Slender and tanned, prematurely gray at age 38, interior designer Stephen Chase has already received a generous share of international recognition. His work has won numerous design awards and appears frequently in publications like "Architectural Digest." He oversees design projects throughout the world.
Born in New Hampshire, raised in Southern California, Chase’s creative bent appeared early in life. He might have taken up architecture, but found math and engineering aspects unappealing. He graduated from the private Chadwick School in 1959, president and valedictorian of his class, went on to attend Rhode Island School of Design and the Art Center School in Los Angeles.
His innate artistry and determination attracted important supporters, among them Palm Springs designer Arthur Elrod, whose name had become a cachet for outstanding contemporary design. Elrod invited him to join the firm in 1967, and Chase remained, continuing to win kudos with his own stylish flair, even after Elrod’s death in an automobile accident. After 13 years of collaboration with the famous firm. Chase in April assembled his own team, setting up an independent design studio with headquarters in Rancho Mirage.
Chase’s old Spanish Las Palmas estate reflects a style for which he has been celebrated: the blending of contemporary and antique, the melding of cultural influences, the touch of treasures collected from throughout the world. That the result could look simultaneously warm and breathtaking attests to his remarkably deft design abilities.
Chase recently served on the Palm Springs Planning Commission, whose members are appointed to review construction plans and zoning regulations for the city.
What early influences do you feel have most contributed to your successful design career?
I think my success is due mostly to my singleness of purpose. My energy has gone in one direction for so many years. From age 3 when I was draw- ing houses and using wooden blocks to build cities down the rows of my father’s vegetable patch, there was no hesitancy about my wanting to be involved in creative building.
When I was a teenager, I built an 18-foot, quarter-inch scale model city, with electrified fountains and full interiors. It included more than 40,000 separate pieces. While other kids were hanging around the hamburger stands, I was building my future. The model was displayed and given awards by professional designers, but its most important impact was to teach me persistence and self-discipline. Also, my parents permitted me to do what I wanted; they let me make decisions and be my own judge. And although I did not grow up with money, I had other privileges, like travel and private schooling, which gave me early advantages in perspective. And I have had few detractors in my life. People always told me I could do things. My talents were encouraged and promoted by people who were themselves quite successful.
Which of these people have most influenced your life?
Ruth Livingston, a decorator in Redondo Beach, was my first direct professional influence. She had a sense of style, taste and proportion I was coming to admire most. I worked for her and accompanied her on a trip to Europe in 1961. In Geneva I met Bill Lear, who was then in the process of designing the first executive jet. I showed him one of my design models, and he took an immediate liking to me. I lived with his family in Switzerland for months and helped him design the interior of that first Lear jet. It is a family friendship that has continued to flourish.
Did Lear influence your concept of design?
No, I didn’t learn the obvious from Bill. But I listened to him think, and he expanded my ideas of what creativity meant. He showed me that making money can be creative. I learned versatility from him, how to handle a wide range of situations. Certainly glamour was one of the plusses of that relationship, but it was more. Lear kept me dreaming. And he taught me how to sleep with a passport under my pillow.
Do you enjoy traveling?
As a youngster I was able to travel a great deal. I consider it a powerful influence in my life. I still love traveling — anywhere — I could never have decorated this house and not seen the world. Travel opens up new dimensions, and imposes new depths. For example, once you’ve been to Ceylon, you realize you’ve never been to northern Ceylon.
What about the influence of Arthur Elrod?
I had admired Arthur’s designs since I was 17, and working with him fulfilled one of my early dreams. Arthur had great organizational abilities. He taught me how to approach my work, how to achieve order. And I have a reverence for order in my work now. He knew how to give people an environment that was right for them, how not to impose his own personality. Oh, he was an independent with plenty of spirit, but he was no prima donna. He never disliked anyone, but he avoided the social aspects of working with clients, like cocktail parties, as I have chosen to do also. Arthur died suddenly and violently, and as often happens, it’s taken years to absorb his absence. Often a strange phenomena occurs. If I’m working during a desert storm and hear a clap of thunder, I am overwhelmed by his presence. I know he is there. It’s rather an intermittent reminder of his impact.
Have you developed any particular philosophy or mark of individuality in your design?
I must have a philosophy. Whether it is that cohesive yet or not, I don’t know. I am more deliberate than spontaneous in my design, but I think every room must have one touch of humor. I like to do things not totally expected, to use the most original concept. I haven’t tried to make a Steve Chase look. My ego doesn’t require having my signature in every house I do, and I wouldn’t want people automatically to know something was my design. There are two or three designers today whom I consider very good, and from the standpoint of direction and creating a statement, they are much ahead of me. My question to myself is whether or not I want to create such a signature. It is easier than ever today not to have it. If you want, for example, a certain color fabric, you can choose from hundreds of versions of that color. And there are many more people working in the decorating field now than there were even 10 years ago. I welcome it. The game of buying is over; the mystery is gone. Everyone can buy everything. Now the art is how well those things are assembled, how the total look turns out.
What is the most exciting part of your work?
Certainly the most exciting kind of design is high quality commercial work, simply because it is seen by the most people. But my favorite working conditions exist when I’m designing a very good house with an outstanding architect, landscaper and client. One of the real high points of my life is the people I work with.
