“More is more, less is a bore,” says Thomas Burak and we loved his “more is more” Gramercy Park apartment that he shares with his partner of Fourteen years, fabric designer Michael Devine. In fact when Sian and I played our periodic game called: “If you were rich, which decorator would you have?” Sian put Thomas high on her list. Very soft-spoken, it was hard to imagine him as he once, if only briefly, was—a retailer in Kinderhook taxed by the irritating general public to the point of wanting to smash a glass on the floor. But his main incarnation has been, and still is, as a decorator with quiet confidence and a way of putting together gorgeous rooms in which things just seem to belong in place.
You know I dug you up by going through the vintage stuff on One Kings Lane [website] … I feel I should just know you but that’s how I found you—I saw your profile and I clicked on it.
The whole web thing just never ceases to fascinate me—how people find each other …
But there’s not much technology in these rooms, is there?
I do sit in here or in the bedroom with my computer but I’m just not a real techie person. You can’t live without the computer or the iPhone but you know ….
I sometimes wonder if we [as the baby boomers] are the lucky generation. We can use computers and so forth well enough, not great but enough to get some benefits but because we didn’t grow up steeped in it, we can also put them aside …
And have a conversation! Young kids getting out of college today don’t know how to communicate!
Do you have interns?
I don’t. I try to do as much as possible by myself. I really like it that way. Sometimes I can just do it better myself. I hear from other designers that none of the young assistants want to go out and shop. They all want to do it on the computer.
How did you start out in design?
I started out in interior design and advanced forward and ended up as Vice President and Creative Director for Schumacher. That involved designing fabric, directing and I had a staff of ten people. That was about 12 years ago. It was very, very fulfilling in that you came up with an idea or a concept and then [after] a lot of steps along the way, you would get a piece of fabric on a roll that represented the concept.
Are textiles your first love?
I would say they are. It really is what gives a room personality. Textiles are really art.
Do people still ask you to make a room that looks like this living room?
Yes, a variation of it. But maybe they would want modern art incorporated into it. If I were to change things in here, then I could see incorporating some modern art … I’m not going to but I could see it!
What are people most anxious about when they hire a decorator?
Timing … delivery. [The client will say] “Gee you know, I can’t make a decision … are you sure that that is going to work?” Well yes I am because I suggested it and I suggested it because I know it will work. If you go through too much hesitation, you know it’s not clicking between you and the client.
I do other kinds of writing and I’m never really sure if something I’ve written is good or not but designers seem to be very sure of their work almost all the time—is that true?
It’s a visual that you have. Once I start presenting fabrics and furniture, I can see that room already finished. That was the hardest thing for me to learn when I started out in this business.
How does this apartment differ from your house in the country?
The house in the country is much smaller. What we did in the country is that we ended up buying a small building in Kinderhook, which also had a storefront. We lived on the floor above and we opened a gift and accessory home store … and we discovered that retail isn’t as much fun as you think it is.
Oh—why is retail not as much fun as you think it is?
I shouldn’t say this but it’s terrible dealing with the public. For example, we had these beautiful glasses, like Venetian glass, very thin … [imitates a customer] “Why are these glasses so much? They’re plastic.” What I really wanted to do was take the glass and smash it on the floor. It was horrible! The store only lasted a couple of years. The concept of doing the store I loved … as long as there were no customers!
Aside from your weekends in the country, where else do you like to travel?
We go to Paris a lot but one place I really want to go to is St. Petersburg. I’m fascinated by the Russian style. There’s something about the grandeur of it and the guts of it. I also have a great affinity with Swedish furniture. They took the best of French style and refined it.
What do you do to relax when you’re in the country?
I don’t know that I ever relax.
We never interview anybody who relaxes!
I complain about having to do so much stuff but … it’s sort of like 24/7 and I enjoy what I do. I get to spend other people’s money. It’s really great! It’s really fun. [laughs] But I have to be out there and doing things. I become obsessed with things. I can wake up at three o’clock in the morning thinking, oh my God, this would be better, that would be better.
You’re known for doing great tablescapes—what does it take to make a table look nice even if you haven’t got a lot of money?
[Pulls a face at the “not a lot of money” part and mutters] I far prefer the money … okay I would say great flowers—but not just plonked in the middle.
You wouldn’t have jam jars with flowers in them then?
We once had jam jars with name cards on them, filled with homemade jam and the lids had Michael’s fabric on them. [Michael Devine, Thomas’s partner and fabric designer]
But money is nice …
Er, it’s aways helpful, it really is … [laughs]. That’s the way I like clients: funny, money and taste.