Thursday, May 31, 2012

...about "downstyling:" Deborah Needleman at the Decoration and Design Building

Her title: Editor in Chief of WSJ. Magazine, the Wall Street Journal luxury lifestyle title. Her legacy: the masthead matriarch of Domino. Her book: The Perfectly Imperfect Home. Her keynote at the D&D Spring Market: all about where luxury fits in, in the grand scheme, designer’s toolbox and Manhattan apartment. It was an interesting conceptual take on what everyone is always hungering for from editors and industry insiders: What’s new, what’s next? What’s the new It, the next Trend?

But Ms. Needleman avoided the “T” word, making no color forecast, no prognostication of the Next Big Thing. Instead, she talked about where she finds relevance and inspiration as she curates the story of good living to her blue chip readership (with great and growing numbers, per the excited publisher in his introduction of Ms. Needleman). But inspiration is not necessarily, from this interior design maven, where you’d expect she’d find it. Her muses of the moment? Fashion photography, the fashion runway, and food trends.

From fashion photography, via a recent couture story from WSJ, Ms. Needleman talked about today’s kind of elegance... unadorned, tough, edgy. The photos, shot against bare backdrop and with a barefoot Stella Tennant, were used to show the swing between classic elegance and a contemporary air. “It’s about,” she said, “the tension of beauty and mood.” Ms. Needleman called Tennant “a woman with a real life,” and cited her athletic, Amazonian presence, palpable strength and unexpected dyed-white brows as the reasons why these shots were a new-school take on Old World elegance.

What’s the interior connection? According to Ms. Needleman, even a dressy traditional space needs something in counterpoint to keep the excess at bay. Her “Do” illustration was a room at first glance every bit as decadent as the “Don’t,” but Ms. Needleman picked out the quirk and charm she said made the interior a new kind of luxe: mismatched sofas, contemporary Schiele portrait, and a lived-in sense of comfort. In this example, it seems, the English, with their layered country homes, have it right, even right now. “Now is the time for charm,“ she said, adding an apt rallying cry for the room of assembled decorators, “and more pillows!”

In contrast, she flashed a “Don’t” image of unadulterated tradition, more Crystal Carrington than Duchess of Windsor, with an air of conspicuous consumption that might give even Gordon Gekko pause.

From fashion’s runways, the same sort of connection (softness with an edge, and vice-versa) but she also used images where a humble or “sweet” material was used architecturally, and without apology... an allover print, lace or floral. What she saw on these runways was something “decorative, yet puritanical,” and “an elegance tempered with simplicity.”

The rooms she used in concert were more of the same: chintz or florals used with abandon, or humble made chic, and in Ms. Needleman’s estimation, made fresh and new in the celebration of the simple. She was quick to clarify that these comparisons were about “letting something simple speak,” and that they were meant to be more ethereal examples and less literal connections than Domino’s “Turn this outfit into a room!” feature, although the difference did not seem all that defined... just a touch more upscale.

And finally, food. Citing farm-to-table movements, gastropubs and the hyper-specialization of the likes of olive oil stores and meatball shops, Ms. Needleman made a delicious case for the same kind of living: a celebration of “honest” materials, and rooms where the function is clear and celebrated. A stripped-down but sunlit room, with vintage soaking tub provided illustration. “This room is about bathing, and the pure joy of the Bath.” She got lots of nods from the room when she said, “Who doesn’t love a bath?”

There were tie-ins here, too, to the runway concept of using one “ingredient” and running with it (chintz or pattern or function substituting for the meatball in the metaphor).  What it’s now about, said Ms. Needleman, is “simplicity, authenticity, a narrative and sense of place.”

But what of all this authenticity? Is that a relevant topic to a roomful of people charged with spinning yarns for their clients with imported textiles and custom-made pieces, much from within the walls of this top-tier and trade-only building?

