July 25, 2019
Glenn Gissler Design, established in 1987, is an award-winning interior design firm providing exemplary service to a sophisticated and accomplished clientele. Owner Glenn Gissler integrates his training as an architect; a rich knowledge of fine art, design and decorative arts; and an extensive experience to create distinctive residential environments. The firm’s work is regularly featured in magazines, books, and digital platforms.
This month, Glenn Gissler Design is honored to be featured in William Norwich’s new book, Interiors: The Greatest Rooms of the Century, and to have received a nomination for the prestigious Cooper Hewitt National Design Awards. We sat down with Glenn to learn a little bit more about his elegant yet livable style, as well as the design process that makes his work stand out.
At the age of 13, Glenn knew that he wanted to be an interior designer. He went on to study architecture, and received his Bachelor of Fine Arts & Bachelor of Architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Glenn’s architectural training gives him an edge in the ultra-competitive interior design industry in New York City: He says that it allows him to devise ways to use space most effectively and naturally, while being responsible to history and maintaining integrity in his designs.
When asked to describe his style, Glenn began by insisting that despite his understanding of architecture and design history and his extensive vocabulary in these areas, it is difficult for him to describe his own work. In fact, he says that “style” is not the first thing that comes to mind. In his practice, it’s more about “life-style.” Glenn’s rooms are not showcases, they’re homes, and he believes that his clients are attracted to him for the livability of his designs.
Architecture and Livability
As a child, Glenn remembers looking at books full of pictures of the magnificent mansions in Newport, Rhode Island. He says that for him, they might as well have been palaces in Europe, and he was completely mesmerized. However, he says, “When I finally got to Newport and I went to all of those places, I was as interested in the servants’ quarters as I was in the grand rooms. In some ways, I was more interested because that’s where reality actually occurred and the rest was kind of a stage set.”
Glenn is not a designer that clients turn to for a stage set. “Every building, every home, every apartment has a spirit to it. You walk into a building, and it says something.” Glenn is not one to ignore that message. He believes that designs need to respond to their environment. A Venetian palace or a replica of Philip Johnson’s Glass House might be visually appealing, but when they are constructed without attention to their context, the experience of inhabiting them feels off in some way.
Elegance and livability are guiding principles in Glenn’s design process. Perhaps it is his architecture training, or just the way that his brain is wired, but he is always focused on how to use a space most effectively and naturally. To some extent this may also be because much of his work is in New York City, where he is often designing spaces that need to perform more than one function. He believes that people should be able to use all of the rooms in their homes as a part of the natural course of living their lives. He finds that often times, living rooms and dining rooms are anachronistic. Glenn wants to abandon the feeling of staged rooms, only there for display. When he sees designs that do not take into account how the inhabitants will actually be able to live in them, it baffles him. “In a lot of modern designs, everything is so sleek and bare. I walk in and immediately think, ‘where will these people put their stuff?’ Storage is a key to mental health, and if you don’t have storage, the style of the room doesn’t even matter because you can’t see it.”
Another hallmark of Glenn’s designs is what he identifies as a “half-empty, half-full” approach. “When architects are finished, they don’t want any furniture in the room, they just want pure volume. Many interior decorators, on the other hand, want to have every nook and cranny with something in it. I like to have space for the mind to rest so that the objects in the room actually have an opportunity to breathe and to have greater meaning.”
When Glenn is choosing objects to populate his designs, he makes sure to include a variety from different periods, different cultures, and what he calls “different valuations.” He finds that objects that are visually delightful are more exciting than objects that are simply expensive. Expensive things are not inherently better than inexpensive things and Glenn says that “when they’re together, they are actually in a kind of cultural and historical dialogue that makes each of them more interesting.” A fan of using fashion metaphors, Glenn compares this effect to that of wearing a Hanes t-shirt underneath an Armani suit. It is chic and elegant but more importantly, it is livable.
How Glenn Gissler Design Does It
Perhaps one of the most impressive things about Glenn’s practice is that after graduating from RISD, Glenn only spent four years working under other designers before founding his own firm. Not only has he taught himself the ins and outs of the interior design industry over the years, he has also independently developed his unique design process that helps him to achieve the desired results. While his architectural training gave him the solid historical, technical and theoretical basis that is so important to his design process, he has taught himself how to partially shake free from those confines all on his own. “It’s not a theoretical project. You actually have to bring reality into it in order to create something that’s relevant.”
The major key to Glenn’s design process is the relationship that he is able to create with his clients. “I tell my clients that they’re in charge. It’s their place. I don’t live there; I have my own place.” Although he may wrestle with them on certain points because he sees something that he thinks they might not notice, he is focused on making sure that they ultimately know that it is their choice. This means that his clients are involved in the design process every step of the way.
Glenn starts by looking at the floorplan and considering what the apartment can do to accommodate the lifestyle of the tenant. Everything depends on the particulars of the client. Do they have children? Do they entertain often? Do they have tons of books or art? All of these questions help Glenn come up with an idealized floorplan. From there, an artist who Glenn has worked with for years creates perspective drawings so that the client can imagine what the project will look like when it is complete.
