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Tea With Claudia: John Saladino

Tea With Claudia: John Saladino

Tea With Claudia: John Saladino | SFLUXE
John Saladino & Claudia Juestel
Photo: Moanalani Jeffrey

When I first inquired with the powers that be about scheduling an interview with the legendary designer John Saladino I was told that he was, quote, “very difficult to get”. But thanks to the help of Jane Seamon, his gatekeeper and right hand for twenty-two years, they were able to squeeze me into their tight schedule during a visit to San Francisco. To my delight John and Jane scheduled enough time so that we could thoroughly enjoy our high tea at the Mandarin Oriental. We ordered the Grand Tea Service along with their signature white Jasmine Pearl tea. I also thoroughly enjoyed John Saladino’s spirit and candor while we discussed his illustrious career and mused about food, the pleasures and nuisances of technology and life at large.

— Claudia Juestel

Claudia Juestel: You are here in San Francisco to introduce your latest book “Villa.” Please tell us more.

John Saladino: The book was a huge effort; it took me three years. I used five photographers, and it is the first design book I believe that has been published with a DVD in the back. The DVD was also another huge effort. We had to bring in professionals from Hollywood, and I had the music composed for the first half. For the last half, which is Debussy’s “Syrinx” for flute, we went to the Debussy family to get permission. So it was an effort on my part to possibly have a legacy, something I could leave for my granddaughter.

CJ: That is absolutely amazing. You are right, I do not recall anyone else pushing a design book that far.

JS: There is a section on architecture, one on interior design, one on landscape design, and then one on entertaining, which includes recipes, literally some from my family and some from our chef. So it is an all around lifestyle book.

Motor court at Villa di Lemma in Santa Barbara
Photo: Antoine Bootz

CJ: You mentioned that you had the music for the first portion composed for the book.

JS: Yes, the composer’s name is Daniel Lentz.
CJ: What was your involvement in that, what was the guidance you gave the composer?

JS: I told him that I wanted pastoral music, and I wanted it to anticipate the driveway. I have a very pretentious driveway, which is two tens of a mile long. So I said I wanted the music to be low and build as you go up the driveway. Then it turns, and all of a sudden, it has been my experience in the past, that when people come they are usually talking a lot when they come in a car or bus. Then the minute the bus turns they become silent. I said that’s when you want to build the music until finally when you are released into the motor court you have almost the aria and then the quiet stand again. It allows people this sort of pastoral moment to start to reflect on what they had just seen and then start to absorb.

I remember that Betty and I went to the recording studio we were astounded at the perfection of the soundman, who is considered the best soundman from Hollywood. He came with the composer. This was recorded at Hahn Hall in the Music Academy of the West, in Santa Barbara. They took nineteen times to do maybe one minute of music until the conductor and composer said, “circle that, that’s a wrap”. So it was very seriously done, and it is very beautiful. I hope you agree when you hear it.

Atrium at Villa di Lemma in Santa Barbara
Photo: Alexandre Bailhach

CJ: I truly look forward to it, and I am sure I will love absolutely love it. (I did, as Daniel Lentz’ captivating composition flows seamlessly into Debussy’s and both enhance experience of moving through the landscape.) Please tell us more about the book itself.

JS: Well the book is in my voice. So it is as though you and I are speaking when you read the book. And the publisher Frances Lincoln in London who came to me for the book said to me one time, “well you understand Mr. Saladino, all the plans will have to be listed in Latin” (with a very proper British accent). And that also contributed to the burden of making this book wonderful; at least I’d like to think it is wonderful.

Building section of master bedroom at Villa di Lemma in Santa Barbara
Image: courtesy of the Saladino Group

CJ: It sounds marvelous, and I can’t wait to read it. I learned that you went to the Yale School of Art & Architecture. I would like to know what it was like to go to school then compared to what it might be like for young students today.

