Location: How’s business? Do uptown interior designers have their own recession?
Mr. Drake: I think the interior design industry, like every industry, has been affected—and affected majorly. … Projects that were in the middle, people have not stopped—but we’re all concerned about what will come down the road in six to nine months to a year, when projects that are currently in the works are completed.
But have clients stopped approving 10-foot George III Chippendale sofas, which you once got for your client, Mayor Bloomberg?
I do find that, yes, we do have some clients that are being more cautious with their purchases. … They’re willing to say, ‘You know what, I’d rather have something that’s less sky-high, and let’s look at something in a more reasonable price point.’
Are any in such a high league that you’re designing for them exactly the same way you would have before the recession?
I would say no. Everybody’s giving it more thought.
Have you found that your hedge fund and investment banker clients in particular, who used to be the $30 million condo buyers, have asked for recession-special design?
Well, I think the tastes had evolved even before last fall to be less O.T.T.—less over the top. I think people were looking for elegance, at least my clients were, that had a sense of intelligence about it. … That’s just the taste right now. It’s more accessible. It’s a little cooler. It’s a little pared back. … A client a year, year and a half ago, who was considering a high-six-figure desk—which did end up selling at that time, not to my client—we’re now looking at a desk in the low five figures.
Are six-figure desks even functional? Can you write on them?
You’re wearing a lime-green sweater and an oversized gold chain-link bracelet. And your work is famous for big, bright, zippy, massive colorfulness. Aren’t these times gray scale, too depressing for lavender and lemon?
I think people associate me with lavish amounts of color; in fact, if you look at my work, it’s often strong statements of color used in small dosages but very efficiently. … I don’t think this is a time to flee color. … I’ve been predicting a move away from fully saturated colors—the intense citrus orange, the intense chartreuse green—to more pastelized colors, to colors that are a little more springlike fresh. And I think that’s perfectly appropriate in a time when, you know what, you need a little optimism, and especially in your home. Let’s go in and close the door and at least have something that feels somewhat upbeat.
Your entry in Interior Design magazine’s Hall of Fame includes ‘faux-zebra rugs, Louis XV furniture, Persian rugs and fuchsia velvet.’ If the recession becomes a years-long depression, will it be hard to not tone down your tastes?
I think it will be hard that there just won’t be a lot of business out there. But I don’t think that, for the business that’s out there, people are going to want and go and live in a depressing hole. I think that if you’re going to do something, it may be done … with a more cautious budget, but certainly that just to think you’re going to want to go into a space that’s black or gray or brown … I mean, that would just bring everybody down further.
Your 2005 book New American Glamour says glamour is as affordable as ‘putting your lights on dimmers, lighting a few candles …’
‘… using a beautiful scent and setting out at least one perfect lily.’ But affordable glamour aside, what was the most decadent thing you did in the go-go era?
I’m not sure that decadence is something that ever really comes into play in my work. I think it’s essential indulgences—and if you’re fortunate enough to be in a position to live well, being in a capitalist society, living well means it helps filter down to other places. But I think that it was commissioning drawer pulls for a cabinet at Seaman Schepps the jeweler that were agate balls studded with coral, cabochon set in gold bezels.
You reportedly bought a place at 200 11th Avenue, the Annabelle Selldorf–designed building with a car elevator leading to apartments. How’s the building going?
It seems to be coming along. I have to say that I, in January, just last month, for the first time stood in the apartment, and was happy to see a beautiful—on a sunny day, cold and breezy, but a sunny day—Hudson River.
Doesn’t the car elevator and en suite parking count as decadence?
I don’t know if that’s decadence. You know what, are garage fees in New York decadent? They’re not decadent, they’re expensive. And I will not be having that garage fee.
You’re a fixture in the Hamptons. Is this summer going to be dreadful there?
Dreadful in what way? Is the weather going to be bad? Are the trees going to fall down? Are the locusts going to descend?
The locusts may descend. No, I mean that the recession will hurt.
I certainly would think that there will be less people out there, restaurants will be less full. … I certainly think that the Hamptons is going to be like every place in the world! There are some people who are still making money. There are some people who still have money. There are some people who see it as an opportunity—probably not that many.
I imagine that mega–real-estate brokers and mega-designers are in cahoots, sharing clients and matchmaking. Do any brokers in particular steer their big apartment buyers to you?
I have an enormous amount of friends who are brokers. Typically, I’m more the beneficiary of those friendships than the other way, because clients don’t tend to think about hiring the designer until after they’ve already found the apartment.
You reportedly tried to help set up Linda Stein, the first scary super-powerful agent, before her death.
I did not set her up on dates. I would have loved to! We had known each other for many, many years, and became close in the last year of her life. … She called me for a referral for a project that’s still ongoing at the moment. … It’s in the Dakota. … You know what, maybe they would have done things differently, but they had already bought the apartment. What are you going to do? It needed to be renovated and they’re going ahead with it.
At the huge but troubled Manhattan House, you designed a tribute to the former resident Grace Kelly, even though her own apartment there was reportedly quite drab. Did you have to force yourself to forget it’s a postwar white-brick complex?
But it’s the first white-brick building! At this point we use the term pejoratively, but then it was a breath of fresh air; it was an entire block pulled away from the perimeters; it was white-brick to look clean and modern; it was raised on that marvelous base. It’s an important piece of architecture.
At 23 Gramercy Park South, a $22 million townhouse that’s been on the market for years, you designed a room in the style of Californication—other rooms got different Showtime TV themes. The house is still unsold. Will interior-design real estate gimmicks, to use a mean word, stop working in the recession?
Of course, when you have that kind of opportunity, if you want to call it a gimmick, I think of it more as a joint marketing effort … You know what, it doesn’t work each time, but all you need is one buyer.
In 2001, when you were hired to redesign Gracie Mansion, a quote in a Times article said of you, ‘He hasn’t truly cracked the Upper East Side. … People don’t know how to classify him and because of that he is not regarded as one of the great designers.’ How did that change?
Well, of course at that point I’d been in business for 22 years, so I must have been doing something right. … Having had the opportunity to work on Gracie Mansion and City Hall, more people were curious about me, or became more aware of me.
And you also designed Mayor Bloomberg’s 79th Street place, his horse farm in North Salem, his Cadogan Square apartment, plus City Hall’s new marriage bureau and wedding chapels. What design issues have you quarreled over?
When one has a fabulous relationship with a client for a long time, you obviously have a dialogue and a comfort and a trust that is a major and important component of each and every relationship.
You’ve never designed at 740 Park or 834 Fifth. Are you interested in patrician uptown co-ops?
Oh, absolutely! What I find exciting is working on different things. If I worked on the same thing day in and day out I would fall asleep, go into a Rumpelstiltskin 100-year nap. Was it Rumpelstiltskin who went into a 100-year nap? Somebody took a 100-year nap. … What I enjoy is that I have the opportunity to work on updated restorations of an apartment like at the Dakota, a historic preservation like I did at Gracie Mansion, a contemporary downtown loft space like I’m creating for myself in far West Chelsea … And we’re doing two radiation oncology clinics in Jacksonville, Fla.
Is that something that you would never have taken two years ago?
No, absolutely not. I love the clients—we started in a residential relationship, doing their house.And the doctor wanted something different.