Where Design Never Sleeps: New York

Where Design Never Sleeps: New York

  • The Grand Tourist
  • 11/28/23

SHOW NOTES

It’s the city so well-designed, they named it twice: New York, New York. On this special episode sponsored by Ann Sacks, Dan speaks with four leading figures in his hometown’s design scene to explore the trends, movements, hotspots, and personalities that make Gotham the beating heart of the design world, including Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, a curator at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; Oren and Tal Alexander, co-founders of real estate firm Official; David Alhadeff, founder of powerhouse gallery The Future Perfect; and Michael Diaz-Griffith, executive director of the Design Leadership Network.

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TRANSCRIPT

David Alhadeff: I’m always excited when I hear about a new thing happening in New York. I think it’s great. It’s amazing. I just think there’s so much opportunity always, and that’s the thing. We are in a community of abundance. There’s so much room in the market for a new voice and for new ideas and for a new curatorial vision.

Dan Rubinstein: Hi, I’m Dan Rubinstein and this is The Grand Tourist. I’ve been a design journalist for nearly 20 years, and this is my personalized guided tour through the worlds of fashion, art, architecture, food, and travel, all the elements of a well-lived life. As someone who’s lived in New York for 25 years now, I sometimes take its magic for granted. The architecture, the museums, the galleries, the shops, the bagels. But most of all, I’m positively spoiled when it comes to all of the great design around me. On this special episode, brought to you by Ann Sacks, which just opened a palatial slab gallery in New York’s Long Island City, I chat with some of my favorite Gothamites and a few new friends to take the city’s temperature as it were on all things designed. We’ll speak with a pair of real estate agents who are taking the luxury game to a whole new level, a design dealer and gallerist who has changed the culture with his keen eye inventive spaces and groundbreaking talents and a design world connector whose latest book is encouraging a new generation of antiquarian aficionados.

But first I check in with the dear friend of mine, Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, curator of contemporary design at New York’s Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. A Miami native, she was the former creative director of the collectible design fair Design Miami that takes place each year during Art Basel Miami Beach. A recent show, a retrospective on the late fashion designer, Willi Smith, was impacted by the pandemic lockdown. But its digital initiatives gave the small show an outsized impact. I caught up with Alexandra from her apartment where I got her take on the state of design in the city, a list of her favorite galleries, and most importantly, where to get the best burger.

(MUSICAL BREAK)

Illustration by Zebedee Helm.

As a basic New Yorker question, what is life like as a curator and mom of two?

Alexandra Cunningham Cameron: I mean, it’s hard.

How is that even possible? That is what I ask you.

I do try to sleep. You do what you can. I get asked a lot about our family’s decision to stay in New York. We live on Broadway. We live in a really chaotic part of the city, and I found that the benefits that my kids get from stepping out the door and being in a whirlwind of people and sense and architecture and objects is something that has totally shaped their brain in a way that my brain was not shaped, sort of hanging out in a backyard in south Florida. And it can be intense, but it’s also an incredible place to be a parent because you can go to a park and immediately be with other parents and your kid can meet new people and it’s a way of life that involves constant exposure. But I appreciate that and I can’t imagine raising them anywhere else. I’ve tried to imagine it, and Seth probably thinks about it all the time. He is a bit more interested in a quiet space in nature, but I don’t know. You juggle.

And what is that shift like when you came to New York and worked here for the first time in terms of design and the design scene and how the attitude, it might be different here than in Miami, which of course I’m sure is quite different?

Yeah, well, it’s interesting. I mean, New York has always been my city. I remember coming here when I was four on a family trip, and it was in the winter. I don’t know why people from the tropics would decide… Maybe my parents were trying to expose me to snow, but I was horrified by the weather, trying to tear off all of these layers, but was like enraptured by the city. I was like, “What is this place?” And since then, I’ve always thought about how to get back to New York, and I still went to school here for a little bit. I’ve been back and forth.

I was living in Miami for a while and coming up here a few times a month. I’ve been back here now for about 10 years, and when my plane touches down or I cross the border, a bridge into Manhattan, I still feel that thrill. And yeah, I think at first glance, maybe Miami and New York seem like polar opposites, but I think there are a lot of similarities to the cities. They’re both constantly in motion. People go to New York and to Miami to reinvent themselves, to escape, to build a new community. And I think I just prefer to do that in a trench coat rather than a bathing suit.

