Gil Schafer really doesn’t need an introduction, for all of you that love design, respect history and appreciate beauty as much as i do, know his work and his reputation well- the details, the elegance, the quality, the proportions, the beauty, the rigor, the precision, the relevance and reverence of his architecture is second to none.
i was first introduced to gil way back in 2004. it was a moment when i first saw the house & garden editorial on his 19th century greenwich village apartment- i remember thinking very clearly that this was the epitome of classic american style, and most certainly a style i felt connected too and wanted to know much more about.
i loved the traditional space with neoclassical elements. the apartment had these amazing columns that separated the spaces, and the dark walls, all the books, the eclectic mix and arrangement of art, the striped bedroom, the robert kime textiles… all of it was mesmerizing to me, and to be honest it still is (this magazine sits proudly in my stack of favorites that are never too far from my side).
i’m a very visual person, so i flip through things a lot looking at pictures, to be honest there are very few things that stop me and that i read. i have read the house & garden feature over a hundred times and gil’s new book, the great american house, by all standards is one of my absolute favorite books ever (buy here), i have read it from front to back at least 4 times. in the book he tells the story of four houses he has designed- each story is rooted in memories, details, tradition, history, function, and most important, beauty.
i told gil the other day that if i ever get the opportunity to build my dream home from the ground up, he’s my architect- and i meant it! he is the only person i can think of that i might give free reign too! i’m so honored and thrilled to feature gil in the latest installment of the “MDS Interviews” series. i’ve been a student, a fan, an admirer, and hopefully someday soon- a client. enjoy!
GS- Classic American, rooted in tradition but adapted to contemporary lifestyles. Family-oriented, comfortable, gracious. I also care deeply about a house or apartment’s decoration and the landscape that surrounds it, so we spend a lot of time making sure that our architecture is well-integrated with those elements when we design. And the collaborations we have with decorators and landscape designers are as much fun as that which we have with our clients and the builders and craftspeople who put it all together.
MDS- Where did you grow up and how do you think that influences your work?
GS I grew up in several different places—including brief stints in Ohio, where I was born, and on the coast of California where I spent time in my early teens—but for the majority of my childhood I lived on a family farm in what was then still a bucolic, rural part of New Jersey, about 50 miles west of New York City. During much of that time, my dad lived in the City, so I was exposed to more urbane environments as well. I also spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ houses in the countryside near Cleveland, Ohio, and in southern Georgia. All that added up to an exposure to a lot of different climates and landscapes as well as types of architecture. I think it helped me develop, early on, a sense of context and what makes places distinct from one another. And, because of some wonderful family houses I was exposed to growing up, my childhood also gave me a unique education in what goes into a great house.
Gil’s grandmother’s house in Thomasville, Georgia.
The big paneled living room at Gil’s grandmothers house, which dated from 1830’s with a renovation in the 1920’s.
Gil and his younger brother on the steps at their grandmother’s house.
MDS- If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
GS- Because I’m good at organizing information and I love telling stories with pictures, I think I would probably be an editor of some kind—probably of a magazine, assuming we keep making those…
Gil Schafer in House & Garden- January 2002
MDS- Who or what is inspiring you right now?
GS- As architects or designers, I think we find inspiration in so many places. For me it comes from the books I read and look at, what I see in a museum (when I can get to one…), and travel—which, I have found is one of the most fruitful sources, because there is the time to focus away from work, and out of one’s usual context. A recent trip to Belgium to look at the gardens of Jacques Wirtz and visit Axel Vervoordt’s atelier and castle was, not surprisingly, full of inspiration. And a trip last fall to visit friends who have just restored a house in Sicily revealed some wonderful baroque architecture I hadn’t really paid any attention to before—as well as an astounding villa ruin with extraordinary ancient Roman mosaics.
I think we can also find great inspiration in our clients. I have a couple of new ones in particular who have amazing eyes and levels of visual literacy that really keep me on my game. They each have challenged me to look at their projects in new ways because of the things they collect and their particular visions for how they want to live. That is what makes doing this kind of work so engaging and such fun.
Axel Vervoordt’s Atelier and Castle
MDS- What is the favorite room in your home?
GS- My screened porch at my house in the country. No place better to spend a lazy weekend afternoon!
MDS- Is there anything you obsessively collect?
GS- Perhaps all too obviously, I collect prints, engravings and drawings of architectural subjects—mostly from the 19th and early 20th centuries. For one of the rooms in my house in the country I collect only drawings and paintings of men in hats and for which just found a wonderful addition: a silhouette of a hatted gentleman from 1837 that I spotted in Angus Wilkie’s booth at the Winter Antiques Show in New York. So, I guess the hunt never ends.
A stack of David Roberts colored engravings of Egypt in Gil’s living room in New York.
A Photo of Gil’s bedroom in the country- the room for in which he has collected just paintings and drawings of men in hats.
The 1837 silhouette (man-in-hat) just purchased by Gil from Angus Wilkie at the Winter Antiques Show.
MDS- Fill in the blank: “I could never own too many ____________ .”
GS- “I could never own too many books…and ties!
MDS- If you could decorate anyone’s house- who’s would it be and why?
GS- That’s a tough one—because the clients I have already are so wonderful. Probably anything for Bunny Mellon. Although I’ve never met her, from what I’ve read about her and seen in articles, she has that magic combination (for making a fantastic client) of great style, great art, and great real estate. There seems to be a certain whimsy to her flawless eye, and she strikes me as someone who is very much at ease with her own taste and style, which is always a wonderful starting—and ending—point for a project.
Bunny Mellon’s Townhouse
Bunny Mellon’s basket House
MDS- What do you want to be known for?
GS- Houses that are comfortable with an understated elegance that stand the test of time. And, hopefully, are beloved by their owners!
MDS- What do you think is chic, stylish and glamorous?
GS- Often what makes something chic and stylish is a skillful mix, like a great cocktail. When it’s done well, I love the mix of high and low, and of classic and modern. David Hicks was a master of it; so were David Adler and his sister Frances Elkins. It’s probably what I love about Bunny Mellon’s style. Her basket house in Virginia is a perfect example. As is Frances Elkins’ living room in Monterey.
Frances Elkins’ living room in Monterey
The entry hall of Boxwood, which Gil designed in collaboration with the decorator David Netto. The perfect mix of modern and classical.
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