I admit it. I’m jaded when it comes to fine antiques and the interiors that showcase them.
But that comes with the territory when you work at C. Mariani, better known as “The Louvre with price tags,” supplying antiques and custom pieces to the country’s top designers. And that’s what I do other than writing this blog and trying to raise my two dogs to be model canine citizens (a parent’s job is never done….).
But I digress.
Oddly enough, I hadn’t previously worked with Bill Eubanks and only first saw his work in person when I attended a dinner party in Palm Beach last year. This was just after the Madoff scandal, and I heard our hosts had lost gazillions. Nonetheless, they seemed completely unruffled and still quite comfortable serving up Krug Champagne to accompany their truffle-laced lobster risotto. Not only that, but their house was dripping in old masters, 18th century palazzo-scaled antiques, and priceless Oriental carpets and porcelain.
Our hostess dismissed their Madoff losses with a “que sera sera” shrug and asked me what I thought of their William R. Eubanks-designed home. I was momentarily speechless (a rare occurrence for someone voted “Yakkiest” in the Senior Class of ‘67 at Van Nuys High). The level of opulence of their home was truly incredible as was the exquisite taste that pulled all that opulence together.
And that was my introduction to William R. Eubanks design. So I was intrigued to interview him. Not to mention the rumor that one of his first clients was “the King” himself, Elvis Presley.
When I spoke with Bill for this interview, I was surprised at how down to earth and modest he was. Here’s how it went:
BUZZ: Now, Bill, may I be blunt with this first question?
WRE: Uh-oh, should I be nervous?
BUZZ: Well no, at least not about this interview….I was just curious if you really worked with Elvis Presley.
WRE: (Laughing) Yes, I really did. But that was many years ago and in a galaxy far, far away.
Buzz’s comment after-the-fact: So I guess it’s fair to say that Elvis may have left the building but his decorator is still very much alive and with us….
BUZZ: My observation is that many of the most revered interior designers have staffers who in their heart of hearts can’t stand them. Sad, but true. But I’ve spoken with your staff and they seem to genuinely love you. What’s that about?
WRE: I think it’s a couple of things. One is that I see myself as working with my team as opposed to having them work FOR me. The other is that this industry is my passion and to pursue this passion, you need great people. So I feel just as fortunate to have these people as they feel toward working with me.
BUZZ: Do you have a lot of long-term employees then?
WRE: Yes, many of my staff have been with me for more than 10 years.
BUZZ: You’re famous for your sumptuous classic interiors. But do you do modern as well?
WRE: Oh absolutely. I do both traditional and contemporary and frequently both in the same project.
BUZZ: But are you drawn to one look over the other, aesthetically speaking?
WRE: Well, I don’t see one as better than the other. I think the question is really how they’re executed. Good taste is good taste, be it modern or traditional. And of course, my classical sensitivities always come into play in making a modern interior timeless as opposed to kitsch.
BUZZ: But most of your portfolio is more traditional-did something change?
WRE: Well, I’d prefer to say that more of our work is classical rather than traditional. Traditional, at least to me, sounds more like lots of brown furniture and perhaps old-fashioned. And we don’t do that. And over the years, a couple of things have happened: one is that more of our clients have wanted a classical look. And over time, as I began traveling more and more in Europe, I began a growing love affair with classical interiors. It actually started with the English manor houses. But as I said, I still love doing modern projects as well.
BUZZ: Would you ever do a traditional interior in a modern home?
WRE: Definitely. Juxtapositioning of the classic/traditional and the modern is great. I love how the clean lines of modern furniture counterbalance the details of more classic period pieces.
BUZZ: You mentioned travel. How critical do you think traveling is to developing your business as well as your skills as a designer?
WRE: Travel is very important in becoming an accomplished designer. I’ve always travelled a lot, even as a youngster. And my penchant for travel continues to this day. Traveling is an education unto itself.
With each trip, I feel like I pick up a new mini-degree in design.
The more you’re exposed to different interiors, the more options you have to choose from and the more design choices you have at your disposal, the better the outcome. For designers, travel is as important as college degrees. It’s all about exposure to new ideas.
BUZZ: Having seen the exquisite antiques in your projects, I’m a monkey’s uncle if you’re not a passionate collector of antiques? Am I right or am I a monkey?
WRE: You’re right. I collect many things. But they vary depending on which of my homes they’re going in. My Memphis home is very English, my place in Palm Beach is Italianate and my apartment in NYC is more French. I have a weakness for 17th c. and 18th c. portraits, so they go in all three homes. And then I collect English porcelain and many other objets d’art-the list just goes on and on.
BUZZ: Now some “either/or” questions:
Tassels or no tassels? Tassels
Saturated colors or pastels? Saturated colors-I love color.
Armani or Gucci? Armani
Chanel or Dolce & Gabbana? Chanel
Wallpaper or paint? Paint
Form or function? Both
Elegant or casual? Elegantly casual
BUZZ: Did you have anyone mentor you in the early stages of your career?
WRE: In fact, I did: Kenneth Neame in London. He’s antique dealer with a shop now on Mount Street in London. He really turned me on to antiques. I walked into his shop in my early 20’s and he had a set of Regency chairs that belonged to Lady Astor. He convinced me that I had to buy them and I somehow found the money. And I treasure them to this day.
BUZZ: What single design style would you wish just dried up and blew away forever?
WRE: I’d have to say Victorian.
