Many souls have been inspired by the rich architectural history of Southern California, and Joshua Greene is no exception. Growing up in San Marino, with its abundant green homes and Wallace Neff designs, "I think that from a very young age always influenced me," he says.
Yet Greene never formally studied design until after college. Looking to move on from a short stint as a fashion journalist—"I realized I wanted to get into something more three-dimensionally creative instead of writing all the time"—he enrolled at a summer program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. An internship working under David Mann at MR Architecture and Decor led to a position in the store-design department at Ralph Lauren, where he served on what was essentially the brand's in-house interiors and architectural studio to design, merchandize, and open stores around the world. Shortly after the unmatchable high of opening the Ralph Lauren flagship on Boulevard Saint Germain in Paris, he was tapped by big-time interior designer Michael Smith—yep, Obama's decorator—and moved to L.A.
In 2011, after a year with Smith, Greene moved back to New York to work for the firm Sawyer Berson. "It's been primarily known as an architecture firm, but they've always done interiors. Now we're doing it more, and on a bigger scale. I've helped set up a more formalized interiors department," he says of his role as interiors director. Whether it's a ground-up home in the Hamptons, a gut renovation and restoration of a Manhattan townhouse, or a Madison Avenue retail space (currently in the works), all of Greene's interiors are ultra high-end. Plus, he admits, "I always like a bit of a texture."
Below, Greene discusses how store design and residential design can often be one and the same, what it was like working on an Oscars greenroom, and what he hopes to one day accomplish in his career:
What was your initial thought when you realized you might be transitioning from store design for Ralph into residential work?
Well, because Ralph Lauren stores are very residential, it made a lot of sense to be working in residential. While I was at Ralph Lauren, I had started doing freelance projects and my own residential interior design projects, anyway. I wanted to do my own projects, have my own creative say, and even though I loved the Ralph Lauren aesthetic I wanted to develop my own. That was part of it: I felt like it was important to grow my own aethetic and move forward and I couldn't think of a better place to do that than Michael Smith. Obviously he's one of the best designers out there today.
I understand you worked on some private projects, and you also worked on the Arch Digest greenroom at the Oscars a couple of years ago. What was that like?
Michael obviously came up with his design, and then I executed it. I worked with a set design company that I had actually worked with at Ralph Lauren, and so I hired them to build out the space. It was really fun because I would go out to their big warehouse in the Valley and see the space being built ahead of time. Then they'd disassemble it and reassemble it in the Kodak Theatre, which was really, really cool and very glamorous. And it was really fun to be backstage in the days leading up to the Academy Awards, where people were rehearsing and, like, Nicole Kidman would walk by while we were doing the flowers and styling the room and hanging art. Also, the fact that we worked with so many different groups—the unions, the theater people—made it feel very insider Hollywood. It was really fun.
Were you working on other things simultaneously or was that a knee-deep project for a while?
Yeah, absolutely, Michael kind of had a pretty trim staff; when I was there there were only four senior designers and we were all working and managing multiple projects and working on projects together. So in addition to the greenroom I was working on a penthouse apartment in Chicago, a townhouse in London, and a house in Beverly Park. So, yeah, it was busy.
You were talking about how part of the reason why you wanted to move on from Ralph Lauren was so you could execute your vision. Did you feel like you were able to execute your vision even under Michael's tutelage and infuse your own ideas into these spaces?
Whenever you work for someone else you are always executing their vision—and with Michael, he had very clear design intentions. But I learned so much from him. He's a true decorator. There are little touches, little trim details, little curtain details, proportions, things that in a retail environment—probably because of budgets—you can't really address these things. What I really learned most with Michael was taking things to that next level and learning the really subtle touches that make a residential space feel luxurious and special.
It sounds like you're saying that without having experience working for one of these grand decorating firms, there may not be a way of appropriating that detail-oriented outlook and approach to interiors. Fair?
True, now I really hawk-eye-look at projects, and when I look at things in the magazines I think, What's the skirt detail that they used? What's the curtain detail? What's the play in textures in a seating group between the sofas and the chairs and the ottomon and the lampshade and the wall covering? The more you're in it, the more you pay attention to all the different facets that are subtle that come together to really create a beautiful space. I think when you are working for somebody who is really talented and has the innate ability to see these things, you learn it more quickly. It's not to say that you couldn't, but I think—especially when you're working on a million projects at the same time and you're under deadlines—it's better to do it under somebody else and you just get more exposure. However, that's not always the case. Somebody like [fashion designer] Zac Posen: I don't know that Zac Posen worked for anybody big before he started, but he obviously has talent.
Moving on to this current gig at Sawyer Berson, what does a typical day at work look like for you now?
It could be either a photoshoot for internal use or for a magazine; it's meetings with clients where we're furthering the design process; it's internal meetings with Brian Sawyer to look for a piece of furiture, or review room schemes, or review room layouts, or review shop drawings for a custom piece of furniture or shop drawings for an exterior planter, for instance. So it's busy, and I get involved in a lot in the office.
How does your background in retail design come into play on a day-to-day level?
The Ralph Lauren aesthetic is very complete, and I learned from that how to make a complete room. The stores had to look photoshoot-ready the day they opened, so I learned very well how to really think ahead in a project and in a room to finish it to make sure it has all of the elements that need to be there, all of the layers to make the room feel full and complete. And then it's also funny little things; we just did an installation at a house in Southampton [N.Y.] so it's like, Where are you going to get the hangers? So I just called the company that I used to work with. Also, coincidentally, we're working on a retail space on Madison Avenue, and that has come in handy because, again, you have vendors who are used to working in a retail environment, so you pull those vendors out of your pocket.
What's your dream project? if you could work on anything you want next, any budget, any type of project, what would that be?
I always have a fantasy of working with really young, creative, successful people—like an artist, like a musician, an actor or an actress, basically someone who's successful in their field and who is young and creative and would really like to share in the knowledge that I've learned. Oftentimes the clients at this level of design are much older. I've worked with friends and things, but not everybody has a budget! I'd love to work on a store or an apartment or a cottage with somebody like Dries Van Noten.
You obviously know this having worked for Michael Smith: many influential decorators today are from a different generation. What's it like to be a young person in this industry?
I think that you have to have a lot of patience because architects and designers are known for being famous in their 50s or older, and it takes a long time to build a true body of work. I think there's a lot of people who are young who get a lot of attention, but I think that when you really look at the body of work, it's always the older guns that have the body of work to really learn from.
So it sounds like what you're saying is that you have to stick with it and learn all your lessons wisely.
Yeah, I think this industry is a longer-term industry. The projects take a lot of time; you have to learn from them over years of experience in making mistakes, working with different types of people, working on different projects—big and small, commercial, non commercial. I think being a young person you have to have a lot of dedication to it and patience with it. It's also very complex, each project: the budgeting, the financial aspects, the paperwork, the business side of things. I like not only seeing my aesthtic develop, but I also like seeing my business savvy growing.
Let's forward to age 83. What will you want to look back and say that you've done?
I've always said I want to have a career where I'm really respected by my peers, as well as people older. I've always felt that I've wanted to be known as somebody with a great eye and great style and great taste, and also a great business and a great way with clients and with people.