Interior designer Todd Romano is cheerful, impeccably turned and obviously loves entertaining—we practically expected him to sweep into the room with a silver tray full of martinis. His jewel box of an apartment is located in a former apartment hotel where Dorothy Parker once lived, and although he has lived in Manhattan for many years, we found that what we most wanted to talk about were his Texan roots.
Ok, so let’s talk about people spending money … or not spending money…
Oh really? You want to talk about that kind of stuff? Okay. I thought we were going to talk about apartments and decorating.
Well, not really. This is more about you and your personality.
Oh, okay. Well, it’s interesting, clearly this isn’t going to come as any surprise to anybody but our younger clientele, the surge money, have slowed down, and are being far more cautious. I would say my age and down to the people in their thirties.
I noticed that you’re very cheerful. Is that a Texas thing?
Maybe it is a Texas thing, I suppose. People are very open and very friendly. I was born and raised in San Antonio, so yeah, I suppose people are … I also think I’m a very optimistic fellow. I’ve always been pretty positive. I find that that disposition, it’s partly inherent in my nature but it also comes in damn handy.
Texas to me seems like a different country.
Texas is a totally different country. Texas should have been three states. It’s enormous. San Antonio, where I come from, is distinctly different from Houston and Dallas. Distinctly. My mother always said that San Antonio is the Charleston of Texas with a rich and long history.
Did you grow up in a big house?
I did. I grew up in this beautiful neighborhood called Olmos Park. I grew up in a house that was built in 1928, an English Tudor house, which is not my favorite architecture by a long shot. It’s funny I think having grown up in this sort of Tudor-style house, I love more traditional Georgian houses. Tudor houses are very dark. I come from a long line of Italian engineers and builders on my dad’s side and on my mother’s side, an enormous interest in gardening and decorating. My grandmother ran a beautiful house … my grandfather’s business (on my father’s side) was a very large commercial engineering and construction firm … my grandparents had houses in Mexico City, Cuernavaca, Santa Barbara and a ranch in Ojai, California.
Oh so you grew up fairly wealthy…
On my father’s side of the family, my grandfather literally came to this country when he was eight years old. I mean my great-grandfather worked in the mines in Colorado. It’s a true American success story on Daddy’s side, without a doubt. On my mother’s side, they came to Virginia and Georgia on original land grants … it was that whole sort of gentrified English-Scotch, you know planters, farmers, plantation owners, slave owners, I’m afraid to admit … but on my father’s side, he was one generation removed from off the boat.
We have found that any time we do interviews with designers from the South, invariably the background of the grand entertaining and the graciousness is always something they talk about.
From my mother’s side of the family I think I’ve inherited what I think all true Southerners have, which a lot of people don’t, which is that inherent knack of living very well. And it has nothing to do with money or social position. It has to do with a certain type of lifestyle, a way of living, the floors always being waxed, the silver always being polished, delicious homemade food.
I want to ask you about where decorating is right now because it seems to me that with these new buildings it’s the architecture that’s important. People aren’t really ‘decorating’ inside these spaces.
I think there’s a lot of truth in that, especially in some of the newer buildings. We’ve worked on a couple of different projects recently in very modern buildings and they’re pretty austere, they really are. They’re really letting the backgrounds speak for themselves. I think it’s actually really refreshing.
Do you think people know that this is their home and eventually they’re going to need warmth? Or do they say: this is a modern space so I’m not going to fill it with tchotchkes, I have to stick with it.
I think everything comes back. You know there was this house in New York belonging to a very famous actress and it was photographed for one of the big magazines; it was chock-a-bloc, full of very architectural and mid-20th century pieces, and there wasn’t a comfortable place to sit. And then: Bam! Right next to the fireplace was this big ugly brown leather chair, and I looked at this and I thought, I know what happened. Her husband came in and said: Great, honey. But where the hell do I sit?
So I just want to go back to how cheery you are, I know that I’ve gone through very serious health issues in the past and it has changed my attitude towards living in general, and I wanted to ask you about your crash and how it has changed you.
There’s absolutely no doubt – I know it’s very Lifetime movie and drama-esque of me to say this … it was 12 years ago, this year, but I had gone to Texas, home for Thanksgiving … and I had taken one of my dad’s Range Rovers and I was driving and there was just this odd freak accident. Anyway when the car finished flipping and all this, I got thrown out of it. I can remember lying on the ground and at first I thought I was still asleep. I mean I thought I was in bed … and I remember thinking to myself, you’ve got to wake up because you’ve got so much to do today … the minute I woke up, I couldn’t move.
I remember thinking at the time there were things I wanted to change in my life, no doubt about it. That was a big watershed moment. It took me many months to get back on my feet.
How many bones did you break?
I broke my sternum. I broke both collar bones. I broke seven or eight ribs on my left side, punctured my lung, punctured the spleen. I was in ICU for 14 days, critical condition for about three. And then I spent the next year and half doing physical therapy. It was seriously traumatic physically, but it was a lot of trauma emotionally as well. I looked awful, I could barely walk, I couldn’t really stand up straight. It was tough, really, really tough.
And how did it change you?
I remember one day, [laughs] I was complaining about a lot of stuff and I was having lunch with mother, and I was complaining about how I felt and how I looked so bad and all this stuff, and she’s listening, uhuh, uhuh, uhuh …and finally, she said: are you done? I said yes, and she said: Well, listen. Let me just point out what’s so good about your life. You’ve always had your father and me. You’ve always been able to do more or less what you wanted to do. You’ve always had your brothers and sisters. She said, this is the first bad thing that’s really ever happened to you. And then she paused and she said: you have to be grateful for all of it.