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Interview with: Herbert Wells
Interviewed by: Mimi Schwartz
Date: November 1, 2007
MS: Today is November 1, 2007. We are interviewing Herbert Wells. My name is Mimi Schwartz. This is for the Houston Oral History Project. We are going to just start at the very beginning and I am going to take notes because that is my habit. So, would you just start and tell us where you were born and raised?
HW: I was born in Winthrop, Massachusetts, which is a suburb of Boston, January 25, 1924. But I actually grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, and went to Boston, Massachusetts when I was 4 or 5 years old, I think.
MS: And how did you get here?
HW: Oh, well, that has been asked of me many times and I really never had a very good answer. I worked since I was 17 years old, actually, and I worked in a really fabulous department store in Hartford.
HW: G. Fox and Company. And one of the years I was there was 1947. That was their 100th anniversary.
MS: Oh my goodness!
HW: The president of this store was a woman, Beatrice Fox Auerbach, the granddaughter of the founder. And, at that time, I think the only other woman president of the store was Dorothy Shaver at Lord & Taylor in New York. It was a fascinating store. In those days, people were not trained to work in department stores. You know, there were interesting widows, people that had come upon hard times. It was sort of like a melange of interesting people and among them was a woman, as far as I am concerned, if I had a mentor in my life, I think she was it. Her name was Marie Louise Elliott Hirsch, a Bryn Mawr girl/woman. She was there because she was writing this history of Hartford which ran every Sunday during this year. Her father had been a prominent doctor and so she was a close friend of Katharine Hepburn whose father also was a prominent doctor. I was in the display department doing windows and that kind of stuff and over a period of time, we talked a lot. She, at that time, lived on the top floor of Mark Twain's house in Hartford which is a museum now. She lived in what had been his billiard room. She had studied in Berlin with Mees Vandero (sp?) believe it or not. So, we just became great friends and learned . . .
MS: And you were 17 or 18 then?
HW: No, I was about 20. I don't know - she just kind of thought I should break out and do something more interesting or go to school, but I could not afford to do any of that. So, that is one reason I came to Houston. And, at that time, you know, friends of mine in Hartford called it "House-ton." "Why are you going to House-ton?" Actually, I got here in 1949 which I think is the year the Shamrock opened. And that kind of put Houston on the map. Everybody always heard of Dallas because of Neiman Marcus fame and so on. That is how I got here. I don't really have a great explanation for it.
MS: It is the same explanation that a great many people give. I think none of us know how we got here.
HW: And, of course, at that time, it was just sort of a nice, small, rather southern city. You don't think of it as the West.
HW: Although everybody in the East thinks Texas is, you know, alligators in the streets and stuff like that.
MS: Were there really alligators in the street?
MS: Where did you live when you first moved here?
HW: I had a funny little apartment on Watts Road which is over in the West U area. It had what I thought was supposed to have been air-conditioning but it was an attic fan which sort of draws in all that awful damp air that blows in from Galveston. I do not know how I survived but anyway, I did that for a while.
MS: And then, what was your first job when you came?
HW: Well, I worked in a department store doing window display, actually at Sakowitz when it was downtown in the Gulf Building. I was kind of an Eastern snob at that moment. I thought, this won't do and if you are going to do anything in Houston, you really ought to be in business for yourself. So, I managed to buy an old house at the corner of Mount Vernon Street and Hawthorne which is sort of in the Montrose area and I made hats for women.
MS: Do you have the hats anymore?
HW: A few clients of mine, they swear they have some so I would like to see them. I had never done that professionally. I had just done it for friends. I hired a very nice woman seamstress. She never made a hat either in her life. And the only mailing list I had was the River Oaks Garden Club and St. John the Divine. So, I had a little opening and quite a few people came. My first client was Camilla Blaford (sp?) which was sort of . . . she bought something rather amusing, a funny little thing I had put together. It was one way to . . . it was never my intention to continue to do that but it did not take a lot of money because of the stuff you put together.
MS: Can you describe one for me? Do you remember the one she had? That sounds so great!
