Iris Apfel is someone I have long admired and aspire to be at least 1/10 of. Check out images of her apartment and read what design tactics work for her in this article from Architectural Digest.
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. A maverick fashion icon who may pair a pink Krizia twinset with a Qing dynasty embroidered skirt, or a fur-trimmed Dior evening coat with jeans, she burst into black type in 2005, when anexhibition of her colorful and extravagantly accessorized wardrobe was a sensation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. Entitled “Rara Avis” (Latin for rare bird), the show transformed Apfel into what she cheekily calls a “geriatric starlet.” Since then she has become a byword for the kind of idiosyncratic sartorial flair that is an endangered species in our age of red-carpet fashion stylists. But few of her admirers realize she’s not only a very special breed of clotheshorse, she’s also someone for whom dress is just one form of creative expression.
This fact 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. 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, first as head of her own interior-design business and later as cofounder, with Carl, of Old World Weavers, a manufacturer of handcrafted archival fabrics for the carriage trade.
“I don’t do minimal,” Apfel says of her design approach.
She didn’t start out to be an interior designer. What she hankered for in the early 1940s, as a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin’s art school, was 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 tarted 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. (The Apfels sold the company to Stark Carpet in 1992.) 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.
Now well into her 80s, Apfel is going strong: She’s presiding over recurrent iterations of her clothing exhibition, most recently at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and designing a line of costume jewelry whose detritus overflows from boxes scattered throughout the apartment (a couture line is on the horizon, too). She’s also a visiting professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Human Ecology. “I’m very proud,” she admits. “I’m going to help them beef up their fashion and textile departments.” Plus, celebrated photographer Bruce Weber is working on a documentary about her.
Clearly she relishes—while being a little bemused by—her emergence as a venerated style guru. “People write to me: ‘You’ve changed my life!’” She pauses for a minute, bending over to adjust a passementerie-covered throw pillow before affirming, “I’m giving them permission to be individual again.”