This was really worth the five-floor walk-up! Why all the skulls and books about cemeteries – what do they tell you?
I’ve always been interested in ritual and monuments and that’s how I got interested in these things. It’s one area that makes people different from animals because [people] bury their dead and there’s ceremony around it. It’s just interesting what people choose to do and also I think cemeteries are a permanent and very accurate history of design in stone. My sister called me up [after she saw the apartment published in a magazine] and said ‘You have to get some house plants. You have an awful lot dead things in there!’ We actually had a rule at the beginning: No skeletons in the living room but …
So how do you feel about your own death then?
I feel like I have no problem with that but I’m so informed about funerals and rituals that I don’t care. Do whatever you think is comfortable for you. I have suggested some things … but I have a friend who is so into his own funeral that he’s described what kind of paper the service leaflets should be.
Where did you grow up?
In Los Angeles. Pacific Pallisades.
What was that like?
It was very colorful because it really got fully settled right after the war (World War II) and I would say it was one-third expatriate and one-third people from UCLA or Rand. So when I was growing up I had an amazing group of people around me. The woman I would visit after school was Cacti and Succulent Editor for Sunset Magazine, which was the greatest Western organ. And the woman across the street had done the windows and merchandising for this great department store. She had the most amazing redwood house with polished concrete floors that had been tinted pink. Her wall decorations were these really great photographs that she had blown up of Dutch landscapes. And outside of her window she had built a tea house that was bright orange. Once she had arranged bowls of lemons and they had ‘dropped’ and become that wonderful brown-lemon color. We grew lemons and I thought I should bring her some fresh ones, so I did but she said she wanted the old ones‘because I like the color better.’ I thought that was great.
How was school for you?
I was really lucky. My parents had been going to a little church in the middle of town and they were encouraged by the church to buy a tract of land. They were all young and they pledged all their assets to buying the property and they built a church and a school. The church was designed by A. Quincy Jones. It was extremely stylish. The school was also by him. There were a lot of special things about it. We had chapel every day. Just the calm of that before school was really amazing. They don’t do it anymore because they think it takes too much time away from the curriculum. And we also had an amazing choirmaster, so we developed all that stage presence. Someone came up to me the other day and said ‘Were you a choir student?’ and I said ‘Well no, but I went to an Episcopal Day School.’
Why did he ask you that?
Do you go to church regularly now?
I go to St. Mary’s. It’s an Anglo-Catholic church on 46th Street. It’s one of those places where, well, first of all, it’s very ‘catholic’ with a big ‘C’ and a small ‘c’. The ritual is extremely beautiful, the music is beautiful and the building’s beautiful so you have a very powerful chance at beauty. One thing will be beautiful no matter what. Something will happen to you that will be completely transporting. There’s no social climbing value to going to St Mary’s. There’s no one rich that you can meet to promote your career, there’s no nursery school to try to get your kids into… everyone just wants to be there.
What are you looking for with your faith?
I think that famous verse from Corinthians: Faith is the substance of the things unseen and the evidence of things hoped for. I do believe that there’s so much in the world we don’t see that that is license for religion in itself. And I deal in a very temporal business. Having things is not wrong. Objects are wonderful … but I don’t know one person that is happy because they have a big, fancy house. No material object has ever given anyone happiness – it can give them delight, but it doesn’t make you happy.
Should designing an interior be a joyful process? That’s interesting. You tend to be with people when they are in transition in their lives. It’s not necessarily of a religious nature but you have to be very sensitive to where people are in their lives. And that’s a spiritual path. In the old days people wanted decorators, you know, really hands-on-hips decorators to stir up their lives and make them exciting because their lives weren’t exciting and now I think people are looking to you for calm.
Do you find that?
Well, I just made that up! But no one is hiring decorators because they want drama in their lives.
What about interiors that are designed to impress?
Well to what end? I mean I people who wear couture dresses and they’re very expensive but they wear them to delight themselves and other people. It’s not to advertise that they’re wearing couture and that to me is the balance.
What about people who have just made a ton of money and they don’t really understand what they’re getting into … you have to educate them …
I wish those people would call me!
Well, we were thinking of hedge fund type-people …
I once went to a meeting with a hedge fund guy and I showed him my portfolio. It had everything in it. And it had a section on kitchens [ranging from] an 18th century plantation house [to] and a little kitchen that sort of a restoration of 1930s kitchen in Fire Island and it had that linoleum counters with the metal band, a wood floor with a braid rug … and he looked at it and looked at me and said ‘I’m insulted you’ve shown me this picture.’ [whispers]I didn’t get the job.
So how do you feel about rejection?
You know you always feel bad when you get rejected because you think people don’t understand what you do and you think that you can do something beautiful for them. I mean I remember that story to this day!
Do you worry about going out of style?
I mean being a decorator is one of the ultimate freelance jobs. You never know what you’re doing next and if there’s going to be a next, or if you’re going to go out of style … or if you ever were in style.
But do you see yourself coming in and out of style?
I had a very traditional education. I am deeply steeped in historic styles and periods. If you need to have a house restored, I can do it with complete facility. At the same time I was raised in all these Modernist buildings, so I am completely aware of what mid-century Modern looks like and how it is. I never thought any house should be all pre-war because it never was like that. They had their grandmother’s china and they had baskets and ethnographic material. I’ve been a quiet siren to the fact that they never were a piece. There’s never been a house that was all Stickley except in a magazine. I kind of was out of the loop for that period when everyone wanted strictly mid-century.
What do you to do relax? How do you use your own home?
Well almost every Sunday we have people to an early dinner and it’s casual. Rick cooks. We light the chandeliers and we use one of my grandmother’s damask tablecloths and lay the table properly. We invite some different people but we also invite the same people – they’re what we call our unofficial family. They’re the people who we can call at 3 o’clock in the morning and they’ll get the bail, get you out of jail …
What do you cook?
Roast chicken, or Rick likes to make southern things like gumbo and jambalaya or pork chops.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading a book about Persian gardens. But I must to say that there isn’t that much down time … but once you get organized for the week … Sunday goes … and then it’s Monday.
— Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge