i+D - November/December 2021 - 49

i+D: What's the difference between Philly and New York?
SB: No.
i+D: (laughing) Why?
SB: We Philadelphians never compare ourselves to New York. People
from Philly know we're much more interesting. It's a great place to
grow up. It has its own vibrant culture of museums and a great music
scene. Everything is there. And that's why Philadelphia people never
really care about New York.
i+D: You've spoken about when you first started out
professionally: As a woman of color you were stereotyped,
working for a firm and expected to do the dishes in the
office. I have a feeling I know how you handled that ...
SB: (laughing)
i+D: Have attitudes changed in the industry?
SB: It's better than it was. Does it need to change more, and is there work
to be done? Yes. Thirty years ago it wasn't a big deal [for colleagues] to
put dirty dishes on your desk and expect you to wash them.
i+D: When did you decide to forgo wigs?
SB: It happened pretty quickly. I was diagnosed with alopecia
-an autoimmune condition that results in hair loss-during the last
season of my television show. I had to wear wigs for the continuity
of the programs. We didn't shoot each episode or segment in order, so
in one place I'd have hair, and in another place, no hair. I resented it.
It was difficult in the beginning, but my lifestyle is very active,
so tucking a wig under my helmet to ride my horse, or going
snowboarding, or running, or whatever, it felt like I was wearing
a hair hat. Going without wigs made my life easier.
i+D: For those who haven't read your memoir The Bald
Mermaid, why mermaid?
SB: Mermaids have been identified by their long, flowing hair. In
folklore, mermaids have a lot of power. They can guide ships and
sailors to safety, but they can also cause peril, if they choose to.
Now that I don't have hair, I'm still a woman; the characteristics
of womanhood are still the same. I'm still empowered. I can be
a bald mermaid.
i+D: You've described your process as " design reconnaissance. "
SB: I do a lot of research, digging for information that maybe other
people wouldn't care about-the history of the property, for example.
I never know where sources of inspiration are going to come from.
i+D: What was your first job?
SB: In high school my father got me a summer job as an usher for the
Philadelphia Orchestra outside in Fairmount Park. I had a little rag to
dust off your seat before you sat down, and I'd hand you a program.
I wasn't particularly interested in classical then. I was listening to early
hip hop and R&B.
i+D: Lessons learned?
SB: (laughing) Always carry a rag? But a clean one. Maybe a handkerchief?
i+D: Waking up, how long is it before you think about work?
SB: Oh, I don't sleep. I think about design all day and all night.
i+D: What do you always have with you?
SB: A watch. I have about a dozen. I love them. I feel naked without a
watch. I have a beautiful one-a Cartier watch my mother wore-that
I wear a lot. I have a diving watch when I swim. I sleep with a watch.
is the editor of the Shelter Island Reporter
and a novelist, nonfiction author, and
journalist. His work has appeared in GQ,
The Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times.
i+D: You're known for a really rich feeling of nostalgia in
your designs, putting together different eras and coming up
with something fresh.
SB: I love classical architecture, but I also love mid-century. What's fun is
combining periods and styles-taking a Louis Quinze chair and putting a
fabric design from 2021 on it. A nod to the past informs a lot of my work.
i+D: With your Harlem Toile de Jouy wallpaper design, was
there an aha moment that inspired you?
SB: It was the opposite. I've always traveled to France, and I love
French toile and have used it through the years for clients. I did the
design [of this wallpaper] for my home, and when it was being printed,
a friend said, " You should think about selling this. " At first I said,
" No, this is just for me, " but then ...
i+D: Regrets in your professional life?
SB: More lessons learned than regrets: Early on, I should have hired an
office manager. For example, if someone said they wanted to take time
off, someone else besides me could have said [no because] we were in the
middle of a really big project. I was always playing bad cop, and it would
have been better to have a little bit of distance-better for everyone.
i+D: How do you tell a client that the time for sharing ideas
is over and you have to get to work?
SB: I've started charging hourly. It works-particularly with clients
who want to talk or have lunch when I don't have the time. I had
a client who was FaceTiming me on Saturdays and Sundays and
shopping online late at night. But when she saw the hourly invoice,
she cut way back and became much more respectful of my time.
i+D: Working for a former president ... Is that any different
from working for someone with a lower profile?
SB: Well, yes! President Clinton was possibly the most decisive client
I've ever had. He wasn't someone who was spending time because he
had nothing else to do during the day. He was extremely efficient
-he knew what he liked and made decisions quickly.
i+D: COVID-19 put a damper on travel. How has it affected you?
SB: I'm travelling more now. I go to my home in Iceland a fair amount.
It's beautiful, and the culture is very different. It takes less time to get
there from JFK than to Los Angeles. And I know I'm not going to meet
Brad Pitt. I mean, that's very helpful. It's my escape place.
i+D: I was going to ask you what your sport is, but it seems
you have many.
SB: I play tennis twice a week, and I've ridden horses since I was a
child. In Iceland I ride Icelandic horses. They're smaller. Some people call
them ponies, which you do not do, unless you want to be thrown in the
Atlantic Ocean.
i+D: What's the first thing you designed or built?
SB: When I was about 9, I tried to make an igloo in the backyard
during a snow storm. I used plastic shoeboxes my mother had
-a perfect size for a rectangular block-and I worked for hours
and hours in a down coat and a hat. I don't think I ever finished it.
But I worked at making my igloo.
i+D - November/December 2021
Image: Amanda Mocci

i+D - November/December 2021

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of i+D - November/December 2021

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