House & Garden

You, but Better in Every Way: Paul Fortune, Personal Branding

[ED: repost; originally posted July 16, 2012]

"How should a person be?

For years and years I asked it of everyone I met. I was always watching to see what they were going to do in any situation, so I could do it too. I was always listening to their answers, so if I liked them, I could make them my answers too. I noticed the way people dressed, the way they treated their lovers—in everyone, there was something to envy. You can admire anyone for being themselves. It’s hard not to, when everyone’s so good at it. But when you think of them all together like that, how can you choose?

I admired all the great personalities down through time, like Andy Warhol and Oscar Wilde. They seemed to be so perfectly themselves in every way. I didn’t think, Those are great souls, but I did think, Those are some great personalities for our age. Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein — they did things, but they were things.

I know that personality is just an invention of the news media. I know that character exists from the outside alone. I know that inside the body there’s just temperature. So how do you build your soul? At a certain point, I know, you have to forget about your soul and just do the work you’re required to do. To go on and on about your soul is to miss the whole point of life. I could say that with more certainty if I knew the whole point of life. To worry too much about Oscar Wilde and Andy Warhol is just a lot of vanity." [1]

"How should a person be? I sometimes wonder about it, and I can’t help answering like this: a celebrity. But for all that I love celebrities, I would never move somewhere that celebrities actually exist. My hope is to live a simple life, in a simple place, where there’s only one example of everything.

By a simple life, I mean a life of undying fame that I don’t have to participate in. I don’t want anything to change, except to be as famous as one can be, but without that changing anything. Everyone would know in their hearts that I am the most famous person alive—but not talk about it too much. And for no one to be too interested in taking my picture, for they’d all carry around in their heads an image of me that was unchanging, startling, and magnetic. No one has to know what I think, for I don’t really think anything at all, and no one has to know the details of my life, for there are no good details to know. It is the quality of fame one is after here, without any of its qualities." [1]

"The great interior designer Paul Fortune has helped shape David Fincher’s Los Feliz home, made a marvel of Mark Jacobs’s Paris apartment, and created a landmark with a glamorous renovation of the iconic Sunset Tower hotel.  He put the first Cadillac through the roof of the Hard Rock, and moved a Hollywood craftsman house across a parking lot to make the gem that was Les Deux Cafés.  Inhabiting a space somewhere between David Bowie and James Bond, Paul is himself a paragon of taste and panache—his devotees run the gamut from furniture dealers to fashion designers to film directors (to this end, dig Fortune’s cameos in both Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and her ex-husband Spike Jonze’s Adaptation).

Born in Liverpool and educated in London, Fortune moved to New York and then Oregon before he stumbled on Los Angeles and the rumored gin hideout for Laurel & Hardy.  At once a love affair was born.  The then graphic artist, and later music video director, set to work making the ‘20s house—a strange mongrel in 1978 of its country cabin bones and a former owner’s Mutiny on the Bounty-themed nautica—into a home.  The ever-evolving space, most recently gifted a pool and outdoor shower, is now every bit the beauty and the celebrity as its notorious guests.

Shirking gimmickry for timeless essentials, Fortune has turned his hilltop redoubt into something of a legend, and in the process made himself a master of the form. His look is ultimately the real LA: the green and white stripes of the Beverly Hills Hotel, the lilting palms, the sunshine, rough-hewn stone walls, Prada suits…

Chris Wallace: Wait, how have you managed to make sunshine your  look?

Paul Fortune: It’s true. After my childhood in the North of England the California light was irresistible, but now I’m getting nostalgic for gloomy, grey vistas. The grass is always greener… or greyer.

CW: Every designer and artist I know is an enormous fan of your work, of your way . And it does seem to me that your signature, your vibe, is more of a vibe than a specific template or grouping of materials.  It is more like a lifestyle. A space bearing your touch is incredibly chic—I mean, impeccable—but also feels safe to flop around in, to smoke in, to live in. How are you able to achieve that?

PF: I don’t do a signature look so much as create an atmosphere.  It’s really art direction, which is not just about the furniture but also the space, the light, the people in the space, tantalizing fragrances, delicious cocktails… I think it’s absurd to force a “style” onto a place when all you really have to do is coax its true personality out with the right elements. There is too much ego in design and not enough empathy. There is also too much emphasis on the new groovy next thing. If you look at a magazine like The World of Interiors, you see that the best design vernacular is consistent in some way—using a certain set of rules or constraint, but making a lasting and timeless effect. I think there are many current designers (and I use that word loosely, very loosely) whose work will never stand the test of time.  You constantly see some effect—explosive colour, chandeliers in gardens, the 70s—that suddenly is everywhere and becomes mass, and, consequently, a ghastly blight. It’s like reality TV, people mistake it for something real, when in fact it’s the opposite. Really effective design is truly 'green.' It lasts." [2]

"CW: Where did your sense of design come from?