HW: It was heavy wire covered in velvet tubing, it was open and just sort of really . . . it probably had a chameleon on it, I don't know. But from that, I met a lot of people. One reason, and I did not know this either because I did not know that much about Houston, but that location was very close to the original Kincaid School. So, a lot of these people would come, drop in. And I had offers to sell them in New York and all that but I really did not want to do it. Then, I had 2 or 3 grumpy seamstresses working for me upstairs. Of course, I did learn how to put a band within the hat. I would see someone come up the walkway and I would have the hat on . . . we had what was called a hot block which was a . . . I never put a hat on a woman's head. I just handed it to her. "Oh Herbert, this is warm!" "Oh well, it is hot off the block," so to speak.
MS: And how old were you when you were doing this?
HW: I was in my 20s. I would say I did it for, I really only did it for about 1-1/2 years. My intent always was to be interior design.
MS: I want to go back for just a minute. What did you learn from your mentor? What did she teach you? Do you think you were born with this eye?
HW: I don't really think interior design can be taught. Hopefully, I am not alienating any schools but, you know, people have come to me over the years, young people who had done things, and my advise usually was just to go work in a showroom, go do something just to be around it. I really think from Marie Louise, I really learned a lot about the finer things in life and her experiences. Well, and to do new things and not depend on what has been done and all that. Frankly, I do not know if you know this but I think a lot of people do now - I really only have sight in one eye, this one. I can sort of see light and shadow. It happened from an accident I had at birth. It was soon after . . . when I was a baby. And I am sure in today's world, something could have been done. But in those days, they could not. So, my favorite remark with interior work is that when a client or somebody starts saying, "Oh, I don't know about that color" . . . I just say, "Well, I've only got one eye and it looks great to me." So, that shocks them and they accept it.
MS: Were people in Houston open to your ideas? Did they come to you? I think of you as a Modernist.
HW: Oh, very much so.
MS: Did they embrace that idea or did they have to be led?
HW: When I first had . . . the hats kind of went away and the interior drifted in, that is an interesting story. I had some lovely fabrics made by a company called Quintance, which I do not think is around anymore, and one of my great hat clients was Martha Lovett. That is Mrs. Henry Malcolm Lovett whose husband was the daughter of the first president of Rice. Mrs. Lovett saw this fabric and said, "I need something in my bathroom. Could you make some curtains or ______ or something?" So, that frankly, if I can remember correctly, was the first interior job, so to speak - Mrs. Lovett's bathroom curtains. That led to a lot of other things obviously. And then, I started really getting into furniture and textiles, mostly very modern, Scandinavian primarily, and interesting glass, all kinds of accessory things. I just went insane at some of the gift shows and made some good contacts in the import business. And all of those things, which is very interesting, which were not too easy to sell in those days, are now in museums. It is very fascinating that all that modern furniture of the 1950s and 1960s has become collectable, so collectable. Unfortunately, we have to mark it down to sell it.
MS: Were people afraid of it?
HW: Well, I don't think they quite understood it and as I started to do interior - you know, really work with people in their homes and with architects, I realized that that is not what they wanted. But they did accept color and they accepted textiles and things of that sort.
MS: Did you have one client who you feel like was very open to it and was willing to kind of go forward, and then who became like a leader in the community?
HW: Well, actually, it was Nina Cullinan. We became great friends. She built a very beautiful small gem of a modern house designed by Hugo Newhouse (sp?).
MS: Where is it?
HW: It is gone. Like so many of my things are gone. It was in the River Oaks area. Not that I did a great deal of work for Ms. Cullinan but we became very close friends and enjoyed each other's company and things of that sort. She obviously was a great leader in Houston.
MS: I am sure this happened to you a lot . . . when I travel outside of Houston, even now, people still think . . . people on the East Coast . . . I will still get a lot of "Well, why do you live there?" They think that they are hicks. One of the things I am interested in doing with these interviews is trying to dispel that idea. I mean, Ms. Cullinan, I assume, was a very cultured person. Am I wrong?
