Required Reading

The Multitalented Carolyne Roehm on Her Deepening Love of Interiors, Fashion and Florals

Required Reading

The Multitalented Carolyne Roehm on Her Deepening Love of Interiors, Fashion and Florals

The aesthetic arbiter extraordinaire talks to Introspective about her love of nature, her eye for antiques and her lack of interest in designing homes for anyone other than herself.

dining table Carolyne Roehm Design & Style: A Constant Thread book Rizzoli
“People often remark on the ‘design quality’ of an object. But I tend to more readily associate quality with craft — evidence of the hand,” Carolyn Roehm, seen at top, writes in her new book, Design & Style: A Constant Thread (Rizzoli). “Quality, refined and rustic: from Wedgwood to silver to crystal to the handcrafted hardware on the Colonial-era door.” Photos by Sylvie Becquet

Carolyne Roehm has led a pretty Lucullan life. Born in Kirksville, Missouri, she landed in New York City in 1973 and within six short weeks was on a date with a gent who flew her around Manhattan in a helicopter before taking her to dine at the Rainbow Room — with Frank Sinatra, no less. She scored a job with one of America’s most revered fashion designers, Oscar de la Renta, before launching her own successful womenswear line, which lasted 10 years; her beautifully tailored pieces have become collector’s items (and perennial bestsellers on 1stdibs). She has been married twice — her second husband was financier Henry Kravis —and lived for a time in Paris. And although she would be the first to tell you that life is not always a banquet, she has made the most of it, with her boundless energy and finely tuned talents in fields far beyond fashion: in photography and painting and as an author. She has written 12 bestselling books on flowers, design and entertaining.

For her 13th book, Design & Style: A Constant Thread (Rizzoli), Roehm focuses on herself and her fascinating career to date. (It’s far from over: During our conversation, she mentioned having in the works both a costume-jewelry collection and a porcelain line.) Roehm’s insider’s view of the social and fashion scenes of the go-go 1980s is captivating, as is the way she’s nurtured her personal style and what she frequently refers to as her “passion for everything.” Yes, she’s one of those rare birds who can set the best table, paint the most lyrical watercolor, take the most impressive photo and arrange the most luscious bouquet. But before you roll your eyes, get to know the woman, who has earned her mastery — and has always been her own harshest critic.

bedroom in Carolyne Roehm Design & Style: A Constant Thread book Rizzoli
“I had this gorgeous bed shipped over from London,” Roehm tells Introspective. “I never realized how hard it would be to find a mattress in the U.S. that fit its custom frame, however.” Photo by Carolyne Roehm

I love this passage in the book: “When I see and touch the delicacy of an iris petal, I hear the rustle of silk taffeta. In design, in life, everything sparks a connection.”

The connection really became apparent to me when I was going through the zillions of clippings I’d saved from my fashion days. When I started working with flowers, I realized how one petal felt like georgette, another like deep velvet, so the references seemed direct. That’s why I relate flowers and fashion so much in my book.

Do you still design clothes for yourself or others?

Frankly, I think there are a lot of great clothes out there. I buy those and don’t feel I need to fiddle with them. I don’t reinterpret and change. I do that with tabletops, rooms and gardens.

Nature clearly resonates deeply with you. How do you foster that connection?

To me, it’s one of the most glorious things in the world. It is magical, it is spiritual. I’m not a very religious person, but my spirituality lies mostly with nature. There is a higher power of some sort that can create a flower that is as beautiful as the dahlia I’m looking at right now.

The Multitalented Carolyne Roehm on Her Deepening Love of Interiors, Fashion and Florals
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The Multitalented Carolyne Roehm on Her Deepening Love of Interiors, Fashion and Florals
Mantel flowers porcelain gardenias Carolyne Roehm Design & Style: A Constant Thread book Rizzoli

“I loved flanking this 18th-century bust with 19th-century porcelaine-de-Paris baskets filled with gardenias,” says Carolyne Roehm, author of the new book Design & Style: A Constant Thread (Rizzoli).

dining room at Weatherstone Connecticut estate Carolyne Roehm Design & Style: A Constant Thread book Rizzoli

Chinese porcelain vessels line the mantel in the great room of Roehm’s Connecticut home, Weatherstone. Photo by Carolyne Roehm

New York apartment Carolyne Roehm Design & Style: A Constant Thread book Rizzoli

“My New York apartment is one of my three homes that has double height ceilings,” says Roehm, “which gives a beautiful proportion to the rooms.” Photo by Sylvie Becquet

Flowers in entryway at Weatherstone Connecticut estate Carolyne Roehm Design & Style: A Constant Thread book Rizzoli

Roehm displayed two of her favorite flowers – the peony and the cherry blossom, the latter reflected in the mirror from the middle of the room — in the hallway at Weatherstone. Photo by Sylvie Becquet

 

entryway at Weatherstone Connecticut estate Carolyne Roehm Design & Style: A Constant Thread book Rizzoli
Roehm has found that flowering branches placed in a beautiful crystal vase emphasize the sense of height in a light-filled space in her Connecticut home, Weatherstone. Photo by Sylvie Becquet

Do you still dip a toe into the public worlds of fashion and interiors?

