Christopher Hyland: The Fabric of Life
You’ve seen the Dos Equis commercials, where a bearded gentleman requests of the television audience to “stay thirsty”. This “Most Interesting Man in the World” is depicted as an adventurer, playboy, a man of the world adorned in the nattiest bespoke threads, undoubtedly fashioned on Savile Row. Of course we all know he’s nothing of the sort, simply an actor hired to encourage us all to consume mass quantities of substandard commercial beer. There is, however, a gentleman who (in my humble opinion) truly is the most interesting man in the world, and his name is Christopher Hyland.
More than a titan of the textile industry, he is a man who has traveled the world, breaking bread with president and prince, pauper and paladin, and once dared to traverse the mountainous Himalaya. One may find Mr. Hyland (a seasoned mariner) yachting through the Greek isles, or hitting the slopes in Austria. His showroom is one of the oldest in the Decoration & Design Building in New York City, and one of the largest. He is a man of many accomplishments, great wealth, and renown, yet he remains a humble servant to his trade, his customers, and to the well being of humanity.
With my photographer, the intrepid Adrian Moens, I met with Christopher Hyland at his palatial condominium. His friends refer to it as “The Manor House of Chelsea”, and it is indeed all that, and so much more.
I’d like to take it back to your formative years growing up, if I may. When you ask a child what he aspires to be, you might invariably hear things like firefighter, pilot, doctor, and so forth. Before you struck upon the idea to become a textile merchant, what did Young Christopher Hyland aspire to be?
I aspired to be President of the United States.
Did you, really?
Well, I aspired to be President of the United States, but then I also realized I had to make a living.
I grew up in Salem, Massachusetts, and Marblehead, on the north shore of Boston, where there were many mills, and a great trading tradition. I went to school in Switzerland, and learned about the Radici family of Italy, and learned of how they were bankers, but originally silk merchants. I then went to India, Turkey, and Malaya. In no time I had trekked to the base camp of the Mt. Everest expedition with Tenzing Norgay, who was the guide of Edmund Hillary. I had a great expedition with him, a great time. I decided to come down a little early, because I felt I might be getting altitude sickness. So I spent a few days in a bazaar, and bought some fabrics. Brought them home. My mother’s friends really liked the fabrics, and I didn’t want to sell them, but I finally told them that they could have them. They agreed to pay an outrageous price, which funded my next trip to the Himalayas. That’s how it all began.
Your principal trade is fabric, but you’ve branched off into other industries as well.
We sell wallpaper-- some wallpaper, by no means a large amount. Our principal trade is in fine residential textiles. We do wallpaper, we do trimmings, we do window hardware, and rugs.
How do you find the kind of fabrics you want to offer at your showroom, or do they find you?
Initially, I travelled all over Europe. But now (mercifully) all the great mill owners come to see me personally, and I share with them my vision for what I think interesting textiles for the next year could be. They provide me with samples, and I choose, I tweak, and I change, and I cajole, and we create these collections pretty much on a regular basis.
Now you arrive to your showroom every weekday morning, as if you were someone else’s hire, rather than the owner. It seems that you’re the type of merchant who would rather ensure that his clients are satisfied, than to merely sit back, let others do the work, and rake in profit.
I love what I do! I like being a merchant, I enjoy being a designer. I am satiated by it, I am energized by it. There isn’t a moment I don’t want to be with my textiles, creating and selling. That’s my mission.
This year’s spring market at the Decoration and Design Building, the theme was Art+Design, and you participated by displaying some of your art collection throughout your showroom. I have seen some of your photography collection on a television broadcast once, though I can’t recall what it was. You’ve obviously an appreciation for the arts. How long have you been an admirer, collector, and photographer?
I have been collecting art ever since I was a little boy. I think when I picked up my first stone, and I had containers of stones, I was collecting art. The art of nature. When I grew older, I purchased engravings, prints, photographs, antiques and paintings. Today, I have a collection of Hudson River paintings, African art, 20 Century American and European photography by the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész, Robert Mapplethorpe, and many others.