There seemed to be in many of her examples a statement, too, about femininity: that something sweet can be strong, no explanation necessary. Along those lines, and with a slight apology to the handful of men in the packed room, she said, “It’s a good time to be a woman decorator,” going on to say, “women think more about how people use space.”
The idea that rooms are meant to be used, frayed edges be damned, and her mantra of “perfectly imperfect,” the essence of Ms. Needleman’s book and at the root of her keynote, all rings true when we are pressed for time and tight on budget. But Ms. Needleman’s examples still felt quite aspirational. The same could also be said of Undecorate, the book by DwellStudio’s Christiane Lemieux, where each interior seems to try to outdo the next for how “unstyled” the highly styled interiors could be. Likewise, those shots of supermodel Ms. Tennant were done by the absolute best in the business, with staggering day rates and a cast of many, all in the interest of “simplicity.” To paraphrase Dolly Parton, “It takes a lot of money to look this undecorated.”

And, apparently, it takes a bit of cash to live this simply... English manors, Spanish country homes, rolling family estates, and Porthault linens were the images on the screen. No connection was necessarily made to how to get these couture ideas right off the rack, in a building of high-end sources where a CB2 recently moved in just downstairs.

It seems also, to be about context: a threadbare sofa seems chic and terribly unaffected in a manor on the Scottish moors. In a Manhattan studio, something gets lost in the translation. And if not context, maybe backstory. That “real woman” Tennant? She’s the granddaughter of Andrew Cavendish, 11th Duke of Devonshire and Deborah Mitford, the last of the noted Mitford sisters.

It’s also all interesting, in the context of Ms. Needleman’s past with now-folded Domino,  a casualty of the tough times besetting the shelter-magazine world. Domino had a DIY and budget vibe (The scripty captions! The exclamation points!!!) while heralding designers who wouldn’t take a commission under $10,000 (and up) in fees alone for a single room. It seems that high/low disconnect possibly led to an advertiser/reader disconnect, too.

Is all this intentional “downstyling” a self-conscious apology for wealth in an Occupy Wall Street world? Or is it just the next iteration of tradition through the lens of a new generation? Is “It’s time to lighten up the luxury” just a way to address a still-faltering or stalled economy or a return to something real? Choice, or necessity? Not sure, but interesting to consider. Is, as Ms. Needleman suggests, the idea of “indulgence” as dated as the shoulder pads of Dynasty? Or is the attempted avoidance of looking indulgent just a shtick and charade, like the court members of Versailles dressing like peasants for kicks and giggles? Or maybe this is just what luxury and style will look like when our newest wave of Facebook-funded millionaires start hiring designers and showing their lofts off on The Selby.

Granted, “budget” is a HIGHLY subjective topic, especially in a design building (where later in the day, curator-extraordinaire Murray Moss touted the "simple" joys of $200 drinking glasses, although his namesake store Moss, which used to sell those glasses, is now defunct) and another presenter talked about the issues of removing her MoMA-caliber collection to make way for her daughter’s at-home birthday party. I just wish the connections to a different tier of client had been made, by someone, somewhere. But maybe, to this audience, that would have been sacrilege, like bringing a GAP shopping bag to Fashion Week.

Later in the day, I spoke to the connected and buoyant Suzanne Sokolov, of Boost Marketing, and she talked about a rising vibe of similar “authenticity” in the interior blog community, specifically, “Things I’m Afraid to Tell You,” a viral confessional of sorts where some of the blogosphere’s best admit to not being able to make rent or afford the luxury goods they’re all-a-Twitter over, among other things laid bare, publicly. There seems to be the desire for honesty there, too.

Are we ready for al this honesty, and a new kind of warts-and-all, perfectly imperfect, downstyled luxury? Not sure. When times are tough, there's something, sometimes, to be said for aspiration and a little bit of artifice. I do like, though, the idea that definitions of beauty and good design need a good airing out every now and then. Just like those English Country homes.

Get social! Find the D&D Building and WSJ Magazine on Facebook.

All images, except for the event photo and the D&D Building/CB2 image: WSJ.Magazine, from Deborah Needleman's keynote presentation, used with permission of the D&D Building.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

... about a West Village home.

I talk to John Behan and architect David Burdett of DAS Studio as they open their home a second time to the readers of Apartment Therapy. Their West Village 30s era apartment was reworked and fine tuned, by decor and design,  to better suit the duo, and make an apartment live larger without moving or removing a single wall.

