Sarah Tomerlin Lee, 1981


(classical music) – Hello, I’m Barbaralee Diamonstein for Interior Design, The New Freedom. Today we’ll be talking
to, Sarah Tomerlin Lee, a leader in the field of
hotel interior design. She has recently completed
her 33rd hotel project and is working on seven hotels in New York at this very time. What makes her even more unusual is that, while she has long been known as a magazine editor and
an advertising executive, it wasn’t until ten years ago that she ever designed a public space. Sarah, that is really quite astonishing. What made you decide to take that leap? What gave you the courage
to change careers? – Well, my husband had a
terrible accident and died and he was under contract to do, finish a hotel in Toronto at that time called, The Inn On The
Park, across from City Hall, and I was his Vice President. I was just a Vice President
to sign his checks when he was out of the country, but, they didn’t realize that. I had a, he had a very good staff and I had to complete the contract. However, we were starting
with, The ra-aw ta-an-ul-ton, and I did tell the Hilton Corporation that I didn’t want them to be chivalrous if they didn’t trust me I
would tear up the contract. – Well, what would give them the courage to trust you as an instant designer? – I don’t know what happens to make people change their mind, but somebody said
something at that meeting because they had said they
were going off and have lunch and come back and tell
me what they decided. But someone spoke to them, in our group, and they turned around
and took their coats off and said, we’re gonna
teach you what we know. – And they did.
– And they did. – Was it difficult to make the transition? – I was very nervous on
the first job, I think, but, I had a wonderful cooperative staff, and I had Tom’s staff. It’s not such a miracle. It was–
– You’re too modest. How does your office function? – Well, we have four major
designers, and myself, who goes around. I a, we, each one has a very expert drafting,
architectural draftsman, and we have people behind them so that we get things done on time and have time to have concepts and think in a different
way about every project. You know, we’re not that rushed. – 33 hotels sound like a lot of hotels.
– Well, it’s been ten years and when we say 33 it doesn’t mean that we’ve done the whole hotel. For instance, with The Palace,
we did not do the bedrooms. – [Barbaralee] You are
a genteel Virginia girl, majoring in Latin and Greek. – Right. – Now what about that prepared you for a career either in publishing as the, and what a career in publishing, the Editor In Chief of, “House Beautiful,” the Managing Editor of, “Harper’s Bazaar,” the Beauty Editor, and the
Copy Editor of, “Vogue,” and a career in advertising,
and merchandising, not only as the Vice
President of Lord & Taylor, but I guess the consultant
both to Helena Rubinstein, and Elizabeth Arden, that’s another neat trick of yours.
– Yes. – Well, what in this background of yours ever prepared you for that kind of career? – I think my father, my father
was a wonderful merchant and he had no idea about
this women’s lib problem, he believed in women, always, and he thought, you know, if
you really were thoughtful, creative, you could accomplish anything. My husband taught me a great deal. None of the men in my life have had any qualms about believing, I think that’s been the
lucky thing in my life. My sons believe in me and my family. – In studying and
learning about your life, and your work, I’ve often thought that the very first expression of your interest in design was what you did for Elizabeth Arden. – Almost everything I’ve
learned I’m able to use now. – Where there any of the other ideas that–
– Even Latin. – How have you used the Latin? – We found it under, up
in the ceiling of the bar, what is now the bar at, The Palace. One rainy afternoon we
peeled off something and there was Seneca, and there was a marvelous quotation. I couldn’t quite make it out so I sent it down to my Latin teacher in Rappahannock, Virginia,
Ms. Willie True Wethers, she sent me a perfect translation and the next day wrote me and said, “Seneca made a mistake in Latin.” (laughing) – [Barbaralee] What did he say? – Well, it was about, you know, the same old business about, to your own self be true, and this was paraphrased
by Shakespeare, really. – Well, there are a number of phrases that you’ve added to our language and I’m especially thinking
