Tea with Claudia: David Easton
Claudia Juestel of Adeeni Design Group speaks to David Easton, one of America’s preeminent interior designers and architects, about his impressive career and extensive range of interests.
Claudia Juestel of Adeeni Design Group speaks to David Easton, one of America’s preeminent interior designers and architects, about his impressive career and extensive range of interests.
David Easton and Claudia Juestel at the St. Regis Hotel (Photo: Moanalani Jeffrey)
One of America’s preeminent interior designers and architects, David Easton not only designs stunning homes, he also creates furniture, wall coverings and fabrics for a variety of manufacturers. He has won numerous awards, and most recently received the Honorary Award for Interior Design from Showboats International.
David is known for creating classical, balanced and comfortable interiors as well as beautiful home furnishings; but until I met him I had no idea about the extent of his mischievous sense of humor and charm. I joined him for tea at the St. Regis where he was staying, and we shared ITO EN “Earl Grey Black” tea and Brut Rosé, accompanied by an assortment of Artisan cheeses, brown butter financiers with Huckleberry compote and Meyer lemon fool. But David also added his customary glass of red wine.
While thoroughly enjoying our extensive selections I learned more about his upbringing between Pennsylvania and Chicago, his early design influences, his education at Pratt and abroad, as well as with some iconic designers, and his approach to design, life and the future. Meet David Easton your not so archetypical visionary.
Cockpit of sailing super yacht “Marie” built by Vitters Shipyard (Photo: Thierry Amelier)
Master bedroom of sailing super yacht “Marie” built by Vitters Shipyard (Photo: Thierry Amelier)
Claudia Juestel: I am going to start at the very beginning. What shaped David Easton, the renowned designer and architect we know today? What were your family and upbringing like?
David Easton: Stoid.
DE: Very stoid. The way we grew up then, and the way we grow up now are two different things. It was 1947 before we had a television in our living room.
Entry hall in an alpine-inspired house in Aspen, CO (Photo: David Marlow)
CJ: Well, growing up in Austria I didn’t have not until I was nine years old, which was a bit later. You were way ahead of the game then.
DE: It does affect you, but it affects you today much more obviously than it did then. The real issue must be the subtext of the 21st century. The end of this 21st century is speed of change: it is incremental, it is obvious to us today, but in 1947 a television screen was a miracle for you! It was not obvious, and nor did it ever lead you to understand where you would be going with Google!
The internet alone is so astounding, and it is just the very beginning! It is amazing, and frankly it has just begun. I believe in science fiction 110%. I think that people who have dreamt of the future have understood in their dreams and their imagination a world that is totally different than the one we live in today, and that is very exciting.
David at age 5 with his first car (Photo: courtesy of David Easton)
CJ: Did you read science fiction when you were a kid?
DE: No, I only came on science fiction maybe 15 or 20 years ago. I am 185 years old, so when I made an in-depth discovery of it, I realized why I believe in science fiction today. It is Leonardo’s drawing of a helicopter in the 15th century, which transformed into what Sikorsky developed in 1949, and Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon” in 1865. And today we have landed on the moon.
CJ: And that is now old news now.
DE: It is old news! But we still don’t know all of what all else is out there. They just discovered a new Earth not too long ago. Intelligence, science and technology have developed the ability to inform us of things like that. So you come back to the world we live in, houses, and wonder what they are going to be. I don’t think they are going to be the same.
CJ: What was your house like in the forties?
DE: It was a typical American home near Philadelphia. It was a colonial Georgian house with porches on both sides, a hall in the middle with stairs, a living room over here, a dining room over there, just the way people lived then. The world has changed so incredibly. It is astounding, and it is already affecting the way we live and will live; and we have only seen the very beginning of it.
David Easton’s childhood home in York, Pennsylvania (Photo: courtesy of David Easton)
CJ: We will need to adjust as we are designing people’s environments.
DE: We will have to. The houses we have built at my firm have been houses that have been very classically oriented. There are also two very modern houses in my book, and there is some other modern work that we have done. But it will change because I think people are not going live in any one place anymore in their mind and in their body. Science fiction talks about people floating around the world. They are in Tokyo one day, and they are in Naples the next.
CJ: It sounds like you are talking about theories like astral travel. However, with the technology that we have right now we can travel to places through videos and pictures on the internet. So many more people are now seeing places they may never be able to afford to go.
DE: And I keep repeating: it has just begun.
Library in David’s first Georgian-style home he built for Ralph Falk in Lake Forest, IL (Photo; Réalités magazine)
Master bathroom in home in Lake Forest, IL (Photo; Réalités magazine)
CJ: I agree. So, let us go back to when you were a child. You said you didn’t even have a TV until 1947. I assume your exposure in the middle of Pennsylvania probably was pretty limited. Again, how did you get from there to where you are now, and what was your family life like? What were your parents like?
DE: Well, we traveled to a certain extent. My parents went to Europe once in their lifetime. And guess where? London!
DE: London! Yes, they spoke English! They stayed at the old Connaught, and it was a wonderful thing! But that was a world that was so different from today. The changes in the way we will live, the architecture and interiors that we will live with, the way we will live our everyday lives, and all the science that surrounds our bodies and souls are going to be different. I wish I could live that long! And that’s why I drink red wine.
