New York, NY
Interview by Jim Donaldson
When I was in high school in my eleventh year, I still didn’t know what I was going to do when I was going to go to McGill. I thought, well, I was interested in two subjects: medicine and architecture and I really couldn’t decide which I was going to do so I decided, “The only way I’m going to figure this out is-” I picked A instead of M because A came first in the alphabet. So I went into architecture. And during my first year, I realized I had made the right choice, because as an eleven year old, I actually was quite adept at reading plans and drawing and I had drawn a summer vacation house as an eleven year old and my parents who are affectionately known as Large Marge and Big Ed decided that they would build this house. And so they built this house in the Laurentian mountains that I designed as an eleven year old. So I guess I picked the right choice and became an architect. And-
Do you remember any of the people or the professors who influenced your stay at McGill?
Oh, well, I was very influenced by a lot of my professors. I remember meeting Gordie Webber and thinking what a strange and marvelous character he was. And doing some of those design processes where you just put paint on your hands and got really down into it and that was really liberating for me. And then I remember John Schreiber taught me a lot about presentation work because I remember that he would even draw slippers in the closets and I thought well, that’s really amazing. One of my favourites was Norbert, of course, and he was with me on my thesis. And we kind of bonded. We had a wonderful time together. And he was a bright, brilliant man and I enjoyed his company. And he had a wonderful dry sense of humour. And we’d sort of laugh secretly at a lot of little things and the least of which was architecture, because architecture is fun and fanciful and a farce and true and real. It’s so many things. It’s my life.
Do you remember Peter Collins at all?
Peter Collins, oh my God! Every time I travel in Europe I see Peter Collins’s face, you know! I say, “Oh, but I remember this piece”. And I’ve just come back from Sicily and they say if you want to see Greece, go to Sicily because there are so many Greek ruins there. And every time I see any piece of ancient architecture, Peter Collins’s face just pops right up. And I smile. Nice, nice memories. And John Bland. I always remember John Bland’s “charming” . Everything was charming. It was a charming solution, it was a charming elevation, it was a charming plan and he was just a charming guy. And I really did love my time at McGill.
Any memories at all of Stuart Wilson?
Stuart Wilson was in my third-year construction- no. We were doing stuff in wood, two by fours, all this stuff.
Model-building. And I remember he said, “Listen, you guys, you know there’s a hundred people in this class and you know, twenty of you are going to graduate. And some of you should consider, like, dentistry now”. I always remember that line. When I graduated, you know, I was in two different classes. I was in the class with Mike Grobman [sic: Werleman, or Fieldman] and Jim Donaldson and Rudy Javosky and Soiferman and I was going into fourth year and not passing a second-year subject, which was Strength of Materials, which, I mean, you don’t need to know a thing about anyway, but I couldn’t pass it. And so I took a year off and I worked for an eighty-five year old engineer and I learned a lot there. And I actually went to summer school and I finally passed this. And then, of course, I was a year behind. So I was in the year with Allan Marr and Glen Convey and people like that so I had the wonderful opportunity of being in two different courses, so I really did the six-year course in seven years. But it was fine. It was wonderful.
Was there any courses in particular, you talked about the different professors, but was there any course in particular that you had fond memories of, whether it’s Sketching School, or-?
Well, I could always draw. I remember Norbert said to me, he said, “You don’t have to worry about a job ever because you can draw and you draw beautifully” . And I remember Gordie Webber was saying, “You know, you have a very unique talent about just sitting there and being able to sketch”. And I’ve developed that. I can actually sit with a client and draw upside down for them so that they can see it. I’m sitting across the table form them and I’ve learned how to draw upside down so they can understand exactly what I’m doing. And so I do draw well and they were right. I’ve never been out of work.
