Tom Scheerer knew he didn’t want to be an architect once he had finished his training and, after a conversation in Bemelmans Bar with Jeffrey Bilhuber, who at that point was working at the Carlisle Hotel, they decided to wing it. They took on a project, the pool house, at the Southampton Show House … and suddenly they were decorators.
That decision all those years ago has done them proud and Tom is on his second book, entitled with the same kind of clarity that characterizes his work, More Decorating (Vendôme). The pages are filled with his airy rooms where everything has a chance to breathe as well as his signature shade of green, lots of it. We’ve discovered why. For 65 summers he has slept in the same room and the same bed in his family home East Hampton, “My room is not on the ocean side of the house and I look out over the driveway and all I can see is green for miles.”
We enjoyed looking at your new book—your rooms have plenty of light and air and not too much going on yet they’re not minimalist.
There’s kind of a level of styling that many decorators do that I try to avoid, which is having a lot of stuff. There’s also a lot of shortcuts that decorators take.
Like what kind of shortcuts?
I don’t know … most decorators if they’re doing houses in the Hamptons, they will go to Mecox Gardens and get a 30 percent discount … there’s a certain look to that. I don’t do that. I find it just too easy and not good enough. It’s an automatic way of decorating. There always has been [that way of decorating]. In the seventies it was going to the Mario Buatta, English, Nancy Lancaster way, now it’s going to new, pop… I don’t know what it is!
How do you make something simple but not boring?
I think it’s like any good composition, any good piece of art, any well-written sentence: it should be full of contrasts, harmonic and inharmonic juxtapositions. That’s where the skill lies when you’re decorating. It’s getting the mix right. I know that’s a very common thing to say—people say, “It’s all in the mix.” To me it’s all about relationships and shapes and forms. [It’s] less about fabric, less about color actually, and less about the quality of objects. I’m not that interested in having so many fancy objects around. To me it’s more about the play of forms.
Perhaps minimalism is a really good approach for public spaces but less so for private spaces.
I agree. I appreciate it—to me the one that comes to mind is that incredible room Angelo Donghia did for the Laurens. But [minimalism] is kind of about putting yourself on display in a weird way, like making a pedestal for yourself, which I think is kind of strange.
That’s very interesting because someone like John Pawson seems to be inspired by places with a certain highly refined Japanese aesthetic or monasteries, where the opposite of ego is true—they’re designed for self-discipline or worshipping something higher than yourself, right? There is a thoughtful minimalism, I suppose.
Yes—but that doesn’t always happen.
How did you enjoy studying architecture?
I enjoyed the education. I realized when I got through it that I wasn’t going to be an architect and I didn’t have it.
What didn’t you have?
There’s a kind of a rigor to it and I didn’t have the patience for the rigor required. And at the time when I graduated from school, I didn’t have the big ideas that are required to be a great architect. I had smaller ideas that were enough to make a great decorator. The people who taught me had very big ideas in their heads.
You seem to know yourself quite well—has that always been the case?
I seem to know myself? Oh, that’s nice to know! Okay … [laughs] A lot of people who are architects, force themselves to be architects. It’s a forced intellectualism. That really got on my nerves. I appreciated the genius of a few of my teachers but I also knew that there were a lot sycophants and underlings who were forcing it. Some of them turned out to be wonderful architects. Most of them didn’t.
Yes, with architecture studies it seems as though everyone is being trained to be first violin.
And that’s not possible.
In Scandinavia they don’t call interior designers, “decorators” or “designers”, they call them “interior architects.”
It’s funny you should say that because I’ve just finished a project with a very well-known Swedish architect called Gert Wingårdh—have you heard of him? He designed the Swedish embassy in Washington DC and he’s a modernist. I loved working with him. The project was on a private island in the Stockholm archipelago. It is all cement, steel and glass but we introduced some wood and stone to soften it. He was initially very suspicious of my contribution but he came to appreciate it. It is an immense house and [another decorator’s] solution for decorating the living room was four black leather sofas all parallel with one another, two facing in and two facing out.
You mean like at a bus station?
Yes. And they didn’t face the view or the fireplace.