CJ: Whatever you can do to stick around as long as possible! Well I still want to go back to your childhood, because it was a long time ago, it was a different world, and you decided to become an architect. So how did that come about?
DE: Well, I did grow up in an attractive house; but the major thing that happened to me was something very different. My mother’s family was from Oak Park, Illinois. So on Christmas and Easter my mother would take us on a train to Chicago, and some times my father would join us. What was an enormous influence on me, and I only realized this in looking back over the last 10 or 15 years, was trips to Marshall Field & Company in Chicago. You could go up in those escalators or elevators. We would get out on the 4th floor and go to the toy department, which I loved. And we would go up to the 7th floor to the Walnut Room and have lunch, and then up to the 8th floor where Marshall Field’s had four houses that you could walk into. You literally walked in to the space and looked across this room, and there would be a hedge. You would walk through it to an entry porch, and you would walk through a house. It really affected me in a way because I knew my own family’s house, which was very attractive; but here I saw four of them. And I saw this in a fantasy situation, and it made me love design in the terms of a home.
Walnut Room at Marshall Field’s in a rendering by Diana Weber (Image: courtesy of the Chicago Postcard Museum)
Georgian Room on the 9th floor of Marshall Field’s (Photo: courtesy of Remembering Marshall Field’s)
Living room in the home in Lake Forest, IL (Photo; Réalités magazine)
CJ: How old were you then?
DE: Six, seven, eight.
CJ: So you went there multiple times?
DE: Oh yes, a lot! My mother left home quite often. My parents’ relationship was somewhat difficult, probably like all families. We got into Pennsylvania Railroad Delivery Limited, and we went off to Chicago to stay with my grandmother.
CJ: And so every time you went there you would go to Marshall Field’s?
DE: Oh yes, we always went to Marshall Field’s. My mother and her sisters, and my grandmother when she was still well, and we would all march off to Marshall Field’s, and as I said, go to the Walnut Room for lunch. So it was a wonderful experience growing up in a very safe world. But certainly Marshall Field’s had a huge impact on me. But there were also two other things. The second was the Thorne Rooms of the Chicago Art Institute, which are miniature rooms. They go from moderne ‘30s all the way back to colonial interiors. That affected me too, and I would say to a very minor extent also my mother’s interest in what the house looked like. We had a brown living room before Billy Baldwin ever did one, for whatever reason.
Thorne miniature room of the dining room at Wentworth Gardner House
Dining room in a home in Lake Forest, IL (Photo; Réalités magazine)
CJ: Did you like it when you were a child? Did you think it was beautiful? Did you pay attention?
DE: I don’t know that I thought it was beautiful. I thought it was unusual. Because between my parents’ relationship and my mother’s willfulness in terms of the way she was going to do what she wanted to do, it was amazing to see. I remember people coming over and not knowing what to say. I was sensitive to what was there on the walls in terms of being dark.
CJ: So your living room was perhaps for visitors a bit unusual?
DE: Well it was not ordinary in my purview of the world that I grew up with in Pennsylvania. No! Things were very simple, no one flashed with color. My mother dressed in some kind of Davidow suits. I didn’t know what they were, but I remember the name Davidow. She had a certain style to her. It was not what would be recognized as style today. It was much quieter, but nevertheless there was a certain style and a certain direction about the way you lived. I remember when wine started to be served at dinner.
CJ: Was it not being served before?
DE: No! There was a book about food that came up in America. There was also Gourmet magazine that had just come out, and that is what led my parents to go to London, because there was an article about the Connaught Restaurant. My mother loved food, and she enjoyed cooking. So she was the one who was really driving something in my mind of looking for something different than the people around me did. All of those things were part of the focus.
CJ: It wasn’t just the design. It was the lifestyle. It was entertaining and everything that you witnessed.
DE: Yes, it was reading in Gourmet magazine about restaurants. I loved it! It was travel. I have Wanderlust. You understand that, right?
CJ: Yes I do.
DE: I have Wanderlust, and my next trip, which I have been planning for about two years is doing the Silk Route from Upper Mongolia all the way to Venice, and hitting Istanbul on the way. The point is, I was very lucky to grow up being curious.
CJ: I think that is a really important point. It is curiosity that makes us creative, and that makes us good at what we are doing. I am sure in those days in Pennsylvania you didn’t get to see as much and know as much until you came across Gourmet magazine.
DE: And National Geographic. My grandfather had National Geographic going. He had these cabinets down in the basement that had National Geographic probably going back to the beginning. As a kid I would go down there and pull those magazines out and go and sit on the porch of my grandmother’s house, which is something I still believe in. Porches were a wonderful part of life with them all sitting there, in the evening after dinner sitting there chit-chatting and talking. It was a wonderful part of life.
CJ: So you started dreaming reading Gourmet and National Geographic, and that made you dream of traveling the world?
DE: Yes, and I still dream of traveling the world. This may sound like a bit of bravado, but I have more than 6,000 books, and I bet a quarter of those are travel books.
CJ: Oh that’s wonderful. Have you read them all?
DE: Most of them. I read voraciously, everyday, every night.
Study in David’s apartment in the Flatiron district of New York (Photo: Durston Saylor)
Vignette in living room in the home in Lake Forest, IL (Photo; Réalités magazine)
CJ: I wish I would be able to find the time to read all of mine. So when you were a child you got inspired. When did you decide to become an architect?
