A Design Times Interview by Louis Postel
Is it his talent with antiques and classical forms? Is it his roster high-end clients who stay with him for generations? · Perhaps it is his integrity. Here is a man who will buy back something you no longer like 20 years after he sold it to you. And if he knows someone else who will pay more, he’ll send you here to collect the profit! · Fitzgerald is an unusual guy. His charm is real; he’s got no pretense. He is independent in style and opinion. A devilish wit twinkles in his eyes and sparks his conversation, yet you know he is thoroughly trustworthy. His designs radiate confidence and enthusiasm for life, as does the man himself. · In this exclusive Design Times interview, Fitzgerald, an inveterate storyteller, tells tales about Irish antiques, Boston design in the sixties, and what goes on behind the scenes at magazines like House Beautiful.
DT: You started out in Boston, then worked in New York for several years, then came back here. What took you to New York?
RF: I was working on Boston at Trade Winds and had a good fortune of meeting people who worked for House Beautiful, who came to do a story on a contemporary house in Cambridge. When they arrived they found the house unfurnished and not photograph-able. But they had committed themselves to running the story.
The editor called me and asked, “What can you do, Dick?” I said. “Well, I can go around and borrow everything you need and set it up for you.” So I borrowed a needlepoint rug from Arkelyan Rugs on Chestnut Street, borrowed antique dining room furniture from Shreve Crump & Low- just borrowed everything I could to fill up the house. To return the favor, they said they’d run any story I wanted to do in the magazine. Unknown to Mr. Cook [Ben Cook, who owned Trade Winds], I took the photographers to a house he had just done on Cape Cod. It was told as my story: how I saw the situation. How I saw the house, how Mr. Cook worked with clients.
After the story was done, the editors brought me to New York to do the credits and review the copy, and they offered me a job as decorating editor for the magazine. I did that for about six years and I loved it. I had a great time.
DT: What did you enjoy most?
RF: I travelled all over the world, anywhere I thought there was a story. I would take the summer off and go to Europe, and that would become a section on Spain and Portugal. Then I would go out West to do ski resorts, or go to Florida.
And I enjoyed working with the more famous people, like Billy Baldwin. I travelled with him in Spain that summer, and he introduced me to all of the architects and designers there he thought were the best. In those days, House Beautiful didn’t have the really top-notch decorators: Billy Baldwin, Sister Parish, Valerian Rybar, and so on. They were in other magazines. Nobody had cultivated them; so that became my challenge. I cultivated them, and they became friends, and sooner or later they would give a small story. And then they’d give me a better story, and then they’d give me the first crack at their good work.
DT: Until now, I didn’t know you were a fellow journalist!
RF: I don’t really consider myself a writer. I would write the essence of the story; professional copywriters took over from there. But I told the stories from an interior’s designer’s standpoint. What was the designer really trying to say? Was he trying to make his statement in color? Make his statement in fabrics? In scale? Whatever it was, I’d try to tell the story through the architect or designer’s eyes rather than as an editor who just works with some pictures that the photographer drops on the desk.
I directed photography. I’d say, “Let’s not shoot his room from the corner; let’s stand straight on. Let’s get something more exciting.” And I tried to get into people’s lifestyle – not just where they were using certain colors, but why. What did this mean to the people who lived there? What was the personality of the house?
So we weren’t always interested in what you would call “beautifully decorated” houses. Sometimes we’d cover a celebrity. We did [the actor] James Coco once. He lived down the village and [his place] was all found objects. Or Truman Capote: His favorite thing was a wonderful red chinoise lacquer desk. So sometimes we told the stories through the eyes of the people who owned the things as well as the decorator.
I went on to work as East Coast and European editor of Architectural Digest for a while, part-time, and was also decorating. People asked me to do jobs in Boston, and by the time I left the magazine, I was spending so much time here that I moved back. I’ve been back about 17 years.
DT: With that magazine background, why do people say that you’re publicity-shy and don’t give interviews?
RF: I have designer friends in New York who feel that if they’re not published, they perish. If they don’t get into a magazine two or three times a year they feel as if they’re out of touch with the world, not in with the big swing.
In Boston, publicity doesn’t matter. I don’t think there is anyone here who really feels they have to get a lot of publicity. I don’t care for it, and most of my client’s would say, “No. No. No.” It doesn’t matter, anyway. I’ve ever felt that I’ve gotten a customer from publicity. Customers come to me because they’ve seen work I’ve done or know of me through somebody. People waste a lot of time romancing editors to get into magazines.