of one that you did when you were an advertising copywriter. There’ve been a number of those and perhaps you’ll tell us about them? – Well, I had a lovely
time in advertising. One of the funny, I analyzed
women in bathing suits one time when I had
the chance, an account. It seemed to me at the time when most people are
under greatest exposure, and trusting about three
quarters of a yard of material. First I wrote a headline
called just, Wear A Jantzen, and then I thought, that’s miserable, I will just say, Wear
A Smile And A Jantzen, and that ran for years I must say. And we did little smiles on na-orn-ets for fashion shows and things. It’s always nice if you can
make whatever you think of step out of a page and become, like, the tiger in your tank, I didn’t think of that, but you know it’s kind of–
– You would like to. – I wish I had. – In all of those jobs of yours which has been the most gratifying? – I think this last one probably because it just was a dream, you know, and it’s a, very few
people I think in the world have a dream in three dimensions
and have it come true. – We will hear a great deal more about the Parker Meridien, a new hotel on 57th Street in Manhattan, that has an extraordinary
atrium-like entranceway. Can you tell us something about the design and your intent there? – Well that whole design
came out as a handicap because the space to the 57th Street side, it’s the side of the old, Great Northern, is only 18 feet wide and 100 feet long. – And what you do with 18 feet that creates any presence
or anything on the street as demanding as 57th? – The real lobby, of
course, if 56th Street, but knowing that everybody
would wanna say, 57th Street, I adopted the handicap. And it seemed to me since
it was just a narrow space between two very tall buildings that we would lift the
ceiling as high as we could. I kept thinking about what I’d ever seen that was really a long-narrow room and I felt the most exciting one was the University Library in Dublin and I remember seeing
Kenneth Clark on television going through the library in the Vatican and his comment to the audience, “one wonders if man has
every had a really great idea in an enormous room.” And he turned and he walked
right down this narrow room till he was about this big. Now I–
– He gave you a great idea though.
– Well, I, I knew a hundred feet
wasn’t the Vatican library. I also, I also was thinking
about the Palladium Theater which I had seen with my husband and the tremendous foreshortening of the way that was built so that people became so small. I realized that if you were
walking down that long corridor you might be coming the other way so we couldn’t do any
tricks of perspective, but you–
– What did you do? – [Sarah] I just lifted
the ceiling up 54 feet which is six stories. And we have enormous windows that reflect to infinity all the way down. We have a beautiful marble floor, we have a beautiful
ceiling painted up there and we have it lighted for daylight with splashy leaves and for
moonlight after six o’clock. – Is there a color involved
in that lobby as well? – I haven’t quite decided on that. The color in the lobby,
in the front lobby, is apricot and pale peach
and beige and carnelian and it just looks fine. – From what I understand
your son, Todd Lee, an architect, based in Cambridge, helped you design that–
– He did. – Lobby space. Is Todd one of your secret weapons? – He definitely is. When I have a real
problem I hop on a plane, or he pops in, and he can,
he can draw like da Vinci, he really can. – That’s a mother for you (laughing). – That’s right, excuse
me for my enthusiasm, but he did many, he helped us a great deal with the canopies at, The Palace. He moved the front of the
facade of, Sheraton Center, out on the sidewalk and gave us all those lovely places for breakfast. He kind of simplified
that Eskimo-modern front that was on that hotel so
it’s really respectable. And he put in the fountain,
and that lovely effect, in the middle of the New
York Hilton which we call, Sybil’s.
– The discotec? – Discotec. I said I wanted water to
flow over the greenhouse and he said, mother, if you want a ta-r-un-t you shall have it. – I understand you have another son who is also one station removed from being an assist to you? – He is my legal advisor
and I’m proud of that. – [Barbaralee] So he’s a lawyer? – He’s a lawyer, here, and, mother, why don’t you read your contracts more
carefully, you know that. – Does he do that for you? – Yes, he’s quite surprised.
– Why don’t we talk about hotel design in general for a moment.