DE: It came about because I was always interested in it, and it came about because my father got me a job, and subsequently my aunt in Chicago got me a job. But my first job was in an architect’s tiny office in York where I grew up. They knew I was interested because I always drew.
CJ: And what did you draw?
DE: I drew houses; I drew cars. I just always liked drawing, and I can draw very well relatively speaking. So that led to a job in Chicago. But what led me on to architecture was really a series of things. I went back to Marshall Field’s, and I’d go back and I’d go back, and one of the most important things that ever happened to me was discovering David Adler who was a classicist architect in Chicago. We have built four houses in Chicago; we are actually now working in two jobs in Chicago. There I had a passion for houses and the concept of houses. My parents’ house was wonderful! I still draw the plans from my grandmother’s house.
CJ: Did it have such a perfect plan?
DE: Well, it did not have a perfect plan. But, I am not saying that I am a magician, but I can walk into a space and go away from it, and if it has made a big impression I can draw it.
CJ: That is an amazing gift! It also has always been natural to me to visualize a finished room, but I don’t think it is for everybody.
DE: I think a lot of people in our profession are businessmen. It is just the way it is. If you can go to bed, go to sleep and dream and walk through a space, you understand the movement through a space, and therefore you can draw it. I think that helps you. I can even remember where my grandmother had a Victrola in a hidden panel where you can store stuff in under the stairs. Even today I can remember it. You are born with some of that.
Entry hall in an alpine-inspired house in Aspen
Living room in an alpine-inspired house in Aspen
CJ: Well you must have an amazing memory though too.
DE: What did you say?
CJ: Speaking of memory, how old were you when you worked at that architect’s office, your first job? A teenager?
DE: I am trying to be accurate, and it is difficult. Well it was so long ago. I’m 185 years old. It was probably 1955.
CJ: So after that you decided to go college. You studied at Pratt under Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, and you graduated in 1963. How did that influenced you? The modern movement had come over from Europe. You grew up in a Georgian home, and now you were introduced to a more minimal view on architecture.
DE: I could cry.
CJ: Really? Why?
DE: It stretched you. She was a wonderful teacher, a strong lady. It was the kind of force of a preacher who dragged you from what you might have thought into a new realm. She explained intelligently because she had been there, and not only been there in the middle of it, but standing beside it and watching it, watching what went into quote modern architecture. It was a wonderful opportunity. She was a very articulate lady, a very large lady, I don’t mean fat, big and was very, very strong with strong opinions. I loved it! It was a wonderful opportunity to learn about another world, which I had not really ever understood. It was not in my purview growing up.
Dining room in a modern house in Aspen (Photo: David Marlow)
CJ: It wasn’t in the miniature rooms, it wasn’t in the architecture you had seen?
DE: It was like someone came down and spoke to you about this world that I am still trying to understand. Even today I look back at classicism, and I find it so satisfying, and yet there is what makes up modern architecture, and why it has happened, the simplification, the logic and the intelligence of the order, just like in classical architecture. But this is a structural order, not a visual aesthetic. It is a structural order, and it is wonderful. I was very lucky!
CJ: So you entered school with classical roots, you walked away with your mind opened to something new, and then you went to Europe on a scholarship. Please tell me about that.
DE: That is a wonderful story in itself. I was chosen, I don’t know out of how many people. So I went to an interview for a scholarship, and there were students from all over New York City. Previous to that I had designed a pyramid at the back of the Metropolitan Museum for the Egyptian collection. Mr. Lee, the chairman of the school, had made arrangements for me to meet with Mr. James Rorimer at the Metropolitan Museum. I came up with my thesis, and they approved. I love Egypt; I could be an Egyptologist!
Living room in a Greenwich Village apartment in New York (Photo: Durston Saylor)
CJ: Perhaps that started with reading the National Geographic as a child?
DE: I had not thought of that. But I have been to Egypt three times, and have loved every trip; one of them was up to Alexandria. So I conceived a pyramid in the back of this wing that had the Egyptian collection, to which they were thinking of adding. So I took this lawn area out behind the main part of the wing facing 5th Avenue, and I designed a pyramid that went down into the ground with about a quarter of it as a pyramid up above, so light came down into it. You went in and down under into it, and then walked down towards the Egyptian collection.
CJ: I am thinking about the Louvre Pyramid in Paris. So someone else I just learned had done something like that way before.
DE: Yes, mine was underground, which was more Egyptian. So Mr. Rorimer was very excited about it and thought it was a great idea. So I drew up my thesis idea, and they found that there was a tough rock formation there. So unfortunately it was never built. But I was asked to go to that scholarship interview, and I showed other works, everything but my thesis. And then we had to line up our work, and the decision makers walked through and then came back and said ‘Put your work together’. So we all went back and packed up, and a man by the name of Edward Wormley who designed for Dunbar came back to me and said, ‘Call me’. I still get goose pimples from it. It was such a strange chance, but he said ‘Call me when you come back’.
CJ: That’s wonderful!
DE: It was, it was really neat!
CJ: We will get back to Edward Wormley in a little bit. But first I would like to talk to you about your trip to Europe first. So you received the Fontainebleau Scholarship from the Yale School of Architecture. That gave you additional exposure to different architecture. Did you get to travel around?
