HOUSE AND HOME: 'I've always had a huge amount of junk'
By Julie Earle-Levine, Financial Times
Jul 14, 2007
Betsey Johnson has always made her own rules since she started as a fashion designer in the 1960s. Andy Warhol was a close friend and Edie Sedgwick her house model. At 64, she still wears fluorescent baby-doll dresses and tutus. Johnson is passionate about her living quarters and recently launched her first home collection, designed for women who like her funky, eye-popping clothes.
You lived at the Chelsea Hotel in New York in the late 1960s. Tell me about that.
I moved in with a toothbrush for one night, after a break-up with a boyfriend, but I ended up living there for two years in a big loft. This is where I met John Cale [co-founder of the Velvet Underground, for whom she designed velvet suits and whom she married]. The place was very artsy, incredibly visual, with some of Andy Warhol's 1960's pop art thrown in. I made most of the costumes for Warhol's [film] Ciao Manhattan there and would sit in the lobby and try them out to see if anyone blinked - but no one ever did. I'd spend evenings at Max's Kansas City and then work all day. It was the second home where you hung out with "your kind". It was either Max's or Chelsea, a home for very "special" people.
How many homes do you own?
I have a Greenwich Village penthouse, a Hamptons home and two houses in Mexico, one of which I've turned into a villa. Each home has a completely different decor. Manhattan is Hollywood modernist glamour - Marilyn Monroe, pink walls with lace and zebra-print draperies, velvet sofas and gold tassel chairs, very 1950s style; East Hampton is "tea party floral"; and in Mexico, Betsyville, "a bright floral siesta house" and Villa Betsy, "Italian villa-esque".
What are your design influences?
I've always collected antiques and vintage furniture and decorated my homes with chandeliers, great country-kitchen cupboards, English wallpapers - a big mix. I love antiques, yard sales and everything crosses every time zone of history, in terms of furniture, clothing and shoes. I've always had a huge amount of junk around but it is collectable junk.
How did you choose the homes?
They were out of necessity. My favourite is the Fifth Avenue and 12th Street penthouse apartment, a big open space, 2,500 sq ft on the 17th floor. I have gorgeous views of the old spires of the church across the street and private roofs. I bought this 15 years ago but I was terrified then of buying, of any investment. I was in the stock market once and I hit the jackpot - that is how I was able to start my business - but I have never understood the mortgage concept. I generally take money and spend it.
You were married to John Cale?
Yes, we had a house in Jamaica but after we separated I realised I needed a place to house all my stuff. We had a funky farmhouse that was in upstate New York, so I met a lot of antique dealers. I always needed chandeliers. I can get five chandeliers for the price of one and early country cupboards, things I've had for years. I've never gone to Crate and Barrel, I love what I have. After the divorce, I found a cottage in East Hampton, in the woods. Here I have chandeliers, knick-knacks, old cupboards wallpapered with English tea party florals, cabbage roses. It is very cosy. Now it is our cosy grandchild hang-out. My daughter Lulu has my first and only grandchild, Layla, and we love going there.
Why did you buy in Mexico?
I didn't have a year-round, blue-sky, no-clouds, warm-weather private Idaho escape. Five years ago when I was celebrating being breast-cancer free, I thought, "This is the year to get an island home." Over the years of working, I'd been to Hong Kong, India, Morocco but I wanted just a place for sun and surf, warm water and hot sand. I love it down there, even in the rainy season. It's so tropical and lush and green. The spirit of the people is warm and friendly, innocent and culturally rich. When I was younger, hitchhiking and poor, bussing it around, I loved Mexico.
The area you bought in Mexico is very fashionable now.
Yes. Just like I predicted in the 1960s that SoHo in downtown Manhattan would explode, my paradise has taken off but it's still lovely. I was very lucky to find it. A friend told me to visit there and to go have lunch on this little beach where the fishermen come in with their catch. I found a tiny hotel and stayed in it. On the second day at breakfast, I asked them if they wanted to sell. It is walled in, a classical Mexican home, with three hand-built palapas [palm-thatched huts]. I started dreaming of buying the little strip of land next door. I took me two years to find the owners and a lot of beer drinking but finally they gave in. The interior decor was the most fun thing to do. I've always found decorating houses was just the perfect balance to difficult or frustrating creative work.
Is your first home collection like your fashion?
Well, where you start is bed and bath - that's everything that goes in and under the bed. And then it goes into the bathroom, sheets and towels. Home is wonderful for a clothing business. If a girl likes your clothes, she might like your kind of environment. Even if I could cook, which I can't, she'd probably enjoy my meal. Interior decorating is close to clothing design, with patterns and colours but I wouldn't turn that into a business.
What did you do with Betseyville?
Betseyville was too adorable and just too big for me. I would sleep in the pink room. Then another room for fun. It is four separate palapa houses, pools, two lounge hang-outs. It was too cute not to be shared. Meanwhile, down the road, 40 minutes south, I have this other property. The views are all blue sky and water. The house is like an Italian villa, grey cement with archways. I wanted to build a glamorous monastery. All the rooms have chandeliers and their own body lotion and bath gel. I don't rent it for more than 10 weeks maximum a year and that is just fine. I've never approached it as a business. Besides, I love to take jaunts and go myself every few months. I like to do San Miguel as a side trip. It is always an exciting new experience. I don't believe in having houses unless you live in them and keep them alive so I try to go every few months. I still hate flying but I'll fly to have three days on the beach.
Are you still shopping for homes?
Mexico's coastline still has some very nice deals, but no. I'm now realising - no more homes. The ones I have are pretty much filled because I am so addicted to antiquing. When I set up in Mexico, I had two 24ft moving trunks. Now, I need to restrict myself to collecting small objects like embroidered table napkins and silver spoons.