But can you tell listeners how you found yourself at the Cooper Hewitt?

Yes. Well, Dan, that I’ve taken what would be considered a pretty untraditional path to the museum. My background is that I studied literature and then decided that before I went down the road of finding a small liberal arts college in the middle of the country to get my PhD in and become a professor forever, that I would try to work in fields that I’d always loved, admired, had a passion for, but maybe hadn’t understood that I could study in school or pursue and always loved architecture and design. And right around that time, the Design Miami Fair was starting in Miami. And so a friend introduced me to the fair. I was actually living in the Miami Design district at the time where the Fair’s offices were based. And I begged Design Miami to hire me even though I had no professional experience or academic background in design. And it took a while, actually. My charms were resisted for about six months.

And finally I broke Ambra down, who was the director of the fair at the time, and started out as an assistant and had almost every job imaginable at the fair for about 12 years. And after that, I started doing some independent curating at smaller museums around the country that didn’t have design departments. I was an editor in chief of an independent arts journal, the Miami Rail. I was a consultant for a variety of companies who are interested in working with designers. I worked on public art in the design district in particular and other places. And then I realized that museums have always been the places where I’ve been most transformed throughout my life. For better or for worse, I’m a culture girl, not a nature girl. I like to stand in a building and wonder at something transcendent made by human hands, read the words someone else wrote. And that moment of just understanding where I wanted to be and where I felt comfortable led me to pursue a job in a museum, even though I had always said I would never work in a museum because I thought they moved too slowly.

And your partner is also… He’s an artist and a museum professional as well, is that correct?

Yes, he is the director of the Children’s Museum of the Arts and an artist. He has a studio practice.

And shifting gears a little bit to New York in general, if you had to get a letter grade today in terms of the contemporary design scene to New York, what would you say?

I love this question.

I knew you would.

This is a progressive city, New York, we don’t give letter grades.

Maybe that’s a good answer. We’re so progressive, we don’t even give letter grades.

I know. Maybe in the food industry, right, like restaurants.

Is it pass/fail? Is New York passing?

I think that New York has definitely struggled to find a marketable design identity, which has made it difficult to take off Milan and to gather people from around the world in celebration of design culture. But that’s because our scene is so diverse and complex and expansive. I think that inability to brand New York’s design scene, which is one of the ways that people really connect with it or understand it or process it, is also a strength. I was at the Brooklyn Navy Yard last week for some meetings and just in this one site, I saw the transportation of some Italian radical furniture from the late sixties and a studio experimenting with mycelium bricks and parked in the yard was a tractor running on ammonia.

And I think New York can do a better job at expressing the inward richness that someone like me gets to see. And I think that the various design events around the city are beginning to do a better job of that. And a lot of that I think is also because the scene has expanded. It’s become more collaborative. You’ve probably noticed that Design Week has really now begun to overlap with the art fairs, just like Fashion Week has begun to overlap with the art fairs in the fall. And everyone complains about what that does to restaurant reservations and event venues and hotel prices and everything. But I think it’s an indication of more crossover, which leads to exposure and discovery and understanding. And design has a lot of work to do, I think, to look outward and to invite people in. And I’m hopeful that this more cross-disciplinary exploration and collaboration might help open it up a bit more.

Is there a couple of new galleries that you could recommend people go to that maybe one or two that are new younger galleries? I can think of a few, but I’d love to hear yours.

Yeah, I think Superhouse downtown is an exciting new gallery. Tiwa Select.

Yeah. If Superhouse is sort of in a large glass vitrine in Chinatown in kind of like an indoor mall slash office situation where everyone rents little glass office spaces. It’s kind of like a public WeWork, but they’re all independent little shops and things, but they just have a glass vitrine where they just create… There’s no one inside. It’s just a glass box where things on display, right?

Yeah, yeah. Also, Jacqueline Sullivan Gallery, Emma Scully,

And apologies. We skipped over Tiwa Select, right?

