Russian (CIS)Ukrainian (Ukraine)

When nothing seems opulent enough


Antiques from Paris, lighting from Prague and a concealed bar in the foyer. Interior designer William Stubbs on working for a high-flying client.

main facadeMy first big job for a wealthy client was designing the Houston penthouse of a Ukrainian oil trader. He had just got a divorce, and all he had was his luggage, which I checked out, trying to determine if his style was contemporary, traditional or something else. Later he told me he hadn't bought the luggage; his ex-wife had.

Fortunately, he was relying on me to create a persona for him. Because he was constantly traveling, he frequently sent his assistant to check on the project's progress. Then he would call me from some far off location and scream, "I know what you're doing up there!"

He also knew we were designing his penthouse around the colour red, which, to me, spoke to his eastern European background. But on a trip to Brazil, he had walked into a red dining room he didn't like. He called me and said, "I saw a red room today. I hated it. I hate red. You're fired!"

At that moment, I was standing in his living room, with 100 yards of red custom-dyed Brunschwig & Fils fabric, unrolled, and ready to go on the walls. "Well, now you own a hundred yards of red fabric," I said. "What would you like me to do with it?" We won't say what he told me.

I also had two custom-made red sofas on the way. Unfortunately, the client was on his way, too. So I made a decision - to go ahead and finish the room, fired or not. I worked day and night.
I wanted it to be perfect when my client arrived. I kept thinking "Maybe he won't notice the red", and decided to turn the lights down low so he would focus on his beautiful view, while the red walls and sofas would simply provide a warm glow.

When he walked in, he looked around and started applauding. This guy actually applauded! He fell in love with the colour red, and now he wants it in every room, in every place we do together. In fact, it's a battle when I want to use another colour.interior

In 1994, the oil trader acquired a 20-acre estate outside of Kiev and sent for me. It was the beginning of a four-year odyssey that would take me to the Ukraine once every eight weeks for a stay of about 10 days each time.
The property had belonged to a Soviet VIP, but had been empty since the mid 1980s, watched over only by a caretaker and a housekeeper. However it was so eerie, because it looked like someone had left only minutes before. The beds were made; the linens were perfect. There wasn't a speck of dust anywhere. Still, it was drab and depressing, totally lacking in any warmth or beauty.

As my client and I inspected the estate, I felt overwhelmed. We walked around and came upon a little caretaker's cottage. It was a rickety thing with little bitty rooms, tiny doors, and nothing more than a freestanding sink and a gas cooker in the kitchen.
My client declared that we should just tear it down. However, I was beginning to think we should start this project with something small. So I said, "Why don't we remodel this as a guest cottage?"
He, of course, said "No."
"We really need something we can complete," I insisted.

My client was absolutely against remodeling the cottage until the day it was finished. Then he fell in love with it and even hosted the Ukrainian president there.

The cottage renovation turned out to be an experiment for the entire project. One of the first things we had to figure out was where to get supplies. Locally there was nothing, not a screw, not a nail, not a single tool.Under the old Soviet system, construction laws were carefully regulated and uniform, so screws were made in one city, nails in another, and sinks somewhere else.
When the system fell apart and the Ukraine became its own country, no construction materials were available because, up until then, the Ukraine only produced wheat. Also, they had no usable currency.

I ended up having to travel all over Europe looking for sources. I bought very modern kitchen appliances in Germany, light fixtures in Prague, furniture in Milan, antiques in Paris, and rugs in London.But, it became very time-consuming and difficult. Everything arrived in dribs and drabs, required expensive duty, and had to be guarded and protected until it could be installed. Ultimately, I realised that assembling everything in the US and sending it in one shipment was the most efficient way to operate.

interiorWe also wanted to use local labour and that was another learning experience. To find craftsmen, I visited museums, theatres and other local buildings and when I saw work I admired I asked who did it. Through this word-of-mouth effort, we discovered Plasterers, woodworkers, stonemasons, and carpenters who could  do amazing things.

Still, I faced a barrier of understanding as well as of language. It had been live or six generations since a truly nice house had been built in Ukraine so the contractors and workmen had no frame of reference for what a luxurious residence would be like. To them things that were luxurious were usually western, and always brand spaning new.

They also liked to see all the latest technology - the wide-screen TVs the big speakers, the CD players. I wanted to create a patina of late 19th-, early 20th-century Europe, where all the technology disappeared into the background. The workmen had a hard time understanding that when their work was finished, it had to be distressed and stained. So, I had to fight at every corner. However, like my client, in the end they were amazed and said "Now we understand; we know why you wanted it to be this way."

Later we turned to the dacha or main residence, which had been built in the 1950s. My client had decided it wasn't large enough and wanted to demolish it, but I was determined to remodel Saving the original structure gave the whole plan greater integrity. So we kept it and added a new section that encompasses the main living room and the theatre, bringing the residence to about 6,500 sq ft.

My client and I had yet another battle over the entrance hall, which I had painted white. He said it looked "unfinished" and added, "It's not cheery. I want red." To complicate matters, he also wanted a long, sweeping bar in the entryway with barstools. I said it would look like a brothel. But he insisted.

I told him I'd give him a bar, but I couldn't do it his way. Instead, I created an illusion. I kept the main foyer an elegant and dignified white, and I installed a bookcase that was also a door that swung open to a small, jewel box-like bar. Against an adjoining wall i hung a counter-weighted mirror that lowers into the basement with the touch of a finger, revealing the bar which is red, of course. It's all quite startling and effective. And, naturally my client loved surprising guests with his secret bar.


This is an extract from 7 Hate Red You re Fired! The Colourful Life of an Interior Designer' (Abrams, £24.95/ $35)


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