This interview takes place in the house of world renowned interior designer John Stefanidis, in the village of Chora on the island of Patmos. The house has a beautiful garden, and is just below the monastery. John Stefanidis was born into a Greek family in Alexandria, Egypt, and was baptised by the Bishop of Babylon. He was raised in Cairo and moved to Oxford at the age of 17.
I ask John: Are you working in Patmos?
Yes, I did a house for Nicholas Negroponte, and another house for an American family that live in Santa Barbara.
Have you been in Patmos for many years?
I have been in Patmos for fifty years. When I first came with my friend the painter Teddy Millington-Drake there was no water, there was nothing. They said that there was a garden, but there was nothing. Little by little we built the garden, and we added a new wing to the house. The land we bought was mostly rented for agricultural purposes, and in exchange we got a goat each year. When Teddy died I planted olive groves, and we are going to make our own olive oil.
Can we say that this house is a synthesis of your taste?
Of my taste in the Mediterranean. My work changes according to the climate, the architecture, the needs of my client.
How did you start?
I was at university in Oxford and then I went into advertising in London with Colman Prentis and Varley. CPV was the hip agency at the time, the Saatchi of those days. They got me the wrong permit, and said, “Why don’t you go to Milan where we are opening a new CPV agency?” I was in my early twenties and I stayed in Milan for five years.
What happened after your advertising job?
When I gave up the advertising I decided to live in Greece, and I had a lovely flat in Athens. Greece was beautiful, but Athens too provincial. I also spent time in Rome, and then I went back to London where I had to have a raison d’être and I decided to be a designer.
How did you do it?
I am self-trained, but I had had the influence of the design in Milan. At the time it was the most creative and cultural city in Italy, and I got inspiration from people like Giò Ponti or Renzo Mongiardino.
How did you come to Patmos?
I was invited on a sailing boat and we went to Mykonos, which was splendid at the time, and then we went to Rhodes to be at Beatrice Monti della Corte’s house in Lindos. Beatrice had a very important art gallery in Milan, La Galleria dell’ Ariete. From Rhodes we took the ferry boat, and in those days there were goats, chickens, all sorts of people on the boats. People were still vomiting on the boats. We arrived in Patmos, a surreal island, and we saw this house where we are now.
How was life then?
For ten years it was very simple. Most people in the island were dependant on money coming from relations in Texas or Australia. In Patmos I made ten houses, for instance a house for the German publisher Axel Springer, and I also helped Sadruddin Aga Khan with his house. When I started to work in the island there was only one builder, the electrician and the plumber had to come from Athens. Also fruit and vegetables had to come from Athens. In fifty years so many things have changed. We even have a supermarket now.
Were you living in Patmos during the winter?
No, during the Winter I went to work in London. One of the first things was a studio for Chris Blackwell, who started the fashion of Jamaican music in England. I also designed a Ball for Lord Lambton, I did a flat in Paris in Place de Furstenberg, a house and the Hotel Richemond on the Lake of Geneva, a house in Greece, then in America… In London I did some rooms in Claridges, the Governor’s Parlour in the Bank of England, and I did three houses for the Westminsters. The major work I did for them was Eaton Hall, but it was never photographed because of the artworks in the house. I have done five houses for Leslie Wexner, one in Ohio, one in Georgia, one in London, one in Warwickshire and one in New York. I also did five houses for the Westons around the world, which has never been published.
What are your latest works?
I am working on a new house for the Westminsters in Portofino, and I built a house for Noemi Marone Cinzano in Portugal near Comporta; I had previously done a house for her in London.
How do you proceed in your work?
If you give me a house, I can see it finished. For instance, I cooperated with the architect I.M. Pei on a pavilion in Wiltshire, and I knew exactly what he was up to.
Is this the key to your success?
Somehow it is, knowing beforehand what things are going to look like. Sometimes people are not able to follow you. People who are very secure give you a free hand and then you get the best result.
They say you are very good with colour. Which is your favourite colour?
I have everybody’s favourite colour, blue, but you cannot have a favourite colour in my job because light is different in the Mid-West, in Greece or in London. My work is a kind of osmosis.
Who has influenced you the most?
I have developed my eye over the years, and talented friends have helped me. I travel a lot and travelling is an important part of my life. I have been to Egypt, Greece, and India about twenty-five times; I went to Japan, Brazil… I would say that my work is harmony and counterpoint. I have been inspired by Cy Twombly; I knew him and I have paintings of his, and at the same time I was influenced by the Hotel Lambert in Paris. It is a huge contrast.
Can we say that there is a Stefanidis style?
Apparently, yes. People see it, I don’t. But you can judge by looking at my four books.
Do many people come to your house in Patmos?
I don’t have many people coming to Patmos, and I have the reputation of being a recluse, but it’s not true.
What is your main concern when you do a house?
I think a lot about peoples’ needs, comforts, and it helps if the clients are on the learning curve. Some people learn very quickly, and then it can become a folie à deux or à trois.
Do you always already know your clients before you accept a job?
I only knew one or two of them, for instance, I knew Jacob Rothschild at Oxford. Sometimes clients are friends, and sometimes we just have a courtesy relationship. My clients came by word of mouth, also from publications, but so much was never published.
Do you also design fabrics?
I did masses of fabrics that were made in England, and I also had a shop in the Fulham Road, but I closed it because it was not making money.
Are you very expensive?
Absolutely not. If you do things for billionaires people think you are expensive, but it is wrong.
Have many things have changed since you started working?
Everything changes. Lots of things are much easier and improved. Everything is a much higher standard these days. The Internet is fantastic, there is a huge progress and I like progress.
Is it very different building in America?
America is a dream, everything is possible and very efficient.
Has it changed in London?
In London things are much more efficient because of the Polish builders that work there. London has also changed because we eat well nowadays, and nobody used to look at modern art and now we have Tate Modern. London became cosmopolitan, multi-national, there is a lot of energy, you can buy anything you want. I don’t know how we will change with Brexit.
What about Brexit?
I am viscerally a European, and even though I have a Greek passport and I couldn’t vote I would have said Remain. In England I believe the problem is leadership. I have always disapproved of Cameron. Cameron did not negotiate well in Brussels. I don’t think the campaign was properly run for “Remain”.
Do you worry about it?
I do not worry much about change.
Over the years do you still work in the same way?
No, I have changed the way I work. I don’t have a studio any more, I have an assistant, an accountant, and I use freelance people who worked with me in the past, and I am very happy like that and they are too.
Do you still enjoy your work?
I like being good at it, and I like the result.
Do you buy furniture for your clients?
Yes, I bought masses all over the world, and at auction. Otherwise there are pieces of furniture that I have done by myself. I have made more than 750 furniture designs. He shows me a little table and says: For instance, this is a Patmos table, designed by me, and it is all over the world.
What about gardens?
The best garden I know is the one of Marella Agnelli in Marrakech. It’s like being in a Boccaccio atmosphere, it is idyllic countryside.
And your garden in Patmos?
We have very little water here, but I had a huge improvement since I got a new gardener.
What is the idea of a garden for you?
Repose and beauty. And also to see things grow always gives you pleasure.
Do you still have a close relationship with Oxford University where you studied?
My archives have gone to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, including my photography. I am very happy with that because the Bodleian has been completely re-modernised, and they also adopted my blog.
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All images are used by kind permission of The Interior Archive.