During a visit to New York City I had the opportunity to interview renowned interior designer Geoffrey Bradfield, who was just honored by the American Cancer Society with the “Man of Achievement” Award this week. We met over tea at the “Bar Seine” in the Hotel Plaza Athenee. His impeccable reputation preceded the award-winning designer, who is not only known for his ultra luxurious art-focused interiors that cover the globe, but also for being most debonair gentleman and a host extraordinaire. Iris Apfel so poignantly described Geoffrey Bradfield as “a fantasy of that perfect Edwardian gentleman: exquisitely mannered, impeccably tailored, well spoken, conversationally witty, politically savvy.”
Iris Apfel with the designer at his 30 years in America celebration – Great room at the “Ultimate Bachelor Pad” for Esquire magazine
(Photos: Neil Rasmus for Patrick McMullan / Kyle Bunting)
As elegant and welcoming as his interiors, my distinguished guest was dressed to the nines and came bearing a gift. He had me at hello! Geoffrey so very kindly presented me with his book “Ex Arte” the moment he arrived. We got a chance to leaf through it as we shared a leisurely yet enlightening conversation over Harney & Sons tea, old-fashioned tea sandwiches, scones, miniature pastries and chocolate-covered strawberries.
Now that is how I like to spend an afternoon in New York! — Claudia
Claudia Juestel: I would like to begin with your upbringing and the beginning of your career in South Africa. I understand that you spent your childhood on your parents’ farm and that you had already established a practice in Johannesburg before you moved to New York in the 70s. What was like to grow up in South Africa, and how did you get your start as an interior designer?
Geoffrey Bradfield: Well indeed I am from the Transkei, which was a farming area, and I was raised at my parents’ farm. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents were farmers, and my forbearers settled in the Eastern Cape in 1820. They are of English background, and they were given land grants by the Crown to encourage them to settle in South Africa. In fact my dad was born on that farm that was a land grant from the Crown.
It was called “Hopewell.” The farm that I grew up on was called “Athlone,” and it was an incredible childhood because my parents’ farm bordered the Indian Ocean. So you could literally go from our stables and right onto the beach, which was very magical. The farmhouse itself was built on the highest promontory in the area, not a hill or anything but it was just raised, and you looked down the avenue at the ocean in front of you.
So it was really idyllic in many ways; a bit of an Eden. It is not that way anymore of course. But it was an incredible childhood. When you got home from school and you would be barefoot on the beach. It was a barefoot childhood in a way up to a certain age, I guess about until I was 10 years old, and then of course you were expected to look grown up.
CJ: Ten is the cut-off age?
GB: I think it was before puberty kicks in. We were fairly formal with school. We always had to wear blazers and ties and school uniforms. So that was the more formal side of our lives.
CJ: Did you ride horses as well? You mentioned stables.
GB: Absolutely. We had our own horses on the farm. It was a working farm. This was not some luxurious Safari lodge or anything, but we all had our own horses, and I loved riding. I wasn’t a fine horseman as my brother and sister, but I loved hunting, and I hunted until I was almost 50. I broke a collarbone when I was thrown from a horse. I had never broken a bone in 50 years and on my 50th year I broke my collarbone. You girls are amazing because you can deal with pain. My gender, the male gender, we don’t like pain. So I stopped riding.
CJ: It is a shame you stopped. But since I also have broken my color bone I know that is very painful because it is hard to stabilize it to heal properly. How did you go from this simple rural life to a very formal and luxurious life being surrounded by the best of what the world of design has to offer?
GB: You are right. The life I lead today is the antithesis of the way I was raised. My parents were perfectly civilized people; but the priorities were different, and interestingly enough we never had television in South Africa. Television was not introduced to the country until 1978, and I left in ’77. So we had a radio, and we had our imaginations, and we were extremely creative in that sense.
I was the oldest of four children. I have two brothers and a sister younger than I, and I was never short of ideas. It was just extraordinary the way one did not miss anything. We read books, we entertained each other, especially being outside the city. I always loved entertaining. So even from a very young age we were giving countless parties, and as a teenagers it was exactly the same. We had a swimming pool, and it was a shipwreck party, and when I got out of the Army it was a “farewell to arms” theme, bon voyage parties, etc. They always had themes, and I drove everyone crazy of course. You can imagine that my family was not always thrilled about it, but they indulged me to a point.
CJ: And did you have any ideas about interior design at that time? You liked entertaining, but did you have a sense of what you were going to do later on?
GB: Well yes, I have always been very motivated by beauty, and one was surrounded by glorious nature. Mother nature is incomparable! There is nothing quite like it! But no, I never had a conversion on the road to tosses. I always knew what I wanted to do. From a very young age I always felt that I would either do set designs for movies or interiors, it was always related to interiors. I feel extremely fortunate that I always knew exactly what I wanted to do and I love what I do. I know so many people who are miserable in their careers. They never really knew what they wanted to do. They have tried this; they have tried that. It was never a problem for me.
CJ: Isn’t that a blessing even when we work very hard?
GB: Yes it’s extraordinary. I know what I do satisfies me, and it’s very fulfilling. I love it!
