Todd Black’s resumé includes designing elaborate sets for Victoria’s Secret back in the day when the concept was lingerie-in-a-posh-English-country-house and working as a “below-gofer” at Interview magazine. Along the way he acquired a Masters in the History of European Decorative Arts from Cooper Hewitt and eventually struck out on his own to form his own interior design business. Our conversation ranged pretty widely but was mostly dominated by Todd’s terrier, Puck, who had more to say than all three of us put together and eventually took a loud, growling dislike to the tape recorders—a first for the HOUSE column (although JH once got bitten by a designer dog who shall remain nameless).
[Sian] So I was fascinated to learn that you grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania – my mother grew up there and I used to go there every three months as a child.
Yes, I grew up in South Lancaster … it was all farmland and there were a lot of the Amish still living there and they tend to pass the land down from generation to generation and although they don’t really sell to developers, it has really developed. But it’s still beautiful. I go there at least once a month …
Is the dog okay? [There is lots of busy to-ing and fro-ing, whining and barking.]
He wants to eat the stuffed raven that I put out on the dining table.
Oh, the creepy raven. Anyway, how integrated are the Amish with the rest of the community living in those areas?
They’re very integrated—it’s not like they’re so separated from everybody. My father was a dentist and he had Amish patients. They sell their fruits and vegetables—and their shoofly pie—and a lot of them are craftsman, so it’s not uncommon that your carpenter or the person that is installing your fireplace is an Amish person.
Do you think it had any kind of effect on your thinking, having had an opportunity to observe the way they choose to live?
I do think that—it’s funny because I was talking about this in terms of [my trip] to India, which sounds like the strangest comparison—but there is this sense in both communities of a different standard. It’s more about being content. They don’t have the same kind of materialistic cravings that we all have. There’s a certain point where enough is enough.
Yes, I suppose there is always a battle between ambition and contentment … are you more on the contented side?
I try … I try. My family was not remotely involved in the agricultural industry, but just being out there, you really come to appreciate nature. I mean when I driving home from New York, I see [the Amish] plowing their fields with mules.
How did your trip to India go?
The first time I was in India, I wanted to get a sense of what India was all about, not my concept of India. My concept of India and what it really was were two completely different things. I think I was really expecting a Third World country. I was expecting to be confronted with mind blowing poverty and unsanitary conditions everywhere. But what I got was something completely different. There is this impression of “we have this raw energy that we’re trying to harness but we’re still not sure how the modern world works.”
What was your route, so to speak, to a career in New York?
Oh, I always wanted to live in New York. After I left home, I moved to New York. My first job in New York was working for Interview magazine, which was really, really fun. I just got it randomly … like from an ad in The New York Times or something. We were like, below-gofers … we were paid something like $12 000 a year. Andy Warhol had just died but Fred Hughes was still there and Brigid Berlin was still there as the receptionist and her dog would be running around. The writers were people like Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney. I remember going to lunch at The Odeon when the Odeon was still cool and there were all the parties but ultimately I decided that this was fun, but now we have to figure out what we really want to do.
And how did we do that?
How did we do that? Well, we left and we moved to Italy. I figured out that I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and New York is not the best place in the world if you don’t really know what you want to do. So I hung out in Milan and then from there I moved to San Francisco … I was grasping at things … I was thinking about becoming an architect and I started taking classes at Berkeley. Then there was that huge earthquake [in 1994]. I just thought, you know what? I just have to go. I have to get back to east coast. My family was there. All my friends were there. They were the people who would be honest with me and tell me what I needed to do.
And what did they tell you?
I went back to my parents and I sat down and made a list … you know like they tell you “Make a list [titled] ‘If you could do anything in the world, what would you do?’”
I wrote down design of some sort, or movies. I ended up getting a job with an interior design firm with no experience. Design wasn’t as glamorized as it is now.
I also ended up doing some styling work. I worked for Victoria’s Secret [laughs] back in the day when they were doing their elaborate sets and trying to be very English. That was the original concept—it was suppose to be taking lingerie but making it very classy and we had to build elaborate sets that looked like an English drawing room … and now my dog is drinking your water.
Well I shouldn’t have put it on the floor … what other changes have you seen in over time since you started work as a designer?
Oh well, 1st Dibs has changed the landscape completely. I know Michael Bruno very well … but all of a sudden these to-the-trade sources are open to the public. A fabric showroom now – they all have websites. They might not sell it to you but it gives the client too much information. A big part of being an interior designer, is [being] an editor. When I go into a meeting with a client, it’s you know, three options—that’s what you get: A, B and C. If you hate them, we’ll go back but who wants to take clients to the D&D building. I know some do but it’s overwhelming—every showroom has 20 000 fabrics.
[At this point Puck, who has been investigating the tape recorders with close attention begins to growl and then bark very sharply at them when he realizes there is something moving inside.]
That’s hysterical! Is he going to attack them?