Designer, Timothy Whealon pulled a face when we said that he had been described as having impeccable taste—it’s not something he’s aiming for although there’s no denying a certain level of elegant formality in his work. The title of his first book, In Pursuit of Beauty: The Interiors of Timothy Whealon (Rizzoli) speaks to a kind of old world sensibility but there’s nothing fusty about the rooms he designs or about him. He’s fun. And his Gramercy Park apartment, with its gorgeous wraparound terrace, must surely be on the list of those, us included, who submit to the fantasy entitled “My life would be perfect if I had that apartment.”
I like this description of you I found: “A young designer with mature taste.” What will you be when you’re older, a mature designer with mature taste?
I don’t know! I think by “mature taste”, for me it means I have a lot of reference in my work and a lot of knowledge. I think Sister Parish used to say if you know how a French chair originally should be covered then you can have fun with it and re-interpret things.
How have you changed from when you were younger, now that you’re, er, heading towards maturity?
[Laughs] I’m a little less patient. I think our job is to add a lot of value to people’s lives—and I’ve thought about this a lot, you know “Is this what I should be doing with my life? Am I adding value to the world?” I think we [decorators] do. We add a lot of value by creating beautiful spaces that people can enjoy. As we get into a world of mass market, Restoration Hardware type of thing, people think they can do stuff themselves… I don’t know.
But most people have to do that. They don’t have the money for a designer.
But even people that don’t have to—what we [as designers] do, is add incredible value. People make a lot of money out of the value added to real estate because of design. And there is lots of social and emotional value too. I don’t know. I feel less patient with people who don’t appreciate what we do.
Do you feel that sometimes people dismiss you as a designer?
No, I don’t feel that. I’m just less patient than I was. I don’t know why. I’ve always very deferential and respectful and not the loudest one … maybe I’m more confident about what I’m doing; there’s a certain comfort. Yes, maybe that’s it.
Maybe you’re too tired a lot of the time! You know, “I’m too tired to be deferential.”
[Laughs a lot] That’s it! I’m too tired. I never would have been a good diplomat but I’m not going to say that!
Were you raised that way? To be very polite and deferential?
I was raised in a very conservative, mid-western [way]. My parents were very religious, so yeah, probably. I went to an all-boys Jesuit high school, you know, “What’s bred in the bone comes out in the flesh.”
Then you went to Kenyon. A lot of people go there for writing.
Yes, that was a life-changing experience. I love Kenyon. It had a big impact on my life. I was just back at Kenyon last week because I’ve just got on to the board of the Gund Gallery there.
Why did you choose to go to a college that is best known for writing courses? Did you want to take writing courses?
Yeah. I was an English Lit and Art History major there. I loved reading. I was much more verbal than mathematical.
Which writers do you particularly like?
I love James Joyce. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is one of my favorite books. I did my dissertation at Kenyon on James Baldwin. I loved Hawthorne. I did very well in my Hawthorne seminar and they wanted me to teach English Literature and they put me up for a fellowship at the University of Indiana.
Why didn’t you do that?
I didn’t think academia was really something for me. I had taken a year … I had a lot of fun at Kenyon in my freshman year [starts to laugh again] … I let my diplomacy go there. Anyway, I took a year off and went to Edinburgh.
So why did you first go into banking?
Good question. You know my parents kind of pushed. My father was in insurance and they always said, you know, art is in an avocation not the kind of thing you can do for a living. So I came to New York and I got four job offers. I thought, “Oh shit!” [laughs] “Now I really have to do this.” We were put into a classroom for six months. I must have been like delusional or something. But I learned accounting and I can look at a balance sheet; I can talk business with my clients.
What about the Franklin Report entry? It says “doesn’t like talking about money.”
[Hoots with laughter] I’ll put you on the phone with her! I was talking to the Franklin Report lady yesterday and she said she was taking that out. It’s not true!
And there’s another one that says, “It doesn’t hurt to pat him on the back” which I thought was a bit unfair. It doesn’t hurt to pat anyone on the back.
I think that one was actually from [someone] who said I had an artist’s temperament.
I wanted to get back to a word you use a great deal in your book, which is the word “timeless”. What is meant by timeless?
I don’t know what it means to be honest with you. If I think about “timeless” though, like I go back and look at certain interiors, at Billy Baldwin’s work for example and it still resonates.
But if someone did a Billy Baldwin room now, it would look dated, wouldn’t it?
I think there are designers that have more longevity, though I wouldn’t say timeless.
I think I’ve seen “impeccable taste” used to describe your work. You’re pulling a face, why?
I don’t know if I like impeccable taste.
I want to get back to something you said earlier about how you had wondered if this was how you wanted to spend your life—were you able to answer that definitively?
As you get older, like in my late forties, I was just examining if this was what I wanted to do on a daily basis. And the answer was yes.
Are you good at not working?
I love having nothing to do. It’s my favorite thing. I can spend a whole day in the apartment, just reading or watching a documentary. I have a personality that is part-introvert part-extrovert. Perhaps like all of us.
Hey, have you got the keys to the park? [The Gramercy Park is only accessible to key-holding residents living on the periphery of the square] Can we go in? I’ve always wanted to go in there.
I do have keys! We can go in but we can’t do much. We can just look at each other in the park although we could open a bottle of champagne. It’s not allowed. I’ll open it for you and then I’ll run out.