(The Root) — For more than 20 years, Sheila Bridges has been a force in the design world. A graduate of Brown University and Parsons School of Design, she entered the arena of interior design at a time when many people’s budgets were ripe. Between those with new money who were ready to spend it and those seasoned in the fineries of life who were looking for a new way of expressing themselves, Bridges attracted a diverse clientele that welcomed her sophisticated approach to fine living.
Her work got noticed fast. Though she rarely name-drops, her clients have included entertainers, business executives, bankers, lawyers and at least one president — William Jefferson Clinton, whose Harlem offices she designed after he left the White House. Most of the leading design and lifestyle publications — including Elle Décor, O at Home, Metropolitan Home, Martha Stewart Living and House Beautiful — as well as Vanity Fair, In Style, Essence, Ebony, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, clamored to show her work on their pages, helping to catapult Bridges to the ultimate top spot when CNN and Time magazine named her America’s Best Interior Designer in 2001.
Over the years she has had her own TV show, Sheila Bridges Designer Living, on the Fine Living Network; her own store in Hudson, N.Y.; and her own line of home furnishings and accessories, featuring Harlem Toile du Jouy. By all accounts, she has enjoyed significant success in a field that typically is not the playground of African Americans.
From as early as she can remember, Bridges has lived between two worlds. Though her urban-Philadelphia home butted up against a tony golf course, in the ’70s it did not welcome people who looked like her. The youngest child of a dentist and an educator, Bridges commuted a short distance to a private Quaker school to ensure that she got a good education. She had her local buds to keep her company, while at the same time, with her parents’ help, she cultivated a lifetime love affair with horses and travel.
As an adult, the 49-year-old continues to bridge two worlds. Living between the urban wonderland that is Harlem and the farm oasis that is upstate New York, she has carved out a life and career that illustrate without apology who she is.
Today Bridges has opened the door to her personal world through a recent memoir, The Bald Mermaid, an artfully executed coming-of-age story in which she reveals her journey from little blond black girl to superstar designer to inspirational woman coping with hair loss because of alopecia.
The Root: You grew up in Philadelphia in what many would say was a kind of Huxtable household — to which some might ask, “Is that real?”
Sheila Bridges: It was important for me to share that part about my family because I have so much pride growing up in a black family with two professional parents and a brother. For me, it has been tiresome to always see in the media that this is not how we are portrayed as black people. Rarely do you see us in the media with two parents, extended family and people that are interesting and accomplished trying to achieve things.
TR: You have spoken about many people not believing that it’s OK to better their life, and yet you decided to beautify not just yours but many lives. What made you decided to pursue interior design?
SB: Design for me makes the world a better place. It makes the world run in a better, smoother, more efficient way, and there is beauty in that. A lightbulb went off when I studied abroad my junior year of college. I am always seeking inspiration through other cultures, and so I think, for me, studying [decorative arts] abroad in Rome, Italy, is what kind of lit the spark for my interest in design.
TR: How did you end up getting in the celebrity realm, even working with the likes of former President Bill Clinton?