HW: Well, you know, her father was the founder of Texaco. Her great gift, to my way of thinking, the greatest gift, and she was very quiet about the whole thing but, you know, it was because of her when she gave the gift of Cullinan Hall to the Museum of Fine Arts. Her only request was that a great architect do it, and it was Mees Vandero. I think it is a thrilling space. Soon after that, James Johnson Sweeney was director of the Museum for a brief period. I do not know how many years he was here but I think he used the space beautifully. He sort of suspended the paintings and things of that sort. I think it is one of Houston's most outstanding and it got the Museum on the direction that without that gem of a building, would not have gone.
MS: Yes. If you were a more conventional person than Ms. Cullinan, what did you want in your house? What did the conventional River Oaks house look like when you were starting?
HW: Oh, it was dark green and it had heavy curtains. This is a terrible thing to say in my profession - I am not a big curtain person but without curtains, we would all be broke because it uses fabric and fabric is the mainstay. But I do think I opened up these houses. Many of them were Staub houses. And, of course, Mr. Staub considered himself an interior designer as well as an architect, and very fine. But many other houses, especially in River Oaks, they were just dark. And here, we are in the tropics. I mean, I do not think a lot of people thought Houston was . . . it is tropical. It is a southern tropical city. A lot of people never heard of lime green until I started splashing it around, and certain colors. And many, many people had . . . well, I don't know about today, things are changing, but, you know, this sofa, that was my mother's. I mean, those sofas have been recovered so many times. But if it were in New England where I am from, if I was in the same business, which I would not have succeeded, I am sure because they would say, "Oh, I can't change that carpet because it belonged to Aunt So and So," and that sort of thing. Not that we don't have beautiful houses in New England but there is that sort of . . . so, these people were really open to new ideas. And, you know, a good color does not cost any more than a bad one. I think just sort of opening up some of those houses. As you might know, I like working with architects and I think that is the best gift the client can get - to get 2 heads in on it because I can represent the client, what I think the client wants; the architect can hold it together. And if I work on a scheme, we incorporate that in the plans. It is the best way to work.
MS: Was there one architect that, in particular, you loved working with or one house that you think was sort of the epitome of . . .
HW: Yes, well, the architect I worked most with was Frank Welch who originally lived in Midland. And I did a lot of work out there which was kind of a wild town, as you can image. In Midland, a lot of them were from the East in those days and they loved visitors. I loved it because it was so dry. I had never been there. So, Frank and I did some projects out there. And then, over the years, we have done several houses in Houston, all of which I like a lot. I worked some with Howard Barnstone and did some early modern pieces.
MS: What was Barnstone like to work with?
HW: Howard was intense, I think is the word, and kind of locked into his modernism, but did open up on some projects we worked with together. In fact, two of his master works, one was built for a marvelous client of mine, John and Lois Maher - it is on Lazy Lane - and Mr. Maher was a father flamboyant man, Irish and self-made and successful. He made and bought companies and things like that. Mrs. Maher was from Falfurrias. Small woman. Charming. But quiet. And this house was built on Lazy Lane. I really think it is Howard's master work. The main space was all steel elevated and totally glass. It is the main big living room and the big dining room. Then, the rest of the house is brick and goes forward. It really was a wonderful thing to work on. Unfortunately, the house has been greatly altered now but at the time . . . you know, I got to know Imod (sp?) quite well for several reasons. This is when she still lived at Bayou Bend and this house is right next to that. And it is way back on the property because of the bayou and all that. The views. And anyway, I saw her at a museum or something and she said, "Young man," (I cannot remember how old I was, "I hear you are working on that house. It is going to block my view." And I said, "Oh, no, Ms. ______, you can see right through it."
MS: And that house is still there you said?
HW: That part is there. It is owned by a prominent lawyer now. It has been altered a great deal. It no longer . . . I just won't go because I don't want to see it.
MS: You said there were two houses by Howard that you . . .
HW: Oh, the other one was . . . oh, and that is very much . . . the George Peterkin house which is out on Indian Circle. It is a townhouse but encompasses three lots. It is quite fascinating. And, at that time, Howard was kind of ill. Nancy Peterkin gives me a lot of credit for holding the project together and getting it done. It is a large house with a courtyard. It even has a tower that goes way up high so you can look, like you were in Southern France or something, but, of course, you just look out on rooftops, other people's. And they use it, which is fascinating because it is big.
