At 96, Iris Apfel defies all stereotypes of ageing and is revered amongst fashion and interior design aficionados’ as one of the true great style icons of our time. An acclaimed interior designer and business woman Iris’s New York apartment exudes the same idiosyncratic flair as her quirky and dynamic sense of fashion.
Where is your home based in New York?
I live in a 3-bedroom, Park Avenue apartment in Manhattan. I moved here in 1978 with my late husband Carl and split my time between NYC and Palm Beach.
Describe your New York apartment style?
It’s full of things I love and pieces collected over many years of international travel and buying, firstly for my interior design business and later as co-founder of Old World Weavers, our textile manufacturing company, that I ran with Carl until we retired in 1992. I am obsessed with colour, pattern and texture – when you walk in you know it’s my apartment.
Did your early years help to shape your style?
I grew up an only child in Queens, New York: my father had a homeware import business and was always bringing home interesting pieces; my mother, owned a fashion boutique and loved dressing me up. As a child, I travelled internationally with my parents, long before it was the norm. I always felt like I was a sponge: absorbing everything, holding onto what I liked and getting rid of the excess somewhere else.
As a fashion icon, you have always been ahead of your time: the first lady in NYC to wear jeans and long boots. Was the same true of your home design?
My home has always been a reflection of who I am. I dress myself and home to please me, I am not influenced by others and don’t take myself too seriously – humour is important.
Do you mix couture with junk shops finds at home?
Always – I have beautiful French, English and Italian antiques, but I love hunting out unique pieces in junkyards, fleamarkets and souks. Things don’t always have to be beautiful but they always have a powerful association with my life.
Do you see interiors and fashion as being inextricably linked?
For me it’s all part of your creative expression and aesthetic. If you are honest with yourself it is part of your being, so unless you are mimicking somebody you will find your natural style. I definitely dress and decorate with the same spirit.
Where did your love of antiques come from?
As a child I played hooky on a Thursday to scour the junk shops of Manhattan. I could travel as far as I wanted on the Subway for a nickel and was obsessed with the hunt for unusual finds. I don’t get any kick out of going to a very beautiful, elegant shop where everything is preselected. I like to do it myself.
Home – place for entertaining or a retreat?
I like to have people over but my privacy is everything. My husband was a darling. Losing him has been a huge loss. I have always worked like a fiend but since he died I have been working day and night. I can’t stay at home and cry all day; he loved what I was doing and would have wanted me to carry on.
What is the secret to a happy home?
Happy inmates. If you not a happy person or happy with whom you live with you, then it won’t be a happy home.
You have worked on some amazing design projects, including the redecoration of The White House for 9 Presidents and clients such as Greta Garbo and Estee Lauder. What was the best bit?
We had such an interesting group of people to work for who didn’t want to go showroom to showroom for the latest standard design pieces. If clients wanted to work with me I made them think uniquely – no two homes I designed ever looked alike – every space reflected the people who lived there.
How do you feel about interior design today?
So much décor today, although beautiful, looks like an exceedingly expensive suite in a grand hotel, but without any soul. I would rather have made a few mistakes in my time, than have created something so perfect that it feels obnoxious – but that’s just me.
You are a big fan of Jazz – has that impacted your style?
Jazz is all about improvisation and drawing on different cultural influences. I have lots of multicultural pieces and love how marvellous they look mixed together in the most unexpected way. People seem to like that.
Has your style at home evolved over the years?
I have always been a maximalist – I have never changed my approach to things, my style has just got more highly developed.
Do you move things around a lot at home?
I love to rearrange furniture and play with things, to see how they look with this or that. I don’t live in a static atmosphere.
Would you consider leaving the contents of your home as a legacy for a permanent exhibition space?
Nobody has ever asked me or approached me, but it’s a very interesting thought, I would love to.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I have just launched a new home furnishings collection with Grant and Rose – a few pieces of furniture but mostly table-top and tableware, and am also collaborating with the French China specialist Bernardaud, on a new collection of statement jewellery made out of porcelain. An ‘Iris’ Barbie doll is coming out later this year too.
Iris’s new book: Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon is published by HarperCollins, price £25.
Report by Ali Heath