PF: I was always fascinated by environments other than my own and would sit glued to the TV, watching Hollywood movies from the 30s and 40s, American sitcoms of the ’60s, whatever, agape at the scale, glamour, styles and general strangeness. I would re-create favorite scenes in our garage for my family, forcing my cousins into silly costumes and faking the sets. My re-creation of the barge seduction scene from de Mille’s Cleopatra was a big hit (with myself as Cleopatra of course), though the Dads were mortified.

CW: But it was beautiful.

PF: In my eyes of course.  But then you have to be gay to be a good decorator—sorry, just look at the facts. You can count the number of straight decorators on one hand… barely. Why is that? Maybe gays are more aware of their surroundings.  But then there are some hideous gay decorators too so we have to discount the gay factor—but not entirely. It’s still a requisite somehow. Maybe at birth the fairy Godmother gives you the gift of perfect taste as you have to have some compensation for all the slurs and barbs your gay life will have to endure (not that I had to endure that many personally; everyone at an all boys Catholic school is available at one time or another).  For me, creating a perfect cocoon was an answer and reaction to who I was and how I needed to cope with life." [2]

"There are certain people who do not feel like they were raised by wolves, and these are the ones who make the world tick. These are the ones who keep everything functioning so the rest of us can worry about what kind of person we should be. I have read all the books and I know what they say: You — but better in every way. And yet there are so many ways of being better, and these ways can contradict one another!" [1]

"CW: Did you ever have heroes, role models, icons?  Do you now?

PF: I’ve never had heroes or role models (dangerous concept I feel), except for writers, perhaps, who were a major outlet for my fantasies as a child, and still are. But I do admire certain people who have managed to create a unique world: Dutch connoisseur and collector Axel Vervoordt, for instance; Yves St Laurent, his houses were extraordinary and the realization of his very gay sensibility; Baroness Karen Blixen, who led the ultimate lifestyle driven life; Jean Micheal Frank, the most exacting decorator ever—and a tortured queen who jumped out of a window in NYC in a perfectly cut grey flannel suit (he wore ONLY grey flannel—even his swimsuit was flannel!); Ronald Firbank, an Edwardian dandy and meticulous chronicler of a fantastic world and extraordinary people; etc, etc.

CW: How have you evolved your aesthetic?

PF: Practice, patience and constantly looking at everything." [2]

"CW: Is there a red thread to be found throughout?  Is there a consistent nugget that remains—beneath clients’ requests, changing times, locales, etc—that is Paul Fortune?

PF: Nothing blatant.  A house or any piece of design should gradually reveal itself over time. I still find aspects of the house I’ve lived in for 30 years a revelation and this is inspiring and educational. Nothing is done; everything is in flux. The most successful interiors invite repeated visits with continued appreciation—the more banal and trendy interiors, the opposite (do you want to hang out in that groovy hotel lobby again? I don’t think so).

We had an amazing storm last week and the light was ravishing. I took the afternoon off and made a pot of white tea and sat by a window watching the rain falling through a grove of eucalyptus trees… mesmerizing. Nature never disappoints. Except I hate the whole food chain thing—why can’t all animals be vegetarian?" [2]

"CW: These are tough times. Everyone thinks they can do it themselves and need not hire a designer. House & Garden, where you were an editor, closes after 105 years…  How do you deal?

PF: I drink a lot!!

Living these days I must say is a constant challenge for the conscious person (or even the semi–conscious person). Living in America for over 30 years has been both exhilarating and disappointing. To see so much beauty and invention destroyed and reduced to the lowest level is frankly heartbreaking but I’m trying to be Buddhist about it all and do what I can.

Restoring the Sunset Tower was a way for me to give back to Hollywood a little of the feel and look of a more gracious and inviting era.  Don’t tell me it’s a better world now. It can and should be a better place. Look for the best and don’t accept the shit they are dumping on you. There are alternatives, recognize them and insist on them." [2]

"For so many years I have written soul like this: sould. I make no other consistent typo. A girl I met in France once said, Cheer up! Maybe it doesn’t actually mean you’ve sold your soul — I was staring unhappily into my beer — but rather that you never had a soul to sell.

We were having Indian food. The man next to us was an Englishman and he brightened up. He said, It is so nice to hear English being spoken here! I haven’t heard any English in weeks. We tried not to smile, for smiling only encourages men to bore you and waste your time.

I thought about what that girl had said for a week. I was determined to start the task I had long been putting off, having for too long imagined it would take care of itself in the course of things, without my paying attention to it, all the while knowing in my heart that I was avoiding it, trying to patch myself together with my admiration for the traits I saw so clearly in everyone else. I said to myself sternly, It’s time to stop asking questions of other people. It is time to just go in a cocoon and spin your soul. But when I got back to the city, I neglected this plan in favour of hanging out with my friends every night of the week, just as I had been doing before I’d left for the Continent." [1]


Albert Hadley, Want, and the Comfort of Things

If you don’t know right away that something is something you want or can use,” Mr. Hadley answers firmly, “you shouldn’t buy it. What I have, I have, and if I didn’t have it I’d be happy with much less.
— Albert Hadley, in conversation with House & Garden

"Albert Hadley, president of Parish-Hadley, which is to decorating what Mouton-Rothschild is to claret, says he's not a good houseguest. By which he doesn't mean to imply that he stays up all night and burns cigarette holes in the rug. To see Mr. Hadley-small, neat, gazing mildly at the world from behind round spectacles-is to know that's hardly his style. Rather, Mr. Hadley is the kind who likes to keep his own time, move at his own pace, and sleep in his own bed. That's why the place he bought near Tarrytown, New York, some years ago is a 'godsend. I spent a lot of weekends in the city, working. But the house, once I got it, took over my life and everything else disappeared.'