A younger Geoffrey Bradfield with a friend in South Africa (Photo: courtesy of Geoffrey Bradfield)
GB: I did, but first I went around the world. Once I got out of the Army I spent two years to go around the world. In 1966 I went to London first where I was getting a diploma. I went to school during the day, and I did windows in the evening at Fenwick’s on Bond Street. I had a ball! You are talking about Carnaby Street, King’s Road, the Beatles; it was just swinging London, and it was a remarkable period.
I met amazing people like Anthony Redmile, Baron Alessandro Albrizzi, and Ossie Clark. I was on the periphery of all of this because I was very young. But it was very exciting, and when you are young it is a blank canvas to everything that is novel. Everything was exciting, but as I say I worked for a couple of hours every night. My parents were very generous to me, but to a point. It didn’t include clothes from Carnaby Street.
CJ: You are known for being very stylish, and you must have been then as well.
GB: Well, I loved that particular period. It was wonderful! Ossie Clark was my favorite, the short tight jackets, which we are actually seeing a resurgence of. Of course you have to be very thin to wear them, and the girls with those micro-mini skirts. Oh, it was such a gorgeous period! At the end of 68 I went back to South Africa, almost immediately to Johannesburg because there was nothing for me in Transkei. I went to see my folks and spent a month there. I had not seen them for two years, and I knew I was going to live in Johannesburg if I was going to have a profession.
CJ: Did you go to work for an interior design firm there?
GB: I did initially, and then I became an associate, and the three of us were really successful. We were very big fish in a little pond, and we were working almost immediately. South Africans were always very international; they always had homes in London, or in Tel-Aviv, or in America, and there were always homes we were doing on a global stage, but not to the extent that we do today. But in the 70s it was a golden period in South Africa, absolutely golden, and I was there seven years.
CJ: You had a wonderful opportunity at such a young age.
GB: I did, and it was amazing even with this hair down to my shoulders people took me seriously enough to employee me, and I actually had a really amazing break when I was twenty three. I did a project for an impresario in South Africa called Pieter Toerien, and it garnered me a lot of attention at a very young age. People like to do things that are fashionable, and I was flavor of the month, so it helped my business expand. I had two wonderful partners, and it is sad that they are no longer alive, but we built up this company from nothing until I left in 77.
CJ: So what was the point where you said ‘I love New York. I have always dreamed about living there. I have a successful business, but I’m leaving.’?
GB: I hate being bored, I hate it, but I love a challenge. Johannesburg was a wonderful challenge for me coming back, having been around the world and seeing it all. I was in Japan when kids my age never went to Japan. I know it may be commonplace now, but we are talking about 1967. I was like a Martian there in those days. They would walk over to me, and they literally would say ‘Is your hair blonde?’, and they would feel it in the middle of the street.
While back in South Africa I came to New York almost every year for those seven years to visit for a few days. I was very friendly with the South African Consul General, and I wasn’t supposed to stay. Only every time I came to visit I knew with more certainty that I would one day live in New York. I pulled the rug from under myself when I was 29. I realized if I didn’t move then I never would. I had an incredible life, I had my beautiful home and my dogs, and I had my horses in Johannesburg, and I belonged to clubs. It was a very beautiful lifestyle.
CJ: But you had achieved your goals and had no more challenges.
GB: I was running out of challenges. I was working on three projects in Tel Aviv, and I was with my two associates on New Year’s Eve in Tel Aviv at a club called Mandy’s. You remember the Profumo scandal and Mandy Rice Davis? It was her club. And when it struck midnight I turned to my two associates, and I said ‘I’m telling you I’m leaving in six months.’ And they laughed, and they didn’t take me seriously.
We got back to South Africa, and at Easter time that year I began putting my real estate on the market, I sold my horses, I found a home for my dogs and I planned to move, and I did. I moved in July that year.
CJ: With little suitcase or lots of stuff?
GB: Well that’s the biggest mistake I made, and I really remind myself of that every time I move. I’m very nomadic. I’m always buying and selling properties and houses. I’ve had five houses in Tuxedo Park, I must’ve moved at least ten times in New York buying and selling. I love it!
And in Palm Beach I must have had at least six different addresses, and again buy them, doing them up and selling them. It’s just something I enjoy. To answer your question, I owned beautiful furniture that I designed, paintings and things that were the height of fashion in Johannesburg at the time, all white. It was very white. I containerized everything, and I thought when I have an apartment I’ll ship it all to New York, which was all prearranged.
I was one of the first residents on 800 Fifth Avenue, which was a new building that had gone up on the former Dodge estate. It was an incredible spanking new building overlooking Central Park. I was on the 25th floor with lovely views, and again I did it all and I got it where I wanted it. Then six months later this container arrived. They brought it into my apartment, and I started unpacking it. I thought, what did I do? This is absurd!’ They were perfectly lovely pieces, but so inappropriate for where I was already, one mentally and two physically.
It has always been a very good lesson that when I leave I sell a house furnished. I take some photo frames and a couple of things that have meaning for me; but I’m attached to very little. I’m not attached to anything other than my dog, a wonderful dog.
CJ: What kind of dog?