Well, after all is said and done, I did graduate and I think I got the bronze medal in design. And I decided, you know, being Canadian and being a Montrealer, I’d like to sort of start off working in Montreal and then make some enquiries. And everybody was real busy. Every firm was busy, busy, busy. And I realized- I did a little progressive thinking and I’d think if everybody’s really busy, what is going to happen? And I realized everybody was busy because of the World’s Fair in ’67. And so I decided that there would be this crash very shortly. And I was young and I really wanted to get the experience so that I could go on with my life. So I jumped in my MG and I crossed the border in December- January 9, 1964 with my MG, two suitcases and four hundred dollars and I came to New York. And I had a place to stay. Friends of family, I had a place to stay in North Stanford, Connecticut. And I took the train to Grand Central Station and I had my little- we didn’t even have portfolios in there. I had like Xeroxes and some colour renderings and stuff that I had, because it was all schoolwork. And I got out of Grand Central and I saw it said Employment Agency up there so I said, “Oh, I’ll go up there”. So I went to the employment agency and said, “I’m a baby architect and I just graduated and I can draw”. And this woman said, “Can I see something? Work?” And I sort of undid this like, I don’t know, shoebox full of stuff, you know, I was very unprofessional. And she looked at that and she said, “I think I have a job for you”. So she phoned up someone and ten minutes later, I was on the way to Embry Roth and Sons, this huge- it was all asses and elbows. You know, you walked in there and you just saw everybody drawing like this. So I went in and I had this interview. And this man was looking, the guy that was interviewing me was looking at this stuff coming out of the shoebox and saying, “Are these your drawings? Are these really your drawings?” And I thought that was so unusual. I mean I’m here this honest, green kid, you know, from Canada. Of course they’ re my drawings. Who else’s drawings would they be, right? And I said, “Yeah”. And he said, “You’ re hired”. So I had a job instantly. And then, so after that, going back and forth from Connecticut, I would go there on the weekends, but I had gotten an apartment in New York, that I happened to meet Philip Johnson on the train going to North Stanford ‘cause he went to New Canaan where he was. And I didn’ t really recognize who he was. And we were sitting on the train side by side and he said, “Would you save my seat? I’m going to the bar car”. And I saved his seat. And then he came back and he started chatting with me. And he asked me what I did. And I said, “Well, I’m an architect. My name is Scott Bromley and I’m an architect”. He said, “Oh, funny, I’m an architect too. My name is Philip Johnson”. So he invited me to come and see the Glass House and served me an Auguroni, which I’d never had. I was just this, you know, twenty-three year old kid or something. And he said, “Would you have an Auguroni?” And I said, “Sure”. Not knowing what an Auguroni was. And apparently that was his favourite drink of the moment, I guess. And so I had an Auguroni. And it was very strange tasting, but anyway. So then he invited me to work for him. So I did and we won a competition. I worked on Pennzoil and a few things that we all recognize now and I learned a lot there. And then, Henry Roth kept pursuing me to become head of design and finally I succumbed to this enormous salary and then I went back to work for Henry Roth and I was the head of design. And then-
When would- this would have been, what, in the early seventies then?
Oh, let’s see. That goes ’65, no, ’64 to ’66, Henry Roth; ’66 to ’69 Philip Johnson; ’69 to ’74 back to Henry Roth again. And the reason I left Henry Roth was ’74 was the mini-crash. It was the stock market crash and nobody was building anything so they said, “Take the summer off”. I took the summer off and then came back after the summer and said, “Okay,” to them, “I’m here to work”. They said, “There’s no work”. I said, “Well, then you have to fire me” . So I started collecting my first unemployment cheque and I decided well, now’s the time to start business. So I set up my bedroom in this rent-control place I had on 56th Street. And I started drawing and I realized that I was getting clients but they were like tiny little jobs. And they were like renovations and they weren’t like ground up stuff. And I was just taking anything because I really wanted to get on with things. And so I realized that it was renovation stuff I was doing and so I kind of got into this whole thing about interior architecture. And then all of a sudden, we did a little thing called Studio 54 in 1977 and it put us on the map and we’ re doing nightclubs ever since. We just finished one in Russia, which was fun. And it took off. And also we did another little store called Abitare on 57th Street, which won an AIA award and both in ’ 77. So there was like names are in the paper, names in the design, and it just took off. It’s mostly luck, but I happened to be there at the time. A little talent, but mostly luck.
Is there a different approach to designing something that’s going to be seen I guess at night, in terms of design?
