural of a Greek urn in a niche, painted by former assistant Bruce Boyd, fills the walls of the bedroom hallway.
Sheila designed and made the canopy bed and all the pillows out of silk and linen.
Sheila’s paintings of tulips fill the wall of her bedroom. Nearby the Chinese statues, which were carried back from Xian, stand on top of a British mahogany tilt top desk.
“This table, which displays all my relatives, means a great deal to me,” says Sheila.
Fiona’s shoes are positioned next to Sheila’s Hermès bags in her bedroom. The gilt Louis 15th chair is covered in a wheat-colored linen.
A Palm Sunday cross rests on top a handbag by Fiona. Nearby are photos of the grandchildren in silver frames.
A Chinese leather screen was purchased in England.
Portraits of Alexandra at the age of nineteen peek out above the Chinese painted screen.
Peeking into the bedroom hall from the bedroom.


When was the real shift from illustration to photography?

When I stopped getting any work.

I suppose it was about 30 or 40 years ago, right?

Yes. Suddenly it stopped. I said to my husband, “What am I going to do?” And he said, “You know when your house was in House & Garden, you got lots of people asking you if you could you be their decorator.” So I said, “Well the next person that calls …” and that’s how I started.

And did both your daughters grow up in this apartment?

They both grew up here. Never showed the slightest interest in being creative, either of them. Never discussed it with me. In fact I remember Alexandra coming home from Chapin with her little blazer on—I worked from my bedroom—and she stood there in the doorway and she said to me, “Do you know you’re the only mother that draws all the time? None of the other mothers do that.”

They blossomed later, I guess.

Well, it must have been there. Alexandra was very interested in sports and Fiona was very good at English.


Originally Fiona and Alexandra’s childhood bedroom, the space was transformed into the library. Sheila made all the cushions and upholstered the walls in a khaki glazed cotton and silk. The painting is by Donald Silverstein, with whom Sheila shared a studio when she was working for Condé Nast.
In the library a custom wall cabinet flanks a pair of wood columns faux-painted by Bruce Boyd. A mink throw made out of Sheila’s first mink coat covers the back of a caned chair.
Another shot of the wall unit. Framed intaglios hang on either side of 19th apothecary canisters.
A painting by Sheila hangs next to a carved an Italian gilt mirror.
A side table in the library displaying multiple magazine articles about Sheila, Fiona, Alexandra, and Sheila’s late husband Robert Kotur. The small watercolor was an advertisement for Fiona’s handbag and shoe business.
19th century “witches balls” that were once in Sheila’s childhood house fill a wire basket. The curtain fabric is from Clarence House.
A Flemish tapestry hangs above a small eagle mirror and stack of novels.

I think people probably think because you’ve got these daughters working in fashion, all three of you spent ages talking about clothes and going shopping—it doesn’t sound like it was like that?

No. I think it’s osmosis. They were surrounded by it. We didn’t talk about it. It was the clothes I wore, my lifestyle. I can get to eight museums from here and I can walk across the park to the Lincoln Center. I raised them this way—and sent them to England. I raised them like a European would.

What is your approach to style? I saw you on a website where someone had stopped you in the street to take your picture because you looked so stylish.

How about that? And they didn’t ask my permission! I’ve never seen it. Where is it?

It’s on the web—they asked you some questions. You said, “I don’t wear anything belted because I don’t have a waist but I do show my legs because I have good legs” and your fashion advice was, “Keep it simple.”

I do believe that. I made my own clothes for many, many years and I still wear them. I also kept all my Chanels, which I bought in Paris. She [Coco Chanel] dressed me twice. What I got from Paris was style. And I think I did teach that to the girls.


Pillows and the back of the French chairs, each painted with its own saying.



Can you talk some more about style—it’s such an elusive concept.

Um … first of all you’ve got to take care of yourself. I don’t know how to put this nicely but over-eating is not being kind to your health or to your appearance. And I think that is the beginning of it all. You could wear the simplest of nothing outfit as long as you look healthy and fit. And you don’t need a lot of anything but what you have should be really nice.

So you really only buy good things?

No … [points to the dress she is wearing] H&M. Because it’s the shape I wanted.

I look for what will look good on me—you have to know your body. I always wear a dress. I never wear pants. What is nice today is that everyone has lovely, shiny hair—as opposed to perms and things. It worries me that they all wear sneakers. I’m sure it’s very good for the feet but …

What do you do for exercise?

I never exercise. I hate exercising. I’ve never exercised in my life. In fact when I was at boarding school and you’d go outside where they made you jump over a pommel horse, I used to hide in the closet. But I walk everywhere, all the time, all over, always.


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