MS: Oh, I would love to see it.
HW: It has 5 kitchens and a wine cellar.
MS: Five kitchens?
HW: Yes. Different kinds. They entertain a great deal and people look forward to their parties. So, it is used a lot. A favorite story about it because I go to some of these parties . . . in the living room, there are a pair of white silk sofas made by a wonderful firm in New York, Thomas Deangelis which, again, is no longer with us but it is a great place. I think the house is now 22 or 23 years old. And they have these big parties at Christmas there and 4th of July. They are sort of sing-alongs and all that. And those sofas have been sat on by the best of Houston. And they are still perfect. I cannot believe it. Nancy and I comment on that ever so often.
MS: I am trying to decide which way to go because they have given me this wonderful list. I think some of these dates are important. What year did you start Wells Design? Was that what it was called then?
HW: Yes, it has always been Wells Design. I think it was . . . I am terrible at this kind of stuff. About 1951, I think, something like that.
MS: I may have asked this already. I will ask it a different way. Were there a lot of people who were afraid of what you were doing and they were . . . Oh, I would never do that, it's too radical, it's too modern?
HW: Well, they enjoyed the shop. They really did. I hear stories all the time from people about objects they still have. One of my things that really gave me a big lift is that Ms. Cullinan brought Phillip Johnson into my shop and he spent $1,000 in about 20 minutes.
MS: And what did he buy?
HW: One of the things he bought, thank God I had it, was a crystal brick, a glass brick actually made by Orrefors or one of those Swedish companies. I mean, if he didn't buy that, who the hell would? That was really fascinating. That gave me a big lift obviously. But as I got more and more into the interior work, my brother, who also was living in Houston, he and I opened a shop at the corner of Post Oak and San Felipe in a new . . . that was a very new area at that time. That was really a shop with all crystals and modern furniture and things of that sort, because I was so involved with interior work by then, I just did not have time.
MS: What year was that? When did that open?
HW: There, again, my dates . . . it was 7 or 8 years after all that.
MS: Do you have . . . maybe it is lime green . . . do you have a color that you absolutely adore and colors that you cannot stand? Are there colors that are harder to live with than others?
HW: Well, I love . . . I was honored once at something, I forget now what it was, and I was introduced as the "King of Khaki," which has obviously become a pretty wild color. In fact, the old house over on Mount Vernon Street, I covered the walls with ______ army cloth. It is a color that is hard to get in paint, really. And I like taupe-y colors. And I love all the chartreuse-y colors. And, in recent years, I have sort of gotten hung up on pale blues and browns which are now in Target. I mean, they are everywhere. They are easy to live with. One color I probably never used is red in any amount. I have a wonderful client who happened to be with me in New York when this book, "The Decorator" came out.
MS: I have never seen that. It looks wonderful.
HW: I am in here with a lot about . . . all the decorators in here are from Paris, London, New York, San Francisco and me in Houston. So, it was quite a wonderful thing. Anyway, this client of mine, a wonderful person, we were in New York - there was an event, it is Rizzoli (sp?) and in it, it says, what are your favorite colors and what is your least favorite color? And I said my least favorite color is red. And she looked at me and she said, "Herbert, you just did my whole bathroom in red." I said, "Well, that is different." It is hard to say. All colors are good. I mean, it is really how you put them together, I think. That is the greatest thing.
MS: Tell me about the River Oaks Country Club.
HW: Well, it has turned out to be very successful. It got to the point, we had a small committee that I had to take Valium to go to meetings. But the end result, it has been extremely successful and people love it. And their business is booming I heard. The ballroom which . . . but, you know, they had lost out because it was so drab over there. But I think it is booked every day.
MS: Who built the building first?
HW: The original?
MS: Who was the original architect on that?