A farmhouse built about 1850 and sitting on a knoll, it wasn't at all what Mr. Hadley had in mind. 'I'd always thought of having a much simpler, more classic box, perhaps on flat land. But here was this perfectly lovely house, so I couldn't resist.

'I remember every detail of seeing it and falling in love and thinking it an enormous challenge. No, an enormous opportunity, I should say, to do the things I like most-to create order and the atmosphere that I love.' What is the atmosphere that Mr. Hadley loves? In three words: peaceful, private, precise.

'I'm rather an orderly person and I don't like clutter. I like things, but I'm very interested in the juxtaposition of objects and the way materials look together. I love the excitement of discovery, but I'm not a collector. What I have, I have, and if I didn't have it I'd be happy with much less.'"

"Soon after Mr. Hadley moved in 'and got the land in better order' (order is clearly Mr. Hadley's favorite noun), he decided that the house needed a wider porch. He added one, with steps leading to a flagstone terrace; other than that, there was little to do but rebuild the chimneys.

'Inside was no problem at all. I had the furniture-some in storage, some I'd let people borrow, some family things I brought up from Tennessee-and I chose to keep everything as simple as possible.' The house is white from top to bottom; some floors were sanded, cleaned, and left natural; those that weren't were painted dark green. Plain white muslin skirts the bottom half of each window because Mr. Hadley didn't want to impede the light and air and because he isn't too fond of curtains anyway. 'Perhaps I shouldn't say that,' he murmurs.

An ordinary weekend starts Friday afternoon when Mr. Hadley goes up alone to work the house's several acres. He loves to work outside but he is not, he says emphatically, a flower gardener. 'I like ferns and such.' Entertaining is mostly Saturday or Sunday lunch, usually on the porch. 'I'm not awfully domestic. I manage a bit but it's not my great passion.'

If by 'domestic' Mr. Hadley means being a dab hand with a dust cloth and bread dough, he probably doesn't deserve the adjective. On the other hand, he's been fascinated by things pertaining to the home all his life.

Albert Hadley grew up near Nashville on farmland that had belonged to his grandfather, in a house that was built by his parents. They had very few neighbors in the beginning and he resented, he says, every new house that went up. That may be why, when he's describing the joy he takes in his farmhouse, several words keep repeating themselves: 'the privacy... the isolation.' His parents were interested in furniture-his mother was a collector and he himself was 'always interested in fashion, how tables were set, what people wore.' He might have trained as an architect, 'but at the time I thought it was too much engineering, too much mathematics and all the things I'm not exactly...' Instead, after the army, he went to New York and Parsons School of Design. He was there for four years and stayed on to teach; eventually, in 1962, he went to work with Sister Parish, whose partner he is still."

"Given Mr. Hadley's travels in the realms of gold it is pleasant to hear that he found several of his own treasures by beating the Sanitation Department to a pickup. 'The writing table with the blue cloth top I found on the street, and the tables by the beds in two of the guest rooms. And once [Mr. Hadley is visibly warming to his subject] I was walking on an uptown street, saw a glimmer of gold in the trash, and out came this beautiful Regency gilt bracket.' Finding a Chippendale sofa just before it was to be turned into landfill was especially memorable. After being recovered it was 'wonderful.'

Mr. Hadley is not only lucky in his walks, he is lucky in his friends, many of whom seem to spend a lot of time saying, 'Ooh, just the thing for Albert.' (Sister Parish's finding 'just the thing for Albert' is how he acquired his farmhouse: she steered him to it.) He has a closetful of such things, and what he doesn't use he passes on. 'There's a certain life about objects, I think, and the life goes on and on.' A copper tray and candlestick, though, will stay forever. His mother gave them to him many years ago, saying, 'I bought these just for you.' So will two circus drawings from a series by Byron Browne. The first he bought; Van Day Truex, the president of Parsons and his mentor, gave him its mate. 'I couldn't have had a better present.'

Mr. Hadley's best present to his friends and clients is, of course, his taste. 'Tell me,' asks a visitor, thinking to get a few tips, 'do you have any one set of rules to design by?'

'Well,' he replies, 'I respect enormously the time and place of any architecture, and how one furnishes it depends on what it says. Also, there's a continuity to one's taste. If you really like things they all tend to be of the same spirit and they all work together.'

'If you have to brood about something, then,' his visitor says, remembering a mirror framed in wood painted with wildflowers and a bird in flight and possibly still in residence at an antiques shop, 'maybe you shouldn't get it?'

'If you don’t' know right away that something is something you want or can use,' Mr. Hadley answers firmly, 'you shouldn't buy it.'

Ah, mirror, farewell."