GB: He is so cute! His name is Mr. Willoughby. I have always had Yorkies. I had a dog called Mr. Darcy. I always name them after Jane Austen characters. He died tragically, and it broke my heart. So I waited two years for this young fellow, and I thought I’m going to name him after a cad. So I named him after Mr. Willoughby. Remember how he broke everyone’s hearts in “Sense and Sensibility”?
CJ: And this Mr. Willoughby probably does do. He’s so photogenic!
GB: He is a real heartbreaker.
CJ: So when you moved to New York you initially worked for McMillen. Was that your first position here in the US?
GB: It was.
CJ: And how did that happen?
GB: It was actually through a girl I met at a party at Studio 54. We got on very well, and I told her that I had been only here for a week and that I was looking for a job. And she said, ‘Oh my school friend’s mother is the president of a company.’ It turned out to be McMillen. And I was working in two weeks of being in America.
CJ: That must have been exciting! Studio 54 was the place to be in those days, but I had no idea that you could find a job there.
GB: Well there you are; and I did. So based on that recommendation I went to this very grand apartment, and the mother checked me out; and then I had to meet the vice president, and they hired me.
CJ: Did you still have the long hair?
GB: It was still quite long, but more Beatle, if you know what I’m saying. I’ve cut it respectively, but I always had clean hair. I lived in what would have been considered a quasi commune when I first lived in Johannesburg, but I had my own telephone and my own staff.
CJ: Your own staff at the commune?
GB: I am making it sound terribly grand. I don’t mean to, but there were little apartments that went with staff. They didn’t polish my silver, but they cleaned the bathrooms and the windows.
CJ: I didn’t have that for my first apartment, so that sounds pretty grand to me.
GB: I think it was just South Africa. I don’t want to upset anyone.
CJ: It’s just like that in Asia as well. It’s cultural, and it provides jobs for people.
CJ: So back to New York, McMillen is a very prominent firm. Albert Hadley, Mark Hampton, and Kevin McNamara, they all trained there.
GB: All alumni.
CJ: And you were one of them.
GB: I was.
CJ: What was that like in those days?
GB: It was wonderful because Mrs. Eleanor Brown was still there. She was very frail of course, but she came in everyday, with little white gloves. People really still dressed like that back then. We’re talking about 1977-78, and Betty Sherrill, who was the president, was amazing. Actually I don’t know if I can tell these stories, but I don’t think she’d mind. I learned so much! Well, I learn all the time.
CJ: It is the gift of a curious person.
GB: It is, and you pick up things, and some things impress you and some things don’t. But she was very impressive on several levels. I was to some extent her assistant. I had to start at the bottom. I knew that, and I was actually working under the vice president Luis Rey, but for some reason she liked me around. I would follow her around to projects. She would ask me to meet her at Elizabeth Arden in the morning, because she would have her hair combed out every day, not done, but combed out every day.
So I would meet her there at nine. I had to be at work early and then shoot over to pick her up and go to wherever she wanted. I called her Miss Sherrill, and I asked once I had gotten to know her, ‘what is this everyday? Your hair looks perfectly nice.’ She pat me on the knee and said, ‘I hear who is getting divorced, who is changing apartments, and who is doing this and who is doing that.’ And I thought, ‘Wow.’ She had her ear to the ground in the best place ever because all the socialites went there, and she was from a very prominent family. She wasn’t an accident. She was a grand lady from the South who married extremely well. So she knew all of these people anyway. But if you wanted to tap the trends and the maneuverings, that was the place to be.
CJ: Well, divorce means move and often means projects.
GB: Exactly, and the other thing, that she did I thought was so cool: whenever we had a major interview with clients she would wear this massive, yellow diamond ring, and I mean serious.
She would put her hand in the middle of the table like, ‘don’t play with me boys. We’re expensive, and you better know that.’ Nothing was said, but this diamond would just say it all. And I loved it, and I always thought that was very amusing.
CJ: A smart woman!
GB: They are the oldest decorating company in the country, and when they had their 100-year anniversary it was a big event. They called me and asked me for a photograph to be part of the alumni, which I thought was very nice. And I’m very fond of her. She’s a lovely, lovely lady!
CJ: And she’s still around?
GB: She is, but she is very frail. Her daughter now runs the company, and Mrs. Brown of course is long gone. But what was also very amusing was, if a client got a little bit rattled about something or wasn’t happy, then they would bring out the heavy artillery, and poor Mrs. Brown would be put in the car and driven over. She would sit there with her white gloves and then she would say, ‘We’ll change that fabric for this one.’ And everything would be calm, and it was Mrs. Brown, the heavy artillery. And no one ever questioned her. But they were such gracious people. To work for them was being in a civilized world.
CJ: What did you think you learned the most being there?
GB: I learned that I didn’t want to be in traditional interiors, that I had to be true to my self. I am a modernist, and I wanted to do modern interiors. I love antiques, and I love beautiful paintings from any period, but I like my interiors to represent our moment in time. I really like it to look like 21st century. I don’t like to create period rooms; it has no appeal to me.
CJ: Like museum rooms.
GB: Yes, I love going to look at them. I am an avid visitor of museums all around the world. I love seeing period rooms, but not in interiors. There are too many people that do that so well. Why should I?
CJ: We have to be passionate about what you do.