HW: Well, the original was Staub, building. That is what was here when I moved to Houston. It was charming. It was really like a country club. It was smallish and it had a great view of the big tree on the golf course. The current building which I am not sure who the architect was, they were really kind of commercial people, and I do not think it has any distinction in that prime location with that vista down River Oaks Boulevard. I am not a great traditionalist but I mean if any place should have had the big white column thing, that is it. And then, of course, the vistas from the club on the golf course are wonderful. The ballroom, actually when I reworked on it this time, the view from the ballroom was closed off. So, the first thing was to open it up because even at night, it is lighted out there. Then, we created . . . I do not know if you have been over there but there has always been a huge bottleneck to get . . . you know, if there is a big party, people are waiting in line and they are out in the lobby down this. So, it now has a glass half curve corridor that leads into this prefunction room which I think it is a terrible word. It ought to be called something else. But that kind of was my inspiration. When we were meeting with the architects and the committee, I said, "I go to St. Luke's a lot and they have this sort of glass thing," and they all looked puzzled. Well, they thought I meant St. Luke's Church. It was St. Luke's Hospital, by the Cooley Building, has this glass corridor. It is totally different but it is the idea. So, that is there now and it is delightful. And they don't have these mobs.
MS: Standing in the rain or the cold.
HW: Yes, right.
MS: Or the heat.
HW: Yes, waiting to shake hands or do something. It has been successful.
MS: Do you have favorite houses here? Are there some houses here that every time you drive by, your heart sort of . . .
HW: Well, my absolute favorite house, and I do not think she would mind if I mention it, was Luisa Stude Serrafin's house (sp?) which, again, is no longer there.
MS: Oh, that house is gone?
HW: Yes. It was the perfect combination of beauty, client, wealth with Fayez and all that. Interesting art. Money. And a superb piece of property that had never been built upon. It had belonged to a Dr. Ebe (sp?). I think he was an early geologist. And where the house is, there was a barn at one time. So, no trees had to be removed. Maybe one. And a very modern house. To me, it was perfection.
MS: Was Frank Welch the architect on the house?
HW: Yes, he was. And it was a wonderful time in his life, in my life, in Luisa's life and everything else.
MS: Oh, that is great.
HW: I go back far enough to know that I knew both Margaret Brown who was married to Herman Brown and Mrs. George Brown -- were clients of mine. As a matter of fact, I did Luisa and Fayez's wedding which was in Herman Brown's garden.
MS: Oh, can you tell me a little more about that?
HW: Well, it is hard to remember. Mrs. Brown, Margaret Brown, had terrible emphysema for a great part of her life, and she was unable to attend. She was a wonderful looking woman. My nicest memory of that is sort of she was in her bedroom upstairs looking down on the guard.
MS: Watching the wedding?
HW: Yes. I wish I had a picture of all that. It was not a great big production or anything like that but it was fun.
MS: And didn't you do Luisa's daughter's wedding also?
HW: Well, Allison is not married. Allison lives in New York.
MS: Did you do a debut party for Allison?
HW: No. I did Luisa's debut which was with two other girls up there at the old Houston Country Club. That was a long time ago. I used to do that kind of thing. Parties. I made a horrible mistake once. You get into these things and you don't think. I got involved in doing a party at the Tejas Club downtown, which is not there anymore and the Bayou Club, and they were both the same day.
MS: Oh my God, so what did you do?
HW: You know, I didn't have a staff or anything like that. I just had somebody who worked in the shop. And I had a carpenter who did a lot of work. We got it done somehow or other.
MS: Was there one party that just was spectacular?
HW: My absolute favorite thing that I was involved with was at the MFA and it was one of the early, early balls; you know, they have become regular now. I actually found a clipping. See, since you have come here, I have been cleaning house. This was on October 7, 1963.
MS: Oh, that is wonderful.
HW: That is when Cullinan Hall was brand new before the addition of the Brown Pavilion, so it was just the big room. I envisioned this, and I still think it is the best . . . I mean, of course they do these sumptuous things nowadays, but, you know, the idea is to make money. I made little tiny abstract pictures of bits of red and yellow and pink little things. And then, we got a projector, lights up in the ceiling, and they flashed up on the wall. So, the whole wall was . . . and I have no photographs of it, picture of it. I mean, it was wonderful. The effect was marvelous. And on the tables, we just had white balloons, inflated white balloons with a battery light under them. So, they looked like big white globes.
MS: Oh, people must have loved that.
HW: I think it was sensational.
