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In Memoriam: The Death of Clients and the Dismantling of their Apartments
My friend Dan Farris, a real estate agent in New York, called last week to tell me that he had just appraised an apartment as part of an estate, and that I had decorated it. I paused to ask to whom it belonged. In that moment, I wondered if it belonged to a favored client, or if it was a particularly beautiful project.
As it turned out, it was a handsome place belonging to a couple that I liked very much. They were virtually my first clients in 1990 when I started my company. It brought to mind the wonderful experience I had working with them and the lasting legacy of memories.
The apartment was relatively modest for its Sutton Place address. The building dates from the 1920’s and retains much of its original detail and charm. Their apartment had a gracious living room, two bedrooms, and a maid’s room.
They asked for terracotta-colored walls, so we used graduated shades of the color in three rooms. We placed dramatic curtains with theatrical stripes of pink, black, and green at the living room window which had an engaging view onto the street.
There were a few pieces of American furniture—a fall front desk, a long case clock, and a drop leaf table—that are out of wide favor today, but attractively mixed with their modern furniture.
Like many well decorated rooms, it was not galvanized by the decoration alone, but also by the strong works of art in its midst. A very large and energetic painting purchased by one of the pair during their graduate school period and some nice etchings (I think by Joseph Pennell) gave the room great style.
Of course, the real delight of the rooms was the occupants. She was an architectural historian at the time working for the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission and he was a Professor of Philosophy. They had what my oldest friend, the architect Eric Kahn, describes as a combination seriousness, irony and humor. He suggests that not many folks have this quality today.
When I was finished with the project they had me over for a proper tea. It was a wonderful reward after all our hard work; it seemed so appropriate and not pretentious. Like many of things I cherished about them, it was gestures such as this that revealed so much about their character and generosity.
She reminisced about being a stylist for House and Garden in the early 1950’s. She spent a lot of time in Los Angeles photographing modern houses, particularly the Case Study houses featured in the famous Arts & Architecture magazine series. I was amused by the fact that they had only a few props in the back of her car, a picture frame and small Steuben bowl, which constantly reappeared in her various sittings. “That is why all those pictures have the same objects”—they were determined by availability, not taste.
There were other things that stand out from my memory. One was their preference for using the subway to get around town. Unlike many of my other clients, she had taken the time to know all the routes without the benefit of a map. It was not because they needed to save the cab fare—it was because she thought using rapid transit was an important part of seeing and understanding the city.
Another thing I remember was that she voluntarily sent me a commission check on antiques she ended up finding on her own, but only discussed with me how best to place them in the apartment. This sort of professional courtesy is rare and reveals an ability to look beyond one’s own narrow interest.
The years went by and we occasionally crossed paths. In one of our later meetings, she brought up one of the things I had encouraged her to do while we were working together, which was to make room in the apartment for her work. After years of making do working on the kitchen table, I had thought it was important to carve out a special space for herself. All these years later, she thanked me for pushing her to do that.
I know the curtains will come down and the walls will be painted. Proving once again that the relationships we make as designers and what we learn from the people we work with are more lasting and more important than the rooms and objects we make.