THERE was a celebratory fizz all along Madison Avenue last week, on that stretch
of the Upper East Side that makes a kind of decorator’s gulch, and that
serves as a barometer of the rarefied neighborhood’s consumer confidence.
The Kips Bay Decorator Show House, the interior design world’s yearly
coming-out party, was having its unofficial curtain-raising, which coincided
with a few others.
At 63rd Street, Wall Streeter-turned-decorator Charlotte Moss threw open the
doors of her new store, a five-story town house emporium laid out, as it happens,
like a decorator’s show house in lush, high-’80s style with lots
of silk taffeta. The Colony Club set bottlenecked in the trompe l’oeil
limestone foyer, while the doorman, a burly and affable guy, kept his back to
the door frame, hiding the fresh paint that had smeared his suit jacket.
A few blocks north, at 70th Street and within shooting distance of the Gucci
store across the street, Tom Ford was “at home” in his new men’s
store to a select group of reporters (though not this one; the three politely
thuggish bouncers outside made sure of that).
Peering through the windows, you could hardly see through the gloom cast by
the gray suede walls, the beaver fur rugs, the macassar ebony staircase. Women
in black-and-white maid’s outfits wandered about, amping up the “Eyes
Wide Shut” decadence of the place, which has been designed as a copy of
Mr. Ford’s own home in London. It was clear that that there was a party
going on — a party that felt, even to the uninvited hovering outside, a
bit sexual, a bit pharmaceutical and utterly financial (men in suits doing nasty
There were no bouncers at the Kips Bay show house, held this year, its 35th,
in a 1904 Beaux-Arts town house at 14 East 82nd Street (and open to the public
for four weeks starting Tuesday). But nonetheless a raucous party atmosphere
dominated that afternoon, as decorators, assistants and artisans tweaked the
rooms amid the aural stew of competing soundtracks. There was world music, disco,
jazz, opera, the Bloomberg Report on three screens hung like paintings over the
fireplace in Noel Jeffrey’s elegant “power room,” and the thunderous
soundtrack of “The Fifth Element,” a truly terrible Bruce Willis
movie that came with the Sony plasma television and DVD player in the architect
Stephen Miller Siegel’s pale gold silk media room — equipment Mr.
Siegel was unable to control. “I’ve watched it twice now,”
he said helplessly. “It doesn’t get any better.”
Touchstones from history’s hardest-partying eras and locales —
Imperial Rome, Versailles, Babe Paley’s living room, Andy Warhol’s
Factory, Studio 54 — winked from nearly every one of the 22 rooms there,
making a glittery, disco ball whole.
So many shiny things! Walls were polished to a high white gloss (in Eve Robinson’s
parlor); rubbed with black Venetian plaster (Eric Cohler’s dining room);
padded with white leather punched with huge silver studs (Etienne Coffinier and
Ed Ku’s delirious second floor landing); or wrapped in sweet-pea-pink silk
moiré (Jamie Drake’s bedroom).
The front hall, designed by Carl Lana and Randall Beale, had more reflective
surfaces than Halston’s bathroom. There were two 10-foot-high mirrored
obelisks, a silver chandelier with tentacles, an aluminum “pillow”
captive in a glass vitrine, silver leather Arne Jacobsen Egg chairs, and aluminum
foil glued to the stair’s wainscoting. You can try this at home, Mr. Lana
said: use Reynolds Wrap and 3-M spray mount. “It’s O.K. if it starts
to break down a little,” he continued. “Nothing is perfect. It’s
got wrinkles. It’s got a few little tears. That’s life.”
Mr. Beale, who was wearing a silver down jacket, said, “This is all about
Mr. Lana added: “And retrospection. We began to realize we were making
a retrospective here of our years together.”
Above the aluminum foil wallpaper, Mr. Beale and Mr. Lana’s collection
of photographs made a portfolio of ghosts and good times gone by: there was a
Billy Name print of Andy Warhol, a Janis Joplin portrait, a few Cecil Beatons
and a few of a young man teaching a flamenco class, a former beau of Mr. Lana’s.
“To quote Auntie Mame,” Mr. Lana said, “life is a banquet
and most poor suckers are starving. You’ve got to live, live, live!”
The high design world marked the 1990s with a kind of penitent minimalism,
and the early aughts by disappearing from the public eye altogether, trampled
by the hordes of HGTV carpenter-hosts, ambitious stylists and craft-loving homemakers.
But this year, two decades after the stock market crash of 1987 and not far from
three since the beginning of the AIDS crisis, high design seems not only revivified
but giddily celebratory, toasting its hedge fund-fueled present, while alluding
briefly to the sorrows in its past.