MS: I guess that is what I think of for so many Texans - more is always more. But there was a period here when it seems like there were people who got it.
HW: They did. They got it. They were very stylish people. They lived very well. They were not showy but they had great backgrounds, educated, been everywhere in the world, traveled and all that. But they weren't the stuff that Texas seems to be known for. They really weren't. In a funny kind of way, they reminded me a little bit of old New England families - conservative to a degree but much more open. I mean, otherwise, I never would have made it. Open to new people and new ideas. I had a rather very beautiful debutant at that time working for me over in the Mount Vernon store, a very beautiful girl. She had recently married. She and her mother were major, major Neiman Marcus customers. This is before Neiman came to Houston. You know, that was a glory thing. They went on the train to Dallas and all that stuff. Anyway, this young girl was working for me. She was very beautiful but rather shy and ______. Anyway, Stanley Marcus came in. And, of course, he saw her and he said, "Oh." And Stanley said to her, "What are you doing here?" "I am working here, Mr. Stanley."
MS: What do you think about him and his importance . . .
HW: Oh well, I think he has done so much for Texas and Houston and everything. Really and truly. I am not going to say I agree with all his tastes and ideas but he certainly . . . the stores were beautiful, the merchandise was beautiful, the presentation was wonderful, the service - all those things that . . . and the early days of Helen Corbitt's food. Oh, all of that. I mean, no stores have ever done anything like that. And then they had those fortnight productions of famous designers, designers they made famous actually. I have a person in the fabric business that is my absolute favorite of all time. She is older than I now and most of her business has been turned over to her son and his wife but her name is Doris Tillett. She and her husband used to be called Dee Dee and Leslie Tillett, do these hand screened fabrics that I think are very exciting. And Doris has clients like Jackie Kennedy and all those eastern kind of people. I have used her fabrics a lot over the years and continue to, so we have this wonderful relationship. And now, I have lost track of what I was trying to tell you.
MS: She was in the fabric business. What were we talking about? I was so intent on listening in the moment.
HW: What was I getting at?
MS: Yes. We were talking about Stanley Marcus and you said that no store had ever done anything like that.
HW: Oh, this moves on. I continued to use the Tillett fabrics. She is still around but the daughter-in-law kind of runs it. It is a very small . . . people. In fact, as far as I can figure out, she has a decorator in Palm Beach they do a lot of work with. Albert Hadley. So, I am in good company. [end of side 1]
. . . getting back to Stanley Maher, I wanted to tell you this briefly, when I still had the shop on Mount Vernon Street, I had been to Finland and I met Arnie Rattia (sp?) and Mrs. or Madam Rattia was the founder of Mary Meckel (sp?). And this when Mary Meckel was terrific and nobody had even seen it. They had one store in America and it was Design Research in Boston which, again, was an interior furniture kind of place. She was a fabulous woman. I was there at the time of mid summer when the sun never sets. I had never been to Finland. And she said, "Oh, wouldn't you like to come to our summer house?" and I said, "Oh, sure." Well, I thought the summer house was just down the road or something. Well, the sun doesn't set. So, they ______ and they drink a great deal. Anyway, we zipped off to the summer house at 100 miles an hour, I think, and finally got there and it was this great Gothic structure, just wonderful. Everything was lit with Mary Meckel candles. The furniture was giant cushions sort of in the shape of eggs stuffed with excelsior, and then one great big table with big red goblets. Anyway, it was a very exciting 2 days of my life, some of which has phased away from me probably due to the drinking. I said to Madam Ratti, I said, "What do you do in the winter?" She said, "Oh, we go mad, we go mad. I go to Corsica," you know - they just have to get away. But through that, I arranged to have the Mary Meckel clothes here in Houston. That was a sensation. I was not a dress shop by any means but it worked.
MS: But you had them in your shop?
HW: We had them there. We had an opening for it and everything else. They were very successful. Again, Ms. Lovett, I think she bought 20 of them. People like that. Anyway, Stanley Marcus decided he wanted them. And, of course, that is big. So, they went to Neiman Marcus.
MS: Because he got an exclusive . . .
HW: Yes, but, you know, and they had big ads and all that. Six months later, they did not even have them. But anyway, that was a great experience.