JS: Yale was in its changing period, in that women were in the graduate schools, but still not in the undergraduate schools. This was 1961 through 1963, three years for a master’s degree. The classes were intimate, and you had to get permission for several of the classes, specifically in art history. So the professor would interview you whether you would fit.

Art & Architecture Building, Yale University, rendering by by Paul Rudolph,
Chairman of the School Architecture & Art at Yale University from 1957 to 1965

Image: courtesy of MoMA

In the course, which was one of my ultimate favorite, “Art & Architecture of the Roman Empire” there were twelve of us. Six sat on either side of a long table, and the professor served, speaking of tea, he served tea in the classroom with real silver and tea leaves, and he would show two slides simultaneously. So it was the last gasp of a privileged education in my opinion. The school of Art, which I attended, turned out to graduate some amazing people. My class is the greatest class Yale ever graduated in the arts.

Everyone in my class became known, very known. This included Richard Serra, Chuck Close, Robert Mangold, Charles Gwathmey, Robert Stern, Jennifer Bartlett; I could keep going. We were like a sea of piranhas, and the teachers were a little intimidated by us. We all learned a lot from the competiveness of the class too, and I consider myself very fortunate.

Rendering of a living room by John Saladino
Image: courtesy of the Saladino Group

CJ: I can imagine. Surrounding yourself with excellence drives you, I agree. What was it like when you were a young ingenuous designer starting out after graduation?

JS: My late wife and I used to go to Block Island, and we found this amazing piece of land. Block Island is a tiny island off the coastline of New York, and it is the most remote place; the next stop is Portugal. So we bought this piece of land, and I started to design a design a house. Well it was out of our reach financially. So we sold the land, which we had paid $5,000.00, if you can imagine. It was about seven acres directly on the Atlantic, and we sold it for I believe around $30,000.00. So that gave me the funding to open my own firm at twenty-nine.

I rented a three-room office in New York and I hired a receptionist and a draftsman. This was before computers when everyone drew by hand on a drafting table and used Scumex (powdered rubber eraser in a bag) for erasing and White-out, and things were done on Mylar. So it was a different time completely, slower, and I think in some ways better because the rapid speed at which things are done now don’t always insure quality.

So we had time to reflect on what we were doing, and to this day I still believe because of my early experiences, as I am not computer-literate, I can draw upside down. It dazzles potential new clients when they come in. It is not the computer drawings that dazzle them; computer drawings intimidate them. Drawings by hand are something they can understand, and it is a kind of endorsement of their own humanity to hand them a sketch. So I don’t know what is going to happen in my firm when I go because I am the last of a breed. But luckily I have some extremely talented people, and one in particular can draw as well as anyone. So I am hoping that it will continue.

Rendering of a bedroom by John Saladino
Image: courtesy of the Saladino Group

CJ: Did you ever work for any other design firm before opening your opening your own in 1972?

JS: I did before I was twenty nine. I did work for three other firms, all out of business now. I worked for JFN Associates, the largest contract firm in the world at the time. We had 120 employees and three conference rooms. You had to reserve your conference room to meet your own clients about a week in advance, and every architect and every designer was assigned their own personal draftsman. So it was still in the old system, run like an atelier even though there were 120 people. There was a progression of people based on their education and what their experience was.

Office at Villa di Lemma in Santa Barbara
Photo: Antoine Bootz

CJ: I also read that you worked with architect Piero Sartogo in Rome? How did that come about and what impact did that relationship and place have on your aesthetic?

JS: I was twenty-six years old. I went to visit my late brother who at time was studying at the University of Virginia, and I met Piero Sartogo at a cocktail party. He had a cast on his leg, and I was very rude to him because I actually like intimidating aristocrats and people who are pretty puffed up. So I said to him, what is this, a breakaway cast so that you attract the sympathy of women? And he loved it.

So we went on to a really nice talking relationship right away, and then he asked me if he could look me up if he comes to New York. And I said, do you have to? And he laughed again, and so when he did come to New York I took him to a very hot club at on Great Jones Street, which does not exist anymore. You have to understand this was the Age of Aquarius, and it was an eye opener for a jaded Roman. And at the club he asked me if I would like to work for him in Rome, and I said yes, and that August I left for Rome. I stayed for two years.

Architectural fragments in Rome
Photo: courtesy of the Saladino Group

In Rome it is where I learned to overcome my guilt about theatrical effects and theatrical scale. I fell in love with the grandeur of Rome and the sequencing of streets that open into huge piazzas with water fountains, and it is also where I fell in love with the corroded surface. So I took those romantic releases, because I believe I was born a romantic, but trained basically as a minimalist.

So I began to combine those two features, which at that time was unheard of. People were building houses that were basically coming out of the Bauhaus ethic; this was the machine for living in. And I was applying to that a new sensuality. Surfaces that were handmade did not come out of the machine ethic. Color was almost verboten; color was bourgeois. I began to incorporate pieces of the past, fragments of ancient buildings. I would literally stick them into the walls. That of course I mixed with seating platforms with leather mattresses. But I would throw onto them nomadic saddlebags turned into pillows.

So all of that was a new turning because they had never seen that, or the use of brown coat plaster on the walls, which is the humble under plaster. I was trying to fuse the two, and ultimately I did.

Architectural fragments in John Saladino’s apartment in Manhattan
Photo: Antoine Bootz

CJ: Do you think your style may be different today had you not had that experience in Rome?

JS: I think so. I think it liberated a secret part of me that I had been trained to suppress. By the time I got to Rome I didn’t have the influence of other students and professors. I was now liberated to enjoy which came on as though I had been reborn. I remember I watered up when I would walk the streets at night because I had no money. Instead of eating dinner I would get a gelato pistaccio, which is a pistachio ice cream cone, and I was obviously very thin, and walked around.

Then I fell in love with classical scale, immense scale some times, and vaulted entrances into sun-drenched patios, all of which were plaster buildings and really not much thought of anymore in the New World, certainly not in America where doors are simply means of getting in and out.

Think of all those hideous aluminum doors with push handles, panic handles, and think of the doors in Rome, which are fourteen feet high. Those are the ceremonial ones, and the smaller doors are for daily access. So the layering of history affected me even into my scale.
CJ: Also personally perhaps? Your heritage is Italian. Where is your family from?

JS: Well I am half Sicilian and half Venetian.
CJ: Passion and elegance all in one!

JS: I have two islands here, and island people are very powerful. They are survivors. So it was really a special, special opportunity that I enjoyed as a young man when I could afford basically the time to do that. And I learned as much there probably as I did at Yale.

Living room in high-rise apartment in Manhattan
Photo: Antoine Bootz

CJ: What kinds of adjustments did you have to make moving from New York to Italy?

JS: I had moved from New Haven to New York to live in an unheated loft actually. I used to look like Pocahontas. I had an electric blanket I wore with a long extension cord, and I showered with friends until I got $ 200.00 to purchase a Sears Roebuck shower. Remember there was no online shopping. You bought it through the Sears catalogue. And they delivered and installed it for $200.00. So I thought I had really reached the pinnacle of wealth and success when I got my own shower.

Life in Rome was very different. I lived in a pensione, and I walked everywhere. I got a girlfriend who was probably ten years older, and very luckily because she had a Fiat 500, and she drove me to country places where I got to eat wonderful meals. I could have never gotten to those places without her, and she was a very sweet person who was for me as much a girlfriend as a mentor. She worked for Salviati, the great Venetian glass manufacturer, and we used to sing American show tunes in the car driving to these places, and she helped me with my Italian.
CJ: How is your Italian today?

JS: It is terrible; I have forgotten most of it.
CJ: If you go back, I am sure that after a couple of glasses of wine in the local Trattoria you would remember it all.

