Iris Apfel's eye on textiles

Iris Apfel's eye on textiles

I will never forget the first time I saw Iris Apfel. She was seated at the table next to me eating lunch at the BG restaurant on the top floor of Bergdorf’s. How very appropriate. I couldn’t help but be totally captivated by her. Really, truly taken with everything she wore from top to bottom as well as having to listen to every word she was saying. Her incredible bangles were stacked up each arm, layers of fabulous necklaces and not to mention, those amazing glasses. My lunch date and I were literally transfixed. The fact that I had NO IDEA who she was at the time makes me smile, but I knew I could never forget her.

Artist, fashionista, textile maven, interior designer. ICON.

That is who Iris Apfel is. A few weeks after this famous lunch sighting, suddenly she was everywhere I turned. It felt a bit ridiculous that I didn’t know who she was when I first saw her. How could I not know of Iris Apfel?

Main image by Bruce Weber. This image of her lounging in amazing boots is by Chester Higgins Jr. for the NY Times.

If you don’t know who she is, I am extra excited to introduce you to her. This way, if you see this magnificent 94 year old superwoman walking down the street in NYC, you can feel a bit more prepared than I was. She is hard to miss.

I have to start with this fabulous Iris quote. “All the great handcrafted trades are going down the tubes. Some have already gone. And then there’s nobody left to teach them. You have all kinds of machine-made junk.” 

I came across this brilliant quote by her while watching the documentary, Iris. If you want to watch a great trailer for the film, you can watch it here. But trust me, you should really just go ahead and watch the whole film. It’s absolutely brilliant, insightful, and thoroughly inspiring. Just like it’s subject.

Another fabulous image by Chester Higgins Jr. for the NY Times.
Title screen from the brilliant documentary.

Back to this quote by Ms. Apfel. It says it all, doesn’t it? It is why I started Interior Monologue. This exact same passion for lost handcraft. What makes her story so amazing is that she found a way to incorporate her love of travel, fashion and textiles into a real business that took her everywhere she hoped she would go. That is my dream, too.

Iris Apfel grew up in Queens, where her father owned a small glass and mirror shop, and her mother a clothing boutique, so it could be argued that she was able to start developing her iconic eye from a very young age. Although she originally set out to work in the fashion industry, Apfel landed herself a gig working for a designer sprucing up apartments that were on the market during the wartime slump of the 1940’s. Because resources were scarce at this time, Iris had to learn to scavenge the flea markets and thrift stores of New York to find the perfect touches for the apartments she was working on. This is where she would first scour for the textures and colors of the classic fabrics and upholsteries she became famous for.

It was during this time that Iris learned how much she loved interior design, and began taking her own clients. Her own personal style became a sort of self-branding for the budding fashion icon, as she said in a 2011 Architectural Digest interview of her clients, “I guess they thought that if I could decorate myself, I could decorate a room or two.”

With a growing roster of increasingly impressive clients, Iris’s search became more wide spread, traveling with her husband Carl around the world to find the perfect pieces for her interiors. In fact, it was the search for one fabric in particular—an over scale Napoleonic bee on blue silk—that lead to the creation of Old World Weavers. According to Iris, this fabric “didn’t exist anymore,” so she and Carl found a way to have it re-produced by a master weaver, and eventually went into business to continue re-creating beautiful textiles.

This photo is by Roderick Aichinger for Annabelle magazine.
I love her jewelry. By Roderick Aichinger for Annabelle magazine.
How fabulous is her living room? But the slippers? Get outta here. Image from Architectural Digest.
I love her. This photo is by Roderick Aichinger for Annabelle magazine.

Iris’s eye for rich texture and color, and ornate textiles and antiques became wildly known throughout the upper echelons of society, taking on clients like Esteé Lauder, Jackie Onasiss, and working with nine First Ladies on White House restorations. Her ability to layer and elaborate, while maintaining refinement in a room (as seen in the Old World Weavers adverts from the 1970s) gained her an immense following, and she always brought her work back to her own personal style. In an article on One King’s Lane, she speaks of her method saying “I think in a former life I was a hunter gatherer, because I like to find things and make things up, and put things together that are unexpected, then there’s some part of me in it”.

Iris, now at 94, has made an immense and impressive career out of finding things and making things up. She is a staunch advocate for personal expression of style, and it shows through every aspect of her life and work. I think what I love the most about Iris is her ability to stay true to her vision despite what anyone says, thinks or does. Stacks of bangles, layers of fabrics, pattern upon pattern.

She has honed and maintained her eye for style for over 65 years, and shows no signs of slowing down! Hopefully you now have a feeling for her unique taste, her zest for life, her passion for travel, textiles, and craftsmanship, and her unique “eye” on dressing. She is a true icon. I am going to try to remember to have a little piece of Iris’s attitude in every aspect of my life.