We skipped over Alex Tieghi and then, I mean, to see the young energy around more established galleries like Suzanne Demisch and R&Company and Friedman Benda, Carpenters Workshop, Hostler Burrows, Cristina Grajales, Lee Mindel opened a design gallery, which is exciting.

Yes. We’ve had one of his artists shown, Zizipho Poswa on the program.

She’s incredible.

Yeah. She’s amazing.

Yeah, I’m a big fan.

And my last question, as we like to go out for burgers, for those listening that might be coming into New York to visit, what were your favorite spots for amazing burgers in the city where two design aficionados can gossip about all the things?

It’s been all about Superiority Burger for me lately.

Okay, where is that?

It’s in the East Village in the former Odessa, which is a diner that used to be across from my old apartment and closed a few years ago. But it’s vegan. They’re vegan burgers. Don’t be disappointed, Dan. I know. There are martinis. There are martinis. Yeah. Yeah. And the menu changes constantly. The desserts are the best in the city, so we have to go.

I think you won me over with desserts and martinis.

(SPONSOR BREAK)

Illustration by Zebedee Helm.

They say that in New York, real estate is a blood sport. And if that’s true, my next two guests are the reigning gladiatorial champions of it all. Brothers Oren And Tal Alexander are rockstar real estate agents and some of the brains behind Official, a global firm launched in 2022 that focuses exclusively on the so-called pinnacle segments of the mark, that is palatial apartments and townhouses that contain all of that collectible art and design in the first place. In a city that’s constantly changing, I wanted to ask them what neighborhoods are on the move, how they think the city is adapting post COVID, and what kinds of amenities their grand tourists listening set are demanding in the New York. And why don’t you guys tell me a little bit about Official and how you guys got started because I know you guys had a long career elsewhere and then you guys struck out on your own recently. So tell me a little bit about Official and what it is.

Oren Alexander: Yeah, so Tal and I have been working together now for over 12, 13 years, and we spent most of our career at Douglas Elliman, which was considered the largest residential brokerage in the country. And we managed to rise in the ranks at that company, eventually getting to being the number one team in the country, also both for the company and just in general. And we did that for three consecutive years. At that point, we realized that the company wasn’t serving our needs or our client’s needs, and that there was ultimately needs or a client’s needs and that there was ultimately a need for a company that just focused on the pinnacle segment of the market, which we found ourselves dealing with mostly in our core markets of New York, Miami. So, we realized that we are very good at what we do, but we needed operators to create a company that can serve our clients.

And, Oren, do you think that there’s… What would you say about the amenity now that you get asked, maybe, about a lot more?

Oren Alexander: I think today so many people are focused on wellness more than ever. If fitness was the last trend in amenities today, it’s wellness. It’s recovery. We’ve seen that come true in many studios opening up.

I was just visiting in Ibiza, staying at the Six Senses hotel where not only is the hotel flag a wellness brand, ultimately, starting with spas. But to add to that, they even had a concept called the Rose Bar, which was a bit of a longevity clinic, but a place that people, guests, come to to take IV drips, sit in hyperbaric chambers, do cryo, red light therapy, ice baths—

Pretty event stuff.

Oren Alexander: Yeah. And it used to be something that mostly, I guess athletes would use. Even pro surfers like Laird Hamilton made this stuff famous. But now the everyday person, whether or not they’re actually using fitness, they’re using wellness. So, that’s something that we’re seeing in most of our new developments. And then F&B is a huge driver today. People want to be able to have a five-star meal available in the residence without having to have a chef on the payroll, so most projects that we’re working on today have a combination of those two elements.

And Tal, how would you describe the niche that you saw, the need that you saw, that needed to be filled for you guys to start official? What was missing in the greater wider world of luxury real estate?

Tal Alexander: Yeah, I think three years, number one, at Douglas Elliman, we were thinking we needed a brand behind us that really resonated with our clients, that they felt really focused ultimately on the 1 percent of the market as we like to call it, the top end and build a business around that. So, really focusing on that space. Who are these buyers? Where are they coming from? And really build a company to provide a service that really no other brokerage is doing. Things like, a lot of our clients have multiple properties in the markets we operate in. Showing them where the market is for their properties on a quarterly basis. Where are the transactions happening? Their neighbors, things like that implementing into our business. So, we just felt it was something ultimately that was the next step for us, like a natural evolution, and looking for that next challenge.