DE: We traveled all over Hell’s Half Acre. We saw everything from walking through Versailles to the Maison du Verre in Paris. We went down to the South of France and saw some of the big modernist work down there, and we saw chapels, and we saw very traditional work. We really saw a great amount.
The thing that impressed me most was Maison du Verre in Paris. I still think that it is one of the most marvelous houses in the world with a modernist aesthetic. Then at the end the scholarship my parents gave me some money, and I traveled to Italy and to England. Then when I came back I called Edward Wormley, and I ended up working for him for three years. We got into interiors and designing furniture, which I still do. There I learned how to draw full-scale furniture, and I learned how to put furniture together from an aesthetic viewpoint. He was moving from the past to the future, and his work was still handsome, still very beautiful. When I look at it I feel in many ways it was a lot nicer to look at than a lot of modern work, and it is a lot more comfortable to sit in.
Page from a Dunbar catalogue in the 1950s
Chair, sofa and ottoman from the “Viscaya” collection for Walter’s Wicker
“Hillsborough” sofa for Lee Jofa
CJ: A lot of interior designers obviously design furniture, but not everyone has a lot of actual experience of constructing furniture. You actually had very hands-on experience at a young age.
DE: Yes. We had a Dunbar factory in Berne, Indiana. We would go there by train, not even by plane. They would greet us at the train, they were so nice, and we could watch the furniture in production. It was a wonderful opportunity for me because of Edward’s comfort as a human being, the chances that he gave me to spend a weekend at Philip Johnson’s house up in the country and a weekend in Falling Water. Because he knew Edgar Kauffman who was the Director of the Industrial Design department of the Museum of Modern Art. So those were also eye-opening experiences.
To be in Philip Johnson’s house at night with the trees around it lit and the interior fairly dark, the walls became tapestries. It was just beautiful, and Falling Water of course is still the greatest house built in the 20th century. Having had these experiences was sheer luck. You can’t describe it with anything else.
CJ: Well, you need a little luck in life; hard work is not always enough. But after that you totally switched gears once again by working for Parish-Hadley.
DE: I met Albert at a lunch up at David Wickham’s up in Hudson, New York. It was a wonderful mill he and his wife owned. He was a decorator. So Albert was up there, and we I talked at lunch, and Albert said ‘Why don’t you call me when you get back in New York.’ I was still working at Edward’s at that time. I didn’t know who Parish-Hadley were. I really had no idea; I just liked Albert. I am happy that he is still alive and still well.
David Easton with Albert Hadley
CJ: He just finally retired last year.
DE: Yes. He is a wonderful person! My father said that it is as important to know when to get off stage as it is to get on. Albert has known that with great style and logic in terms of the way he has done everything with his life
CJ: So tell me a little bit about Parish-Hadley. Obviously that must have been a very different experience from working with Ed Wormley. What did you learn there, and was that where you got an interest in interior design?
DE: It was, and it was a learning process. There were many lessons I learned there, but one of them was a sense of comfort, a sense of placement of furniture so that it was logical in a room. It melded, it moved like bodies do. I certainly learned about things that I had never dreamt of before, like textiles and all that went into that. I learned about a certain lifestyle, about a way a dining room was set up, and all what was part of the Parish milieu and the people they worked for at that time.
So I did learn an enormous amount about a lot of things that go into making a house comfortable. Night tables, lamps, reading, the whole organizations of bedrooms and bathrooms, and all those kinds of things came into play because that was their focus. The architecture was already there, and so they were clearly defined. In a large room I still try to do three seating groups.
CJ: Based on that?
DE: Yes, just based on that experience. Because if there were four or five, it is one thing, but if there are six or eight that is something else. It is about how to make a room grow with people. I am reflecting on a certain society of course. But I believe in one-room-living. So the house that we had in the country, and the apartment that I have now in the city, both have one big room: living room, dining room, library, it is all there in one. I don’t believe in different rooms, I really don’t.
CJ: You like having a center table, and you like having all that together.
DE: The center table is critical to the focus, but the real issue is why do people need a living room, a dining room and a library? It’s just wasteful!
CJ: And a family room.
DE: And a family room, and a breakfast room, and a “this” room and a “that” room, God only knows. We are still doing it, but I don’t believe in it myself personally, nor is the house I am building up in Canada going to be that. It is going to be one big room. It will have two fireplaces and the comfort of being able to seat at least two groups of people comfortably.
Loggia with fireplace at “Balderbrae”, David’s weekend home in Suffern, NY
Rendering of loggia at “Balderbrae” by Jimmy Steinmeyer (Image: courtesy of David Easton)
CJ: So that practicality came from Parish-Hadley. Then you started your own firm, and actually for most designers quite early. I think I counted nine years after graduation or something like that. So what made you to take that step, and what was it like going out on your own after having worked for really prominent design firms?
DE: In truth I was probably being a pompous ass, a know-it-all. I felt I had earned all I needed and I was bored with it.
CJ: You felt you were ready.
DE: Well I just felt that, but also a gentleman who had just been married had bought an apartment, and he asked me to work on it.
Living room in David’s apartment in the Flatiron district of New York (Photo: Durston Saylor)
CJ: So you also had an opportunity.
DE: There was that, and he was the head of the Marlborough Gallery, which was a very important modernist gallery in New York City and in London. I had known him for a couple of years. He and I would go to lunch, and he was an interesting character.