JS: Well of course; you can tell from my size that my menu Italian is flawless.
CJ: I cannot wait to read the cook book portion of your book.

JS: Well these are serious recipes. I would love to have your opinion after you have seen the book.
CJ: Certainly, looking forward to it. Back to design for a moment. Given all your different experiences, we talked a little bit about how living in Italy has impacted you, how has your style evolved over your career? There certainly is a Saladino style.

JS: The style has become obviously become more certain of itself as I have matured. And so it is sort of like Tennis. I can do now in two strokes what maybe took me ten to do. And I am more certain of my scale. Fortunately I have a photographic memory for anything that interests me, and I can recall details from twenty years ago. That is my computer. The fact is that I listen very carefully to clients, and I have this amazing office that is a twenty-five-person firm, and we also manufacture, as you may know, eighty pieces of furniture.

But the clients basically set the stage. If they are young there is a whole different attitude towards what they want then someone my age who needs more comfort from seating, better lighting. And if you are doing an apartment on the thirtieth floor in Manhattan it is very different then building a house from the ground up in Florida.

So when the client is in Florida, and we have some very, very wealthy clients, when they come to you, you are not really designing for, what I would call the typical lifestyle now. They want privacy in their own house from staff. So you have to understand that they are not tossing salad in the kitchen on Sunday evening with all the kids. They are being called to dinner by the butler and served. That is a very different experience. I listen to the clients. So if it is a two-bedroom apartment, and they are retired, and it is a much smaller budget, they bring the attitude of less is more in many ways. I think certain ages begin to de-acquisition, and younger people want to acquire.

Bedroom in high-rise apartment in Manhattan
Photo: Antoine Bootz
Palladian-inspired villa in Florida
Photo: Antoine Bootz

When you build a house in the country, and I have in places like in Jacksonhole, WY, that is cowboy experience. Those are houses where I do blue jean upholstered furniture, I don’t do antlers chandeliers, but I do leather-wrapped doors that are studded. I always absorb the vernacular of wherever we are.

I you building a palace in Kuwait, obviously there are going to be Islamic references in that palace, even though the couple is very westernized and young that is part of their culture. And if I am doing a house in Brentwood I don’t want it to look like I am in Scotland. In California where we live outdoors there is a whole different attitude also. So the outdoors included heated patio flooring, and outdoor fireplaces, and many areas where you can take a nap outside. This does not happen on the East Coast. Very rarely when we build an East Coast house we incorporate a place to nap outside. We do outdoor fireplaces, but that is pushing it.

Loggia of John Saladino’s previous home in Montecito
Photo: Barbara & Rene Stoltie

CJ: You mentioned your furniture line briefly. You designed collections for a number of high-end manufacturers prior to starting your own furniture company. What made you decide to start your own line instead of continuing to design for other brands?

JS: I designed a line for Baker Furniture, and I was being paid a pittance, which was 3% of the factory-built cost. I was also designing the showrooms. You have to understand, when you are trying to extend your career some times you have to swallow your pride. And the exposure was what I thought was more important. But after I did this I thought that surely showing how loyal I have been to the company that they would increase my percentage to at least 5%. So when they did not I promptly started to think about starting my own line of furniture. In 1986 after a year of designing the furniture and making the prototypes we opened, and it has been uphill ever since. Luckily now the furniture is known by a lot of professionals. We haven’t had to spend a fortune on advertising, and it is word of mouth, which is of course the best way of having new clients.

“Sleigh” chair designed by John Saladino, 1987
Photo: Peter Margonelli

“Seahorse” console designed by John Saladino, 2000
Photo: Peter Margonelli

CJ: Always! And you also recently started a fabric line for Savel. Why not sooner, as you have had the furniture line for a while?

JS: I depended on Jane to bring that to fruition. So I blame Jane. (Chuckling) If I didn’t have that fabric line it is Jane’s fault.
CJ: Where are the fabrics produced and how many are there in the line?