Perhaps the most important aspect of these perspective drawings is that they are drafted by hand in pencil. “Today, so many people produce architectural drawings digitally to make it look like they’re real, and I think that’s a bad idea. The reason is, if it’s so real in the drawings, when it’s actually done, you feel like you’ve already seen it and been there. There’s something about our drawings being black and white that allows us to maintain the element of surprise.”
Once the client feels comfortable with the ideal floorplans and the perspective drawings, Glenn starts the process of proposing textiles, light fixtures, art and so on. To sum it up, Glenn says, “We start with the architecture, bring in the personality, add the colors, and make commitments to certain themes – it’s an ongoing process of love.”
Enduring Design for Client Living
Glenn’s ultimate hope is that the finished product is something enduring. He has an appreciation for all of the hard work that his clients do to be able to embark on these projects with him, and he is always conscious to make thoughtful decisions in terms of quality and value. “Some designers do really splashy, trendy projects, and it’s kind of like buying a party dress. Then when you want to wear something else, the party dress is all you have, and you end up feeling overdressed, wishing that you had something a little more understated.” Following his metaphor, Glenn is able to give his clients a closet full of clothes that will last, instead of one fancy ball gown with limited wearing potential.
Speaking of the enduring nature of Glenn’s designs, his work has recently been recognized in two major ways. First, a room that he designed in 1995 is featured in William Norwich’s new book, Interiors: The Greatest Rooms of the Century. Additionally, he was nominated for the prestigious Cooper Hewitt National Design Awards. For Glenn both of these honors came as quite a surprise. Of Interiors, Glenn said that he was unaware that the book was in production, let alone that his project was going to be included. It was only when he was contacted regarding image rights from an on-line magazine reviewing the book that he found out.
The design project was commissioned by the then president of EMI Music Worldwide and his wife. At the time, it was featured on the cover of Interior Design magazine in 1995, along with a six-page spread featuring breathtaking pictures of the whole apartment. The living room, which is the room featured in Norwich’s book, has very grand dimensions: 26 ft. by 26 ft., with 20 ft. high ceilings. Aside from the imposing scale of the room, two key factors guided Glenn’s design process, both of which were specific to his clients’ needs. They loved to travel and needed an interior that would accommodate various cultural artifacts that they had begun to collect in the course of their travels. They also needed an appropriate stage for the frequent entertaining they did with various colleagues in the music industry.
The space was intimidating, but it had character, and Glenn’s clients loved the grandeur of the room. Without taking away from that feeling, Glenn was able to devise a unique furniture plan that optimized the livability of the space. The clients liked clean surfaces, so Glenn’s half-full, half-empty approach was perfect. The furniture had to be strong in order to handle the demands of the room, which allowed for amazing additions such as the ambitious window treatment, which would only be appropriate in a room of this scale. Ultimately, this Upper West Side project perfectly encapsulates the strengths of Glenn’s style and design process. The fact that it has been recognized again, nearly 25 years after its completion is a testament to the timelessness of Glenn’s work.
He does not take the use of that word lightly however. “It’s an enormous compliment to have my work thought of as ‘timeless’. People toss that word around, but for me, it’s less about timelessness and more about being responsible to history; the history of the space I am working in, historical precedent and being cognizant of the time we are living in” Glenn is not interested in novelty that does not stand the test of time, but he doesn’t necessarily believe that timelessness is achievable. “Whatever you build is going to be of the particular time in which it was built.” For Glenn, the most important thing is to maintain an integrity and an appropriateness in relation to the context of the project. This Upper West Side apartment is a clear manifestation of that mission.
Regarding his nomination for the Cooper Hewitt National Design Awards, Glenn was equally humble. His nomination is all the more impressive because the nomination process is completely anonymous. “It was a huge thrill and a huge honor. It’s great to have business and clients who appreciate what you do, but it’s also deeply satisfying to be recognized by your peers for your work. Just to know that they’re paying attention.”
Although interior design is not the easiest profession in New York City, Glenn has fulfilled the dream he first had when he was 13 years old. “I did it, and I am doing it.” Looking forward, Glenn is more excited than ever about what is to come. He says that the reward for success is the opportunity to work harder. It’s a good news, bad news situation. If you are successful, people expect you to do better, and Glenn is up for the challenge. “At the end of the day, the accolades are fantastic, and being in magazines and books is deeply satisfying, but really it’s all about the next project. What’s the next project? What’s going to be deeply engaging? That’s what I’m always looking for.”
On his tenancy in the Townsend Building, Glenn could not be happier with the collegial feeling. He has many friends in the building and always enjoys seeing what his fellow tenants are up to. He’s been in the neighborhood for more than 25 years, and seeing the changes that have occurred over the years has been greatly inspiring to him. “When I first moved to New York, no one went into Madison Square Park. The neighborhood was just empty. Now there’s a spirit to the neighborhood which is very creative.” The sense of the community in the Townsend building is an added bonus, not to mention the breathtaking architecture. Working in a building with such historical significance is a constant inspiration and reminder of the lasting power of successful design. It keeps Glenn looking toward the future for that next engaging project. “It’s a cool building, and I love it even more because of the incredible stairwell. Overall, I think it’s quite remarkable.”
We think Glenn is quite remarkable, and we congratulate him again on his spectacular career and his achievements this year.