BUZZ: You’re famous for your elegant interiors but how do you define elegance? And how can someone incorporate elegance into their home, even if they have a limited budget?
WRE: I define elegance as good taste-it’s all about a space “working” with whatever pieces are in it. So you don’t need to spend a fortune but you do have to select wisely and in smart taste.
Think of how elegant a simple little black dress can be accented with a single strand of pearls. It’s just like that with interiors.
BUZZ: What would be your dream project?
WRE: A project with no budget where the sky’s the limit.
BUZZ: Where do you find your inspiration?
WRE: I get a lot of inspiration from my clients. Many clients are interested in a particular look or feel and it’s my job to translate that into reality. Some have specific visions while others need you to guide them more. But either way it’s fun as long as you come to that place that excites and speaks to the client.
BUZZ: What’s the most rewarding thing about your job?
WRE: Oh, that’s easy. It’s the moment when the client turns to me and says, “I not only love what you’ve done-it’s even better than I ever dreamed.” That’s the best feeling in the world.
BUZZ: What are your thoughts on genuine antiques versus reproductions?
WRE: Both have their place. And often the original antique costs the same as a new piece and yet the antiques increase in value over time. Most people don’t realize this.
BUZZ: What makes for a timeless interior?
WRE: Scale, scale and scale. When you have proper scale, you defy time. Look at Palladio: his perfect proportions are the reason he never looks dated. The same goes for contemporary interiors as well-if you get the scale right, they’ll never look dated.
BUZZ: How much do your client’s personalities drive the designs you create?
WRE: Quite a lot. Who the clients are and how they live are essential to understand before you do any design for them. People’s homes make a very personal statement about the owners. More than ever, people are seeing their homes as an extension of themselves. And most clients have existing pieces that speak to their sensibilities, so those are important to consider at the outset of a job.
BUZZ: You’ve had so much success in the interior design world. What has been the single most important factor in your success? Is it this interview?
WRE: Um, well, this interview will probably help. But I think my success is primarily a result of being able to create interiors that really reflect my clients and that really speak to them. The opposite of this is creating an interior in a vacuum-that’s a mistake some designers make early in the career and it really doesn’t work. You need to listen to each client to figure out what looks, fabrics, furniture and other design elements really resonate with them so that they say: “Yes! That’s me!” And to do that you have to be open to anything and listen carefully to each new client.
BUZZ: What’s the trick to making a period-inspired interior not look like a museum?
WRE: Comfort. When a room is comfortable, it’s inviting. In fact, it’s the opposite of a museum where the policy is “hands off”/”look but don’t touch.”
BUZZ: Ok, now for a hypothetical question: Bill, you’ve just found out that your Fairy Godmother (yes, you DO have one in this hypothetical) has granted you the following wish: You can have a dinner party with any four people, real or fictional. Who would those people be other than myself?
WRE: That’s a tough one, but I want to invite 6 people; so I will say Oscar Wilde, John F. Kennedy, Whoopi Goldberg, Pablo Picasso, Princess Diana, and Hillary Clinton
That sounds like a fun time.
BUZZ: Many designers ascribe to the idea of “less is more” while others love a more busy design scheme. Which camp are you in?
WRE: Definitely NOT less is more.
BUZZ: What is the most challenging space you’ve work on and why?
WRE: My most challenging project was one I did for Harry and Linda Bloodworth Thomason who presented me with the challenge of converting a Queen Anne -style cottage into a late 17th-century English manor house to accommodate the Claudia Foundation, Linda’s institution that educates young ladies from childhood through college.
BUZZ: Do you see William R. Eubanks, Inc. as more of a lifestyle brand or more as a decorating services firm?
WRE: We’re both. We really don’t fit into a box. Each job differs and has varying parameters. Some clients want you to do it all from the design architecture to the linens and silver. Others just want you to update their existing interiors.
BUZZ: Your design firm has offices in Memphis, Palm Beach New York-that’s an unusual business model for an interior design firm. What’s the story on that?
WRE: Well, it’s just how I operate. I travel constantly for my work between our offices and having three locations allows me to better serve our clients in each region. Plus our Palm Beach office includes a retail store.
BUZZ: So did your original business plan call for branch offices?
WRE: It’s just worked out that way. I started the business in Memphis and that’s where my family home is. Plus it’s very centrally located for shipping and receiving-that’s why it’s the hub for Fed Ex. In addition, my original staff is still there. Our presence in Palm Beach and New York evolved over time and I love living in both places as well. Perhaps it’s a bit unorthodox but it all works.
BUZZ: What incredibly important question did I forget to ask you other than “Is it cocktails yet?”
WRE: That would actually be THE question.
Buzz, what a terrific interview. Thanks. Tell Mr. Eubanks that if he ever opens an outpost in Boston, I'm available. His interiors are indeed very sumptuous. They do have an English manor feel and probably age well over time. The only difference is nothing is tatty. Not even the gleaming antiques. One thing he didn't mention. Does he also select all of the artwork himself? Also, I think he's brave in that you really can't tell the difference with regard to location - a well furnished interior of his in NYC or Palm Beach or TN is indistinguishable. Is this a good thing or not? Should interiors speak to their loci? Your thoughts?
I have been a fan of his work since the very first magazine spread I saw published his Memphis home, and it's been etched in my brain ever since. It's like I walked into a dream world .... Great questions, great interview. How fun, I must admit, I'm a little jealous!! I wish I could of been an observer, looks like it was a fun talk too.
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