German-born designer, Harry Heissmann arrived to New York in 1995 with a suitcase, two plastic bags, and $5,000; now, Heissmann is renowned for his creative and imaginative designs. We talked with him about his early influences, giving back, and never taking himself too seriously.
What shaped your sense of design as you were growing up?
I credit most of what I know to my maternal grandmother, who was a very artistic person. She did batik and porcelain painting. She had a paintbrush with literally one mink hair, and I still laugh when I think of it. She was one of the first people in Germany to go along with the Scandinavian trend long before I was born, so her house had all the iconic furniture we still use today, like the egg chair. She was far ahead of her time.
I went to boarding school in Baden-Baden, which also really shaped me. It was in one of those towns where everything’s so perfect, it feels unreal. After I completed my mandatory military service, I held internships working with plastic, iron, and wood, which was required to apply for the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. At that time, about 600 people applied each semester, and only 10 got a spot. I cried my eyes out when I was accepted. I studied for five years and graduated with what roughly translates to a Master of Interior Design Engineering.
How did you get your start in the States?
I visited New York on one of my semesters off and fell in love with the city. A friend who lived there said, “You’re welcome to use my apartment to start – take care of my cats and pay the utilities.” I arrived in New York with a suitcase, two plastic bags, and $5,000 I had made by selling my first collection of antique German cast-iron Christmas tree stands at a department store in Munich.
Another friend was working as a caterer, and he invited me to a party he was working for the interior designer Jeffrey Bilhuber, who was looking for someone to help him with the presentation for a project in Miami. I worked there for three or four weeks and was finally able to put a great New York name on my resume. Then I was offered a job with Juan Pablo Molyneux, who works with outrageous materials and rare antiques. I came in on the tail end of really crazy ’90s decorating. We were flying to Europe to buy antiques for clients and for photo shoots. After three and a half years there, I started working for a more traditional designer, Stephanie Stokes.
How did you end up getting hired by Albert Hadley?
A homeless organization sent out pine Ikea picture frames to designers to re-imagine for a fundraiser exhibition. I turned mine into the back wall of an imaginary room and built a little scale model within it. The frames were exhibited in the D&D building in New York, where everyone goes to for fabrics. Mr. Hadley saw my frame and asked a mutual friend to introduce us. I went to his office to show him my books and started working there a few days later. This was in 2000. I worked there until 2009, when I opened my own office.
Mr. Hadley was a strong believer in giving back to the community, and I learned that from him. Various charities do show houses. One of the most famous show houses in America benefits the Kips’ Bay Boys & Girls Club. I’ve done two Kip’s Bay showhouses. For one of them, I used an Ann Sacks floor mosaic. Then there is the Holiday House, which benefits the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. The first one was in 2008, and it was called Holiday House because you were assigned a room and had to pick a holiday as your starting point. I picked Easter. Then I did two more Holiday Houses: one for Groundhog Day, and the last one for Christmas. And one of my most cherished events, is designing elaborate themed table settings for the annual Lenox Hill Neighborhood Spring Gala, which benefits the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, dedicated to providing housing, education and meals to those in need.
Tell me about an Ann Sacks projects that really stands out to you.
One of my favorite clients had a very complicated, small New York City bathroom, and she wanted it to be ADA-compliant. She wished for it to be very glamorous and rather modern and different. I went to the Ann Sacks showroom and I picked out this mirror-colored glass tile, and we striped the room horizontally in two mirror colors. There’s no real “color color” in there, it’s all silver and gray. We picked a beautiful marble mosaic floor, and Kallista faucets with crystal handles, all from Ann Sacks. It was sort of a departure for her, because I had done an all gold bathroom in a different apartment previously, but this one was more Art Deco.
You’ve said you’re client-centric. Does a certain type of client come to you?
Some of my clients are people I started working with at Mr. Hadley’s office. When you’re working with clients, you sometimes become really close, and you’re wearing a lot of hats: you’re part therapist, part personal shopper and as a result, they tell you about their lives and their children, who then sometimes become my clients too. So in short, clients usually come via a recommendation or word of mouth.
I started calling my style “client-centric” because I really don’t have a particular style. I think you do yourself a disservice by saying, “I only do midcentury or futurist things,” or, “I only want to work really modern.” The client is always king. My style depends on who the client is, where they live, and what sort of project it is: a new house, an old house, an apartment, a castle. I jokingly always say I would furnish a matchbox if I liked the client enough.
You seem to have a good sense of humor. How does that play into your work?
None of us should take ourselves too seriously. Without humor, life is sort of boring. I always try to apply some humor in every project. It could be a sculpture or a painting or a piece of art or a color or a color combination. I’m not forceful with that—I’m not trying to be different just to be different—but I like to infuse personality into everything – the client’s personality and yes, some of mine.