– All right. – What besides the obvious
difference in scale is there that is different between
a hotel and an apartment? What, and actually I
guess what I’m asking you is what’s the difference
between private decorating and contract decorating? – Well, it’s a difference in perception of the person you’re doing it for. I never know who’s coming for dinner, whereas if I was decorating for somebody who was going have, it
would be their house, of course you know what to, I have to just imagine who’s coming. What the level is, what their tastes are. – Well, let’s take one project. How do you start and how do you determine what it’s going to look like, both in terms of decor, design, spirit, furniture, color, lighting, cost?
– Well, you usually have your cost given to you, I mean, you know that this is, this is as big a job and
this is just gonna be this many rooms and this height. And you discover whether it’s gonna be in the center of town,
or be a country inn. – Well, should a hotel designer, any interior design for that matter, use historical forms, literally? How far do you go and where do you research?
– If you just get, oh, everywhere, you know it’s, actually the people up the Hudson were very helpful with me with, Tarrytown. And with, The Palace,
we had two historians who came along with the job for–
– Architectural historian? – Yes, who were simply superb. We do a lot of research for any job and we get it from the public library and the historical society. We don’t do everything that’s historical, but–
– Well, do you think that the current trend in architecture, and in design, in general
towards historic preservation, and historicism itself,
has a real implication for interior design–
– Oh, I think so. – Will we see more of that?
– Oh, I do think so. There’s so many really
wonderful craftsmen still as I discovered with, The Palace. We found people who did
absolutely marvelous plaster work. We found a man that could
make a bronze stairway that was just superb. We found a man that
could make a chandelier. He’d been saving his
rock crystal for years for the great chandelier,
it’s just superb. – [Barbaralee] And he was able to create this?
– Yeah, he did. Absolutely, he made the
beautiful torchieres and the chandeliers. It was very thrilling to
work with these people. – Well, we’re not talking about any usual hotel project. When you talk about, The
Palace Hotel in New York it is a 51-story tower that rises behind one of New York’s celebrated
19th century landmarks. It is a palazzo designed
by McKim Mead White that is a U-shaped
grouping of brownstones. And you are responsible
for the restored sections of the, what is referred to as, The Ballard House, wing.
– Yes. – And the public rooms within,
The Ballard Houses, as well. How did that assignment come about and what were the most rewarding aspects of having that kind of assignment? – Well, it just was a dream, you know, I couldn’t believe we
really were gonna do it because almost everything
that you’d want to do you could do. – [Barbaralee] How’d you get the job? – I think truly Mr. Helmsley remembered my husband very well, who did the, Park Lane, and was very complimentary about Tom. And various people in
the industry kept saying, right, Mr. Helmsley, right, to him, he hasn’t found a designer yet. I really have never made a presentation since the first job, so
it was a hard letter. – [Barbaralee] What did you say? – I don’t know, I said, you know, that we, I told him what jobs we’d done–
– And of your own background in historic preservation. – No, I don’t think I mentioned that, no. He a, I phoned him and
then I heard him say, well it wasn’t time, I was early. The architect kept saying
he wanted us right away, or what, and a designer, he didn’t say us. And then I heard Mr. Helmsley’s voice, at the time I heard, tell her
it was a damn good letter. And it does help to have been a writer. Then I went to see him with my samples and he said, I’ve seen
that, I like that very much, well, I didn’t like that at all. We went through, finally he
just closed the book and said, what have you ever done that’s remotely like what I have in my mind?
