Some interior designers focus on art and history, some on architecture, and some on furnishings. Glenn Gissler is a designer who blends them all into awe-inspiring interior spaces that transcend trends, putting them in a category all their own. Gissler talks about why art plays such a vital role in his work, his approach to bringing a client’s vision to life, and how his latest Westchester, New York, project came to be.
How did you get started in design, and what led you to being so passionate about pursuing this as a career?
When I was just thirteen, I publicly declared to my class that I wanted to be an interior designer. I only knew of one interior designer at the time—a friend of my mother. She was a creative spirit and a painter, and she really inspired me. That was the beginning of a journey that went on to include seven years of college when I studied American architectural history and historic preservation, culminating with two degrees from Rhode Island School of Design, where I studied architecture and fine arts. Growing up in Wisconsin, there wasn’t much in terms of historic architecture—not like there was in New England. This was the time before the internet, so I was snooping around in books to learn as much as I could. My father was a journalist, with one of his focuses looking at the rebirth of American cities, so we had a lot of books around on the topic. This idea of adaptive reuse—finding a new purpose for old buildings—was a provocative and ‘new’ idea that caught my imagination, and this would go on to influence my design approach.
How would you describe your signature style?
I’ve been in the business now for thirty years, and I see design more as a complex layering of textiles and objects—it’s about problem solving. You combine grace and ease with how you live, with one foot in history and one foot in today’s world. If I had to describe my style, I’d go off what others have described it as: American. I also incorporate multicultural objects and textiles to create a spatial and visual dialogue that’s interesting.
What has been your favorite project to work on, and why?
There are a couple of projects from twenty-five years ago that are still on my website that I still see as relevant today. They’re evidence that, when you love your clients and your projects and make thoughtful decisions not based on trends, your work can endure over time. There are oftentimes conceptual challenges involved, because it’s not simply a matter of buying furniture and taking pretty pictures—you’re crafting a lifestyle that is beautiful, compelling, and makes functional sense. Projects I find really engaging are those where I work with people who want some assistance inventing the next chapter of their home lives with me.
How do you handle challenges that arise?
I’m lucky to have a team of people who helps me address challenges. Fundamentally, interior design is about isolating what the problems are and coming up with solid and sometimes clever solutions. And the solution needs to be aesthetically pleasing while having functionality. It requires a certain amount of creativity to take, say, a space with a dining room that no one uses, and turn it into something else. It’s not about leaving my mark that says, “Glenn was here!” No, it’s about seeing what’s right for the space and the client. There can be challenges with older houses because the architecture was not designed for today’s living. How do you make a living room livable so it’s not sitting empty until the holidays? I try to have things make sense through a twenty-first-century point of view while keeping the historic elements alive.
What is your process like, especially with clients who have a very specific vision for their space?
In the pre-internet days, people had tear sheets they had accumulated over time and things they wanted, like a “fantasy country house.” These images are useful to see, but I’m really much more interested in hearing about the house they grew up in and where they see their lives in five years. Kids will be older, so do you want a more private space, or do you want to have the house that everyone wants to hang out in? This is the kind of information I like to gather in our initial conversation. I try to make it about the broader view, too, like if someone lives in a colonial revival but wants a modern look to it. People get overwhelmed by choices, so I try to keep the bigger vision at the center. Even if you hired five different interior designers, my philosophy is that the owner should still be at the core. The project should go through the filter of the interior designer rather than looking like every home the designer has in his or her portfolio.