CJ: And so after that you went to a partnership with the late Jay Spectre. How did that come about?
GB: That was a really extraordinary 14 years for me because I knew that I wanted to be in a company with modern ideas. I had heard through one of the kids at McMillen that there was a job opening at Jay Spectre. I never heard of his name, only after I met him. Well, you couldn’t Google people in those days. Today you’d know exactly when you went to an interview, but I honestly didn’t know who he was. I went over to his office, and his staff there was really snooty and unfriendly to me.
Anyway, I had my portfolio that I had made in South Africa with me. We talked for an hour, and then it was very embarrassing because he asked me where I lived. I didn’t want to tell him that I was living in the smartest building on 5th Avenue because then he’d think that I didn’t need money. So I said, ‘Oh, I live on the East Side.’ And he said, ‘Oh, where on the East Side?’ I said, ‘Well I live in 60s.’ ‘Oh, where in the 60s?’ And then finally I had to tell him. And he looked at me wondering what was going on. This kid has just arrived apparently, and he is living in the newest building on 5th Avenue. He didn’t realize I was sharing it with someone.
CJ: But maybe it was the same approach your former boss Betty Sherrill had. You put out the big diamond and they say, ‘Oh he’s expensive. I want him.‘
GB: You might be right, I don’t know. I never thought of it that way. I was very timorous about saying where I live because he didn’t live in anything like that. During our partnership, which was strictly professional, he had two apartments on 57th Street, and one was the office. So I moved him to 5th Avenue because I couldn’t take it. It was ridiculous! So it was something that I encouraged him to do.
But really we had a very productive and great partnership. We were the forerunners. We had 15 licenses for home furnishings and thousands of SKUs. We did china, we did sheets, we did furniture, we did wall paper and carpeting. It went on and on and on. We did coffee, we did biscuits. There was only one other designer, Angelo Dhongia, who was doing the same thing with the licensing. We won many awards. It was very exciting, and we worked all over the world.
CJ: Am I correct in the assumption that you know own all these?
GB: Well, I did then. Jay died of AIDS in ’92. He was far too young, and his boyfriend had died two years before him. It was just before the cocktails and all that kicked in. Everyone is alive today, thank God, but at the time people were dropping like flies. And the country also went into a massive recession then. And it was terrible, and all of the licensees were running scared, and once the licenses expired they weren’t renewed. So, yes I did inherit all that; he left me the company as well, not his estate; that went to his family.
CJ: So how much product is still being produced?
GB: Well I have none of it. You’re always only good as your current collection. I have my own collections now. I have acrylic, a huge range of carpets, textiles, and wallpapers.
CJ: And you also did some work with Kyle Bunting. He was one of my guests for tea.
GB: Yes, in fact he wants me to sign another contract with him to really expand the furniture line. He is very, very charming.
CJ: Actually, the “Louis in Extremis” chairs you designed were my two of my favorites. I know they were a tribute to Alexander McQueen. I loved the contradiction of the skull and the butterflies and the pink.
GB: Well, you’re talking to a devotee here; I love fashion, especially women’s fashion. I love it! I have many friends who are in the design field, and I only go to their shows. I can’t possibly do all the others. You need to be a girl who’s just lounging everyday, because it’s impossible. But I do go to these four shows every season.
But with McQueen I went to the Butterfly one. I came out of there practically crying, it was so beautiful! I was emotional. It was so dazzling, and alas I wasn’t invited to others, it was just a fluke that I happened to be in London and I was invited to the show. It was so riveting! I’ve never seen the likes, and I’ve been to a lot of shows in Paris, and they’re extraordinary and extravagant and very innovative, but McQueen was just for me one of the greatest fashion designers of my lifetime. He was daring. He never played it safe. He was a genius, an absolute genius!
CJ: Yes, his passing was an incredible loss. It is hard to imagine what he could have still achieved.
GB: Yes, but he was unhappy, and maybe it was the unhappiness that spurred his imagination. His escape was creating something beyond himself, something so glorious, and you cannot sustain this. You do know that. Even in our field, it’s one thing if you are someone who is cautious, has exquisite taste, but you’re not pushing the envelope. I don’t want to do that; I don’t want to do safe interiors. I hope that my interiors are perceived in good taste, but I like to challenge my clients, I like it to be daring, I like to use materials that are new. I don’t want to be using the same old materials like a cookie cutter every time I do an interior. It’s not what I’m about!
McQueen was a man who stood out from everyone else. The others were taking an idea from one here and then an idea from another there, and they were making it work on more pedestrian level. But he stuck his neck out over and over again. He’s my kind of man! I want to be part of this vanguard, this amazing embrace of our period. We’re so lucky!
I think people don’t realize how amazing it is for us to be living on the cusp of a millennium, which hasn’t happened since the Dark Ages. This is not a century we’re talking about; the millennium was unbelievable; a 1000 years prior to that wasn’t even the Renaissance, it was the Crusades. And for us to be living at that moment in time, we are the most privileged people alive. Plus what is happening with technology is spinning us into something so exciting. Just think of Googling someone.
CJ: You can find out so much about people before you think about going on a date or interview.
GB: I know. Before you’d have to go to the library.
