Julie V. Iovine -- Interior Design, 12/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
Relaxed confidence is not just a decorating style for Paul Siskin. It's a way of life. Even when he misses an interview appointment by three hours, he doesn't get frantic about rescheduling. Instead, he happily suggests going to see Marie Antoinette first and doing the interview afterward.
Such nonchalance is also, in a nutshell, how Siskin approaches design, folding the pleasures of life and work into one. "Some complain that I don't finish the job," Siskin says. "And it's true—I have never bought a set of sheets. But I can make a space beautiful and suitable. In the end, the clients have to finish it. That's what it means to make a home."
Siskin's clients prize his knack for combining low-key grandeur with definitive comfort. In the process, it's almost impossible not to be charmed by a man who barely has to introduce himself before he's treating you like a lifelong confidant.
He knows how to translate the grand into the livable. In his hands, a bathroom with limestone and marble stripes suggests masculine restraint, not Donald Trump-ery. If clients say they're mad for formal entertaining, he gives them the English antique groaning board, but he also sets a table for two by the window.
"Paul has an extraordinary eye for colors, textures, arrangements. It's structural but intuitive—those sound like opposites, but not with him. Ultimately, the operative word is elegance," says Kitty Hawks, a 2005 Hall of Fame inductee.
Raised in Los Angeles, Siskin has interiors in his blood. Angelus, the family business, was the largest furniture manufacturer west of the Mississippi before the company branched into retail by purchasing part of W.& J. Sloane and Wilder's Furniture, purveyors of traditional Americana to striving suburbia. But Siskin had no intention of following that path.
"It was the '60s, and I had an Afro and bell-bottoms," recalls Siskin, who went off to Colorado State University. "Basically, I was this rich hippie who got a high lottery number in the draft and dropped out." It was a trip to Europe, with a stop at Versailles, which turned his mind to decorating as a career. He apprenticed in the antiques department at W.& J. Sloane, then moved to New York in 1974.
After studying at the Parsons School of Design, he took a job with Hall of Fame member John Saladino, who was at the top of his game, countering the prevailing winds of chintz with a not-exactly-minimal classicism. "John had a painterly genius for color, and I learned all about it," Siskin says. He also learned how to deal with clients.
After leaving the John F. Saladino firm, Siskin joined forces with Venezuelan bon vivant Perucho Valls in 1984. "Nothing intimidated him," Siskin says of his business and life partner, who died of AIDS in 1992. Valls, who'd worked for Halston, had a sense of couture workmanship that meshed with Siskin's clean lines in a way that turned heads.
Siskin Valls managed to score a coveted invite to participate in the Kips Bay Decorator Show House right away. The room was a bravura confection of a study, featuring an embroidered slipcovered chair with a crinoline train. It was an early manifestation of the fashion-decor alliance that remains a powerful impulse in design today.
Siskin, 59, still operates solo as Siskin Valls. He's currently most excited about working with Studio Chan to build himself a weekend house in Greenport, New York, along the Hudson River. "It's going to be a factory—with high ceilings, absolutely no trim, lots of glass, and tables loaded with books," he says. In other words, grand but not precious. And perfectly tuned to a thoughtful life, Siskin's own.