The first thing we noticed when we walked into this home in the East 70s right off Madison, is that it was just that: a home. There was a child’s painting of daubed, splotched color balanced on the frame of a mirror in the foyer and some petals had fallen on the front hall table from some blown roses. In fact there were flowers everywhere and a scented-candle burned. It was inviting and we felt so welcome. Susan Zises Green had even prepared lunch for us at a table laid with plates from her amazing majolica collection. As well as being a designer, she’s a mother, and, in the best possible way, it shows.
This extraordinary quilt is one of the main features of your living room. How is it important to you?
Look at the four girls in the basket. I am one of four girls. And look, one is blonde. My mother’s mother was Polish and one of us is blonde and the rest of us are dark and the reason I bought it was because of those four girls. It was made by one hand. I bought it at the Winter Antiques Show many years ago and I was with my friend, who is an art dealer, and I was standing in front of it just looking and looking and I said ‘I can’t buy this!’ and she said: ‘Think of it as artwork.’
Are you drawn to handmade things?
Yes. I love tactile things. I would always do handmade things myself. I know how to sew. I used to go to pattern-making school. I make the greatest buttonholes in the world!
Did you grow up in New York?
No, I grew up in a little town called Cedarhurst. We used to climb trees and I remember as eight-year olds we used to say ‘I wonder who climbed this tree before me? I wonder if Indians walked here?’ I was always very cognizant of history, of what came before.
Did you live there with all your sisters?
Yes. Do you know what house with four girls is [like]? I once had a fight with one of my sisters and she attached her teeth to my thigh and the two of us went rolling down the steps and I remember thinking: ‘I’m going to break my neck and die’.
Your father must have been driven insane.
No, he adored us. My father died two and half years ago. I could cry just telling it to you. I adored him. When I was in the third grade our teacher wanted us to learn how to save money and each of us had to bring a dollar to school on Wednesday morning. Tuesday evening I asked my father for a dollar and he looked at me and he said ‘I’m not going to give you the dollar. You don’t need to have it. I will always take care of you.’
How did that make you feel?
Oh my God! It’s like you feel that you never had to worry again in your life! My father was never too busy for anyone his entire life. The first time I was in Architectural Digest it was so incredibly exciting. I was out of town when the magazine arrived and I asked my assistant to go show it to my father. She told me that he had four people sitting in his office having a meeting and he said to them ‘My daughter is in AD and you have to give me a couple of minutes because this is more important than this meeting.’
Do you think being the eldest child was a factor in establishing your career?
Without question. My father always wanted a son and I think in a way I had to be the son he never had. I had to show him that I could do something.
How did you start out?
I had a child. I would go to the park every day with my child. I was living on York Avenue and 77th Street in The Pavilion. I was young and recently separated. [The other mothers] would come to the park dressed and bedazzled at eight o’clock in the morning. I would sit there [with them] and as soon as one woman left, they were all talking about her. And I just said: ‘This isn’t for me. I’m educated. I can do something.’ But I wasn’t raised to work. My father didn’t believe in women working.
So you did become a working woman – and yet you sound like you were a very obedient daughter.
I was very obedient. But, you know, I grew up. You live life, you have children. You go through the ups and downs and bumps of life: working, marriage, death, divorce, illness …
What was your first project?
My first job was for a young man. I estimated every single item for this apartment, every single fabric number, every single trim number, every detail. I did his entire apartment. He never ordered one thing through me. He took it to somebody and bought everything without me. I still think about it and it was really a good lesson.
You are involved in the Women’s Campaign Fund. Do you have strong feelings about politics?
I have strong feelings about a lot of things! That’s why I’m always so exhausted. My daughter was always hoping to be a senator so it was near and dear to my heart. We raise money to train young women how to run for office. We are over 51% of the population and we are not 51% represented in politics. Women do not have a strong enough say.
Do you mind if kids bounce on the beds?
Never! Although my grandchildren are still too little. My son and his friends would not only slide down the banisters (and my heart would be in my mouth), they’d ride the dumb waiter! A lot of people are just too serious about the way they live.
You have an enormous majolica collection. Why do you like majolica?
It makes me smile. And when I first started, it was all I could afford [to collect.] I bought my first piece in Cape Cod in a little quirky store and I had never seen majolica before in my life. But I don’t buy it anymore.
Is there a certain style or aesthetic that you dislike?
I’m not crazy about the Victorian look. It’s too petty although I like the colors of that era, the burgundy, the green, the gold.
Where do you like to go when you travel?
I love Italy. And I’m obsessed with Africa, the space, the light! Five years ago I spent six weeks there. I thought ‘these people are happy because they don’t know about Bloomingdale’s.’
There seems to be a peace here in your home. It’s so comfortable.
I do feel at peace. But you know what, it took a long time to get there.
— Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge