THIS CHARMING MAN
He lives in a Richard Neutra house in Silver Lake. He drives a vintage Defender in Amagansett. And this fall, the New Yorker-turned-Angeleno is publishing a new book about his decidedly chic work as an interior designer. The Gazette caught up with him at his beach house as he readied for the busy season ahead.
TS: Was anything a particularly key influence on your aesthetic when you were growing up?
When I was growing up in the 70s, parents didn’t really think, “What would my children like to do today?” They just smoked and took you where they wanted to go. My dad owned the fabric house Cowtan & Tout, but what really gave him pleasure was going to Parke-Bernet, the auction house across Madison Avenue from The Carlyle. He was very interested in antiques, architecture and Old Master drawings. Watching how excited he got about these things made me want to be able to communicate and connect with him about them.
There were really two distinct New York aesthetics back then — a Gilded Age, Upper East Side vibe, and this downtown art, music and club scene. Where did you fall on that spectrum?
As a teenager, wherever you are…you want to be the opposite. We were living at 730 Park Avenue in a world where people entertained lavishly at home a lot, and it was important that Parish-Hadley or Mark Hampton decorated your apartment.
And I’m growing up witnessing this self-created homage to the Rothschilds, while MTV is exploding and Andy Warhol had just directed a music video for The Cars. So, I was putting on eyeliner at 10:30 p.m. and heading downtown to clubs like Area, Danceteria, Palladium — these places where you would see Jean-Michel Basquiat or Keith Haring…and I was interested in both of these worlds.
After you dropped out of architecture school at Harvard, you worked as an interior designer in New York before moving to Los Angeles. Do you approach design differently in different cities?
Well, I came to L.A. to be a Soccer Mom because I had a child with the beautiful actress Ione Skye, and then I bought the Ohara House by Richard Neutra in Silver Lake on a fluke.
Living in a modern space really opened me up as a designer. As opposed to the pre-war apartments and shingle cottages that I tend to work on in New York and Long Island, L.A. taught me how to handle any style — Norma Desmond, Tom Ford, Charles Manson. I also learned to ride a motorcycle here. Regardless of the city, my primary starting point is the architecture. My job is to create a story that respects and compliments the architecture.
What’s your favorite type of client? What’s your least favorite type of client?
I view myself as similar to a lawyer, dentist or plumber. The client has hired me because I know something they don’t, and they value the utility of that knowledge.
My least favorite client is the person who is constantly second-guessing my suggestions and is a serial changer of minds. Why hire a decorator if you’re going to fight them the whole way? My favorite clients are those who want what they say they want and have a sense of humor and trust. You can be moody, that’s okay, but trust is important. I have a client who bought a house in L.A. from London while we were FaceTiming. That’s trust.
I also love people who collect things or have some inherited things — anything I can use as a starting point to construct a version of themselves they don’t know they want yet.
Are there certain possessions that are so well designed that they give you pleasure just by using them?
When the MacBook first came out during the Steve Jobs-Jony Ive era, that beautiful machine made me want to sit down and spend sustained amounts of time typing, and it gave me a second career as a writer, co-authoring a book about the designer Francois Catroux. I love cars, too, particularly Land Rovers. I have a new Defender in Los Angeles and a restored ’93 Defender in Long Island. It feels like agricultural equipment. I collect cufflinks even though I don’t wear them much, and I have a really good Italian coffee maker that makes me happy.
How would you describe your personal style?
I’m trying to get younger as I get older. Still, I can't let go of my love of jackets. I like a little bit of good tailoring or something unconstructed with a Japanese Carpenter Jacket vibration. It’s amazing how far a sport coat goes in L.A. I’ll walk into Taylor’s Steakhouse and the maître d’ gets excited because I’m not wearing a singlet.
Are there any style icons that you steer by?
Aristotle Onassis…because of the way he wore nice clothes, but in a rumpled way. It takes a lot of confidence to pull that off. David Somerset, the late Duke of Beaufort. There’s a way he would wear a thick turtleneck under a jacket, particularly in the 1950s, that I've adopted. And I love Cary Grant. Not the Cary Grant of the 40s or from North by Northwest, but Retired Dad Cary Grant from the 70s.
When you had a baby, you famously designed a sort of Scandinavian modern changing table that could be turned into a bar as the child outgrew it. What would you design that’s representative of where you are in life now?
I’m all about libraries. I dream of being surrounded by books. I don’t mean a library like The Pope or King Charles has, but something more like the library that Mica Ertegun designed for Keith Richards’ house in Connecticut. Keith loves to read history. I would design a standing bookcase — something that Thomas Jefferson might have designed for himself.
Photographed by Phillip Gutman
Interviewed by John Brodie