CJ: We talked about you not having television as a child, and compare it to today.
GB: Yes, just think of the flat TV screen today. I always advocate and say, ‘don’t hide it; it’s so chic. Don’t conceal it anymore; it’s beautiful.’
CJ: But back then you grew up you expressed your creativity because you did not have a TV or a computer. I wonder the effect technology has on the creativity of the next generation of fashion designers, architects and interior designers.
GB: I believe that we are on the cusp of such change. It won’t be for me, because I’ve already made to some extent my mark, for what it’s worth. Not that I don’t embrace new things every day in my field, but I think that with the younger generation, we are going to see what happened in the 20s, ninety years ago.
If you actually do any research, which I have to some extent, I think that during the 20s and 30s design was completely revolutionized with the Art Deco period and the Art Moderne that followed, and then of course almost every decade since. I think that it really takes at least 15 years into a new century for these ideas to really become fertile and to start to work, accelerated today by technology. But I think we’re about to see such a radical change in interiors in the next five to ten years, it is going to be unrecognizable.
CJ: But when you look at interiors compared to fashion where you have two seasons a year, we want them to last, especially considering the amount of money invested.
GB: I think that if you really approach an interior with objectivity, it has to be about quality and the best you can possibly afford, then it has a chance at longevity. Not everyone can afford to spend a million dollars on a chair, but get the best you can afford in art or whatever, then it should last. The research says that people move four times in their life today on average.
CJ: Not you, more like four times a year.
GB: Close. No, but I know this because I have designed furniture. Companies like Century, that I worked for, did massive research on their market: who was buying it, how many times do they buy it, what age they were, all of it. So I was privy to a lot of this when I was doing the licensing program on that scale. When you think about that, you think that it is the first young man and his bachelor pad, then he is married and has a bigger apartment, then the kids come, and then it is retirement. But by and large I think the average is about right. In a lifetime the average person moves about four times.
CJ: It will be interesting to see what will happen in the next 20 years. We shall have tea again in 20 years.
CJ: You did mention earlier that you mentioned new and cutting edge materials. Do you have a favorite or two that you can share?
GB: Well there are. I love transparency; I really love it. I love mirrors! I’ve used mirrors with economy, but there’s almost never an interior that I do without some mirror. I love the sense of infinity, and I love reflection. I love texture and contrast. So I love glass; I like experimenting with it. There are so many beautiful new products on the market. I love using pony hide, it’s terrific. For a large entrance hall in a place on Madison Avenue I am designing a floor in a combination of wood and marble, almost in a Renaissance design, it’s so beautiful.
CJ: Well that’s the wonderful thing about design, even though you do it all the time, when we see something so beautiful were are still mesmerized by it.
GB: Yes, that’s exciting! I always say this that as designers we’re only as good as our clients allow us to be.
CJ: Very true!
GB: Because I can bring an idea to someone, and they can really squelch the idea and go for something simpler. Often it is not even about money. These clients could have gone for a beautiful marble entrance hall, I’ve done many of those and they are very lovely, but this is much more. The marble is taupe and quarried in Italy, and the wood is a color that I call driftwood. It is really beautiful!
CJ: It sounds really beautiful! I feel that clients should hire designers to push them a little bit further than they would go on their own.
GB: That’s what I like to do. I’m sure you feel the same way. Or you’re not being creative to your full potential. They don’t come to me for a generic interior.
CJ: So what do you do when clients are afraid? Do you have a certain strategy?
GB: I always have two alternatives. I always do, because if they are unhappy, it’s their home after all, then I immediately revert to something that’s more palatable to them.
CJ: But if you feel really strongly about something that would make a huge difference?
GB: I know how to choose my wars, and I am not without persuasiveness or some charm, I hope. Usually the tides will turn to me having said ‘Oh that’s standard.’ And then they would consider it and turn toward me and say, ‘Well, which would you choose?’ I always say, ‘I’d never show you anything I don’t believe in. So you’re looking at two choices and one is a challenge and the other one I know you can live with. You must choose.’ It’s a shared process; you create a team when you work for clients. It’s a team: the architect works with the designer, and whoever else is involved, the landscape architect; we all row the same boat. We want it to look beautiful. We want it to represent us in our best possible way. It’s very important.
CJ: I think that the most important thing for our clients is to pick the best team early, because often the designers come in too late.
GB: Too true, and then you find that there’s resentment from the architect. Creating the team at the beginning is the only way to go. The other thing that I always and truly do believe in, and I’m absolutely sure you’re in agreement, is that the one thing that will not change is, that human beings need comfort. I preach comfort!
People don’t want to be in a museum even if it’s very high tech, which is not what I do as a modernist. They want comfort; they want to be able to feel that it’s their home. I really believe in that, and I always take that approach with all clients, even when they are ultra-sophisticated, and they want it to look really sleek. They’ve got to pull up a chair and be able to sit down.
CJ: When you watch a movie you don’t want to be in some stiff low-back Italian sofa.
GB: You’ve got it!
CJ: You have also talked about serenity in your interiors. How do you achieve that?
GB: You know, I really think it’s innate; I really do. The reason I have to answer that question is that many times people have come to interview me at home or in an apartment that they wanted to see in particular.
