Award-winning designer, author sees role one of ‘servant’

By Tammy Keith Published March 16, 2014 at 1:49 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Nick Hillemann

Georg Andersen of Conway, an interior designer and author, has worked with clients all over the world and has garnered many awards and honors. He and his wife, Annabelle, were honored last week by University of Central Arkansas interior-design alumni at a banquet held at Art on the Green, a Conway art gallery Andersen helped design.

Georg Andersen is a walking testimony to his design aesthetic.

He’s wearing a crisp shirt with blue-violet iolite cuff links, a striped tie and his signature coordinating pocket square, and a perfectly proportioned sports coat and slacks, all in shades that complement his Norwegian blue eyes. Not a silver hair is out of place.

The award-winning designer’s work, from home to hotels, has a similar sophisticated, yet effortless, look.

“You’re products of your exposure,” he said.

Andersen, 73, who grew up in Long Island, N.Y., traces his love of design to his parents, who saw beauty in everyday life.

His father, a contractor, used to drive his son by buildings.

“He loved good architecture. We would ride around, and he’d point out interesting details to me,” Andersen said. “He was fascinated by good craftsmanship. He had an intuitiveness.”

Before Andersen was born, his mother was first chef for the Vanderbilts and the Post family and was exposed to elegant table decor.

“Our table never went begging. Norwegians, their dining table is the family altar,” he said. “Our dining table was always beautifully dressed.”

Andersen, whose first name is pronounced G-air-g, said his family kept a home in Norway. When he was 7, they lived there for 18 months. When they returned, he was 9, and he went to a Bible church and “accepted Christ with all the brains within me.”

Andersen said he loved art from early in his life and took all the courses he could in high school.

“I was absolutely taken with mechanical drafting,” he said.

A teacher suggested that he go to Parsons School of Design in New York, and he went there on a scholarship and graduated in 1961 at the top of his class. He is not an architect, but his degree is in interior and architectural design. After graduation, he attended a six-month program at L’Ecole de Architectur, Fontainbleau, France, on a full scholarship.

He was Student of the Year at Parsons, and Interior Design magazine wrote about Andersen going to Paris.

When he got back to New York, he had 65 job offers and accepted the first one for which he interviewed.

Andersen said his new boss told him, ‘We’ll see you Monday morning; we’ll be paying you $85 a week.’”

On that Monday morning, Andersen had folders on his desk that included actor Larry Hagman’s mother, Mary Martin; Sharon Kay Ritchie, the 1956 Miss America; and “Mrs. John F. Kennedy at the White House,” Andersen said.

“That was my first introduction into working in the field,” he said.

The White House job was to redecorate the diplomatic reception room.

“The White House [project] was a collaborative effort,” he said. Andersen got to know first lady Jackie Kennedy and there was “a lot to like about her,” he said. She knew her subject, was “very gracious” and had “tremendous eye contact.”

“Basically, a very humble human being — you saw someone very warm,” he said.

Parsons School of Design asked him to teach, which he did a day or so a week during his year at the design firm.

He joined another firm after that, which broadened his knowledge even more.

“I learned at tremendous amount about proportion and the power of color,” he said.

Andersen was drafted into the Army and asked for overseas duty, and he was stationed in Alaska for 21 months.

While he was there luck, or fate, would have it that he joined a Southern Baptist church.

“Two girls came in, and I just knew,” he said. “It was just so clear to me.”

One of them, Arkansas native Annabelle, would be his wife. She was a graduate of Arkansas State Teachers College, now the University of Central Arkansas, in Conway.

She was part of a quartet and played piano while teaching elementary education there for a year.

“She just went for fun,” he said.

The couple married in Aug. 28, 1965, and Andersen got a call from his favorite of the five firms for which he has worked — Ellen McCluskey, who was part of the Lehman banking family.

He cut his teeth on restaurant design there.

“We were the hot restaurant company,” he said, naming famous restaurants scattered throughout New York.

Andersen said he likes commercial design more than residential “because it’s very, very easy,” he said.

“My clients are so well exposed, they’re light years ahead of me,” Andersen said. “What they can’t do is get it together.

“The thing God has given me is discernment – maybe it needs a finish; maybe it needs a ribbon,” he said.

Interior design is not to be confused with interior decorating, he said.

“They are light years apart. Decorating is the thing of matching, making everything precise. … Designing is an assemblage of related and unrelated objects,” he said.

“I like English traditional the most. I like English cottage; that’s my favorite. I was trained in 18th-century design,” he said.

