Barbara in her living room, surrounded by some of her favorite things: a French Aubusson rug and a pair of 19th century cut-glass candelabra above the fireplace mantel.
Barbara Uzielli’s home is so traditional that, in this age of linear, unadorned surfaces, it is almost defiant. With two working fireplaces and a rear view of trees, the apartment was purchased because it felt something like a house. It is very comfortable and, like its owner, who attended Brearley and then Bennett College, has class. The hand of a perfectionist is obvious in each room but the apartment is not at all unwelcoming. There is good, inherited furniture, a soft color scheme (with the exception of a luminously rich red library) and proper curtains at the windows – remember those?
What does your home mean to you?
It’s really where I want to be ... and I never feel sad being home. I’m an only child so I don’t mind being by myself. I like being by myself. I’m not afraid of being alone.
This red library is obviously your cozy room.
Yes, this is my cozy winter room and it’s also for when my grandchildren come. I pull the table out and put air mattresses all over the floor. They think it’s just grand because once I’ve dragged everything out the whole room is one big mattress and they know I’m not going to come and check on them. They can watch television as much as they like.
Above: The cozy, red lacquer library is Barbara’s favorite place to spend time in the winter months. It also serves as guest bedroom when the grandchildren come to visit. Left: A collection of family photos.
Library bookshelves display pieces from Barbara’s extensive collection of Chinese export porcelain. The chintz fabric on the windows and corner chair is from Travers.
How many grandchildren do you have?
I have four. One daughter has just moved from Connecticut to Cincinatti and one daughter lives in Greenwich. I see the Greenwich one often.
It’s increasingly rare these days to have your children and grandchildren so close.
Yeah ... I mean it’s close enough ... any closer and I think I’d probably be the convenient babysitter all the time [laughs]. It’s hard to say no.
A silk flower arrangement by Jodi Perlberger was made for the elevator landing.
What were the first signs that you were interested in a career like this?
As a child I was always moving my room around. That was exciting to me. And things like all of a sudden there were summer slipcovers and I was excited [about that] at a very young age. I would think, ‘Oh that’s really neat!
Do we forget how intensely we experience things as a child?
I wish we didn’t. I wish we could experience that intensity always.
Did you study design?
I did study [later] but I didn’t apply any of my [design] studies until, oh gosh, probably 20 years had gone by. I mean I did it for myself but not for others.
What was your first project like?
I was terrified! Absolutely terrified! I had this wonderful friend, who was established, and I asked her if she would do it with me. From her I learned a lot. I learned to remember things that no one would ever think about, like where to put the light switches.
Above: The boldly patterned ‘Venetian’ toile fabric from Travers on the dining room chairs and windows provides a wonderful contrast to the softly colored walls upholstered in Osborne and Little fabric. An exquisite gilt Chinese Chippendale mirror is a focal point on the rear wall.
Left:A keen cook, Barbara occasionally entertains formally on this George III , two-pedestal dining table that she inherited from her family.
How do your clients find you?
It’s all word of mouth. I don’t advertise. Basically if they want to talk to me they know pretty much that I’m traditional. I always say, ‘Come here to my apartment.’
Are you hurt if someone doesn’t like it?
There haven’t been too many ... and I don’t mean that in a smug way ... but I’ve been lucky.
Deep navy Napoleanic bee-patterned paper covers the walls of Barbara’s powder room. A pair of Venetian gilded and etched mirrors were a purchase from David Duncan.
Your style seems very English. Are you attracted to that image of staying in grand houses and British country life?
Well I don’t think I’d like to go on a weekend because you never seem to get the john to yourself! I don’t like cold weather and in the middle of August you can be cold in Scotland. I’ve stayed with friends and kept a coat on all the time. I did learn what an Aga was. It’s the place you sit to keep warm.
Once you have a project underway, do you ever lie awake and worry about it?
I have worried a lot. I don’t like to do it on an hourly basis because I would wake up at night and start to think about it and then I would think, ‘Am I working now or am I not working? No, no ... I’m not really working that hard ... ’ So I never knew how to bill them! Ahhh ... [shudders] When I’m on a job I become emotionally involved in it and there’s no cut-off time. The only time it’s sad is at the very end when it’s absolutely perfect and I have to give it back.
Left:Clouds float across the ceiling of the pastel-colored master bedroom. Light from a back garden fills the room.
Below:The dressing room and master bath were reconfigured with the help of architect John Dunning to provide more storage space and convenient access.
What do you dislike about the work?
I don’t work well with colors I don’t like. I don’t like brown. I don’t like magenta. I don’t like mustard. I stick to my guns, I really do. I have a physical reaction to color.
How do you view an attachment to things, possessions and objects?
Well I have certainly read all the other [NYSD HOUSE] profiles and nobody seems to have an attachment to things and I think that’s probably very good ... but I’m very attached to my things. It represents home! I mean everything in here has a meaning and I know it’s not important in the general scheme of things but on the other hand it would be devastating to have it all gone. I mean people who have fires ... it’s just so horrible for them ... they don’t even have an address book ... they can’t call their friends. I feel affectionate about my things. Imagine coming home from a trip and coming in to a bare, cold apartment. Nobody would want to come home.
Do you like entertaining at home?
I don’t actually like entertaining. My friends know that about me. Everything’s all set and ready to go. I love the idea and I can go through it but it is like going through root canal ... and I tend to be a perfectionist. If I had an eat-in kitchen and people all came in there and hung around, which is sort of a wonderful idea that you see in magazines, I would be hiding all the evidence all the time. I ... er ... tend to be too formal, but I don’t want to be ... oh ... I don’t know ... I don’t know ... When we’re cruising through dessert, I’m thinking ‘Oh goody, now I can have a glass of wine.’
The front hall opens up to the main rooms of the apartment, providing a view of the splendid Georgian secretary from the front door. John Dunning answered Barbara’s wish to include columns in the apartment by placing pilasters painted in black faux marble on either side of the main foyer.
That’s what you should do much earlier on then.
Oh, but then I would forget everything! But you know what? Nobody would care ... but I would know.
So how do you cope with mistakes?
If I’ve had any really horrendous disasters I’ve repressed them so much that they’re not even here.
Barbara at her workstation.
What do you do to unwind?
I cook! [laughs] Here’s the person who doesn’t entertain and who cooks up a storm! I make pasta sauces, soups or stews. It all goes in the freezer. I love to eat, so if I get a craving for something ... it’s there.
What have you enjoyed reading lately?
In my bedroom there are piles and piles and piles of books that I’m going to take [on vacation] to Capri. I read The Glass Castle [by Jeannette Walls], which was excellent. And I think Geoffrey Wolff is a fabulous writer. And Sarah Dunant. I loved her first book, [The Birth of Venus], which was about Florence in the time of Savonarola.
A sense of serenity encompasses Barbara’s traditionally-furnished living room. The walls, once painted in a shade of deep rose, have been re-done over the years, each time in cooler, lighter shades.
What star sign are you?
I’m Libra. I think I’m so much a Libra ... it’s because it’s the scales. And so I will say: ‘Yes I think we should definitely do that ... on the other had perhaps we should consider ... ’, which I hate about myself.
Earlier in our conversation you mentioned that you used to see psychics. Do you believe in an afterlife?
I think yes ... I do believe in a life after death. I don’t know why but this just ran through my mind, but if this room had been painted a flat red, it would be enclosing and if I felt that there was no life after death, I would feel enclosed too. It should go further than where we know the parameters are.