I’m more inclined to go to an interiors program, where I am often asked to speak. I love interiors. When I started doing Weatherstone, my house in Connecticut, I was still working with Oscar and wasn’t yet married to Henry. He and I took out a loan to buy the place — it was a very different time — and it was my project for years.

One day, when I was in the studio at Oscar, I was telling his assistant, John Nicholson, that I could see myself as an interior designer. For a room, you don’t have the constraints of the human body — two arms and two legs. It’s more about a mood and a feel, and you have the aspect of the garden, which is as important as the inside of the house. After, John looked at me and said, “You are so opinionated, you wouldn’t have any clients. A woman would ask for purple rugs in the bathroom, and you would say she has no taste, and that would be that!” I laughed and totally agreed. A few people have asked me to decorate their homes, but honestly, I can’t be someone’s psychologist. I just want to be a dictator and tell everyone how I want a room to look. Hence, I only decorate my own homes.

gardens at Weatherstone Connecticut estate Carolyne Roehm Design & Style: A Constant Thread book Rizzoli
Roehm’s gardens at Weatherstone are a feast of verdant shades each spring. Here, white Maureen tulips bloom under blossoming crabapple trees. Photo by Carolyne Roehm

How do you buy for your interiors?

If there is something special in a crowded window, I catch it. I have that eye. I’ve lived a long time and been to plenty of antiques shows, but I’ve also happened upon countless treasures in random shops around the world. I have walked into places where ninety percent of what’s there is junk, and I find the one treasure that I love. I acquire by looking. As a matter of fact, one year I had just planted Rembrandt tulips that were variegated in purple and white, and then I found eight plates in a shop featuring the same flower. There is a photograph of them in the book.

I am not a big Internet shopper, but when I need a Chinese Chippendale something, I go straight to 1stdibs. I’m also always shopping online for watercolor paper and paint.

Let’s talk about your watercolors. You have a great talent. Did you take classes, or did your ability grow out of doing fashion sketches?

My fashion sketches were all by Peter Speliopoulos. He was much better than I was. I didn’t have that beautiful flourish that he did. Watercoloring was a total fluke. Some of my friends in Colorado took me to a class, and I just loved it. I am pretty much self-taught. I bought a zillion books (most are from Great Britain) and just kept practicing.

Carolyne Roehm
In her new book, Roehm explores the connections between fashion and flowers, design and nature. Of this photo, Roehm writes, “Don’t let the glasses fool you: I may have been a fashion designer, but once I went into business for myself, I toughened up my spirit — for survival, one must!” Portrait courtesy of Carolyne Roehm

From your Instagram account, you seem to be always on the go. How do you find time to just be still?

I have tried so many different things, and I have failed! My friends tell me to not pick up the phone or look at emails, but that usually doesn’t last long. I do breathe. Taking deep breaths can really help you center. I am trying to calm down, and in all truth, I am not good at it.

Painting is a form of meditation for me, a time to be quiet and just be. The opposite of mediation is criticizing my own work when I am done. So, sometimes the process works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But when I stop and look at flowers, or zone out on my watercoloring and photography, that is as close as it gets.

Oscar de la Renta once called you “the perpetual student.” What are you learning about currently?

Funny you should ask. I recently visited a costume-jewelry house that has existed since the late eighteen hundreds. It was amazing to go into the back rooms and see the wooden casts, watch the ladies set minuscule stones and see the patient enamel workers do their job. I am learning much more about the making of jewelry. To me, it is just captivating. I have a huge fascination with the learning process.


Carolyne Roehm’s Quick Picks on 1stdibs

“For the holidays, red and gold is the magic mixture. Setting the table with these colors ties everything together.”

“Nothing sets off a tabletop quite like antique silverware.”

“Most of us who have to wear reading glasses need a little extra help, so why not have something beautiful and functional on hand for the little details?”

“For a dinner party of fewer than eight people, a round table beautifully brings guests together in conversation.”

“A touch of gilt or polished bronze will add glamour to any space. Having objects in pairs also creates symmetry and order within antiques-filled rooms.”

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