A Conversation with the LA-based Interior Designer, Fashion Designer and Entrepreneur

Cliff Fong is a designer, decorator and co-owner of the great Galerie Half on Melrose. His rightfully celebrated residential work—most famously for his pals Ellen Degeneres and Portia de Rossi—shows a breadth of interest and intelligence (just like Cliff).  And, like Cliff, the worlds he builds are easy, effortlessly and impeccable.

You’ve worked in a lot of worlds and managed to move seamlessly from retail (working as a buyer at Maxfield’s), to clothing design of your own, to decorating and interiors, and the collecting you do for Galerie Half. I'm curious how that’s informed your process. When you set out to do a house, are you working holistically or does it start with a piece, little vignettes?

I think it’s different every time. Sometimes the architecture of the space or the soul of the space might inspire me.  If you are in a place that’s thinner on history, maybe something else, a significant piece of design, would work.  I’m not a designer in the classic sense—as you say, I’ve had a few different incarnations: in fashion, working as a buyer at Maxfield’s, as a designer, and then doing what I do now.  I studied art history and I think that served me well, gave me a reference point for a lot of different aesthetics.

It seems like you’d need a wide and deep knowledge to be able to have all of the options available to you for any given project. And, now that I think of it, that breadth of awareness seems to be something of a signature for you—a part of the Cliff-ness of your work.

It doesn’t take any imagination to go into a shop and buy a designer look head-to-toe.  Knowing who you are, and what suits you— that takes a little vision.  That takes a dialogue with oneself.  And when I’m designing something for someone I’m not interested in making it look like I did it.  I’m more interested in creating something that says something about them or expresses something unique about their environment.

I know you traveled a bunch growing up, and travel a lot now. What did that kind of exposure do for you, as a kid, do you think? How has it informed the mindset with which you travel, seek, hunt, search out stuff now?  

I find that when I get interested in something it exemplifies something of historical importance— and at the center of that importance is a methodology or a philosophy that was original.  When I’m out and about scavenging… Earlier in the year I was in Tangier and found some really interesting things, and the week after that I was in Budapest, which was amazing because of that country’s cultural history.  There are a lot of really amazing things there from the pre-communist era.  Anything up to the 20s and 30s, there are quite a few examples of it and it is preserved in really good shape.  For example, I found Marcel Breuer lamps there that I’d never seen before— I found a cache of them and they’re all stamped from the 20s and they are amazing.  So, when I see something like that I get very interested and want to know everything about it.

The better to build a narrative or a viewpoint for a project?

Yeah. It can be all those things if we are open to it—the objective, for me, is just to open people up to a more positive experience.

That is the key. Good things are just better. Like—hey—Oliver Peoples! I know you have one or two pairs yourself.

I should tell you I have like thirty pairs!  It’s funny, I was just in New York and went into Oliver Peoples just to pick up a pair of glasses and Jen Aniston and Justin Theroux came in.  I had just met them at a friend’s house in LA.  We sent her a selfie.

You’ve always been so good with celebrity—and by ‘good’ I guess I mean, unaffected, at ease.

I guess I’m glad that that gene escaped me.  Thankfully I’ve never really confused people’s public persona for their more personal selves.  I come from a generation, and from a family, where it was not important to be known just for the sake of being known.  It’s important to contribute, and if people appreciate what you contribute, that’s just a bonus.  Nobody really knows who Jonas Salk was and he basically saved the world from polio.

How was the Oscars?!

It was great to see Ellen work.  It’s a really big room and, weirdly, when I watched the tape a couple of nights later the broadcast felt more intimate.  It was exciting for me because it’s my friend performing— and all the pageantry that goes along with it is really fascinating.  The parties were just insane.  I didn’t get in bed until 6 in the morning.  I had two hours of sleep and then rushed over to a project—actually a project for Ellen.

You can follow Cliff on Twitter or visit his personal website: MattBlackeInc.

Cliff wears Original Vintage OP

- photos by Ari Michelson

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