Some people seem to think severity is like a mark of intellectual something or other.
Have you ever interviewed Ilse Crawford? She’s captured the Swedish thing beautifully and it’s never severe. But I think she’s British.
How did you enjoy working with Jeffrey Bilhuber?
Oooh! [Laughs … then sighs … then long silence]. This is what happened. I went to architecture school and Jeffrey was working at the Carlisle Hotel after he had attended hotel school. He hated his job and I knew I didn’t want to be an architect and we met at Bemelmans Bar through a mutual friend and then somehow the subject of this woman came up. He knew her because he was at the desk of the hotel and I knew her because she was girlfriend of my father’s. She was the head of the Southampton Show House. We cooked up this idea that we would quit our jobs and become decorators even though we’d never decorated a room in our lives. And we did it. We were in business together for seven years. Jeffrey knew some tricks because Mark Hampton had been decorating the Carlisle and I had my architecture background but other than that, we’d never worked for anybody else. We were thrown into the show house—we did the pool house—and we got two full jobs out of it and that was enough. Also we then we met all these guys like Albert Hadley and Mario Buatta. They were all curious about us. They kind of became mentors, in a superficial way.
What happened after seven years?
When I decided I had had enough of Jeffrey—I mean we’re still friends—I decided I wanted to go to Charleston to open a concept store, which eventually failed. I had never really thought of myself as the decorator—Jeffrey was the decorator, I mean we did it together but he was the one who was passionate about it. I was the businessman. But half of our clients kept calling me and I started doing it again. I realized that I was good at it, too.
Do you think you have to be “passionate” about everything? We keep being told this and I’m wearying of it. Do you have to be “passionate” to be a good decorator?
No, apparently not! Because I’m not … but Jeffrey is.
Which bits of it are tough for you?
It’s not tough at all.
Tell us about your other lives … you have so many homes.
I have a boyfriend who lives in our place in Paris. We have a house in the Marais, which we bought 15 years ago. I feel very comfortable going to France—I’ve been going since I was 12 years old. What’s not to like about Paris? When I go there I do not work—that’s what I love about Paris. And I’m a foodie … much to my dismay.
Because I’m fat.
What’s your favorite restaurant in Paris?
We like to go to the regular, local places and we don’t often go to the fancy places but over the past year we’ve been twice to Arpège. Have you been there?
Arpège is amazing. We always stay at Hotel Relais Saint Germain and I love their restaurant, Le Comptoir. That’s where we eat most nights.
That’s where we go for lunch. I like to eat pork—pig is really good there. My favorite dish is called tranche de lard. It’s just a thick slab of hot, fatty pig. But then I love Arpège, which is basically a vegetarian restaurant—I don’t like Michelin three-star restaurants. I detest them actually. But Arpège is something apart.
How much time do you spend in your house in Abaco?
The house is in my book and it’s relatively new. I built that house from scratch and I was able to build a house on the water, right on the beach, which I would never have been able to afford in Harbor Island [where he previously owned a house]. I used my architecture training to design that house and I designed it to withstand a hurricane. It’s kind of remote though. But now that the storm [Hurricane Dorian] has happened, the town has gone. The people have gone to Florida and they’re not coming back. All the Haitians who lived there are probably dead—they didn’t even count them in the disaster.
What can you do about this?
There’s a certain amount of guilt I feel for not going there or trying to help. I was sending money to the fund and a friend of mine who wants to be the ambassador of the Bahamas went down there. Sadly, he told me that in many cases you don’t where it’s going. But the Times has sort of an approved list of relief organizations working in the Bahamas.
And your life in New York? Do you still love it? We have to admit that we’re getting a bit fed up with it! This endless construction for one thing. And you go into the park and you feel like you’re going to be killed by all these city bikes.
Yeah, totally. Everybody that I know who is in New York is really just here so that they can get out of New York on Thursday night. I do. I go to our family house in East Hampton. My mother still lives there—it’s her house really.
Did you grow up in that house?
I did. 65 summers in the same bed and the same room. My room is not on the ocean side of the house and I look out over the driveway and all I can see is green for miles.