Best of the Best 2002: Home & Design: Best Interior Designers

Mistress of Discipline
Naomi Leff refuses to be pigeonholed by one style. “People live so differently in different climates that everything I do depends on the geography and, obviously, on the personal taste of a client. Working in a variety of styles makes my job much more interesting,” she says. Leff’s diverse portfolio includes the transformation of the Rhinelander mansion on Madison Avenue into Ralph Lauren’s flagship store, Steven Spielberg’s Arts and Crafts guesthouse in the Hamptons, a Florida house filled with American Queen Anne antiques, and an Art Deco townhouse in Manhattan that pays homage to the great ocean liners.

The one constant is a sense of modernism that filters through in the simplicity and clarity of lines, spatial relationships, and choice of lux-ury materials. And though she cites such modernists as Edwin Lutyens, Le Corbusier, Jean Dunand, Eileen Gray, and Jean-Michel Frank as her inspiration, she is currently working on a traditional French residence in the heart of Manhattan.

“I love doing research; it’s the most fascinating part of a project,” Leff says. “That’s where the concept crystallizes. There are so many roads you can take in design. My job is to discipline the concept and make it strong and cohesive.”

Naomi Leff & Associates, 212.686.6300

An All-American Guy
“Designers provide the ultimate luxury—the luxury of choice,” says Jeffrey Bilhuber. “I get paid to edit out things that aren’t necessary or that don’t make a positive contribution.” Bilhuber is following in the footsteps of Billy Baldwin and Halston, who paid homage to Europe but produced interiors and clothes that were singularly American. “It’s easy to get distracted by a European perspective,” Bilhuber says. “I use Louis XVI chairs and Dutch mirrors, but always with American integrity and clarity.”

Bilhuber’s clients are typically high-profile creative individuals—AOL honcho Robert Pittman, Iman and David Bowie, Hubert de Givenchy, Elsa Peretti, Michael Douglas. “Great decorating is all about great communication. The more open you are, the more successful the project will be,” he notes. “I hate being told that I have carte blanche and that I can do whatever I want. My best clients have a point of view and can articulate their goals. They come in with a favorite Ming bowl, a cashmere sweater—objects that give clues about texture and pattern that I can build on.”

A Southampton poolhouse/guest pavilion that he designed 12 years ago was his response to poolhouses that were becoming more extravagant than the main house. Bilhuber’s version was romantic and charming and filled with 1940s Italian palazzo sofas. The seat cushions were mattresses so that at night the sofas could be used as beds. “Everything I do is about ease and polish,” Bilhuber says. “My clients don’t yearn to be in any other time or place. I see myself as America’s interior designer.”

Jeffrey Bilhuber, 212.308.4888

Study in Black and White
Every two or three years, Charles Allem either moves or changes his decor. “Moving is healthy,” he says. “I’m constantly evolving, so why should my surroundings be stagnant?” His current Manhattan apartment, done entirely in black and white, is a virtuoso display of design that looks neither retro nor clichéd. “I love black and white and I was dying to do something very graphic with a classical feeling,” Allem says. “It’s very geometric, clean and fluid.” He limited all the fabrics to lambskin, perforated leather, and suede, but ditched an attempt at leather curtains. French lacquered furniture from the 1920s and Tommy Parzinger pieces from the 1940s cohabit with contemporary sculpture, vintage china, and Allem’s own furniture designs. “I travel so much that for me the apartment is the perfect lift,” he says. “Every time I walk in the door, I get a sense of excitement.”

Charles Allem, 212.702.8831 and 310.286.9605

Photo by Rebecca Lievre
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