CJ: Clearly a great opportunity. But with that also surely came the responsibilities of running a business. That could be challenging for someone so young. All of a sudden you had staff. Did you have staff?
DE: Yes, I had staff. I was very lucky. The second project was our first big house we built out in Lake Forest, IL, for clients I had worked for at the Parish-Hadley office. The man had divorced and wanted to build a house there. That opportunity was just given to me, and it was a big house. There was David Adler at my right and left side, and there I was back in Chicago in my old stomping grounds. So the combination of those two jobs gave me a start.
I was very lucky to have a contractor in New York City suggest a man by the name of Joe Marino would be wonderful in our office. Apparently he had had a history with several of the big classical architects in New York. Joe was an older man and a classically trained architect. That confidence in having someone like that work for me gave me the ability to go head with these things. I couldn’t have done it on my own. But nevertheless luck came into play again. I loved him! He died about 15 years ago. He had worked on all the houses on Long Island and this town house in New York City, and he came along and he gave a grid and an educational course to me about, not how to build a house in terms of planning, but how to put a house together, the detail that went into it.
Façade of the home in Lake Forest, IL (Photo; Réalités magazine)
Entry hall to the home in Lake Forest, IL (Photo; Réalités magazine)
Living room of the home in Lake Forest, IL (Photo; Réalités magazine)
CJ: Because before in school it was all theory.
DE: It was all theory. One of the things I believe about the change from the past to the future is that it instills such a convoluted process. Even when you look at modern work it is over- developed in terms of its design; it is still a 19th century process with a new look in the 21st century. Real simplification means you don’t need all that.
CJ: How can we change that?
DE: We are going to be forced to. With 10 billion people and such and such, the changing demographics of America, the value systems and the tautness of a future life with people living differently than they did, is not going to enhance architecture as we knew it. It is going be totally different. In science fiction people don’t live in one place anymore. They are constantly in movement; they constantly change.
About ten years ago someone who was working for the chairman of Sony and his wife had bought an apartment in Museum Towers. I was trying to figure out how to put the apartment together, and he told two tech men from Sony to talk to me about the systems that were going into the apartment; and that is important today. It was important even then.
CJ: What is important to us is that it is hidden.
DE: Yes, but also that it works. They came over, and we talked about the systems, and I took them out to lunch, and I was thinking about an exhibit I was working on for the National Trust in New York City. There was always a money issue on how you did it, and so I asked them, ‘Well what tip or help can you give me? How can we make this happen? What could we do?’ And they were very helpful in the process.
But the real knowledge that came out of that was that they said that in the future we are going to be able to walk into a blank space, and that space will sense what we need and want emotionally and physically, and that the space would become that. I believe that is true, and I think that is going to affect everything we do, including what we eat and drink.
Kitchen in a home in Aspen, CO (Photo: David Marlow)
Dining Area in a Greenwich Village apartment in New York (Photo: Durston Saylor)
CJ: Surely there is much to come we still cannot seem to fathom. But back then when you started your firm you were still learning how to physically build a house. For a long time now you have been doing both architecture and interiors. Could you give up one up?
DE: I believe that a great house, a great piece of art, a great piece of sculpture, and a great novel are all done by one person. But to then have people come in and do different things to it I think is negative. If you play music, you play music. If you paint a painting, you paint it. You don’t have someone else do it. Well obviously Michelangelo did, and I understand that.
CJ: But he was always still the creator of the idea and the leader.
DE: Yes. The closest I can come to describing this is with some of the hospitality work we have done. There are so many people making decisions. So we just walked away from that. It is not the same thing. This hotel, the St. Regis, I think is beautifully done. But I tell you, there can be too many cooks in the kitchen.
The bar at the Little Nell in Aspen, CO (Photo: David Marlow)
The lobby at the Little Nell in Aspen, CO (Photo: David Marlow)
CJ: Let’s talk about something more fun. You said that you love to travel. Please tell me about some of the most fascinating places you have been to and what experiences you have taken away with you, not only personally, but also what may have inspired your design.
DE: Well, certainly Europe, seeing the houses and the gardens of England. I went back again a second time to see Sissinghurst Garden. Those are all extraordinary! Seeing the Arts and Crafts houses was very important for me to see because of the blend of serious architecture and a rational view of the way architecture should be moving forward. It preceded the Bauhaus.
A lot of it has been very architecturally oriented. But also one of the greatest pleasures is having an idea of where you want to go, reading about the history, and preparing the way with a map. Like with the Silk Route, reading Marco Polo’s trip was just a wonderful thing, although some of it is fantasy. Reading about the Chinese Empire during that period was a fascinating thing. I have been to China three times.
CJ: Did you get a chance to see those places you read about in the story?
DE: Well I certainly saw Beijing. I have never been up to Mongolia, and I have never been down that route, which is very difficult travel. A lot of it is by bus and train, and you have to change all the time. There is no route because it is 3,600 miles long.
CJ: Can’t you have a driver?
DE: You could — I never thought about that. The background of every other trip though, other than that of Marco Polo, has been in a more contemporary way. I have not gotten into it except for reading at this point. But it is a minimum of a 3-week trip. And then Venice and Istanbul are those cities that are mysteriously and wonderfully complicated and wonderful places to dream, read and learn about, and even more fun to be in.