DT: Did you miss doing design work during your years with House Beautiful?
RF: It was very frustrating, because I wasn’t really being a creative person: I was looking at other people’s creativity and I knew I wanted to get back into doing it myself.
But sometimes the magazine would decorate whole houses. We’d just find a house, and the people who were living in it would move everything out and we’d move all new furniture in to make a statement. Basically the purpose was to give credits to advertisers whose products would otherwise never be in our magazine.
So we would wipe out whole houses and put in all new furnishings, and sometimes leave half of it behind because the curtains that had been made, or the rugs that had been cut, were of no use to anybody else. Those projects were fascinating; that was the only time I could have any real creativity.
But then times changed and [House Beautiful] changed and I didn’t want to bend with it. For instance, I thought it was fun, originally, when we started decorating with sheets, but then it went too far. It became a thing in vogue and then it became kind of a bore.
DT: Were there influences in your childhood that pointed you toward interior design?
RF: Oh, my mother was always painting, scraping, and wallpapering, making curtains. Our house was in constant change. My father used to come home, smell paint, and turn around and walk out, saying, “What the hell is she doing now?”
I’ve always loved antiques. Since I was eight years old I’ve been going to second-hand shops. I’ve always collected things. At one second-hand shop, I used to pay on time, 50 cents a week. I’d buy something for $3.00, and for six weeks I couldn’t buy anything else. My mother would say, “Why the hell are you bringing that thing into the house?” I’d fix it up and paint it.
In fact, my mother moved recently, and in her living room was a sort of Chinese Chippendale sofa that I’d bought for $12.00 at the Goodwill shop of Lowell, Massachusetts – She’d had it for 30-odd years. I had it redone, and now it’s in my apartment.
I also used to go to museums on Saturday mornings and take watercolor, drawing, and painting lessons. I spent my childhood really at the Boston Museum [the Museum of Fine arts]. It was free then, and there were no locks on any doors, so we could go to the attic or down through the basement and see the racks and the restoring rooms. I spent my childhood roaming around there, every Saturday and Sunday.
DT: Did that lead to other formal art training?
RF: Well, I went to the Museum School at Tufts. In the first year you do general painting, anatomy, drawing, perspective- the gamut. I thought I wanted to be a silversmith, and I tried it,
but it was too long and boring. I mean, just to sit there for hours going bang, bang, bang… Second year, I chose interior design.
I had one instructor named Bert Montague who was really wonderful. He had a workshop on St. Botolph Street [in Boston] where he designed and built furniture and made upholstery. To me he was ancient, but he probably was 70.
He allowed me into his workroom. He taught me how to scale furniture on big brown paper. In those days we didn’t draw the room in perspective; the walls were laid flat. He was really a tough teacher and very good. He was period-oriented: Everything had to be 17th– or 18th-century, which I loved. I probably would have hated it if I had gone someplace contemporary like the Rhode Island School of Design, which in those days were very contemporary to this old man.
DT: Didn’t he have something to do with your going to work at Trade Winds?
RF: When he called and said he’d recommended me, I told him I wasn’t sure I wanted that kind of work. He said, “Just as a courtesy to me, go over and talk to them.”
I had never been in a shop as formidable as Trade Winds was in those days. It was an antiques shop so expensive, people didn’t just wander in. And there were not many places I would not wander into. Even in New York I’d go into all the best shops, just to look around. But Trade Winds, when they were on Arlington Street, was a place you didn’t just venture into.
“This is a very special world,” I felt.
I loved the whole feeling of the place- the furniture and the people-and I stayed there for seven or eight years. Mr. Cook was a very good teacher and a very good friend. Not only was he a good designer and decorator, he was a moral and honorable person who only dealt with people straightforwardly.
DT: What did you learn from him?
RF: I remember one job: Nobody signed contracts in those days. We were doing a large project that I was in charge of, and this woman would write me little notes from Palm Beach: “Oh darling. That sounds wonderful. Do it. Do it. Do it.”
They wanted the house ready for their return from Florida in the spring. Our bill went out and the husband almost flipped his lid. He called a meeting and I was trembling. I thought, “What am I going to do?” He got a room at the Algonquin Club for our meeting; we couldn’t even come to his house.
He went over the bill and screamed and hollered, and Mr. Cook said,” Well, do you like it?” And he said, “I adore it.” And Mr. Cook said, “If you don’t like it, we’ll take it all back.” (It was a fortune in those days.) And the man said, “You’re not going to take anything back. We just have to have an understanding from now on.”
Understanding, as it happens, is one the things Fitzgerald does best.