There were quite a few keynote addresses that day, which spoke of the intimate relationship between art and interior design. What is your perspective on the matter?
Art is an integral part of the interior design story. We in the home furnishings industry provide furniture -soft furniture, cased goods, textiles, wallpapers and other things- for decorators and their clients. Those items showcase the individuals who live in those spaces and importantly, they should be part of what showcases the objets, which they acquire. Because the objects that surround us, our books, sculptures, furniture, paintings and everything else, is what defines who we are. What commits us to the civilization that we're part of.
If we are separated from the lives of objects, then our own lives are diminished and not fully realized.
You donated some of your photography to a museum, if I recall correctly. In England, was it?
My Transition Series is now in the collection of the New Britain Museum of American Art, and the Cape Cod Museum of Art. They both wanted the Transition Series to be there, and there are other museums that would like to display the Transition Series as well.
More than any other industry (fashion included) nothing says luxury like interior design. How do you define luxury?
Luxury is ironically not about being the most expensive, necessarily. But it is about being the most unique. Oftentimes the most unique is the most expensive, therefore, sought after because it's a limited quantity. It's kind of like there are a limited number of pure diamonds, or there's a limited quantity of gold. But it doesn't mean that you couldn't have a small diamond that's pure. It doesn't mean that you couldn't have a small bit of gold. So it's not always about what you spend, although the truth of the matter is, that which is luxurious is somewhat rare, unique, well-conceived and much appreciated by those who view it and want to possess it.
How long has Christopher Hyland, Inc. been around now?
Forty plus years.
The day you decided to set up shop, was the D&D Building your first choice for location?
I can't think of any better place to be than the D&D Building! It is the omega point of design in America. It is the permanent, day in/day out marketplace to which the top designers in the country and world are able to go to find the most discerning products for the house, for the office and for the hotel industry.
The D&D Building may be your base of operations, but you have other locations outside of New York.
We are represented by ten to twelve regional showrooms and sales people.
With all the responsibilities to your company, one would think you had little time for aught else. But (as I mentioned earlier) you’ve done some television as well.
I did many segments for LXTV and for Grey Gardens. The segment I did on the famous Grey Gardens, Little Edie and Big Edie's house (now owned by author and journalist Sally Quinn, my dear and longtime friend), we received an Emmy nomination, which I was very happy about.
Let’s talk about some of what you do outside of the textiles industry, i.e. what you like, and what kinds of things do you do when you’re not in the showroom.
For instance, it’s obvious to me that you’re a man who appreciates great music. Upon landing at your website, Sonata IV by Austrian composer and violinist, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer begins playing. You like classical music?
I love classical music! In fact I've commissioned an entire body of classical music. Some folks have said the music which I've commissioned comprises some of the best classical music privately commissioned at the turn of this century. I commissioned Maestro Joseph Vella, who is a phenomenal composer to do what he graciously named, the Hyland Mass. I've commissioned two peace anthems, I've commissioned an anthem from Unity and Acceptance of Diversity, Fanfare Acceptance of Diversity, and the Hyland Peace Mass itself; each of the main parts of the classical mass and concert, I asked to have words from western literature included before each of the Latin parts. I also wrote the lyrics for the credo, and for one of the hymns.
Beyond that, I've just completed the lyrics to 20 out of 21 songs for which Maestro Vella also composed the music, which will include in a classical setting, elements of rhythm and blues, rap, country, western, bible and that sort of thing.
That sounds wonderfully ambitious!
Yes, it's unique. Or It will be, when it's completed and performed in about two years, it will be unique in the history of American music.
Now the Hyland Mass was most recently performed at Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York City to a full house. The New York Choral Society, 170 voices together with the Saint Patrick's choir, 70 in the orchestra and 7 soloists, sang all of the classical music, which I commissioned.
To be clear, this was the Hyland Peace Mass. Yes?
Yes. The Hyland Peace Mass.
