Tuesday, October 18
Iris Apfel is a woman who has always been ahead of her time. More than 50 years ago as an interior designer looking for fine traditional silk-woven fabrics, she recognized an opportunity and, along with her husband, Carl, founded Old World Weavers. She built it into one of the most prestigious brands in the world of textiles and interior design and the authority on antique textile reproductions.
Thirteen years ago it was sold to Stark Carpets Co., and the Apfels have remained as consultants. The exquisite workmanship and exclusive fabric designs drew the attention of the most discriminating clients – including Greta Garbo, Marjorie Merriweather Post and Estée Lauder.
Old World Weavers was also awarded many important restoration projects, which included work at the White House, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Flagler Museum in West Palm Beach.
Apfel has been an influential pioneer in the world of fashion as well, boldly linking high- and low-end and melding flea market finds with haute couture long before doing so was considered fashionable. Her richly layered combinations of colors, textures and patterns show her remarkable panache.
"Taste you can learn,” Iris Barrel Apfel pronounces, peering over the black frames of her trademark oversize glasses. “But style is like charisma. You know it when you see it.” Apfel, it must be said, has both qualities—in spades.
This is evident the minute you enter her three-bedroom Manhattan apartment, a Park Avenue aerie she shares with her husband, Carl, that looks a little as if the Collyer brothers had moved in with Madame de Pompadour (as seen in Architectural Digest in June 2011). To the right of the front door, two stone pedestals piled with art books flank a Baroque console topped by a chinoiserie mirror. Eighteenth- and 19th-century dog portraits line a corridor leading to the bedrooms, and in the boiseried living room, an antique carving of a French mountain dog holds a platter brimming with costume jewelry. Everywhere there are exquisite French chairs, painted Genoese chests, antique paisley shawls, New Mexican santos, and much, much more. All of it was acquired, Apfel says, “a piece here, a piece there,” during the many European buying trips she made over the years.
“I don’t do minimal,” Apfel says of her design approach.
She didn’t start out aiming to be an interior designer. In the early 1940s, as a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin’s art school, she hankered for a career in fashion. But after landing her first job as a $15-a-week copy girl at Women’s Wear Daily, she figured out that advancement there was blocked because the editors she hoped to someday replace were, as she puts it, “either too old to get pregnant or too young to die.” A stint working for a well-connected woman who dressed up apartments to make them marketable during the World War II housing doldrums followed. “She couldn’t decorate her way out of a shoebox,” says Apfel, but she had a talent for scavenging from junkyards and flea markets the kinds of furniture and fabrics that were hard to come by in wartime. The thrill of the hunt was contagious, and the conviction that Apfel could outdo her employer was inspiring. “I realized I had found my calling,” she declares. “Interior design was for me.”
If her distinctive fashion sense attracted her first clients when she set up her own design firm after the War’s end (“I guess people thought if I could decorate myself I could decorate a room or two,” she comments), it was her eye for unique furnishings and objects, as well as her facility with color and texture, that brought her instant success. “I don’t do run-of-the-mill stuff,” she says, “and I don’t do minimal.” Apfel doesn’t compromise either: Old World Weavers was born when she was looking for “a fabric that didn’t exist”—an overscale Napoleonic bee on blue silk—and she and her husband ended up going into business with the master weaver she commissioned to produce it. And she follows her passions. On her first buying trip to Florence, she spotted a Velázquez-ish painting of a girl in an opulent brocade gown, very Iris Apfel, her long, fair hair tied with scarlet bows. “I went bananas,” she says. “I fell in love with that child—I loved the ribbons in her hair.” Crushed to discover the picture was sold, she nonetheless returned the next day; finding the shopkeeper absent, she got his assistant to name a price, paid it without a quibble, and scooped up the painting, which now hangs in her apartment. “I’ve never done such a naughty thing,” she observes, but she doesn’t look particularly sorry.
In collaboration with online retailer yoox.com (starting October 24th), she has designed three collections that go on sale this month: ready-to-wear, which includes densely layered tea-stained bone necklaces and hefty amber bracelets, and a more expensive limited edition that features glass stone–encrusted frog pins and rhinestone cuffs the size of car headlights. Additionally, she is selling a selection of pieces pulled from her own collection—among them, bejeweled blackamoor pins and a stunning turquoise snake cuff. Not that Apfel doesn’t adore them anymore. “There comes a point when you need space,” she reasons. “Plus, I could use a few shekels.”