David, Part 1
David, Part 2


See the full House Tour here on Apartment Therapy.

Friday, May 25, 2012

...about "it's all in the details:" Kips Bay 2012

Today, I'm letting the images speak for themselves, and let the pictures do the heavy lifting. I posted already about what the take-aways were for the Kips Bay Decorator's Showhouse 2012, when top designers tackled new construction. But aside from the overall rooms, I love the "moments" in showhouses... an item, a vignette, a detail, a chair, a juxtaposition. So without further comment, my favorite moments of Kips Bay 2012. (Pictured above: David Scott's study.)

Patrik Lonn
Laura Bohn
Coffinier Ku Design 
Neal Beckstedt
Neal Beckstedt
Scott Sanders
Scott Sanders
Alexander Doherty
Brian Del Toro
Alexa Hampton
Jamie Drake

Jamie Drake

Raji Radhakrishnan
Raji Radhakrishnan

The Show House runs through June 14th, 2012. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Tuesday and Thursday until 8 p.m.; Sunday, Noon - 5 p.m.

Get social! Find the Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club Decorators Show House on Facebook. And read my full tour here.

Monday, May 21, 2012

...about Wendy Kidd.

I talk to the highly creative Wendy Kidd, of Wendy Kidd Entertainment, about her live/work space in Manhattan's East Village, designed in concert with Jim Fairfax, of Fairfax Studios.

See the full House Tour on Apartment Therapy. And listen to Jim's take here.

...about Jim Fairfax.

I talk to interior designer Jim Fairfax of Manhattan's Fairfax Studios, about the live/work space he helped create for entertainment impresario, hair stylist and rock drummer Wendy Kidd. Listen in!

You can tour the completed interiors over on Apartment Therapy, and listen to Wendy's take on the design process that adapted her apartment into a working salon. 

Jim also just completed his very first year at Design on a Dime, with an equally curated offering and chic take, to benefit Housing Works.

Get Social! Find Fairfax Studios on Facebook.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

...about lime, lacquer and taming the white box: Kips Bay 2012.

It sounds like a scandalous entry on a society page: “Grand Dame moves West, has major work done to conceal flaws and hide age.” But this bold-face name and the grand dame in question is the annual Kips Bay Decorator Showhouse, to benefit the Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club. It’s historically (with one slight but still-east detour, to a white-brick mid-century landmark building) been staged in brownstone, mansion or townhouse, all typically offering built-in grace, plaster molding, fireplaces and aged parquet. But this year, a new box was wrapped around the event. And new it is... the 40-story Aldyn still has that new house smell, and (until early June) is the site of the city’s swankiest Model Apartment. Two, actually. A pair of 6,000 square foot mirror image two-story homes that NY Times deemed, “each equally unpromising in architectural terms.” They’re the modern stage sets for a cast of the décor profession’s premier players, strutting their stuff to garner attention, ink and clients.

But the age concealment here was not the typical nip and tuck in the quest for the fountain of youth. Quite the opposite... the designers seemed to want to add a sense of history and grace of age to a basic white box (if you can call sweeping river views, double-height living rooms, sneak peaks onto private rooftop lap pools and private terraces “basic.”) and there were several tricks trending high, and all lessons in how to take the edge off of new construction.

So how did premier decorators and designers tame the sheetrock beast?

No Wall Untouched
Charlotte Moss did it with faux a boxwood hedge and trompe l’oeil barnboard wall covering that you’d swear you could still get a splinter from. Bryant Keller did it with a scattering of zebras. Raji Radhakrishnan of Raji RM Interiors did it with venetian plaster, turning her box of a room into the inside of a luminescent, magical pearl. But whatever the finish, the walls were the stars in all but a few rooms.

Mere paint appeared in only the briefest of moments (the rare column walls, and Todd Alexander Romano’s deep aubergine) but otherwise, walls got serious treatment where there was no cove molding or raised panels to provide vertical anchor. Grasscloth is still big (Phillip Jeffries still apparently the grasscloth go-to), but there was a definite lack of upholstered walls. Smooth new construction gave no good reason for this decorator trick when older walls are past repair, although an upholstered panel acted as backdrop for the main art in Jamie Drake's emerald green study.

