Interviews, Essays, Etc.

Embracing Opposites
February 21, 2012

In addition to being an acclaimed interior designer, Jeffrey Bilhuber is an engaging and entertaining storyteller. Designers & Books had the chance to find out firsthand just how engaging and entertaining a storyteller at a recent face-to-face with him in his office on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The conversation ranged from an unusual fiction choice on the book list he sent us to why he is getting his preschool son a subscription to National Geographic magazine to what his own library looks like and the thinking behind his latest book, The Way Home: Reflections on American Beauty (Rizzoli International Publications, 2011).


The Way Home: Reflections on American Beauty, 2011 (Rizzoli International Publications)

Here are some highlights from the conversation:

Designers & Books: You’ve written three books. Can you tell us something about how you got started as an author?

Jeffrey Bilhuber: Before my first book, Design Basics (Rizzoli International Publications, 2003), I actually had no aspirations or real desire to be an author. Rizzoli approached me asking if I would be interested in writing a book. And I asked, why? The publisher had exactly the right answer—the one you want to hear. He said, “Because I believe you have a book in you.”

So I began, and I found that I enjoyed the process of writing immensely. Toward the end of the book it occurred to me that it would be nice to have a foreword to provide some context and, with some hesitation, I asked Anna Wintour (she was my client) if she would write the foreword—something I'm not sure I would be brazen enough to do today, but I was a much younger man then.

Jeffrey Bilhuber’s Design Basics, 2003 (Rizzoli International Publications)


Although Rizzoli was embracing my talent as a designer, I was still untested as an author, and the budget I had to work with was a fraction of what it was to put my third book out. So that first book became more a primer about the vocabulary of design. That was the only tale I could tell because I didn’t have the consistent visual eye of one photographer to connect all the dots, to build a narrative.

D&B: You’ve said elsewhere—and we assume that you mean this, whether in writing or in design or generally—that problems are actually opportunities.

JB: That’s been my belief in the past and it's true to this day. There’s no such thing as an obstacle, only opportunities. With my first book, I rose to the occasion. I had a remarkable, hardworking editor and she was tough. She said that every time she opened the book, she wanted to know that the reader would take away some helpful information from that page. She pushed and pushed and pushed to include more information. And she was right to do that. She was right to focus on that opportunity.

D&B: We noticed lots of attention to books as elements of interior design in all three books you’ve written. In your second book, Defining Luxury: The Qualities of Life at Home (Rizzoli International Publications, 2008), one caption mentions placing books on an entrance table so that as you come into the house it’s as if you’re being welcomed by friends. In other photos in your books you show books arranged by size or color.

Defining Luxury: The Qualities of Life at Home (cover and p. 198), 2008 (Rizzoli International Publications). Photos: ©Trel Brock

JB: I find that organizing your library is aesthetically satisfying and also invaluable as a practical matter. Halston, who was a client of mine and a great friend, arranged his books meticulously. He would take the jackets off every book that he read and arrange them simply by color block—which was his American, minimalist aesthetic. And it was a magnificent scene—rows of cobalt blue books, rows of red books. David Hicks did the same thing: reds and oranges and claret all neatly arranged—and then rows of yellow. It was fantastic. And he read them, too. He was a voracious reader. After reading them he would file them. I actually tried that system in my own apartment, but I could never find the book I was looking for.

D&B: For one of your clients, you did the exact opposite, breaking up the color block.

JB: That was in the Lairds’ house in Bridgehampton, on Long Island. Trey Laird creates global information and advertising campaigns. So his whole perspective is in the organization of details. He has a vast collection of National Geographic, which I, to this day, find very reassuring. My son is four and this is the year he will receive his first subscription to National Geographic because it was just about at that age that I was introduced to it and started to find out about the larger world around me. I don't have any recollection of ever throwing out a National Geographic. Copies of it were read and they were preserved. I was moved by them. They are a touchstone to our history.

From The Way Home (p. 28), library in a Manhattan apartment. Photo: William Abranowicz

I’m an enormous advocate of what I call the lend-loan library. I don't believe that a library needs to necessarily be encapsulated within a defined and distinct room context in order to be successful. What you need instead is accessibility and approachability. I think that a collection of books has great merit and great value in that it expresses one’s passions and interests. And the more accessible the better. A lot of the libraries that I help a client put together are those that one can easily get to.

In my own library on Long Island, there's not a chair in the room. It’s a small room completely lined in bookcases with a very high banker’s table in the middle of the room, on which there is a light. I bought the table from a local bank and put it in that room because it was high enough for me to take a book down from the shelf, place it on the table to take a look and see if it was a book I wanted to read, and then take it along elsewhere to read it. When I am finished with it, back it goes.

D&B: Can you tell us a little bit about the idea for your most recent book, The Way Home: Reflections on American Beauty?

JB: I approach the practice of interior design as an academic, so books are very important and influential to me because I need to understand history—our history—and how the written word reflects the times we live in. I consider myself to be a modernist, even though you might look at my work and think of it as very traditional. But I’m convinced that to be modern is to reflect the times you live in. And what you're seeing in The Way Home is what is currently in fashion and where most people find comfort. In a climate of uncertainty I have found that the reflex of most people is to retreat to the comfort of the familiar. And that’s what The Way Home speaks of. It is a modern book because it is a book of our time.

D&B: American Stories, edited by Carrie Barratt and H. Barbara Weinberg, which is on your Designers & Books list, seems connected to the ideas that you develop in The Way Home.

From The Way Home (pp. 34–35), John Singer Sargent-inspired room in a Connecticut house. Photo: William Abranowicz 

JB: That’s true. You could say there’s a connection about the importance of understanding history.

D&B: Because of your narrative-oriented approach to design, do you ever find yourself using books from your collection when you're having discussions with clients?

JB: All the time. Our technique for client presentations involves creating rich visual narratives. My library is an important source for the illustrations we end up using—illustrations that document and justify how and why things have worked correctly in the past. We might use a photograph of Gracie Mansion from a Mott Schmidt book or a specially noted detail in Mario Praz’s An Illustrated History of Furnishing. These are the sorts of books that provide visual guidelines to the narratives we present to our clients.

But my colleagues and I don’t dwell in the past. We do not yearn for another time or another place. We do not endorse nostalgia as a viable design vehicle. We can sample and we can reference, but in fact we move forward, not backward.

D&B: You have a particularly interesting fiction selection on the book list you sent us: Tarzan. What’s the story behind that choice?

JB: I have the entire set of Tarzan books. They were a gift to my son, Christoph, from Jane Stubbs, who is his godmother. They were dear to her, not from when she was a child, but from when she was a teenager. I remember the books well and I started rereading them. We spoke about them and she said they represent so much more than what’s on the surface—they represent how we integrate ourselves into society, how we make value judgments. Not to mention that these books take you on world journeys and expose you to different cultures. And they made an enormous judgment on society as a whole. A man who is born to the apes and returns to civilization and returns back to the jungle is an enormous metaphor for us to process. Who is right? I had forgotten why these volumes were so influential—it’s because of how they not only transported you but transformed you.

D&B: What you just said reminds us that we were drawn to the comment you made about Tarzan, that it shows “a struggle between civilization and the dangerous unknown, between the elegant and the untamed, between restraint and freedom.”

From The Way Home (pp. 262–63), library in a Manhattan townhouse reflecting its owners’ world travels. Photo: William Abranowicz 

JB: I have always been intrigued by the idea of contradiction and embracing opposites—so that comment included an idea that is important to me. But all my comments about the books on my list include ideas that are important to me.

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