I know the Order of the Knights of Malta was in some way involved in that event.
The patriarch of the whole event was the Sovereign Prince of the Order of Malta, of that particular concert. There have been two other concerts. One the patron was the Prime Minister of Malta, before that the patron was Bishop Grech, the Lord Bishop of Gozo. Next year, we have the mass being performed in Greeley, Colorado, the nation’s greatest oil producing county and the largest agricultural producing county east of California. That is being put on by the Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra.
You’re a Knight of Malta yourself. True?
I am. I am a Knight of Malta.
Do you mind if I ask how one becomes a knight in their order?
You are asked if you would like to become a Knight of Malta, and your humanitarian efforts are assiduously considered. I've been fortunate to have the opportunity.
Care to share some of the work you’ve done in that regard?
Well, when I was Deputy National Political Director of President Bill Clinton's first campaign, I made every effort to put peace in Ireland on the agenda (I was very touched, by the way, when President Clinton wrote in his autobiography, that what I had done significantly contributed to him winning the Presidency).
So yes, from time to time, I engage in activities that are very distant from the issues of my business. They might involve the eleven presidential transition conferences, which I chaired on Housing and Hopelessness, Small Business, Eastern Europe, Ireland, Veterans Affairs and design and manufacturing towards an inclusive America.
Speaking of foreign affairs, you were interviewed for an NYU program, where you spoke about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. How are you involved in that process?
How do you know all of this?
I do my research, and I try to be thorough.
You found it on the internet?
Well, as a matter of fact, other than the NYU interview, you’re only the second person to hear what I'm about ready to say on record: I have developed a point of view concerning the Israeli Palestinian peace process, which is called “Dual Omni Sovereign Israel Palestine”, which comprises a dual sovereign status, with both the Israelis and Palestinians literally having a non-executive president over exactly the same territory, with separate prime ministers under that, with separate Parliaments and joint commissions to discuss water issues, reparations, transportation, tourism, and other things. But it's a very unique point of view in that is to say that again, I repeat, both territories together will have two presidents and two sovereign entities, and we can call it “Docet Dual Omni Sovereign Israeli Palestine”, or we can call it “Ocep Omni Israel Palestine”.
To sum up all of what you’ve said in the past few minutes, you are far more than merely a businessman, you’re a man deeply concerned about the human condition.
I am deeply concerned about the human condition, and if anybody were to ask me what my greatest failures in life have been, I would say that I have not weighed in enough about the human condition. That I would have disappointed my mentors and my parents, that my life was not more dedicated to the cause of humanity and its betterment. I have tried though, when I could, and I was given the opportunity, to affect these issues as best I could. I can assure you that that does not always make people happy, because in the realm of politics, when you espouse that which is just and balanced for people, it does not win you friends, because in the political arena, most of what people are looking for is a payoff somehow, that benefits themselves immediately financially, and that's it.
There are exceptions, don't misunderstand me, but in general it's unfortunate that altruism and ideals are not pursued as much as they should be.
It’s getting late, and I really do appreciate you taking the time to talk with me, and allowing my photographer to take some photographs of you and your magnificent, capacious showroom.
Would you like to close with a few words?
I believe that design and the environment in which we live nurtures the soul, and I believe that all of us in the design industry, on every level, must do everything humanly possibly to create environments that nurture, that invite human participation and human comfort. I am all for the most contemporary interiors, but I am not for an environment that strips the interiors of soul; therefore in doing so, you are stripping the internal soul. We need the artifacts, we need surfaces, great wallpapers, great textiles, great trimmings are layered objects. Whether they're contemporary or traditional or transition, they all must have depth, and great components. The world of gray and the world of beige is wonderful, but it only comes alive when the human body enters the room and decorates it. That human body must choose the artifacts to go in those spaces, to create a narrative for our period, for our epic, so that future generations can see and know that we were engaged in the plastic arts, and in the arts of science and the advancement of political freedom.
I'm very honored to be part of your magazine, and thank you for interviewing me.