When he was a student at Parsons School of Design, he and others would spend every Thursday in the Metropolitan Museum of Art drawing, painting, observing and learning.

He also drew in Paris and learned proportion and details, he said.

Andersen points to different tables in his living room: one English, one Irish and one American. His family room includes 12 different plaids, which in someone else’s hands might be a disaster, but mesh seamlessly in his.

“Each one of them has a common color,” he said.

“I’m happy to see there’s a revitalization of color — I’ve never stopped,” he said.

His work can be seen at Art on the Green in Conway, a gallery opened a few months ago by Nina and David Baker.

Andersen was called upon to create the design for the terminal in Conway’s new airport, scheduled to open in August.

“I want our terminal to feel like Conway. We’ve got the most beautiful carpet and distressed-wood floors,” he said.

Bleached-white, painted distressed-wood floors speak to his love of Scandinavian design, and he said they can take abuse. The carpet is a design featuring the colors terra cotta, jade green and periwinkle blue.

Some of his projects have included high-profile clients.

“J.B. Hunt’s widow, Johnelle Hunt (of Rogers), she and I are really best friends. She has me work on every project she’s got.”

He said his “most colorful” client was Zsa Zsa Gabor. Andersen worked on her apartment in the Waldorf Astoria, where she had “lifetime digs.”

“It was very important for her to find a mirror at every turn,” he said.

He met her younger sister, Eva Gabor, and their mother.

“The first time I met Eva, I fell into her – it was like a lipid pool,” he said. Not literally. “It was the most beautiful face I’ve ever seen. I got weak at the knees. There was something about her that was startlingly beautiful.”

The most extravagant design he has done in his career was in Brooklyn, N.Y. The woman wanted dark walls, preferably black, lots of white furniture, feather bouquets and “a lot of bling.”

Andersen said he almost told her he couldn’t take the job, but she told him she had six months to live, and this was her fantasy.

“We made normalcy out of black walls, white furniture and feathers. She was well-pleased,” Andersen said.

“My favorite clients are guys who own sports teams,” he said.

“They’re great, great guys to work with. They can make a decision pronto — they don’t have time to waste,” Andersen said, and his clients have included the owner of the Boston Celtics basketball team, and Leon Hess, who owned the New York Jets.

The Andersens bought a home in Conway in 1974, but they lived in New York until 1979.

“I had been approached by the Cromwell firm in Little Rock while I was in New York,” he said.

Andersen became president of the firm’s interior-design department.

“I got a tremendous extension of my architect education,” he said.

He went out on his own in 1984 in Little Rock, then moved his office to Conway in 1987, keeping an office in New York City, too.

He opened the Conway office with “great friend” and architect Ken Ingram, with whom Andersen still works on occasion. They are collaborating on a Park Avenue project now, he said.

The Andersens built a home in Conway, which is shown on the cover of one of his two design books, Silent Witness: The Language of Your Home, which was published in 2000.

About nine years ago, he decided to retire.

“I was retired maybe three, four months, and it wasn’t working. I was longing to get back to doing what I love,” he said.

Andersen said he takes on five projects a year.

“It’s worked. It’s been wonderful. I have five now, in New York City and Connecticut, and I’m enjoying it to the max,” he said.

“I have a team of five people who work for me per diem, as needed.”

He also has a relationship with the University of Central Arkansas interior-design area, one that he helped create several years ago in the family and consumer sciences department.

Mary Harlan, department chairwoman of family and consumer sciences, which includes interior design and nutrition, said Andersen’s reputation spoke for itself.

Harlan said she and former UCA president Win Thompson approached Andersen many years ago about starting the program.

“We knew that he would have so much expertise and energy for interior design,” Harlan said. “He has such a positive reputation that we just felt like this would be a wonderful start to an interior-design program, if he could be involved in an advisory capacity. He’s been on the advisory council for us ever since.”

Andersen lectures to UCA design students twice a year; he introduces a project and then grades the students’ results.

A Georg Andersen Scholarship was established, too.

His career as a designer has taken him to projects throughout the world, and his list of honors is long. The International Hotel/Motel and Restaurant Association awarded him the Gold Key Award for Excellence in Interior Design, presented by Henry Kissinger.

“I have nothing that I can’t turn back to God,” he said of his success.

“It’s a ministry. I’m a servant,” he said. “I love being a servant to my clients, people who work with me.”

He said he has a favorite quote, a Scottish proverb.

“Do not judge by appearance; a rich heart may be under a poor coat.”

“I’d like it to be my mantra,” he said.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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