– What had you ever done? – And I said, nothing,
nor has anyone else. And what made me so bold,
I said, nope, nothing. And he said, well, I
guess you better do it. I think probably everybody
was trying so hard to get it, you know. – Well, I assume that one of the things that you were striving there, for there, was a kind of, old-world elegance? – Well, those were, really they are, they are rooms that can’t be changed, they just had to be waked up. I remember when I was in college, going to Williamsburg, the first time, and they told me that the reason they put their money in Williamsburg was because it was a sleeping beauty. They could kiss it and
it would come to life, you can’t do that in New York they’d say. Well, this has been true
of the Ballard Houses. – What were the goals you are striving for in, The Palace Hotel, and do you think you’ve
managed to achieve them? – Not entirely, no. – Why, The Palace, and
how have you reinforced that theme in your design? – Well, it looks like a palace because there’s so much marble, and there’s so much inlaid mosaic, and the floors are all inlaid. I mean at first I was embarrassed
with the name, palace, but as I look at it and see it now, polished and shining,
I think it is a palace. If you’re the designer all
you really should do, I think, in a place like, The Palace, is respect, respect the treasure. – Well, you have done that. And how do you feel, on the other hand, about waking up and knowing that you’re in a Sheraton, or a Hilton, or do you think that hotel
rooms should be anonymous? – I think a, I think
you should always know where you are when you wake up. I don’t mean that I think
you should have a picture of Fifth Avenue looking at you, but I think if you can imply somehow that you are in the East, or in the South, or, it’s wonderful. I think if everything is the same it’s a miserable trip I think, you, that’s part of the pleasure of travel is to find characteristics
of the place where you are. – How do you feel about
the design of country inns? – You can relax and get
the countryside inn. You can somehow do lovely doorways and have terraces with flowers planted and everything reflects, I think you can, certainly in Tarrytown
we moved the wall out into the rose garden
where the dining room is, it’s just lovely now. And in Rye we have a beautiful pool, but an outside pool and lots of, we planted a path for, a strawberry path, and invited people, and a violet path. You know, if you just take
a little bit more trouble to make everybody have
a lovely time, they do. – I wonder if we can spend a moment just talking about statistics. For example, I assume a lot of design, particularly in hotels, takes it shape and form from statics. For example, the numbers
of travelers that are male, the amount of square footage, I mean, how do you make a room, for example, traveler proof? What are the rules for hotel design that you’ve learned from
all of these statistics that include, I assume, the
cost of an electricity bill? – Well, that is especially
true in, Carter’s, where the lights never go out. We saved two million dollars in one Hilton by changing, unhappily, to florescents, because they are, that’s a
glow that’s simply there, it’s not a light sparkle, you see; however, that’s worth it. Now, we do heavy vinyls
that look very elegant and don’t tear or mar. We know we have a certain loss because lots of travel, if you really equated your traveler, and thought about them, you wouldn’t think much
of the human race really, I try not to think about this, but you know you must have pictures bigger than a suitcase. (laughing) You must be careful about your bedspread, it must be impossible to
put it in a garment bag. Now that’s shocking isn’t it? – It seems to me that in
the past several years, perhaps five or so, hotel executives have discovered the fact that there are women travelers, everything isn’t brown anymore. – No, that was my terrible
problem when I started. I was just so, we were supposed to do insides of cigar boxes–
(laughing) and they’d say 80% of
the travelers are men. Now before my time Hilton had the idea that there were some women executives and I think you’d be interested that the, they did a floral called, Lady Hilton. And after–
– Called? – Lady Hilton, and after just a few months they discovered that men were coming in asking for Lady Hilton rooms because they’d been there
and it was more like home. Those rooms had a little prettier curtains and they had Salisbury chairs.
– Was there a different palate? – Entirely different. They told me about this phenomenon that was almost totally occupied by men who loved them. – But–
– Now, aside from color and comfort and looking more like home there are certain things that particularly women
who travel alone could, should, perhaps must bear in mind, when they check into a hotel. For example, a room that
is closer to an elevator, a room on a floor where the floors are more well-lighted than usual. Do you deal that into your hotel design? – Well not necessarily for women, I mean, we must do it for everybody now, we must have well-lighted corridors and we must have protection,
all kinds of protection. I think men’s idea of what
is acceptable has changed. I think, I think everybody
wants more color. I think that it’s a softer approach and they don’t feel it’s unmasculine to like something that’s beautiful. – But by and large I guess it’s men who are making the decisions whether or not to accept,
or reject, your designs and they’re making it for men and women and children as well. How do you get along
with all of these fellows and how does that all work? – There’s no problem once
they believe in you at all, you know, you show ’em color boards. They now know that the
palate has changed completely and other designers
have helped do that too. I mean we’re deep into
the wisterias, orchid, purple, pale-blue cycle. We’re out of the brown. You know we went through that strong blue and white, and brown and white. – How do you deal with your clients? How involved are they
in the design process? – They are very, I mean, you must take them in and no surprises. You know, you often tell them, if you’re trying to do
something innovative, you have to tell them why
and lead them into it, it’s just what you have to do if you’re selling an advertising campaign. We have to show them the
furniture that we want. Frequently they wanna sit in the chairs, especially if it’s a cocktail lounge, they will sit back and they will say, is this a two-martini chair?