MS: Oh, yes, that sounds great.
HW: Yes, it was.
MS: I love that store in Boston. My parents took me when I was little.
HW: My shop has been compared to that over the years. Mary Meckel is still around but it is not of the caliber it was.
MS: It is not the same.
HW: Well, Madam Rattia envisioned a Mary Meckel village where they do everything. It was very exciting.
MS: When you think about Houston, designing in Houston over the years, are there major changes that you have seen? Do you think people are still as eager for the new, they are still . . . there are great houses here and then there are sort of so many McMansions and stuff.
HW: McMansions, right. Well, I think Houston has some beautiful houses. The landscaping in Houston, of course, is really very exciting. I mean, things thrive here. I think that is, when people come here, they are so surprised because it is so green. They don't expect that. I really believe the landscaping has to be the most successful business in the world in Houston.
MS: Well, I do not remember the instant yard, what I see now with the ______ who bought the Wyatt's. One day, they put mature trees in so it is finished.
HW: I think they kind of overdid it but, I mean, it has grown. Everything grows. I mean, you really do not . . . of course, in Connecticut, a tree, I mean, 50 years later, it is finally a tree. But here, 5 years and it is that way.
MS: Now, were your own parents artistic in any way? Did they work?
HW: I don't think so. My father was like everybody else in Hartford - was in the insurance business. I think my mother had a flare for design and things of that sort. She was a Scotch lady. My father died quite young. My mother did move to Houston.
MS: Oh, she did?
MS: Did she like it?
HW: Yes. She was a rather colorful lady who would be in my shop sometimes and tell people stories I just as soon she didn't. But anyway, they were not used to the Yankee kind of . . . one of my favorite expressions which I never heard of before, I mean, I had been in the retail world so I know about that but several very lovely ladies like Ms. Hogg and Mrs. ______, instead of asking how much it was, they would say, "How dear is that?" I do not think that expression exists anymore. So, there was a lot of that certain gentility here.
MS: Was Mrs. Hogg that way?
HW: I can tell you one more funny story about her. We became great friends but as I said, I made hats in the beginning and people started bringing me their old hats to redo and I did that. And then finally, one day, I screwed up my courage and decided I am just not going to do any of this anymore. And this little ordinary car with a chauffeur drove like a Dodge - I mean, moderate car - drove up. I could see out. The chauffeur got out with several boxes and then this small woman behind him. They came up to the door and came in. I do not know how I did this but I said, "I am so busy making new things, I just cannot redo things over." And with that, they gathered up and left. And somebody who was there said, "Herbert, do you know who that is?" I said, "No." "Well, it was Imma Hogg." So, that was sort of . . . but I not think she ever remembered that.
MS: Well, at least she did not hold it against you anyway.
MS: I think we have covered most things. Do you want to talk about your most significant contribution n Houston, what you think you have added to the city?
HW: Well, when this Rice Design Alliance honored me the year before last, I have gotten the most beautiful letters from many people who I do not even remember. And I have been told by the Rice Design Alliance people it was the biggest event they ever had and they made more money than they ever had. So, that tells you something. And I really have gotten wonderful letters. And some are from the children of the client or how my mother or how we first went to Wells Design, all that kind of thing.
MS: In terms of an aesthetic, can you define it for me?
HW: Well, I think what people remember most is the freshness and seeing things they had not seen before. Or seeing them in a new way. I mean, I like to think, as you can tell by this apartment, it is no pattern. I mean, and there are things I like. I've got too much. And I have a warehouse. So, I mean, I really do have too much. But I do not know how to depart with it or even how to sell it. I do not know if it follows any pattern or not. I have become very interested, and this book just came out on it, of something called Mochaware. There is a whole bunch of it up there. Well, it is highly collectible now but I have been doing it for quite a while. It is a brief period.
MS: What is the time?
HW: Well, it says here 1770 to 1939 but I do not think it is around that . . . The big collection of it is at the Sturbridge Museum in Maine or New Hampshire.
HW: Yes. I just love it. Again, I guess it is because it does not have any . . . well, I love the colors.
MS: Yes, the colors are great.
