Jeffrey Bilhuber is revered for his beautifully innovative, distinctly American interiors. On the occasion of the publication of his latest book, Brook Mason talked with the design giant.
Jeffrey Bilhuber is not quite American design’s best-kept secret. His career is entering its third decade; hundreds of his interiors have appeared in publications such as Architectural Digest and Elle Decor; he’s published three top-selling design books and just released a fourth, American Master: Notes on Style and Substance (Rizzoli). With such clients as taste mavens Iman and David Bowie, Ashton Hawkins and Anna Wintour, his eponymous Manhattan firm is not exactly looking for new business. If anything, it has spawned new companies: Steven Gambrel, Thom Filicia and Jesse Carrier all began their design careers in his office.
A MIXED-MEDIA WORK BY NICK VAN WOERT PRESIDES OVER THE FAMILY ROOM OF AN ASPEN VACATION HOUSE. PHOTOGRAPH BY WILLIAM ABRANOWIC.
Celebrated for his panache in combining his clients’ antiques collections with newly commissioned furniture, Bilhuber says he has been receiving “more and more” enquiries from potential clients in Russia, the Middle East and China. His business has grown steadily in London too, where he is finishing a town house for an American expat couple. He is most excited about the renovation, for a long-time art world client, of a house once owned by Donald Judd in Marfa, Texas. Along with architect Annabelle Seldorf and landscape designer Madison Cox, Bilhuber has created what he calls “a meeting ground for creative thinkers in the desert,” which will be completed in early 2016.
It would seem Bilhuber no longer has anything to prove; he does, however, have a lot to say. “And people want to listen,” he declares. His new book considers the nature of American style. “American designers embrace the opportunity to have a global vision and to think outside of four walls,” he says. “It’s up to us to sample different materials and periods and make them our own.” Bilhuber’s interiors – forward-looking and fearless yet still practical – are always unmistakably his.
JEFFREY BILHUBER. PHOTOGRAPH BY WILLIAM ABRONOWIC.
After attending Cornell university, you began your career working at the Carlyle Hotel. What did you learn there?
I learned that comfort is so essential, but when tackling projects, then strategic operations, military planning and precision are key.
Your taste is wide-ranging – You love Fortuny silks, plush velvets in rich colours, Japanned highboys and Chippendale chests. How would you describe your approach to creating a room and what influences you?
I build visual narratives that connect us to the world that surrounds us. Museum exhibitions, gallery shows, contemporary music and dance are all influences on my work.
Why do you frequently incorporate vintage or antique items in your interiors?
We’re not strangers to history. What I assemble are touchstones from the past. I interpret them in a way that liberates them from history and allows clients to see all their qualities with fresh eyes.
Can you talk about a recent purchase?
For a West Coast project, we acquired an exceptional George III-style statuary and a variegated chimneypiece at Sotheby’s in the spring. It was just what the Colonial Revival house needed to add nuance, texture and history.
A COLOUR-SATURATED LIVING ROOM CREATED BY JEFFREY BILHUBER FOR A PAM BEACH RESIDENCE. PHOTOGRAPH BY WILLIAM ABRANOWIC.
Can you reveal some of your sources?
Auction houses yield enormous surprises, but so do the newly allied dealers Louis Bofferding and Pierre Durand of the Chinese Porcelain Company, Gerald Bland and Philip Colleck of Antique English Furniture & Works of Art.
How do you advise new clients and collectors?
Decorative art is a wonderful starting point. There are so many opportunities to learn and to buy. We bring our clients to the auction house, which has a wealth of knowledge, and with our expertise we help them dive in completely. We find the very best of what is available in the market and they find their confidence and their vocabulary.
What do you want to see in New York this season?
Nari Ward’s Breathing Directions, his third solo show at Lehmann Maupin; the antique sculpture and paintings that London dealers Coll & Cortés and Tomasso Brothers Fine Art are going to be showing at Carlton Hobbs; and the George Stubbs paintings from the Yale Center for British Art that are on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Of course I’m going to be attending Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art sales in November.
What’s next on your horizon?
We’re installing a splendid house in the foothills of Montecito, California, and working on a home near the water in Greenwich, Connecticut, and a penthouse in New York City. Plus, I have a coast-to-coast book tour for American Master and a standing reservation at Swifty’s for a comforting dinner and a good whiskey sour.
Brook S. Mason is US correspondent for The Art Newspaper.