And Tal, tell me a little bit about what is a trophy address today in New York City? Has that really changed in terms of what that… Let’s talk, the 10 million and up crowd. What is the prestige address now that you think is capturing people’s attention?

Tal Alexander: Yeah. I would say since COVID and everything that transpired in 2020, uptown in general became very in demand and hot, specifically for families, I think a lot of that has to do with security and safety. I think a lot of that has to do with cleanliness. Uptown tends to be cleaned a lot more regularly than certain neighborhoods in downtown.

I think also a lot of buyers today have decided which buildings are these trophy addresses? And as much as a buyer, when we start working with them, their criteria is based on location and bedroom count, addresses play a very important role and ultimately where they’re willing to live and invest real dollars in.

Certain buildings uptown that have really solidified themselves as the premier addresses are buildings like 220 Central Park South, where today it’s standard if you’re going to buy into that building anything, it’s a three bedroom or larger, it’s going to cost you around 10 plus thousand a square foot. Some of them can go up to as much as 19,000 a foot.

Buildings like we’re in right now, 432 Park Avenue, another great address. And a lot of these buildings that I just mentioned besides the actual community of people that live there. And that’s what a lot of buyers want to know, who are their neighbors? Are they people that they’re going to socialize with, associate with, make a big difference ultimately in the decision if they’re willing to buy in that building.

But a lot of it also is the lifestyle. The two buildings I just mentioned, they have private restaurants that are run by world-class chefs. They provide in-room dining, daily breakfast, lunch, dinner. On the terraces outside, beautiful dining rooms, gym, spa, you name it. There’s nothing that these buildings won’t figure out for you. It’s almost like living in a seven-star hotel.

But the Upper East Side is just a neighborhood in general that I think, because again, safety, security, the fact that a lot of families like to be close to the park, it’s probably one of the more in-demand neighborhoods. And then when you think downtown, it’s buildings like 150 Charles, the Greenwich Lane. They just sold two penthouses there within the last month. One went for 11 and half thousand a foot, the other one for eighty-five hundred a foot. So again, I think that buyers have proven they’re willing to pay up for these particular buildings in these neighborhoods.

And can I ask where you guys are living in the city right now? Or what neighborhoods you guys, you live in?

Tal Alexander: Yeah. Right now we live in Midtown at 432 Park Avenue. We’ve been here for five years. We’ve moved around the city a lot over the last 10 years. We thought that was advantageous for us to live in many different neighborhoods and experience it from being a resident and would help us perfect our game when we’re touring clients around the city and know neighborhood from actually having lived it and breathed it. So, we’ve lived in I think 12 years of being here in probably eight, nine different neighborhoods.

I think there’s a little bit of a prevailing wisdom that in the past couple of years, people aren’t moving to New York, they’re moving from New York, but from what you guys have been telling me, it seems like the market is just completely sewn up in many ways. There isn’t a lot out there. It’s not like there’s a lot of vacant apartments even at the super high end.

So, what do you think is going on? Are people really… Was that just like post-pandemic naysayers about New York, or are we just feeling the effects of not having a lot of construction stopping during that time of the pandemic? Or are people coming back? Is that kind of crowd, that sort of super high-end crowd, are they really returning to New York? What’s your take on this prevailing chit-chat out there about, “Oh, people are now… They’ve left New York, they’re going to Florida, they’re going to LA,” or whatever.