I recently finished Oliver Stone’s apartment, which was very masculine. They always say the same thing, ‘Yes it’s very modern, and it’s challenging, but there’s a sense of serenity.’ I really think it’s an innate ability of mine to create that feeling of being on a cloud. I also think art can play a lot in that. Not all art: you can have violent art; but I think art can bring good energy to a room; it can bring serenity to a room.
CJ: I know art is really important to you in your interiors.
GB: It is.
CJ: How do you select art?
GB: Well, I have to preface this by saying that art is so crucial to my interiors. My interiors are predicated by the use of contemporary art. There’s almost not an interior that I do that hasn’t got some form of art in it. How do I choose art?
CJ: Do you work with an art advisor, or do you choose all the art yourself?
GB: I don’t really. I like to choose it myself, but if clients are really looking to buy $20 million paintings of course I’d be very foolhardy not to bring in an art consultant. There are very fine consultants available. Sometimes when clients are very important collectors to begin with, they will have their own consultant. I will find something and their consultant will vet it.
CJ: And if they’re serious collectors does their taste usually match your taste in art?
GB: I think it does, with one exception. Many years ago, thank God, I was doing an apartment on Madison Avenue, ironically for a couple who were moving to the city, and they kept talking about sculptures. So I thought, how lovely, perhaps Alexander Archipenko, or this kind of thing. And I did these beautiful renderings of this bathroom with a gorgeous Archipenko on it. It was big enough to feature a piece of sculpture. They came back from Las Vegas, and they produced a picture of this little cupid putto. I said, you know what Mrs. So and So, this isn’t going to work. Let’s bring this to a head right now.’ And we did.
CJ: That probably sent a message for the project not just the art. Sometimes it’s best to say no.
GB: I don’t like saying no, but sometimes you have to.
CJ: Speaking of art, let’s talk about your book “Ex Arte”.
GB: I love the book. The title is important because Ex Arte is Latin for working within the principles of art, beauty through art. So it’s key that the definition of the title is in the foreword to the book. It is a cross-section of work all over the world, and it’s also a very good calling card for me. People will call, and they’ll just go on my website, but sending them a book that’s in their hands and they’re paging through, it is different. In fact I did Oliver Stone’s project through this book.
CJ: A great calling card indeed. Do you think with the changes in technology books will ever lose their importance?
GB: I hope they don’t. I’m an anachronism in so many ways. I read two or three books a month. I devour magazines, I surf through them, and when I see something I stop. But because they are so heavy before I get on the plane I would just earmark them for my office, and then they take out the story that I want to read. So it’s a fraction of the weight when I get on the plane, and I can just read the one article.
CJ: Speaking of travel, you mentioned that you have moved many times, and you also said how you made a mistake bringing your furniture over here. So you probably decorated each home in a very different way. Are your own home places for experimentation? Do you have signature designs other than mirrors that you implement in each home?
GB: I think, yes and no. There is no question that my work has a signature. There are certain elements that are very relevant, such as texture, contrast, and modernist in approach. I love designing carpets. I love beautiful carpets that are very signature Geoffrey Bradfield. I love mirrors, but with economy. I’m not recreating MGM bathrooms. I also think that a very important thing is location.
I don’t believe in doing a Tudor house in a city high rise, or vice versa doing a high-tech New York apartment in a Tudor house in the country. It doesn’t make sense. So I think that you’ve got to respect location and architecture to some extent. Several of my houses in Tuxedo Park were 19th century houses, built between 1860 and 1865. And I didn’t make them ultramodern. The kitchens and the bathrooms were certainly, but the drawing room and the bedrooms in that were country, but very modernist, no traditional anything. My townhouse is 1865, and again it’s a very clean and modern interior.
CJ: And how do you work in Palm Beach versus New York? You have a different climate, different light.
GB: Oh yes, light of course. Although, I could never live in a dark room, it’s not my taste. I don’t mind a dark library if you have a big house, which I’ve had before, but I like light. I’m from the southern hemisphere. I like light colors around me. So if I use a dark color it is always an accent, and it’s not a primary color. Also, it’s very interesting, every time I’ve moved, I’ve wanted less: less furniture, less, not to the extent of compromising comfort of course.
CJ: But the art probably always comes with you?
GB: Only now and again. But I would rather sell two paintings from that apartment and upgrade, buy new paintings, with a new point of view.
CJ: So no attachment to the art either? I understand that you also that you have also designed yachts and planes, and hotels. Do you have a different approach for those kinds of projects?
GB: Well yes, I think they’re enforced. In a jet the materials have to be fireproof and light, and you’re limited. You have a color scheme, and you can design the rugs and things like that. But you really want them to be very simple and clean. Yachts are another story. Because it’s more like a house, but everything is built-in. And I’ve always worked on both the jets and yachts with professionals. I’m the designer, but there are professionals who know.
When you’re doing a yacht you really have to listen to someone whose career it is, but you can bring a personality to it because they would just do the same veneers. But one can make a yacht exciting without overdesigning it. I hate overdesign! So with hotels you’re doing 200 rooms and you give them three schemes. Then the fun parts of hotels are the ballroom, the reception, that kind of thing. I love it, actually. In my experience, it’s been very positive.