The very grown-up parlor by Eve Robinson is a mise-en-scène of impeccable
20th-century haute design, but what’s most arresting is the Ross Bleckner
painting above the macassar ebony mantel, from his tainted blood cell series.
Ms. Robinson said her room was all about new life; the Bleckner painting makes
her manifesto dark and poignant.
In his “gentleman’s bath” on the sixth floor, Scott Salvator
opened his arms before the six-foot-long, caramel-colored marble soaking tub,
the torso-size gilded sconces and the silver-leaf ceiling. Then he asked out
loud, “What was I inspired by?” His answer: “Men bathing. That
was my hallucination.”
Pointing to the tiger’s-eye stone vanity, in its cabinet of wenge wood
and burnt cowhide, he said, “This isn’t something you’ll find
at Home Depot.”
“Seriously,” he continued, “it’s my fourth time here.
After 25 years of doing this, I wanted to stand back and do an analysis of the
show house, what it was, what it has been, what it should be. It should be couture.
It should be the Academy Awards. What wiped this business out was AIDS, and the
people who stepped in to fill all those empty places were B players. This is
the first year in a long time I’ve seen an upswing of quality.”
While Mr. Salvator is pushing a vision of decorating as high fashion —
“What I do is for the one percent,” he said — others frame
their work in high culture terms.
“Curate, don’t decorate,” said Amy Lau, who said she had
used frequent flier miles to bring in artists to contribute to her ’60s-ish
Miami-tropical living room next door to Mr. Salvatore’s power bathroom
(Kevin Inkawhich made a twiggy mobile; Jennifer Prichard made pale green porcelain
petals that crawl along one wall). Ms. Lau is a founder of the Design Miami fair,
which runs alongside Art Basel Miami each year.
There was a bit of cross-pollination. Ms. Lau’s green and yellow palette,
she said, was inspired by Joseph Albers’s square paintings. So was the
bed in the bedroom designed by Jed Johnson Associates, appearing at Kips Bay
for the first time.
There were ghosts in here, too: the late Jed Johnson began designing first
for his acquisitive roommate, Andy Warhol, “in self-defense,” as
his twin brother, Jay, likes to say. Jay Johnson is now president of the company,
which counted Richard Gere and Mick Jagger among its early clients. The imagined
inhabitant of this funky-swanky bedroom has a few Warhols, portraits of transvestites
from his “Ladies and Gentlemen” series, as well as a McDermott and
McGough oil painting over the bed that proclaims: “The Hidden Secrets of
Sex Are Daringly Revealed!”
This guy is ready for love — there were hot pink condoms in a ceramic
dish by that limed oak bed, one of the many pieces here from the Jed Johnson
Home Collection — but seriously ambivalent about the whole thing, Jay Johnson
“We put a Tracy Moffatt video piece on the television, clips of love
stories from movies. It starts out all lovey-dovey and then deteriorates, everyone’s
slapping everyone else, throwing drinks in each other’s faces, until finally
the women all shoot the men,” Mr. Johnson said cheerfully. “Total
Jamie Drake’s pink moiré and pink tweed bedroom is also designed
for a solo inhabitant, a woman who “may or may not invite her lovers in,”
said Mr. Drake, to her pink velvet bed.
Mr. Drake, who is known for his use of high-octane color, as well as for being
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s decorator, has a new fabric line. He’s
named the pink tweed for Babe Paley, still the most over-exposed of Truman Capote’s
swans; the slim sofa in James Rixner’s silky and very urban midcentury
sitting room is named for her, too.
But although icons of old money may still be called on to add luster to new
money’s spending choices, the real issue at the show house — and
all along Madison Avenue — is the divide between the rich and the superrich,
as Kate Betts, the editor of Time Style & Design magazine noted last week.
“If that’s the conversation,” she said, “how do the
superrich set themselves apart? How does Mr. Hedge Fund Manager, who’s
worth $3 billion — hello! — trade up?”
Ms. Betts had spent Wednesday evening at the Carlyle, at Tom Ford’s dinner
party for his store. “Ford’s point,” she said, “is that
the rich are buying intimacy and privacy, and service — his maids and butlers
— goes along with that. It’s a club thing.”
Or a private party, and you’re not invited.
“It is true that people are celebrating, or allowing themselves to celebrate
their success,” Mr. Drake said. “That’s not a negative thing.
We live in a filter-down society.”
Just off the Jed Johnson bedroom is a little women’s study made by Wayne
Nathan and Carol Egan that has the sort of vacant look of a young fashion model.
She’s got the right clothes, but something’s missing. The occupant’s
bulletin board — made from padded silver metallic fabric — is mostly
empty, except for a few magazine tearsheets and a little thesis, written in pink
ink in block letters, that reads in part: “Pleasure consumes us. Work strengthens
us. Let us choose!”
The New York Times, April 19, 2007