By Alissa Bourne with Alan Barry Photography
Interior Designer Opens Up About Personality Management, Alex Rodriguez’s Quirky Design Whims, and His GQ Public Perception.
It’s a sunny afternoon in Manhattan, and I’m lucky enough to find myself in the uber-chic 15 Union Square West building with Robert Passal of the eponymous Robert Passal Interior & Architectural Design. Upon meeting, I find Robert to be very much like his interiors: refined but with character—perfectly polished yet seemingly effortless.
Robert has made quite a name for himself in the interior design field, being recently awarded one of Traditional Home’s ‘Top 20 Designers.’ His colorful and curiously curated spaces are livable masterpieces. Having started his journey under John Rosselli, it’s no surprise that Robert’s antiques background has greatly contributed to his propensity for incorporating fabulously ornate and interesting pieces into his design. Each furnishing is a memorable keepsake with a story to tell.
Even as I mention that I’ve enviously gawked at this building, Robert informs me that it was the former Tiffany & Company headquarters. This will be one of many fun facts and architectural anecdotes Robert can pull at the drop of a hat. As we walk through the space, I’m most surprised by the vast genealogy of each and every item; Passal speaks of them like one’s own children, doting upon their nuances and histories. The front door is plush and padded in contrast with glossy interior doors. The aubergine master bedroom is sexy and sophisticated. In the living room, the window treatments are on artist’s canvas and made to look like a pattern. Even the alcohol for the bar cart was selected by Robert. Gazing wide-eyed at the work-of-art chandelier dripping from the ceiling, I’m stunned to hear that Robert and his team made it. He elaborates that they manufacture a lot of their own furnishings. If not manufactured in-house, pieces are likely antique finds. This man clearly has an eye for detail.
MM: You are an exceptionally-talented designer and so genuinely passionate. Did your parents also have a design thumb?
RP: My mom was like a midnight decorator. We’d go to bed at night, and the kitchen would’ve been blue, and we’d wake up and it’d be yellow. She used to sew back then. We’d wake up with new window treatments in the living room. My mom was more influenced by what was happening at the moment than we are now. All the work we do is based on the past like classic design; everything starts from the classic design and moves from there.
MM: Were your parents supportive of your transition from broadcasting to interior design?
RP: My mom is always about stability and worried ‘What if you don’t have a project?’ I told her not to sweat it. In my first week of working, I made more in one week than I made in an entire year.
MM: How would you describe your overall design aesthetic?
RP: I would describe it as an evolution. I like interiors to feel as if they’ve evolved over time and not just dropped into the space. This space is a really great example of that. A lot of the goods are artisan. Some of the pieces we manufacture ourselves. This mirror is 18th century English and juxtaposed with other very contemporary pieces.
MM: Tell me about your design process. Do you seek out a specific piece, or do you go out and let the pieces speak to you?
RP: It’s more of a farmer’s market approach. Generally when we start a project, we have a vision in mind, and then it’s just about filling in the pieces. We worked on a space in the Upper East Side about a year ago, and the woman had a lot of color and great country antiques. So it gave us some inspiration to work from, and, as far as clients are concerned, the more information they share with you, the better off. It really helps you to develop their space. We use Pinterest now to work with clients, and it’s very helpful in gathering thoughts and a vision, saying that you like contemporary is one thing, but when you actually see what the client likes, it really helps you to something to work from.
MM: Sounds like a lot of brain-picking. Do you ever feel like a pseudo-psychologist? It seems as though this industry requires a lot of personality management.
RP: Design is very personal, and you get to know these clients. You become part of the family. You’re in their drawers; you’re in their life. You’re the first person to know about the divorce, girlfriend, or engagement. We worked with Alex Rodriguez from the Yankees for many years, and then he got divorced and started dating Kate Hudson. He calls me one day and asks, ‘Are you around tomorrow?’ So I go over there, and Kate Hudson is there. We’re hanging out, and she goes, ‘What’s with these red shades?!’ I say to Alex, ‘Was that from the one night in Dallas?’ because he texted me one night in this hotel in Dallas. They had this rock-and-roll room with red lampshades and red curtains, and he wanted it red. They were laughing, and Kate goes on to say, ‘And what’s with this dead zebra on the floor?’ I show her my phone and say this is the zebra chair Alex sent me. They were dying. That’s what happens. They meet people; they get engaged and involved, and someone has a different aesthetic.
MM: On a personal note, do you have any favorite places in New York?
RP: I would say that’s seasonal. Last night I went to the Standard. I first went to the Whitney and then went to the Standard Grill for dinner. I feel like it’s always a fun buzz there. Then I went to the Boom Boom Room; I had a drink upstairs. It really just depends on where I am. I’m fine with a low-brow dinner; I love a great taco. They just opened a taqueria near my apartment on 33rd Street. But I like to live sort of spontaneously, so I could be anywhere, eat anything. That’s how I like to travel also. I like to travel not making a lot of plans: having a destination, having some goals, but living quite loosely. We’re so scheduled and regimented all day long, and the last thing I want is to have my free time scheduled.
MM: Where’s the last place you traveled?
RP: I was in Milan last week. I went to the Furniture Fair, so I snuck in four or five days at Lake Como and Lake Orta and that whole region.
MM: What would people be surprised to know about you?
RP: That I’m really low-key. As you were asking me about where I like to eat, I’m probably far less fussy than people think I am and far less buttoned up. Also, I’ve become known for my fashion sensibility, and sometimes people confuse that with being stuffy and that’s not the way that it goes.
MM: Well you do have a fantastic sense of style!
RP: People stop me all the time to ask ‘Where’d you get this?’ I hear other designers and editors say, ‘You always look like you walked out of a movie,’ so it’s become a thing. Whenever I go to these events, it’s another decision in the back of my mind. We did this DIFFA (Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS) dinner, and every editor of every magazine was there. So what do you wear to stand out but not be obnoxious? On a side note, Bill Cunningham photographed me in my space for the Style section; that’s one off my bucket list.