David in Morocco (Photo: courtesy of David Easton)
“Westmount Wall” fabric for Lee Jofa (Photo: courtesy of David Easton)
CJ: And do you come back with new ideas that you then implement?
DE: Oh yes, Venice less so, but certainly Istanbul. One of the things that is interesting to watch is textiles, furniture, art, and lighting being made; a lot of it is being influenced by Asia. Forget neoclassical architecture, forget Georgian houses, forget Bauhaus, it is going to be a fusion of styles that will be global. It will be a global style. I am sure people have said that, but that is what it is going to be.
“Kyoto” rug for Safavieh (Photo: courtesy of Safavieh)
“Durban Diamond” rug in the living room of David’s apartment in the Flatiron district of New York (Photo: Durston Saylor)
“Paro Grid” rug for Safavieh (Photo: courtesy of Safavieh)
“Paro Grid” rug for Safavieh (Photo: courtesy of Safavieh)
CJ: We are certainly seeing that. On another note I learned that you absolutely love symmetry. So whatever the design style may be, tell me a little more about that.
DE: It is so difficult for me to break the classical form. And I always think about Leonardo’s drawing of man and the great houses that I have seen. Obviously Falling Water is an extraordinary asymmetrical house influenced by Japan. No one can deny that. I could live in it, I wish I could draw it up. I don’t know that I could because I would be displeased. I never had a site to work with like that. I guess that would make a difference.
But I like classical architecture. How that transmits itself to modernism, I don’t know. The modular house that I am building up in Canada is definitely a house that is symmetrical. But that works with modular architecture, the principle of manufacturing, packaging, shipping, and putting it up. So that works there. I’m not sure if it works the other way.
CJ: I am always disturbed when I see these floor plans of these huge MacMansions. It sort of looks like three generations went crazy adding additions on weird angles. I don’t get it.
DE: Yes, and we see it outside of every city. But the real thing is that it proves that the style of classicism no longer really works. The aesthetic that is created is historical, but at the same time a state of mind, of clarity, of peace, and order does not exist. These mansions are really disgusting.
Entry hall at Albemarle House built for Patricia Kluge in Charlottesville, VA (Photo: Philip Beaurline)
Library at Albemarle House built for Patricia Kluge in Charlottesville, VA (Photo: Philip Beaurline)
CJ: I think it is so important how you feel in a space. And if you get lost in your house, there is something wrong with that.
DE: There was this guy that came up to me to sign his book recently. He was building a 40,000 square foot house someplace. I just said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘That’s what they want’.
CJ: Another much needed mega mansion. You are known as a classicist, but I heard you are not averse to using stuff from IKEA, for example?
DE: No, not at all. I think one of the curious subtext to merchandising of home product has been Williams Sonoma Home, etc. etc. etc. They have done a wonderful job of bringing good quality design to the people that is acceptable in design and is logical cost-wise. It is Ford Motor furniture. I mean that as a compliment.
CJ: On the other hand Restoration Hardware has ventured into a more high-end market, also now carrying antiques. I found that really interesting, because while everything is getting faster and cheaper they are going the opposite direction. You now have to order everything like in a showroom, which is a whole different concept for retail.
DE: Well, they were very clever in adapting the Belgian look. Here is to Axel Vervoordt! They just copied it right down the line. But it does look very beautiful, by the way. And I guess it sells very well. So it is a trademark of the Belgian look brought to America successfully.
Dining room in an alpine-inspired house in Aspen, CO (Photo: David Marlow)
Living room in an alpine-inspired house in Aspen, CO (Photo: David Marlow)
Master bedroom in an alpine-inspired house in Aspen, CO (Photo: David Marlow)
CJ: And I have seen Axel’s fingerprints in lots of homes. We talked a little bit about your outlook on the future, but what are some of the old-fashioned things that you couldn’t live without? What do you hope wouldn’t change, with the world changing so much?
DE: I would hope that a sense of comfort, both visual and physical comfort, did not leave us. Science fiction teaches me that in fact, comfort is not a fact, or that in fact no one stays and lives in one place anymore, either physically or in their minds. That is the thing that I think should exist along with logic, about the way we design and build. Logic is a very ephemeral word to place on a response to you. But I think we are going to learn that out of necessity, because we can no longer afford to be luxuriously wasteful.
CJ: So how do you apply that knowledge and belief to your product design? Not being wasteful, an emphasis on comfort, thinking about the future? You design textiles, wall coverings, lighting, and furniture.
I think the brain, the mind, and the soul are going to become enriched by technology, and we are going to dream and feel things that we used to have to feel like physically. I think that the impact of a space including its furnishings, its covering, and its flooring are going to become simpler, simply because the richness of life is going to come from this. We are going to imagine the feel. The mind is something we barely understand.
CJ: But think about yourself: you were intrigued by beautiful things since you were a child. So if we are looking at the future the way you describe it how would you feel about that? I am thinking about touching the softest cashmere or seeing the gorgeous figuring of an exotic wood. I cannot imagine not experiencing that anymore.
DE: We have not reached that stage. We are still manufacturing by products by hand; we still look at the wood, and say how beautiful it is finished. And I don’t know how quickly that will disappear.
CJ: As designers we are increasingly building a younger client base, many of whom come from a technology background. These people are very cerebral, and I feel that many want more simplicity in design. Perhaps they are looking for a more Zen feel because their minds are so busy at all times.