Designers know that treated walls give texture to rooms with no chair rails or crown, but they also took advantage of the opportunity to layer on some history and story telling. Bryant Keller’s entry sported that bold red iconic Scalamandre paper to hold attention in a high-traffic showhouse, certainly. But it was a nod to the past from one of the assembled grouping’s younger participants. That paper is as much about the history of New York’s interior design community as it was about a newcomer’s grand gesture.

Proving that subtle can also grab attention, Brian Del Toro did a tone-on-tone plastered grid of an earthy blue in one of the Showhouse’s most understated, but designer-talked-about rooms, no doubt taking color cue from the lap pool just past the window. Parchment-sided chairs and shocks of lime, all reflected in a showstopper mirror made this subtle room memorable.

Charlotte Moss seemed to have the most fun of anyone, creating an owl-inhabited, hedge-walled study, a room just outside Hogwarts if Hermoine and Ron could afford the going design rates of these high powered and big ticket decorators.

Ask The Panel
When life does not give you paneled libraries, you build them yourselves. But these were modern applications, not faux recreations or Metropolitan period rooms. Alexander Doherty used the wood du jour, a paler or cerused oak, for his quiet grid, and so did David Scott, channeling all the warmth and charm of paneled rooms with none of the dusty, dated baggage.

The Longest Yard
The bold repetition of an even bolder fabric can give a room a sense of architectural presence, and both Scott Sanders and Ed Ku and Etienne Coffinier of Coffinier Ku Design took fabric and bolted with it. Scott’s bright ode to summer and (for this South Floridian) a citrusy conjuring of Miami in his “Cabana" (most likely a guest bedroom, and ensuite bath on the floorplan) spilled from one Scalamandré fabric.

Missoni Home was well-represented in the Coffinier Ku room-cum-product celebration, where an amazing lace-back embroidered fabric took several star turns, fabric-backed and applied to uninspired builder’s basic doors, and left unfettered at the windows, the perfect flighty backdrop to an installation of Baccarat butterflies.

Come home and go big. That was the strategy of some, using heroic scale as architectural stand-in, or to hold a room’s own against double-height walls. Susan Zises Green brought her high ceilings down to scale with giant mirror and big columns of framing drapes. 

Todd Alexander Romano used over-sized pineapple, giant slices of geodes, grand chandelier and Bustamante brass giraffe to tame the scale of a silo-esque room he had quipped to the New York Times that he originally wanted to “paint gray and fill with corn.” 

And Raji Radhakrishnan filled a builder’s bump-out edge to edge with a mural, adding to the storytelling air of this poetic room and making it seem the designer had actually requested the frame’s odd existence.

Walk Off the Floorplan
Sometimes the best way to make new construction work is to ignore the builder’s intention, or at least make it more personal. James Rixner took what was most likely pitched during a real estate walk through as an eat-in kitchen, and turned it into a bright but cozy sitting area. Were I the resident, I’d be in this room a LOT. It was also one of many places where lime green added twist to the tonic (see “Green is Good,” below).

New Tapestry for the Modern Castle
While no one was using tapestry-like installations of draperies to kill a castle’s chill, all used it for regal air. But these are not your Tudor’s swags and jabots. In the jointly designed living room of Bunny Williams, Brian J. McCarthy and David Kleinberg, a draped wall and tapestry conjured up a modern castle, and the collected spirit of Albert Hadley, the honoree of the room’s design. 

Draped walls were also used in Thom Filicia’s entry, an unlikely but working mix of menswear fabric and tribal rug.

And Alexa Hampton/Mark Hampton used tapestry-like draperies to create a sense of enclosure in the Master Bedroom, and also to balance a room sided by three windows.

Turn your Back on the Window
Like the Hampton room comprised of mostly window walls, several designers lost precious furniture-anchoring walls to floor-to-ceiling glazing. Neal Beckstedt, in one of my very favorite rooms in both units, employed one of my favorite tricks: a wall of sheers to make window into wall, and furniture placement no obstacle. He also displayed a big piece of art on the main vignette, and it was the draped backdrop that made that make sense. 

