By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch
Designer Brian del Toro lives in a charming Hell’s Kitchen rental that is filled with objects, furniture and art inherited from his mother and grandparents. There is a sense of nostalgia about the place that one rarely sees these days. Its charm is not lost on Brian who grew up in a large, comfortable home on Long Island where his family lived with the feeling that things don’t need to change all the time. He does find his own ways to inject vitality: he recently decorated a Kips Bay room inspired by fashion great, Charles James that was full of color, panache and originality.
I must admit that the first time I saw your work was really at Kips Bay and show houses aren’t always reflective of someone’s personal style. I know you’ve done many other things. Can you explain to me how doing a show house is different from doing work for a client?
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the idea that it’s reflective of you, when there isn’ta client. You’re examining what it is that this room needs and you’re relying on your own inspiration. My inspiration [for that Kips Bay room] was Charles James, the American couturier.
So you’re playing out a fantasy in your own mind.
Absolutely. One of the most difficult things about decorating is making somebody see your vision. You want whatever you’re doing to be reflective of them, but once you understand that, you want your clients to understand what you’re trying to give them—and that’s difficult sometimes. A picture is worth a thousand words. It’s very easy when you’re doing a show house because you get the joke. You can be much more subtle and you don’t have to explain every little thing.
I guess it’s like having a pet instead of having a child!
[Laughs] Sometimes people want everything to be really, really special. They have to love every little element but sometimes it’s more important to have things that bounce off of one another.
Charles James was a couturier, obviously from the world of fashion—how did you come up with that idea?
There was recently a book written about Millicent Rogers who was one of his biggest patrons. It was a fascinating biography about her and I had heard of him and he had done the de Menil house down in Houston, which I had always loved. It was really about color, I think.
I thought this year’s Kips Bay was a bit of a challenge location-wise. The spaces were very impersonal. You were basically handed white boxes. Is it possible to give these white boxes a sense of character?
I think absolutely. It’s harder but in some respects it’s a blank canvas. I’m fortunate in that I have great training and I was taught to give the room some architecture and structure.
What elements from your background do you bring in to your design?
I think an understanding of period styles and how to mix things and mix fabrics. I studied fine art—I studied painting and that was an invaluable portion of my experience because I’m not wedded to a theoretical definition of what something should be. When you have a painting the main thing is that you’re taught edges, how one bit of color reaches another color and how you have texture. No matter whether you’re talking about modern art or Impressionist art—it’s all about edges and texture and that’s really what interior design or any design is about. You want your forms to either mesh or to contrast and you want your textures to do the same thing. And scale is really important too.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up here on Long Island, the North Shore, East Northport. My mother was always interested in design and antiques and my aunts had great houses.
I would say that at least every other interview, the influence of the mother or the grandmother is just always there.
I think if you grow up in a house that is comfortable and it has things that aren’t expendable and that have some sort of quality to them and you’re aesthetically inclined …
Did your mother let you decorate your own room?
She did. I guess it was in the early 80s, when black lacquer furniture and dark colors … I remember Perry Ellis had a home collection of dark jewel tones and I thought that was really cool.
What color was your room?
It was like a grey-lavender with black and purple. Actually a lot of this furniture [in the apartment] I inherited and my mother inherited a lot from her mother. We grew up with a sense that things didn’t always have to change all the time. I didn’t have a house that was redecorated every five years.
It’s very different now. When I was growing up you went out and you bought the sofa you were going to have for life. You bought the good furniture. And I actually did the same thing when I got married. I didn’t go with what was the Pottery Barn of the time but I splurged on Carlisle couches and I actually still have two of them. Now people want change.
It depends. I think most people realize that decorating costs so much money they do want it to last. Sometimes it’s just a matter of replacing one [worn out] blue fabric with another blue fabric. I have to say, I think there’s something kind of glamorous in that, like, Auntie Mame personality where they see something and suddenly they change their surroundings and they’re very chameleon-like. It’s kind of great.
What did your father do?
He was a press photographer for Newsday. I’m the youngest of six and by the time I came around he was pretty established so he could pick some of the stories he wanted to do. He loved people. He could never have sat and done a desk job.
Did you all eat dinner together? Were there eight people around the dinner table?
Well, as I said, I was the youngest. By the time I was seven, everybody was gone either at school or married off because there’s 18 years between me and the oldest, and 11 years between me and the next youngest. I sort of had the best of both worlds because I was raised as an only child and with a family.
How did you go from studying painting to interior design?
The only way I can describe it is as if you have studied literature and you understand all the correct structures of grammar but that doesn’t mean you have anything to say. So, yes, I can draw and I can paint but I don’t have anything to say. And I’m okay with that but I still need a creative outlet.
Do you think that for great painters, [painting] has to resolve something internally and if you don’t have that need, it’s really hard to figure out what to paint?
Yes and then the process becomes really shallow. I had realized that by the time I was a senior in college.
When you worked for Parrish Hadley, what did you learn from Albert Hadley?
Albert was an amazing teacher. If you showed something to him, he could easily, in a non-threatening way, tell you why he didn’t like it and how it could be better. He showed you the things he liked and he could tell you why he liked things. He was very strict on appropriateness and on scale. There was just this amazing gentlemanly quality to him.
You like to travel—do you have a fantasy trip?
I want to go to Russia. I’m dying to go to St. Petersburg.
Is all this stuff in here your stuff? Where’s your partner’s stuff?
Oh, he really didn’t have a lot. I always make the joke with him that his dowry was a crock pot—that he’s never used.