Jane Seamon (Vice President for the Saladino Group): There are twelve different fabrics in the collection. Each comes in a number of different colors.

“Kashmir” fabric designed by John Saladino, 2009
Photo: courtesy of the Saladino Group

CJ: You seem to have a wonderful relationship. What where the impetus and the inspiration?

JS: Yes. I wanted to do a line of fabrics that were very reasonable in cost. But I wanted them to look very upper-class and very high-end. So a lot of the fabrics have extremely illusive colors. And I have always loved metamorphic colors, colors that change from the light of day to night lighting. So is that celadon or is that grey, or is that mauve or is that beige? I also wanted to design fabrics that would go with everything. If you use medieval furniture, I wanted those fabrics to work with as well as for people who like really modern furnishings. I jokingly referred to it as Joan of Arc underwear fabric, and it all looks hand-woven. Of course it is machine-woven, and it has a scale to it that makes beautiful draperies, it makes wonderful sofa fabric.

Some of the fabrics, which are extremely pale paisleys, which you could use as a wall covering in the bedroom, as well as for the drapery, headboard and bedspread, if you wanted to do a one-experience fabric, because it is not aggressive, because it is endorsing and neutral. So a lot of these are what I would call Venetian-colored neutrals.

A lot of the fabrics have been inspired by my house in Santa Barbara, specifically what I call the Hummingbird collection, because they constantly come to this fountain I designed, and I have learned a lot about hummingbirds since then. So it just inspired me, which is one of the things that I think was an influence in the fabric.

Female Costa’s hummingbird in flight

CJ: One of my first impressions after moving to California was the sight of a humming bird for the first time in my life. At that time I did not realize that there are hundreds of different species.

JS: Oh yes. And they are actually loners. They don’t really like each other. I found by chance that this particular tiny fountain I did with a bronze-carved spigot that expectorates a pencil thin stream of water allows them to hover still fluttering in space and they don’t have to stop to drink. So many will come to drink at this little thin geyser of water and hover in space together, and then they all fly off in different directions.
CJ: You created an Italian lifestyle for hummingbirds in California, like when Italians gather around the fountains of the many piazzas.

JS: Hopefully, maybe I did. I won’t take credit for it; it is all by accident.
CJ: Accidents often create the best inventions. What are some of your most favorite materials or objects you never tire of?

JS: Volcanic stone, especially silver travertine, brown coat plaster on the walls, quarter-sawn white rift oak, and I love Carpathian elm burl, especially triple-bleached.
CJ: What makes these materials so wonderful to you?

JS: They never betray you despite the ups and downs of taste. I don’t know if you remember the Santa Fe look we all survived. If you build a house with beautiful quarter-sawn white rift oak floors that have been bleached and maybe rubbed grey, which is like a floor in one of Vermeer’s paintings that the maid has scrubbed until it is the color of silver driftwood; you will never tire of that. And the plaster wall is real, it is not going to have mold in it, it is solid plaster. So these are ancient materials. What I am talking about was used 3,000, 4,000 years ago, certainly volcanic stone.

If you look at the canopic jars of Egypt, what is more beautiful than white alabaster? That is another one of my favorites, and the most beautiful light coming from a skylight when you double-glaze it, and the sheet of white alabaster is what you see when you look up. That gives you this ancient feeling of this soft veil of light, and instead of the harsh daylight of so much modern architecture.

Of course I do love glass, but I like when glass makes you feel as it is, as the British say “tissue-thin”, like a dragonfly wing, and you juxtapose it to a wall that is two feet thick. I am really kind of against this standard 6″ thick wall because it so pervasive now. These villa mansions that are built now don’t really look like villas to me, because villas have these beautiful deep-set windows. These are little suburban McDonald villas. So I do like thick walls and tissue-thin-feeling glass.