While some would cry foul to covering a view, this home has many... and by draping one, Neal distilled the view to its absolute best... the sweeping view down the Hudson, where the day I shot and I’m sure many days after, one cruise ship was perfectly placed just beyond a slice of rooftop pool. Plus, even draped, the windows and views still sparkle and shine. (Sidenote: That wood lamp! The hallway console! Neal gives GOOD vignette.)

Lacquer or Leave Her
Shine, on. Alexa Hampton for Mark Hampton lacquered their East Side homage with a deep battleship, and Thom Filicia and Jamie Drake were also among the high glossers (some lacquer, some paint, some plaster, but all high shine, no doubt magic when evening falls.) My friend and industry insider Lloyd Marks unlocked the mystery of why so much lacquer on the walls of this year’s Kips Bay, and it was practical one, born of the home’s newer vintage: New walls provide a smooth-enough canvas for this mirror-like application. It’s not always a viable option in the older homes where Kips Bay normally takes place.

Lynne Scalo, of Lynne Scalo Design brought the shine in one of only maybe a trio of white rooms, with lamé lounge, gold table and vintage glass, on loan from Culture Object.

In a brave move of full disclosure, she let the window unit HVAC hide in plain sight, and it stood out in the art-inspired room like a chic installation.

Green is Good
Split pea, lime, grass, emerald, acid and poison: green was a Go. It was Emerald City all up in here, with green in all its glory as the runaway color story. Anchor (like in Laura Bohn's kids room) or accent, the strong take on this secondary color seemed to be the way designers were dealing with a lack of green views, or demonstrations that designers understand strong color can bring an architecture all its own.

Just Add Age
Most, if not every room save for the kitchen by Robert Schwartz and Karen Williams for St. Charles featured vintage or antiques, patina’d woods and the depth an “important” piece lends a room of any era.

The most successful designs, in this modern assemblage of rooms, seemed to be the ones where at least a nod was made to the fact these are brand new rooms. When “Upper East Side” was loaded in and layered on, without any reference to modernity, the union of room and décor wasn’t necessarily the happiest of marriage. Patrik Lonn managed to go largely traditional and it still worked well, owed in part to gorgeous parchment pieces, European antiques and the timeless grace of fine dining. He also is on trend with settee as dining perch, in a move that seems both totally modern and Gilded Age graceful.

The quirks of an older house sometimes lend themselves better to the design schizophrenia that sometimes comes from unleashing 30 or so designers in the city’s biggest interior design tour de force. Here, rooms spilling from one to another created some jarring transition, but that just made it the chicest of chic fun houses.

The St. Charles kitchen
Success or failure (although no real failure here), I loved this year’s Kips Bay Decorator Showhouse, since in this bright shiny tower and all the white boxes inside, it was a real decorating assignment... no unbelievable Before and Afters, of the transformation of a room where years have changed its shape and function (you could still see the bones of each original room) and no architecturally grand detail to start the conversation or save the day. The designers and decorators had to ship it all in, apply the patina, use the tricks of their trade and art of their eye to make the most of rectangles and squares, with the reality of vents, switches and HVAC units all fully in the mix.

A few notes of absence: while last year’s House seemed to be highly art-driven, this year only a few pieces stood out for art’s sake, in Jamie Drake’s and David Scott’s separate studies. I guess with those views, art does take a back seat. And draperies were largely simple, wall-colored or white, sheer and unfussy, again, owed to the views. (Lust alert: The blue zebra rug by Carini Lang!)

Somehow, on my afternoon of shooting (that also involved dodging President Obama’s post-The View motorcade before rushing off to the Alpha Workshops’ Annual Alpha Awards) I missed Shawn Henderson’s room completely. I’m going back for Shawn. Um, Shawn’s room. And for more lessons on making “new” feel “lived in,” beautifully.

In one of my favorite “moments" in the entire house, Todd Alexander Romano floated an antique clock on a contemporary acrylic pedestal, like a magic trick. It was an apt metaphor for the Showhouse itself, where time and age were in the spotlight and discussed over blueprints, cocktails and walk-throughs. Here, new construction, ageless antiques, industry legends and new players all met somewhere in the middle. And most of the time, found the  magic right at that intersection.