Stephanie Stokes in her present incarnation (and she believes in Buddhism) as an interior designer has also worked on Wall Street and traveled the world as a photo-journalist. She was once the photographer for the Mexican government. Most of the questions we asked her were met with shaggy dog stories, which seem to come easily to her, although questions of a more personal nature were fended off with a laugh and a line. Oh well, not everyone wants to blab about their feelings. She did come up with a very original description of what it is like to be an interior designer: ‘It is a bit like being the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. You take people down a hole and say: ‘Here are your possibilities. What do you want?’
We like to hear what people did before they became interior designers and we know you were once a photo-journalist.
Actually first I was on Wall Street. Right out of school I was [there]. My father founded one of the first mutual funds in America. It still exists – I still have shares in it. It was very interesting, very good training, and then I left and moved to Tokyo as a foreign correspondent for Copley News Service.
So you were actually in finance and switched to journalism … and you went to the Institute of Fine Arts…
Wait a minute, wait … back up. I went to business school. It was hard being a woman on Wall Street in those days because you had to go in the service entry, and you weren’t allowed to go to Lehman. Women weren’t allowed in the main elevators. I know … it’s hard to believe. Three of us are thinking of getting together and writing a book because we don’t think the young women today have any appreciation for what we went through.
So you moved on …
I went to Tokyo because I had broken an engagement and decided I was going to go around the world in six months but of course it took two or three years. I came back and I got hired by Gourmet, Travel, all these major magazines and for ten years I traveled for them. I did lots of things all over the world. And then one day I was working for Architectural Digest and I was tired of traveling. I decided I would settle down and I was doing my own column for AD, doing designer-travel stories. I would interview the designers about where they had been and what they had found. And I was riveted by the subject. I had already built a house in Bali and I’d learned electricity by reading manuals. I’d helped build a hotel. I taught myself drafting and I just took to this like a duck to water. Everybody I interviewed tried to hire me. The next thing I know I go to work for Mark Hampton.
When did you strike out on your own?
I left and became a partner of Harrison Cultra, who I think was really the best designer this country ever had, frankly. He died of AIDS in September of 1983. There I was with a broken leg …
How did you break your leg?
I was climbing a mountain and I saw grizzly bears on the top of the mountain. This was about six in the morning and someone asked me a question about Buddhism, which happens to be what master’s degree is in. I turned around to answer the question and fell off the mountain.
Was that sign from Buddha?
[laughs and nods] ‘Slow down, honey’. It took me eight hours to walk off the mountain.
Why did you pick Bali to build a house?
Tokyo was difficult as a single woman – although I had a great time – I’d go down to play tennis in the morning and you wouldn’t believe who was there – if I told you the Emperor was playing tennis there nobody would believe it, but he was. I went down to Bali for the weekend and stayed the next year. Fell in love [with the place].
Would you fall in love with it today?
I don’t think so. I went back for Pan-American. I did their promotional photography for years, and the government seized the plane when it landed. It took about three months before they were able to get me off the island. I took a suitcase full of film. I want to put together a book … I came to New York originally with the idea of being a photographer but ended up on Wall Street.
So where do you feel you’ve been treated well?
No, I think being a journalist and traveling the world for ten years is pretty sexy stuff. I had some extraordinary experiences during that time and I won a lot of awards. I won Art Director’s Best Photography, I had pieces in the Getty Museum …
Are you a practicing Buddhist. How does it inform your life?
One can fall back on it. [laughs] It should be informing me more than it is!
What is your day like?
I get up early, exercise and then make all the calls to the vendors before nine, and try to get everybody scheduled. Then you start off on your day … I used to do more jobs than I’m doing now. At one point I was doing twelve a year but now I’m doing two major ones and I’m much happier … I don’t like traveling anymore for business.
So you’re not someone who looks back with nostalgia.
No, I’m looking for what the future’s going to hold.
And what do you think the future holds?
Did you see that sign outside my door that says: ‘When a door opens walk through it.’? I’m definitely going to finish my book. It is 80 percent done.