CJ: Are you going to do another one?
GB: I’d love to. I’m doing only residential work at the moment in Asia. I’d love to break into hotels there.
CJ: How did you get into the Asian market?
GB: It actually happened through Tokyo. I was on a short list there. I think that they hired me because of the art angle. They wanted to form a collection. And I believe that exactly the same is happening with a Chinese project we are working on. The art gallery is so enormous. It has a 40 foot ceiling, double volume; and that’s just one room for art. And they were very keen to collect art, and I think that the book again helped sway the decision.
CJ: Where do you find the most inspiration besides art?
GB: That’s a good question. At the risk of really being boring, I am so visual and I may be walking on the sidewalk and I may be seeing an ornament on a building. I would send my office back to photograph it because I don’t know how to take picture on my iPhone. Wherever I go I am admiring something and I have collected a massive amount of materials and sources.
When I did a project on Eaton Square in London I had already done so much research on London through the years, on the period homes in London, and I wanted to reinterpret them in a way. There were so many great ideas that I already had stored, having secured these ideas whilst I was growing up and spending time in them. So I think that it’s been that every minute of my life has been a visual experience.
CJ: And again it is about quality. It doesn’t matter if the time period ended. You probably can interpret it in a more modern way.
CJ: What are your most favorite things to do for leisure?
GB: I have very few holidays. I don’t consider going to see my family a holiday. I grab a few days here and there. When we were in China for a project an associate of mine said ‘so let’s just go and have two days. I wanted to see the new hotel in Singapore, the one with three columns and a boat on top.’ I said, Let’s go and see that.’ So we scooted down; I guess that’s a break.
But once a year, I have a proper holiday, which is only ten days and with the same group of friends that I play host to. All they have to do is get there, and then they are my guests. I’ve taken a beautiful chateau in France, I’ve taken a palace in the Medina of Marrakesh, I’ve had a beautiful, beautiful castle in Limerick, Ireland, and this beautiful bishop’s palace in Umbria. And last year I charted one of these beautiful boats on the Nile, and we sailed from Luxor to Aswan Lake.
CJ: What an exciting thing to do with good friends!
GB: It is.
CJ: Does it include friends from way back in South Africa?
GB: Well, one actually. One is Swiss, but he lives in Thailand. Several are fashion designers from here. I always take my young associate with me. There are ten of us. It’s wonderful! It’s always around the Fourth of July. So we’d always have a Fourth of July party wherever we are.
CJ: And that’s the only time off during the year, other than adding on a day here or there? That’s not a lot; it’s so American.
GB: What’s wrong with this picture? I always feel — what’s wrong with this picture, I’m working my tail off! But I like it, so it is fine.
CJ: But on a regular basis, when you are not on vacation, what do you do for fun?
GB: Well I go to Palm Beach for work and, I also enjoy just getting away. And I love walking on the beach there.
CJ: You also mentioned earlier that you loved to entertain from an early age on.
GB: I really enjoy it. I give probably two major parties a year, usually one in the spring and one in the fall. And there is always a reason; it’s for a friend, or a launch of a fragrance, or for an important visitor. I gave a party for Prince Edward, when he was here. He came to my home, which I think was a great honor. I love to do things like that.
CJ: Wonderful! Do you still do themes like back in the 60’s?
GB: They are staged. Yes, they have themes.
CJ: So you do the flowers and everything yourself?
GB: I hire professionals to execute the party. I’m not a party planner; I’m a decorator with very definite ideas. I know how to stage something to please ME. Then I hire professionals who are very, very efficient; and they put it together for me.
CJ: If you weren’t doing design, which you loved from a very young age, what might you have done instead? I know you also love fashion and you’re known to be quite debonair.
GB: That’s a very good question. Why I say that is, when I was in London, the course that I was doing was nothing academic or anything, but it was a very sound course, which was called basic design. And it was about fashion and interiors. One lecture would be this, and one would be that. And then I was doing the windows in Fenwick’s on Bond Street, which again I must preface this by saying that I was an assistant doing the windows; there were professionals doing the windows. But it was so much about fashion because Fenwick’s is all about a fashion. It is beautiful and very young sort of young. So we would be doing windows that were about fashion.
CJ: So could you see yourself being a fashion designer?
GB: I actually was very involved in fashion for about three years in South Africa, but suddenly it occurred to me, quite sensibly, that you can’t serve two masters. You had to make a choice, and there was no question that I wanted to do interior design. But I used to actually have two collections a year in South Africa, very young, sort of trendy, they would have been called unisex in those days, you know, that kind of thing.
CJ: And so you designed them, and somebody made them for you?
GB: Yes, we had a little workshop. Some Polish ladies were sewing shirts. They were fun young collections.
CJ: So after your experience on London’s Bond and Carnaby Streets and designing your own collections, do you have all your suits custom made?
GB: Well most of them actually.
CJ: Makes the difference, doesn’t it?
GB: It is impossible for me to shop in America; it doesn’t matter what the brand is. The only one who fits me is Calvin Klein. The jackets fit the shoulders perfectly. If I shop in Europe off the peg, it’s very easy because the French, the Englishmen and the Italians are my size; they may be taller, but their jackets are exactly my size. So not all of my suits are tailor-made, but most of them are.
