The exclamation point key on the keyboard was almost worn out at the end of writing up this interview because that’s how Thomas Britt talks – almost solely in exclamations and emphatic pronouncements (‘The étagères were bang! bang! bang! bang! on the four walls here. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!’). He also likes to tell long stories that go off on all kinds of colorful tangents. He’s a riot. So much fun and very kind, a big man with a smoke-raddled voice (he quit 15 years ago), who is also a sensitive aesthete with huge design intelligence that rules his flamboyance. His apartment was Parisian-opulent, full of flair and confidence, the very opposite of the horrible, dull linearity that seems to have a stranglehold at the moment. But it wasn’t a good day for him when we arrived because there were problems at the office and he was flustered. He was also discombobulated by the way we do the interview (he called us ‘a three-ring circus’) betraying a certain highly-strung gruff shyness, that is until he settled into being the entertainer.
Why are you so nervous today?
I told you. Perhaps you didn’t hear me. There is a very big problem with an architect at one of the jobs, I mean huge. The architect’s wild, the client’s wild. Skip it it’s not for this.
Are you being shouted at?
No, not at all, no. Okay, let’s keep movin’.
So you’re not normally so nervous?
Oh, I can be even more nervous. Okay. Keep going … My God! This isn’t for the National Enquirer, is it?
It is? Oh my God, let’s call it off now!
Well, you’ve had 30 years in this business. You must really know what you’re doing.
What I like to do is keep the clients extremely happy.
How do you go about doing that?
[his voice dips conspiratorially] By being extremely lovely to them.
Isn’t that tiring after a while?
Not at all! I love what I do.
Why, what does it give you?
I’ve no idea how to answer that … who does what here? It’s like a three-ring circus with all of you and I’m in the middle of it. I feel like I’m being bounced around … that’s why I’m nervous. [We explain how the interview works and then carry on]
What kinds of changes have you seen after all these years?
I don’t work any differently now than I ever did. It just may have been more relaxed before. The way I work is extremely hands-on with the clients … the younger ones are more affluent.
[Sian misunderstands him] Fluent? I don’t agree with you …
What? That a lot of them aren’t affluent?
Oh, yes, I see. Yes, affluent, yes, I thought you meant fluent, like in the language of design …
Oh no! [he practically screams into the tape recorder] They’ve got a lot of money! MONEY! Is that loud enough! [he bangs the table with the flat of his hand] You’ve got to have it loud and clear!
Um, what’s your attitude towards money?
If they have money … that’s what Alexa Hampton said once. Mario [Buatta], Alexa and I were like three major comics. Essentially Mario and I and then Alexa was playing off the two of us. We said ‘What kind of client do you like?’ And she said one word: RICH!
I was brought up never to speak in those terms.
But people do now.
In this day and age people say and do anything. A lot of the work I do does not entail humongous … very expensive antiques. We use them spotted [indicates with his handhow a few would be dotted around the room] … I’m doing some now that are quite contemporary.
Do you like that?
If I didn’t like it I wouldn’t do it … because if I don’t like what I’m doing, I wouldn’t do a very good job would I? So that’s the story. What’s that? Honey, I can’t hear you.
I just said ‘no’.
My hearing’s a little off. I’ve lived in nightclubs and discotheques and it has affected my hearing.
Were you at Studio 54?
Honey, almost nightly!
How about parties now, do you like them?
Bored to death with them.
This room is so grand. Are you grand?
I don’t know what you call it. What you see is what it is.
It’s a big statement.
All the things I do are big statements. They all are, even if they’re very, very simple, they’re statements.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Kansas City, Missouri. [tells a series of detailed stories about his adolescent affair with an older woman and his early design attempts as a boy, including a black room with a white floor and silver screens that he made himself, as well as how he created an extraordinary New Orleans garden in Kansas, using pieces found from junk yards, including statues, colored lanterns and chandeliers suspended from the trees that he hung with Spanish moss he had pulled off trees on a trip to New Orleans] … I did a lot of things. Nothing fazes me.
You’re very exuberant.
Oh definitely! That’s a known fact!
Did you grow up with money?
We never talk about finances in my family … [calls over to Jeff who is wandering the apartment taking photographs:] Young man, where did you go so far? There’s nothing up the staircase. Don’t go there, it’s a complete mess.
Where do you sleep?
Up. It’s a complete mess.
So we’re not allowed to shoot that.
Oh God no! The room is small and there are tons of books and magazines, and I do not want anyone to go in there!
Are you one of these decorators that is crazy about keeping everything tidy?
[Bellows] God no! Not at all! I’m crazy about having a good time — enjoying my life!
Mario [Buatta] won’t even let us in his house.
I know that very well! He won’t even let me in!
Are you good at relaxing?
Depends on how you define that.
I don’t know. Do you enjoy a drink?
No more drinking! I drank enough for a lifetime. Stopped 25 years ago. And then stopped smoking about 15 years ago, thank God! Where do you think this voice came from.
You have a good time, I can tell.