DE: It makes sense in the world. I don’t think there has ever been this much chaos in the world as there is today, because everyone senses everything across the globe. You are not isolated. When I grew up in America there were Mexico and Canada, and two oceans. We were completely isolated. Even the war in Europe was in another place, and it felt that it was not part of us. Today every war is part of us. So I think maybe the mind will overcome that, and we will live a more Zen life.
Entry hall in a modern home in Aspen, CO (Photo: David Marlow)
Living room in Frances Dittmer’s house in Aspen (Photo: David Marlow)
CJ: We are all over-stimulated. So the home is probably needed more as a refuge, not just physically, but also emotionally.
DE: And technology will make that easier also, because technology will create atmospheres within a space that will make you feel calm.
CJ: How about objects and clutter? You mentioned that you have 6,000 books. Now that could all be on Kindle.
DE: I am sure that you totally understand that I could never give up the possession of a book. I have a Kindle. I have tried to use it, but I don’t want to. I want to turn the pages, and I want to make notes, and I want to feel the binding, and I want to carry it with me. A Kindle is a wall between you and the sensibility of the page, that is my problem
CJ: How about online magazines versus print magazines? We have had so many shelter publications die, but we have had the births of many online magazines since. Do you read online?
DE: Not at all!
CJ: But you flip through Elle Décor, Architectural Digest and all that?
DE: In truth, I do. I still like the pieces of paper. They are just like books. It is the physicalness of it.
David with Lizzie at Balthazar (Photo: Andrew French)
CJ: But future technology is taking some of that away from us. There are certain physical pleasures, like enjoying a glass of wine that you could never do viral. In that context, I know that you love to entertain. I was wondering if you can share a little bit about how you like to entertain, maybe some of the interesting dinner parties you have had.
DE: Well first of all, a lot of it takes place in and around New York, in favorite restaurants, and with a group of people that I know. Some of them take place in the apartment because of people who I know are interested in certain things. It could be a book party. If I am traveling with people we will have several dinners prior, discussing where we are going and charting the course, and putting the map up, and looking at that. One of the things I very seldom do as a New Yorker is to ever eat at home.
CJ: So you don’t entertain a lot at home.
DE: Very seldomly, it is mostly in restaurants.
CJ: Who cooks at home?
DE: Jimmy does. Jimmy Steinmeyer and I have lived together for 35 years now. He does these beautiful drawings you have seen, and he has been a major part in my life, a major comfort in my life, and a major influence in terms of adopting the kind of lifestyle I lead, to one that is more logical, because he has good friends. We have good friends, but we go out to Antonucci or Gramercy Tavern. And we have a wonderful time, and we don’t have to wash dishes.
Rendering of David’s design by James Steinmeyer for “Rooms with a View”
Rendering of David’s design of an office space for “Rooms with a View” (Photo: courtesy of Stylebeat)
CJ: Good point.
DE: It is nice to just sit and talk and drink. We both work; everybody works today. To stop long enough to shop, then cook, then put it on the table, and then clean up afterwards; I think there is a more convivial atmosphere when you are just free to drink and eat.
CJ: Who do you wish you would have had at one of your dinner parties that you can’t anymore?
DE: Oh God, I could go through history. I would love to have dinner with Leonardo.
CJ: He is on my list too.
DE: Leonardo, number one certainly, or George Washington, I would love to sit down and talk with. There are so many people: Einstein, Freud; I would love to have a conversation with Freud. The people aforementioned are people who really made extraordinary change. They changed the whole ethos of the world. And those are the kind of people that I would be interested to have to dinner. I’d like to have Marie Antoinette to dinner, frankly.
CJ: My fellow Austrian. She was so young and naive.
DE: I would still like to hear what her values were, if she understood them.
CJ: I am not sure, but I think her mother would have been very interesting, Empress Maria Theresa. She and her husband were very curious to learn about their citizens, and they actually were responsible for the education of the masses. And she was a patron of Mozart.
DE: Speaking of that — musicians. If there is anything that reaches into the soul more than the written word, it is music. It is so unbelievable!
CJ: I agree. Even though I am such a visual person nothing hits my soul more than music.
DE: It is a true massage; it really is. It just brings tears to my eyes. There is nothing that has ever reached into my mind and soul and heart like music. It is almost like a massage of the heart and brain listening to Brahms’ Requiem or any of those great historic pieces that reach deep into you. The Mona Lisa doesn’t attract me the way music does.
CJ: What is your favorite music?
DE: Certainly it is chamber music. And I just love Brahms, because of the lilt and the whirlwind quality of his music, and the sensibility about peace and harmony, and of course Bach. That’s music! One is love, and the other is science and mathematics.
“Soan” table lamp for Robert Abbey (Photo: courtesy of David Easton)
“Uppark” chandelier for Robert Abbey (Photo: courtesy of David Easton)
CJ: Do you listen to music when you work?
DE: Yes. Well I turn on WQXR, which is the only and last classical radio station in New York. I just enjoy the harmony, the peace, and the sense of history that is involved in classical music.
CJ: What are some other things you enjoy most in life?
DE: Travel, knowledge, reading, gardens.
CJ: Do you do gardens as well for clients? Or do you have someone else for that?