HW: I was very involved in the Craft Museum in New York when it first started. This is one of my absolute favorite things. It won first prize.
MS: It is great.
HW: It won first prize. It is a teapot. I love that. And I like stuff like this. And the cardboard.
MS: I think I have asked you my questions. The only other thing I was going to ask is what made you bring Jerry in? Was there a point when you decided you did not want to do this by yourself anymore?
HW: Well, by this time, my wife had died quite gradually and suddenly and a rather young age. She had been married before, so I have stepchildren who I am close to. Sue died from some terrible cancer and gone. And here I had this house and what had been the guest house, I decided to make into an office. I just needed somebody to help me pull it together. I met Jerry through Anna Wingfield.
MS: Oh, she is a wonderful person.
HW: Yes, because Jerry was a graphic designer, which actually turns out to be a great background for interior work. And it was through his skills that we had many people in Houston that have interesting floors, paintings, designs and things of that sort. That is as good a training for interior work as anything, I think. So, it has been . . . and Jerry has a great sense of humor which I appreciate. I mean, I like to think I have humor, too. I mean, you just can't get . . . so many people in the design world get so intense and so unyielding; you know, they don't listen, and you have got to listen to the client, you have got to listen to . . . when you go to museums, you have got to look and you have got to . . . well, everything is out there to be found. It is unfortunate the desirable things have gotten so really costly. I mean, it is to the point where unless you have already got a few marvelous things . . . like, I have a Venetian chest which . . . when I moved to Houston, there was a famous shop here - I am sure you have heard of it - called the Shabby Shoppe. I love the name. Shabby Shoppe. Now, you would think, what is that? Anyway, I have even forgotten where the original shop was. And the first thing when I stuck my nose in, again, I am quite shy, I am sort of intimidated by it . . . they were playing cards. Well, I had never been in a shop where the owners were playing cards. So, they finally acknowledged me. Anyway, that chest came from the Shabby Shoppe and it is as fine a Venetian chest as you are ever going to find anywhere else. So, they did bring wonderful things to Houston. Probably when you are in some of the older houses, the best pieces, people would say, "Oh, I got that at the Shabby Shoppe." It is sort of a misnomer. It was not just English, it was sort of a mixture of things.
MS: Where was it?
HW: At that time, it was down I think on Louisiana Street, in the area maybe where the old Junior League was.
MS: Well, I wish I had gotten to go. I think I have heard Jerry talk about it.
HW: Yes, and then it moved over on Lovett Boulevard. And, of course, now it is gone.
MS: Jerry Jeanmard is the man who took over your business. I think that is really . . . we can release you from custody now. Thank you very much. This is just great.
HW: Well, I love what you are doing and the fact that we are going to get things out there and tell people about Houston.
MS: Yes, it is a great project to do.
HW: And how marvelous people were a part of the beginnings of it.
MS: Yes, I think it is different . . .
HW: I did work with Oveta Hobby. They are all so important in Houston and they should be acknowledged. I think they are.
MS: Well, and again, different from what people think of us Texans.
HW: Oh, I have almost forgotten the woman I am totally devoted to. In fact, in my mind, she never knew my friend in Connecticut, Marie Louise, is Jane Blaford Owen who is way up there in age now but her mind just clicks away. She has restored this town of New Harmony, Indiana and I have been privileged to do some work there.
MS: I would love to see that.
HW: Again, she has engaged great art. Philip Johnson did the Roofless Church. Richard Meyer did the Athenaeum before it became famous. Plus all these old German houses that she has reconditioned. Jane is a very exciting person.
MS: Does she come here at all anymore?
HW: Yes, she has a major house here in Houston, but she spends most of her time in New Harmony. And one of her daughters has a place outside of Newport that I worked on and Jane gets up there every so often. Anyway, she has done a huge amount for Houston.
MS: We will call her, too.
HW: Yes, I wish you would. Catch her when she is here. Her mind just ticks away.
MS: Wow, that sounds good.
HW: That is what I mean. She knows tradition. She has this. She has that. But it is open. And, of course, she has done great things for Houston.
MS: I will definitely . . . I get to do a list, too. You were on my list.
HW: Well, thank you.