By Steve Basilone
Strolling into the clattering Doheny café, La Conversation, you wouldn’t peg interior designer Waldo Fernandez for sixty. But with his stylish Dior cardigan, trim white beard and hip, dark denim jeans (the kind that most Silverlakers would be clamoring for), it’s not hard to tag him as a man of elegance and taste. “I’ve seen this town change a lot,” he says in his Spanish inflection as he orders “bubble water” and the soup of the day.
Since the native Cuban’s Los Angeles arrival in the mid sixties, Fernandez has been a staple of the interior design landscape of Southern California. But he knew his vocation long before his arrival on the West Coast. “I always liked interiors,” he explains, stirring the French onion soup that’s been placed in front of him. “Since I was a little boy I used to help my mother put wallpaper on the walls and put slipcovers on furniture.” He smiles delicately, recounting how he used to look at design books vociferously and how attuned his eye was to scale and design even at the tender age of nine. “My mother used to say with her Cuban mentality, ‘you know, this is not for boys,’ but I always used to love to do stuff in the house.”
His design career officially began upon arrival in California, when he parlayed his interests into a brief stint studying architectural design at UCLA. But that was short lived—he soon went to work for Fox, where he was hired by Walter Scott to work on sets for the 1967 film Doctor Doolittle. His set design and work in furniture commissions quickly garnered him praise and he soon found himself working alongside some of the biggest names of the day.
Soon, legendary director John Schlesinger was calling upon Fernandez’s talents. Recalls the designer, “He said to me, ‘Would you do my house?’ And I said that I’ve never done houses really—I’ve only done sets. On sets, you don’t have to live in it; you have to live in houses. But he said, ‘I know you can do it.’” And so he did. The success of the project rapidly endeared him to a whole new sect and soon Fernandez found himself tending to all of Hollywood’s elite.
This momentum eventually landed Mr. Fernandez at the doorstep of Elizabeth Taylor. “Liz loves purple and white,” he says with a chuckle. “The first job I did with her—twenty-eight or so years ago—she said she wanted white carpet. And at the time there were a lot of animals and this and that in her house, so I told her, ‘I don’t think you should have white carpet because you have so many people in the house.’ But she said, ‘don’t ask, I want white carpet.’” He reports that it came out great and states, with a raised eyebrow, that it is still there today.
While he and Taylor have since cultivated a close and long-lasting relationship (they share a house on the beach every summer and Taylor is now the godmother to Fernandez’s child), Fernandez intimates that in general it’s not wise to allow business and pleasure to mingle. “I have a lot of clients who have become good friends, but they still know that, when we work together, it’s business. But that’s because when I have new clients, I don’t get close with them. You have to build a good working relationship—otherwise it’s a bad situation. You have to know the difference between business and pleasure.”
While known for his use of very large furniture in the 70s and 80s and his particular zeal for traditional English and French stylings, Fernandez claims that no one aesthetic is better than another. “I like to mix my styles; I don’t like everything to be the same. I live in a very modern house but I love to mix color and play with scale and people’s sensibilities with the space and eye.”
He says that as a younger man he used to make more compromises with his clients, allowing them to dictate more of the project.
Now, he’s steadfast on maintaining his integrity in his work. “I did a job for a big actor and he was fantastic, but the wife, not really. The job to me turned out to be horrendous. And I said, ‘Why?’ You know, I didn’t need the money at this time. So, now I send letters saying, ‘If you don’t want it my way, then don’t hire me. There are a lot of other good, talented people out there.’ And there are really talented young people out there. But I want to have my freedom of doing projects.” Which is not to say that he’s unwilling to compromise; in fact, Fernandez tries to impart as much knowledge to his clients as he can throughout the process, going so far as to buy books for them on whatever styles he’s utilizing.
At sixty, Fernandez still keeps himself busy. He says perhaps at seventy he’ll be able to stop and reflect upon his career, at which point he’ll put together a book. He’s excited about the prospect and explains that he wants it to reveal his journey more than just present a collage of images. “I want get a writer who has a little pepper on their tongue to relate my experience,” he reveals. “I don’t want it to be just pictures of interiors—because there are a lot of good books on interiors—but I want my book to be more about my experience.”
For now though, Fernandez still has another decade of impeccable taste to bestow upon others, starting with Ms. Taylor herself. “I actually just called her a week ago,” he states, finally dipping into that soup. “I said I wanted to redo the downstairs that I did twenty-eight years ago, and she said she only had one condition—that I show her the colors beforehand.”
Photo: Waldo Fernandez, Living Room, Pacific Palisades, California. Pierre Chareau-style chairs.MySpace Art Chat