DE: Generally we do the basic planning, because great architecture is architecture, interior, and landscape. They are music.
Front of a home in Dallas, TX (Photo: David Marlow)
U-shaped back of a home in Dallas, TX (Photo: David Marlow)
CJ: You talked earlier about one person designing everything. So in this case do you design the landscaping, and then you work with someone who has the technical know-how?
DE: Yes, there is one orchestra leader. But the specialists some times offer things that I never dreamt of, and I am accepting of it. The basic plan of a house is the house, the furniture, and the landscape, basically planned out. So you know what your distances are, where you are dining, where the porch is, how you drive in and service the house, how that is hidden from view as you drive in the main entrance, views from upstairs and the master bedroom et cetera, if it is so; it is all part of the totality of a picture.
CJ: And how it feels. You are an award-winning architect and designer. What do you see next in terms of accomplishments for yourself? Do you set goals or just let it happen?
DE: I am going to repeat what my father said to Ray Reed on the side porch of the house. It is as important to know how to get off stage than it is to get on. My point is to get my next book completed, to build a house in Montreal, and to try to veer the work that we are doing into a more contemporary and sensible way in terms of the future.
CJ: So you want to really incorporate the ideas you mentioned into your practice?
DE: I want to incorporate them into something that moves forward, and make some slight change. Unfortunately, not for me but generally, I think that change is going to be forced on us, also from an aesthetics standpoint of how people live. How can we convince clients to keep it simple? But people are learning that already.
CJ: I agree. I talked to Paul Wiseman about that.
DE: I know Paul, and I like him a lot. He has both feet on the floor.
CJ: Yes, I respect him very much. His house in Belvedere is on a gorgeous site with a beautiful vista; but it is not big. And he told me that he has entertained his clients there many times just to show them that they don’t need a huge house to entertain. It is a very beautiful home, but very understated. So I think that it is a great showplace to show to his clients. To your point.
DE: Good for him. That is true.
CJ: What keeps you still passionate about your work?
DE: I love the journey. I love the planning of a project and making it happen, the organization that has to go into it and the people you meet. You are kind of a conductor. You have to have someone who is playing the violin, and someone who is playing the piano, and someone who is playing the harp, and whatever other instruments there are. And you have to create something that pulls everyone together into a piece of music. It is the same thing with painting, only paintings are usually painted by one person. Design requires dozens and dozens of people to make it happen, and I find that a great challenge.
Entry to David’s apartment in the Flatiron district of New York (Photo: Durston Saylor)
CJ: Designers and architects are indeed like conductors. And we do need the best contractors, craftsmen and artisans to realize our vision. But there has to be the one who directs everything.
DE: And it has to be done with intelligence. That is why I believe in the future houses can become simpler, smaller, and intelligently manufactured.
CJ: Let’s talk about your books. What was the impetus for your first book? Tell me about what got you started on the idea, and what is it all about.
DE: In truth, it happened because people in my office wanted to do it. I concurred, and it was a wonderful thing to put together because it was reminiscing about the past. But I have another book in the works.
CJ: What is it about, and when is that coming out?
DE: It is about Americans at home in the 21st century. It is about everything I have been talking about today. I want to write a book that takes everything that I have learned in the past and puts it into the future in a way that will make sense in the future. Comfort!
CJ: And how are you going to visually illustrate a book that is about theory?
DE: I will have to do digital imaging. I will create houses and interiors, show the process and talk about what the future will be by using all that statistics that I have been reading for years. The statistics will support the reader’s understanding of what housing was like in America during the various centuries and what it will be for the 21st century. Going back in history was the thing I was most interested in. For the 21st century I want to use the house up in Canada to show how intelligence and aesthetics are important. Intelligence is the most important thing of the future. It will be survival of the fittest, Darwin one-on-one. To know the future you have to look to the past. What did the house look like then and how did it work? And then you have to understand what the elements of the future are and take and incorporate that. But I think one picture is worth a thousand words.
CJ: I can’t wait to see it. What would you consider your signature elements that are recognizably David Easton. I would think symmetry would be one of them.
DE: Yes, also sense of comfort, which I think that is critical, both visual and physical comfort. Also logic in planning is key. What makes sense, how do rooms work? How do you go from one space to the other?
CJ: Logic in planning, symmetry, and comfort. I think that should be the basis of any design.
DE: Thank you, thank you for holding me to that one.
Entry hall in a home in Montreal, Canada (Photo: David Marlow)
Vignette in living room of the home in Lake Forest, IL (Photo; Réalités magazine)
CJ: I also would like to know what may be surprising to people to learn about you.
DE: I think the most astounding thing is a search through life. The God in this world is in each of us. I sound like a preacher, but I really mean that. I also think that the future is going to create a world where the divergence between intelligence and stupidity will increase because of the world population growth. There are going to be intelligent people, but there are going to be many more unintelligent people.
CJ: Even amongst the educated people there always were unintelligent people and smart ones. So how to apply that to your life?
DE: Basically we hope we are talking about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.
Master bedroom in Frances Dittmer’s house in Aspen (Photo: David Marlow)
Living room in a Park Avenue apartment in New York (Photo: Durston Saylor)
CJ: Now that’s a subject! We could go on, but I see you are being summoned. Thank you David for all your time and insight.
DE: My pleasure!William Stout Architectural Books.
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