Do you prefer working with celebrities?
My business clients are just as interesting because they are very accomplished in their own fields. But celebrities are the most fun, because they understand the theatrics of decorating better than the average business person. Of course it’s more complicated trying to set up appointments with busy celebrities like Farrah Fawcett and Johnny Mathis. I’ve done Suzanne Sommers’ house in Palm Springs, Rona Barrett’s house in L.A., and right now I’m working on Dyan Cannon’s. Dyan is such a free spirit, funny, full of the devil. The rooms will be warm and abandorfed, like she is; they will reflect her humor and spirit. It won’t be just another professional interior.
Are there any pressures brought about by your work or your notoriety?
I have very little pressure from celebrities or from any of my clients at all. Getting it all done, getting the total look is the only real pressure. Certainly one of the down sides about recognition is the privacy problem, even here in Palm Springs. I want my work to be accepted and photographed, but I don’t want my face on anything. I don’t want to be on the cocktail circuit. I would rather be doing something, like horseback riding in the desert, than sitting around holding a cocktail glass. It isn’t my thing. I want to remain private and cultivate my intimate friendships, having an occasional party or letting my house play host infrequently for a charity affair.
You could live anywhere in the world, yet you make Palm Springs your home base. Why?
Actually, living in Palm Springs is a real luxury if you must travel frequently as I do. When I’m on the last leg of a long flight headed into L.A., and the pilot announces we’re over Palm Springs, I wish I could parachute right out and not have to spend two or three more hours getting home. My company acquired a private plane recently, and that will make living here more convenient, and increase my mobility. I’m very affected by weather, and I love the sun here. 1 can use my court and play tennis and jog year-round. I don’t mind desert summers at all, although I rarely spend a long stretch of time in Palm Springs. But I wouldn’t want to live anywhere for long, unbroken periods of time.
Then you have homes elsewhere?
Yes, in Kauai, certainly of all the places I’ve seen, the most beautiful in the world. But I developed a strong affinity for the American Southwest as a youngster when I was sent to camp in Arizona. In Santa Fe I have an adobe house which is a special kind of refuge for me. It is a passive solar home which doesn’t rely on .solar equipment, but uses good conservation features like natural ventilation, wide overhangs and glass in the right places to capture the sun. It’s a good place for me to relax. I also have a new house at the beach which is very modern.
How do you relax?
Very quickly and very easily. I like my work. It is my life, so I don’t have to get away from something distasteful. I enjoy sitting in my sauna and thumbing through magazines like Smithsonian and Audubon. I love watercoloring when I’m in Santa Fe. I find jogging very relaxing. Every morning I’m up by 5:30 and jogging my two miles through Las Palmas by 7. It’s really an energizing activity for me. I think a lot when I run.
Do you keep trim with a special diet?
Well, when I’m home I eat very sparingly. I keep little else but carrots and celery in the house. But I have a good appetite and there isn’t much I don’t like. When I’m in Singapore, I can eat three dinners a night; in France I won’t restrain from the pastries because they’re delicious. But at home, I’m careful; there are no Twinkies in my cuisine.
How did your role as a member of the city planning commission affect your life?
It was very time-consuming. I often had to make dents in my schedule and fly home just for the meetings. It did require a lot of sacrifice, but the rewards were considerable. It was exciting to see something come from nothing — there is a power of creativity inherent in watching raw land become a human environment. To see a hamburger stand, instead of being lacklustre and ordinary, to see its plans improved at my insistence, and then to have the applicant return and admit he was glad those plans were modified — that did give me a marvelous feeling of satisfaction.
How will your new direction as an independent designer affect your projects?
I have a team of 20 very talented people, most of whom are young and have worked with me over five years, who feel that now they can make more of a unified statement. They are each dedicated to their own design specialty. They know clients and tradespeople love working with us, and they like the idea of being on a winning team. Teamwork in an artistic field is rare. But these people are full of spirit and energy and function as a group far beyond what 20 separate and disparate artistic talents might accomplish in their field. I tell them they are to the decorating world what the U.S. Hockey Team was to the 1980 Winter Olympics.
What are some of your team’s current projects?
In Palm Springs we’re working on the new downtown Sheraton Plaza Hotel’s interiors, some new country clubs which are still in the early stages of design, and five models and a clubhouse at the new Canyon Heights. We’re designing a new house in Singapore, an office suite in Vancouver, a villa in Cap Ferrat, and a spectacular private home in Lausanne, Switzerland, which has been under construction for the past five years.
What personal dreams do you hope to realize in the next decade?
I would like to move into the planning of quality buildings on a larger scale, designing entire clubs and hotel complexes, conceiving more total living spaces. Possibly I’m coming full circle and returning to the model I made as a youngster. Nothing pleases me more than overseeing something as it is developed, and sharing that wonderful force of creativity, having the impact of improving people’s lives. Also, I sense a new passage in my life. I have already achieved most of what I hoped to accomplish by age 40, and now another stage is emerging which requires the fulfillment of larger civic responsibilities. My arts and crafts collection, for example, primitive pieces from Peru and New Guinea that I’ve been assembling for years, should find a permanent home and should be shared with the public. With that in mind I intend to establish more of a cultural rapport with institutions like our Desert Museum in the years ahead.