Bedroom loggia at Villa di Lemma in Santa Barbara
Photo: Antoine Bootz

CJ: I do too, having grown up in a building that is more than 700 years old and was built from very thick conglomerate blocks. There is something comforting about that.

JS: That is extremely comforting, because thick walls make you feel protected and sheltered, and of course the glass is liberating. That is why all glass houses are uncomfortable at night because people don’t feel protected in them. They can’t see out, and they feel like people are looking in. I believe Harvard did a study some time ago where they put two chairs in a room. One was a wingback, and one was not. And people always sat in the wingback chair because it is ancient. Their flanks were protected from the enemy.
CJ: Your style is very timeless, and it is such a pleasure to hear you talk about it because the emotional side of your design comes through, and you obviously very much think about how a space feels. I feel that is a big aspect of what makes your design so timeless.

JS: Thank you. I also feel that my training makes what we do very painterly, and every elevation is meant to be a painting. So every room you walk in is actually a walk-in still life. I always tell people that I am not interested in merchandising a room or furnishing it. Of course we are going to make the room comfortable, but what I am primarily interested in is the room in the abstract. I see every sofa as a rectangle, or a lamp table as a drum.

So I am always working with simple geometric shapes, circles, squares, rectangles, triangles, and that is coupled with what I don’t put in. I think it is more important what you leave out than what you put in. So when I do design, and I don’t hang a painting over the sofa, and I bring the sofa forward of the wall, and I put concealed lighting behind it, clients will often say “well now we have to get a special painting for the wall”, and I say, “oh no, the painting is the wall”.

And I try to get them to se the relationship of the wall to the sofa. We are never taught how to see in school; we are only taught how to read. So it is a real problem because all the art classes were the Mickey Mouse course at the end of Friday. It is some sad indication that we still don’t have a minister of culture in the United States, and there are three hundred million of us. So I feel I am on a crusade every day.

Living room vignette
Photo: Antoine Bootz

CJ: You have done projects all over the world. What were some of your favorite places to work in?

JS: Well, I did a little work in Settignano on a villa. I also restored and 18th century house on Brompton Square in London for a young Scottish client; and I must say I enjoyed that as much as anything because you have to use a whole different vocabulary when you are working in England. You don’t say the door casing or the door jam, you say the architrave, and of course I love working with all the Irish young men, because you walk in, and they have the paint thinner open while they are all smoking. And I’d say, “Oh my God, you are going to blow up the house”, and they’d say, “ah it looks to be another grand day” (with a very Irish accent). They were wonderful to work with because they were so amusing and amused by me, because I think in Europe they are not used to the architect being so intimate and friendly with them. So I enjoyed that.

I just finished a house the desert for wonderful Canadian clients. I must say Canadians, at least this couple, are so much less aggressive than Americans, but I probably mean New Yorkers. Almost anyone can be less aggressive than New Yorkers. Whenever I dine in New York I keep watching my hand to see if anyone next to me is going to eat it. These clients were just wonderful.
CJ: After having been a designer for a few decades what keeps you still passionate about your work every day?

JS: I think it’s my will to use all my juices and to keep myself young thinking.
CJ: Where do you find the biggest inspiration?

JS: My biggest inspiration comes from the classical world and those great architects and designers such as Palladio and William Kent who carried the torch into the present world. I have learned mostly about beautiful proportions whether I am working in a traditional or modern vocabulary.

Palladio’s Villa Almerico-Capra near Vicenza, Italy
Photo: courtesy of Giorgio Magini/

CJ: What would you consider your proudest achievements?

JS: I would say some of the important houses I built and a lot of the residential towers in New York City that I designed.
CJ: Do you have a secret you can share with our readers, perhaps something most people may not know about you?

JS: I wish I was 6’4″ and had a six pack !
“Saladino Villa”, written by John Saladino, includes a DVD with a film by Ethan Boehme and music by Daniel Lentz. The book with DVD is available locally at William Stout Architectural Books and online at Amazon