– (laughing) What’s a two-martini chair? – Like this one.
– Really (laughing)? – Yes, yes, no, but it
has to be big enough, and supportive enough. – Well, we know how effective
and persuasive you can be, but I’m still trying to figure out how in the world you managed to convince a first-time developer in New York City to have a six-story lobby? How’d you manage that one? – I just talked to him
about his competition. I said, you’re starting out in this field, you are facing the great giants that have been here 50 years ahead of you, there’s very little press left, it must be word-of-mouth, it must be a gift to the city of New York so people will go to 56th Street, between 6th and 7th to see this, and that’s the greatest
thing I can do for you. And I said, it’ll cost you quite a lot, but I think quickly
we’ll see how this works, quickly people will say,
oh, have you been there? It was a very strange lot, you know, it had been the old, Great Northern, and it was on a block
that seemed shabby to me so we had to do something magnificent. And I said to him, I wanna do it fully for
you and it is (laughing). – [Barbaralee] And you’re pleased with yourself?
– I’m so pleased, I really am. He said last night to me, I said, what are people saying? He said, he says, they say, oo-lah-lah, well–
– And he’s not even French. – Well no, but they are,
France he sees now taking it on and are managing it and I didn’t know that when I was designing it, or our staff was designing
it I mustn’t say, I, all of us worked on that very hard. – You mentioned earlier,
other than your first job, you’ve never applied for one–
– No. – Other than the first job and the letter to Mr. Helmsley about, The Palace Hotel. How do you get your clients? – Well the hotel world
travels around itself and it’s a very small world. They tell each other everything. They show each other everything. They sell you even to their competitors. Hotel design had gotten
to be largely theater, largely entertainment, we are really quite theatrical without I hope being cheap. We do set a stage for people and great moments in their lives, I hope. – You once in an issue of
a magazine that you edited, it was soon after you became the editor of, “House Beautiful,” and this along about, just about 15 years ago, 16 years ago now.
– Really, has it been so long? – And you said, and I’m
going to quote you if I may, “because we feel that conformity is a deadly blanket over the line we’ve dedicated this entire issue to the individualist.” You decided in that issue to salute those who step beyond conformity and you said, “individualism, once the
glorious prerogative of wealth, fame, and beauty, is now
the reward of the aware.” Do you still feel this way and how where does one get this reward? – I think you just enjoy it so much if you really perceive it. If you–
– What do you mean? What was your intent there and how have you translated that into your design life? – Well, I think you have the, it’s very narrow for me, I just determinedly don’t do what I’ve ever done before. But I also don’t do anything that anybody else ever
did if I can help myself. You see, I think not that we’re struggling to be outrageous and outlandish, I think, but we, we try not to have a mark of ourselves on things. It’s just an interpretation
of the best we can do either for the place or the time. – Would you like your
work to be identified as a job by Sarah Tomerlin Lee? – No.
– How would you like it to be known? – I just want people to
think it’s so beautiful. – Sarah Lee, surely you are one of the most eloquent and gracious persons ever to have joined us and we appreciate your taking the time to come and to share your views with us. – [Sarah] It’s been a great pleasure and a wonderful experience. – For us.
– For me. – And thank you audience
for being with us too. I am Barbaralee Diamonstein for, Interior Design: The New Freedom. Thank you Sarah. (clapping)

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