December 06, 2005

Interior Designer, Eric Cohler loves Lucy, and her furnishings, too!

When he was a child in the late 1960s, Eric Cohler loved Lucy. After school, he'd come home to his family's Manhattan apartment and watch "I Love Lucy" reruns. Then he'd rearrange the furniture.

"When my parents came home they stumbled over the sofa because it was somewhere else," he recalled.

Many years later, as an adult, - and an interior designer of great repute - Cohler found himself watching late-night reruns of the 1950s sitcom. And he had an epiphany.

"I suddenly realized that Lucy was constantly moving and rearranging furniture and the sets were always changing," he said. "In design ... it's all about detail. So I had this whole crosscurrent going back and forth with Lucy."

Cohler's background is rooted in classicism - he has a historic-preservation degree from Columbia University's architecture school and a design certificate from Harvard's Graduate School of Design - but his love of Lucy has created a soft spot for decorating with a 1950s bent. The combination of those influences has become his signature. Magazine editors have dubbed Cohler "the mixmaster" for his ability to meld the classic and revivalist styles popular in the '50s with mid-century modernism.

Cohler even took his thing for Lucy on the road a while back with a talk and PowerPoint presentation he called "Learning from Lucy: Lessons in Interior Design." Using "I Love Lucy" stills and images of Lucille Ball's Los Angeles and New York homes as well as his own portfolio, the avowed fan of TV's long-running show illustrated how the program brought timeless design ideas to a mass audience and influenced his own work. "Learning from Lucy" is also the title of Cohler's book-in-progress.

His admiration for Lucy also led to a job co-designing a new, expanded Lucy-Desi Museum in Jamestown, N.Y., hometown of the actress and the fictional character she played, Lucy Ricardo. The 35,000-square-foot building - almost 10 times the size of the current museum - is slated to open next year.

It matters to Cohler that Lucy Ricardo - like Lucille Ball - left Jamestown for Manhattan "to be somebody." She came to the "city of ambition, of romance," Cohler said, "where everything was possible."

It was post-war America, the birth of suburbia and the glorification of domestic life and conspicuous consumption. The quest for the modern was under way, and the apartment where Lucy and her Cuban-born bandleader husband, Ricky Ricardo, lived reflected the times with streamlined furnishings and state-of-the-art appliances designed to make housekeeping a snap. Of course, the fictional location of that apartment - 623 E. 68th St. - would have put the couple right in the East River.

The decor of the Ricardos' apartment reflected the era's interest in both modern and European-inspired traditionalism. The living room featured modern furniture by Jamestown Royal Furniture, located in the actress's hometown. In fact, Ball liked to promote hometown companies in her program, and at that time, Jamestown was "the High Point of the North," Cohler explained, referring to the North Carolina city that today is the hub of the furniture industry.

Because the show was so popular - and a popularizer of design ideas - Lucy and Desi became a powerful endorsement for manufacturers.

"It was possible in the mid-1950s to furnish a house and dress a whole family with items carrying the 'I Love Lucy Label,'" Cohler explained. The couple's faces appeared on ads for dozens of products in the mid- to late '50s - from flooring and furniture to pajamas. Cohler says the couple received royalties of 5 percent on the furniture.

According to the designer - who has his own licensing agreements with Stark Carpet and Visual Comfort lighting - in just two days in January 1953, $500,000 worth of "I Love Lucy" bedroom sets were sold. "I don't think people today recognize the marketing genius of Lucy and Desi."

All these years later, Cohler continues to be inspired by and pay homage to his all-time favorite show - which has aired continuously since its 1951 debut - and the redheaded comedienne who filled his childhood with laughter.

He does it when he formalizes a room with plaster moldings, the kind of architectural detail typical of the Ricardos' walk-up. Or when he uses beadboard and doors with no panels and Venetian blinds - all direct design links to the show - and slipper chairs, which Ball favored in her California home. Or when he positions pictures in the traditional arrangements he prefers and that hark back to the apartment where a zany housewife concocted hilarious schemes - in other words, in small groupings over a fireplace and on the sides of a fireplace.

Cohler also credits the show with his penchant for formal draperies, especially in bedrooms, fashioned from luxurious fabrics for what he calls "a kind of glamorous, kind of 1940s, 1950s-looking Paris chic." When it comes to bedrooms, Cohler leaves the twin beds to 1950s TV-land, but he embraces the built-in shelving and cabinets that the show used for storage and display over those beds - and perhaps as a visual way to convey the connection between the occupants.

Interestingly, Cohler met Ball a couple of times when he was 8 years old. His grandfather played golf with Ball's second husband, Gary Morton, in Palm Springs.

"She once said, 'Hello, little boy,' to me," he recalled. "She was a nice lady, but was much more serious in real life than she was on television."

-story written by Joanne Furio, freelance write

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