Well, I learned a lot designing Studio 54. I learned so much because it’s all magic. It’s like Disney. It’s all, you know, it’s all visual excitement, it’s all visual eroticism. It’s completely different because you can paint out a background and then just have things pop out in fluorescent colours or whatever and different designs and it’s a whole different bag of tricks. But I learned a lot about lighting. And we’re well known, the office is well known for its lighting abilities and its unique lighting and unique use of materials, like, we have a lot of fun where the norm would use materials on the walls, we’ll use them on the ceiling or the floor and instead of using it on the floor, we’ll use it on the ceiling or we’ll bring back old materials like studded vinyl tile, you know, and things like that or industrial stuff. And then we became known as the minimal boys and the black boys. Look at this kitchen. It’s all black. But I couldn’t get anybody to do a black kitchen so I did one for myself. And it makes the food look terrific and it’s wonderful. And so now, of course, Sears will give you a black refrigerator, you know. So we’re just trendsetters.
A little ahead of the time.
My most significant job is the job that I did last time. Each new commission is the most significant job, although a few stand out. One of the more interesting projects we did was to design a house and then plunk it on top of an apartment building right at the corner of Madison and 64th. Everybody wants to have their little house in New York, right? And everybody wants their little plot of land just happened to be the roof of a twelve-storey building. Well, we had to go through Landmarks and everything. But it’s been well publicized and it’s a wonderful space. The living room is taller than it is wider or longer and it’s just beautifully detailed and that’s a happy- that’s a charming project, as Bland would say. And of course, Studio 54. I mean they’re all interesting. It’s not- I put my heart and soul into doing it so even the tiniest closet that you had to do, you know? You just do it with as much expertise as you can and as much design and as much detail. The last one is my favourite job.
What sort of work do you have on the table right now?
Well, here I am the black Protestant and my partner is the street smart Italian and we’re doing a synagogue, which is kind of fun. It’s actually a renovation of a synagogue and the ceiling was falling down because it was partially made of plaster and jute and the jute’s time and life is gone and so they didn’t want anybody being killed and it was falling down, and so we are now redoing it. It’s a 1917 building on 88th Street between Broadway and West End. So that’ s fun. We’re doing several residences in Arizona. Canyon Ranch, a very posh spa. And I finished a huge house on Fire Island, a vacation house, four thousand square feet, two staircases, which is- you’ll soon see published.
Do you continue to have a hand, doing the design yourself?
Right. I’m the only one that draws by hand in the office anymore. It’s really- I’ll tell you, I have a hand in it and it’s really a hand because everybody’s on ‘CAD 13, right? Except me. I can barely type my letters on a computer, although I’m getting into it. And, of course, my other passion is the stock market and of course my whole portfolio is loaded with technical stocks and everything. When there was another crash, when the ’87 crash came-
’87-88, I guess, yeah.
I bought this little stock. I only bought a hundred shares of this little stock the next day that it came out, not the IPO, but the next day. It’s called Microsoft.
Only a hundred shares, unfortunately.
Well, it kept the office alive for three years when the stock market crashed in ’87. ’87, ’88, ’89, ’90 was terrible years here. And I had grown so accustomed to my staff and they were really great and we had built this rapport and I had made all this money. And so I decided hey, I’m just going to put it back into my passion of architecture. And I’m glad I did because I still have the same kids basically and it’s wonderful.
I do remember that one of my favourite things about schooldays was about eleven o’clock, the little Italian cleaning men would come into the-. You know, we were there- I mean I was there seven years and I was there seven days a week and twenty-four hours a day. I don’t know, I don’t remember going home to Hampstead to sleep practically. So, of course, everybody was there at eleven o’ clock and these little guys would come in. They all seemed to be like four foot three and they’d come in to do the cleaning. And that’s the time that we decided that my class would have band practice. So Allan Marr played the violin and I had a keyboard beside my desk, a little electric keyboard. And several other of the kids played instruments and most of the people that didn’t play instruments played garbage lids or, you know, drawing instruments and whatever. And while these guys cleaned, we had band practice. And it was hysterical. And we had- it’s a fond memory and I still think about it to this day. And it was one of the highlights. You know it just sort of broke up the evening. At eleven o’clock it was just the perfect hour to have band practice and have the people clean. And of course, we would practice our Italian and would yell out things like “Piano Nobile” and “spaghetti” and “marinara” and stuff like that. And, of course, these guys spoke no English at all and so we communicated with Italian food and music and it was a wonderful part of my school years.