CJ: How about your shoes?
GB: Some are. John Lobb does some of my shoes. But I’m wearing Gucci right now; they are my slippers.
CJ: I think there is something about having lived in London as a young man, being surrounded by all these amazing bespoke tailors and cobblers. That must rub off on you a little bit.
GB: It does, I think so. Actually I have never worn clothes that didn’t fit, never. Even growing up on the farm I drove everyone crazy with the school plays and school uniforms. I would drive my parents mad by doing this, and having this altered and that altered. I always wanted to be probably, properly turned out.
CJ: I think some people are just born with good taste, attention to detail and a sense of perfection.
GB: And if you can seek it, why not. I am sure I speak for you as well when I say that we seek perfection. We seek to improve ourselves. It’s a daily chore of really refining ourselves over time. But I have never hidden my roots of coming from farming stock, and I’ll give you an example of the way I was raised. I call my mom and I say ‘Mom, it’s so exciting, Archbishop Tutu is giving me an award from South Africa, and he is coming to New York to give me this award’. And she would say, ‘that’s nice dear. Do you know that your niece just got all A’s?’
CJ: She puts it in perspective.
GB: And my brother and I laugh about this, because he will call and say ‘Mom do you know that Stephanie just got all A’s.’ Very nice dear, do you know that your brother is getting an award from Archbishop Tutu?’ And that’s the way we were raised.
CJ: I think that’s wonderful! That could be one of the reasons why you are so charming and down to earth while being elegant and glamorous at the same time. What may people surprise to learn about you?
GB: I actually think my tastes are very simple, which has to do with my background. I am quite shy, which I think people would find surprising. If I’m at a party I never push myself forward, people have to come to me, and that’s not superior of me. I’m just not someone who would walk over and introduce myself to everyone.
CJ: Well they certainly come to you, don’t they?
GB: I have my fair share. I’ve had an incredible life! There have been hills and valleys, but it’s been charmed in so many ways when I think of the extraordinary incidents of fate, when I think of the trains and planes I’ve missed, and the people that have changed my life, and I think that’s magical. I don’t want to live forever, but I can tell you I’m not ready to go.
CJ: So what’s next?
GB: Well, I think that what’s happening for me at the moment is very exciting with the global expansion in Russia, in China, in Japan and in England where I have worked. I worked in India recently, in Mumbai. I love the expansion, not being limited, that is very important.
I am also working on a new book, which is going to be interesting book about one project. The premise of the book is working for a modern day Medici, as if you were in Florence working for Lorenzo Medici where the client can have anything, and his taste is so refined that it’s just exhilarating.
I was able to design an entire bathroom of white crystal. We’re talking money now. The hand basins were $200,000 each. We are looking at huge, huge budgets, and the refinement is so extraordinary, and the art collection is so amazing, from beautiful French Impressionists to the best of the best of the best. A $5 million dining table, I commissioned Fran ois-Xavier Lalanne to design. The chairs are the Ruhlmann-inspired “Lady Mendl” chairs from my Millennium Collection. It is so glorious that I really believe it deserves to be in its own book.
CJ: And really it’s not about the price. It’s about the fact that somebody can actually afford whatever it costs to do the best.
GB: To hire the best, to hire the best artists of our time to design and execute a piece of furniture, to choose from the best collections available, and the quality of the furnishings, and then to be in a position to design such furnishings and carpets and everything it is extraordinary. It is 8,000 ft.
CJ: Quite humble for someone of such means.
GB: Yes. It is about perfection.
CJ: So, when you think about the exquisiteness of everything, despite the price points you have mentioned, this is really not an ostentatious person.
GB: I have worked for these are clients for 30 years. They’re my age. They have homes all over, but this is their principal residence in Mexico City, and it is so ravishing. All the children are grown up, so they moved from a mansion into this really beautiful duplex.
CJ: Is it finished now?
GB: Oh yes. I photographed most of it, but I had to go back because we’ve been refining things. In the drawing room we have an incredible Lautrec in the middle, and then we have a Picasso on the right, a 1932 Marie-Ther se, and we had a Braque on the right. So I said ‘You know, it would be so nice if we could find another 1932 Marie-Ther se Picasso.’ Phone call: ‘Just tell Mr. Bradfield to go to the Gagosian Gallery, there is a picture that I’m thinking about buying. See if he feels it is what he had in mind.’ $13 million! So I have to re-photograph it. I’m not photographing a Braque when I can have a Marie-Ther se. Am I insane? We’ll use the Braque somewhere else.
CJ: But it is obviously also a testament to the trust these clients have in you.
GB: Yes, and it’s over many years.
CJ: Well, sounds like a wonderful book, and I very much look forward to seeing it. It’s been so wonderful talking to you. Thank you so much Geoffrey.
GB: And I would love to ask you for a drink in my house if it pleases you while you are in town. I make very mean Martinis.
CJ: Thank you, that would be absolutely wonderful!
Unfortunately we could not align our schedules during that visit to New York, but Geoffrey generously offered a rain check. And I very much look forward to accepting this most generous invitation, Martinis and all.