Thad Hayes did seem somewhat nonplussed by our style of interviewing but he gamely went along with it, offering us very good insights into his way of doing things. Originally trained as a landscape designer, he is unusual among interior designers because where they often say their work is mainly instinctive, he believes in being able to intellectually defend his ideas and endorses a more cerebral approach. As a result, his work, whilst very pleasing, could be described as quite rigorous. He lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with his partner and their small son, so we interviewed him in his Bryant Park office space, sufficiently interesting because it was once Irving Penn’s studio, later taken over by 70s design legend, Joe Durso. Thad has left a great deal intact, so in its way it is a kind of time capsule, looking forward to the beginnings of minimalism.
Everything in here is so ordered … a sense of order, is that something that is important to you? [this question elicits a very long silence and a very long, stunned look. Sian starts to laugh]
… Why is that important to you?
Why? Do you want to know my 15 years of therapy?
That’s why we’re here. We’ll be your shrink for the next hour.
[laughs very loudly] Put it this way. I think it happens to kids when their environment is kind of shaken up. My mother and father divorced when I was in second grade and it’s not like, unhealthy, but it’s one thing, whether it’s a five-year old or a 15-year old, having order is the one thing that you can control, if the family environment is a little unstable. I attribute it to that but it could be genetic … you know my aunt is very organized.
How do you stop it from moving into neurosis? [another very long silence]
Well, I think the normal workloads kind of prevent that … I think for me it’s always that struggle of trying to achieve this absolute perfection. That’s a goal … it’s not attainable, it’s not even interesting, it’s not even realistic. I’ve spent enough years sitting on a cushion, meditating, going to retreats and it’s like, okay, that’s part of me, but there’s other parts of me too. Let it go. I have a three-and-half-year old son, having a son this late in life … my life is a lot more about living in the moment.
Tell us how that changed your life.
Are you a homebody?
I’m home with him every night and every weekend, all day. I’ll walk out … I shouldn’t even say this but what the hell … 80 per cent of the time I’ll walk out of here at four o’clock. I go home, I have the evening with him and his caregiver goes home. At the weekend it’s just the two of us [Thad and his partner] taking care of him. I used to go to the gym six days a week and I’d run three miles a day and I was ten pounds lighter … all that stuff is like [makes a tossing-out gesture].
Could you ever envisage losing the passion for what you do?
I just think there’s so many facets to this business that I hope that it would be really hard to lose the passion. You can segué into so many other areas.
I love design and art and architecture, so I think there’ll always be something there … the truth is I don’t know how to do anything else.
How did wind up deciding this was what you wanted to do?
Er … I always knew that it would be some kind of fine art or applied design. In first grade I took drawing classes and I was building.
Were you encouraged?
Was I encouraged? You know, I would like to say that I should have been encouraged more … but they let me do whatever I want.
Where did you grow up?
In Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
I was interested to read on your website that you use the word ‘rigorous’ to describe your design, which seemed an unusual description from an interior designer.It could sound intellectual [again the slightly theatrical, stunned, quizzical look] … are we making you nervous?
No, I’m drinking coffee [starts to really laugh] …
Okay, so how about coming to New York from Louisiana?
My first five years in college, I graduated in landscape architecture … I enrolled at LSU [Louisiana State University] and they threw fine arts in there and interior design. Literally within a few weeks of graduating, I came to New York, in January 1979, and the city was so depressed. The buildings were black, it was dirty, there was trash everywhere. I went to landscape offices and there was no work. I ended up working for Tim Duvall. I was literally hauling bags of dirt through people’s Upper East Side apartments. Tim eventually put me into designing. Then he gets a call from Robert de Niro to do his rooftop in Tribeca … that was one of the first big projects we did together. Eventually I went back to Parsons … that was really the transition into interiors.
And back to the question about your cerebral approach …
I think my landscape architecture was good training. There were two professors that were both mentors at LSU. It was refreshing because their focus wasn’t necessarily plant material or anything you’d expect because it was really pushing like: ‘what is your idea for this piece of property?’ And it wasn’t like: ‘well we want this park to be pleasing for children and families and to be enjoyable and to have a fragrant flower garden.’ There had to be some depth and meaning to it otherwise they would say: ‘that’s bullshit.’ So they instilled in me having a real point of view.
Can you give us an example of how you would defend an idea that you’ve done?
Well, okay, quickly … one huge park that we did on the edge of the French Quarter in New Orleans. The Opera House was right there too. It was called Storyville. There’s brothels, it’s turn-of-the-century … very run down … to me a very Southern, New Orleans version of the images and that whole recollection I had of Toulouse Lautrec. So, I made an intellectual connection between where the Opera House and this park was to what I knew of his work and I kind of saw the duality of that. Therefore I based the idea of the park on his life … so it was a sequence of experiences that I happened to base loosely on him … things like that … I think it’s like that with good product design or anything. You see that it’s beautiful and then they say something like, well, I based it on a beautiful Indian tool or something … so that’s what I mean.
You’ve moved from New York to the suburbs, to Montclair, New Jersey, how is that?
I remember my mother visiting and we just took a drive out. I’d been to Montclair once … and we just drove up and there was a beautiful stone church and these little Tudor shops, and we looked at each other and thought it was great. Thirteen miles from the city! The first three or four months [after we moved], I was like online looking for an apartment in the city … but now I LOVE it. I really love it. Every day from Saturday I’ve been outside, in the dirt and I’ve been planting like, cilantro and dill … I just feel really connected to this place.
So you’ve found contentment …