Tal Alexander: Let me try to give you a timeline of what’s happened here in the last three years. We see it from a unique lens because we are in so many of these markets where a lot of our clients own homes, multiple homes in. So, we see it both ways. We see it they’re leaving, we see it they’re coming. March, 2020, New York City basically shuts down and the real estate market here for six months completely shuts down. Showings were not allowed. Anything that was happening was basically happening underground. The market’s never seen that. Now that’s New York. Turn to South Florida, our phones are ringing off the hooks. A lot of our clients from New York are calling us. People are scrambling to buy real estate, to rent real estate. People are looking for shelter down there because Miami, South Florida still sunshine. Things were operating, things were open. You were able to live somewhat of a normal life in that time. Right around after summer, South Florida market really took off, and so many of these other markets, places like Austin in Texas, places that were open, ultimately, were taking off where people could seek shelter and live somewhat of a normal life. New York was late to the party. New York didn’t start to really take off until about March/April, 2021. The dust settled. I think New York, anytime people feel like they can buy it on a discount, it starts to look very appealing. If you look at New York and the last few really soft markets that we’ve seen were really 9/11. There was a timeline. I wasn’t around then, but I’ve heard stories that lasted for around six, seven months. You had the 2008 financial crisis. Same thing, lasted six, seven months. And then you had Hurricane Sandy, I think it was, with all the floods on the west side and I think that lasted like three or four months. Every single one of those time periods, the market bounced back in a much bigger way than even prior to those occurrences.

So, yet 2021 in New York and New York market really started to take off in March, April, and I said that was for many a record year. And then that led us to 2022 where it was very strong ultimately until the end of Q1. And then when equities started to shift and interest rates… The feds started to speak about how they’re going to start to rise interest rates to deal with inflation, the market started to settle a little bit, but because 2021 was such a strong year, there was still very little inventory for buyers in the marketplace and it became somewhat of a neutral level playing field for both buyers and sellers versus ‘21 where it was a complete seller’s market.

Now we’re dealing with similar tendencies that we saw in Q2, 3, and 4 in ’22, to start ’23, but the market’s really been picking up as the American economy and equities have been running. So many of the clientele here in New York City are coming from the financial sector.

So, I think New York, anytime there’s something going on in the sense of if it’s on a discount, we’re going to start to see it run up because then buyers want to get in. And I think on the flip side, when it’s really peaking like we saw in ‘21, then maybe people are on the sidelines and want to wait it out a little bit. But I think the top end of the market, which is really a sector that we’re most active in, I would say that that market is rarely at a discount. If anything, when things aren’t going well in the environment, you can buy things at a fair price. When things are peaking, sellers are expecting basically their number to get a deal done.

(MUSICAL BREAK)

Illustration by Zebedee Helm.

My next guest is someone I’ve known for a long time, and you might even say is the godfather of American emerging design. David Alhadeff of The Future Perfect. What started as a little shop in Williamsburg Brooklyn, today has become a design gallery powerhouse with locations in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, where he took over the 1916 Goldwyn House in Hollywood Hills. This combination of gallery and home you could walk into by appointment is a bit of a signature of his, after his townhouse in New York’s West Village, designed by Pritzker Prize winning architect and former guests for this very podcast, David Chipperfield. I wanted to take a little trip down memory lane with David about the gallery and its phenomenal growth, how he’s nurtured dozens of towns, both foreign and domestic, and how the design scene in our beloved New York just keeps growing and growing.

Tell me about the very beginnings of The Future Perfect, like 1.0 back in the day, which I am having a hard time even remembering, but give me the 60 second history lesson of how it all started.

David Alhadeff: Oh my gosh. Okay, great. Yeah. That is definitely where we met, so it’s certainly has grown since then, although I wouldn’t say enormous. But we are a nice small business at this point, and that feels really good to me. We started in 2003 in Williamsburg Brooklyn, and it was me in Williamsburg Brooklyn and at the time, if we want to paint the picture, no high rises. The word “Luxury” was not emblazoned on anything in Williamsburg. It was really an artist community. And what I loved about Williamsburg was it was the back door to all of the makers in our design community. So, amazing people that we still work with today, like Jason Miller and Lindsey Adelman were working in Brooklyn, basically at the back door of what became The Future Perfect, which was North 6th and Barry. I can’t even remember.

Wow. I don’t even think I knew you before Noho actually, now that I can think about it.

Oh really?

Yeah.

Oh gosh, so 1.0, we didn’t even meet until 1.5.

Yeah. So you were in Williamsburg for a couple of years and then I guess when did the shift to Noho happen?

Well, Williamsburg was amazing and we were there starting in 2003. In 2008, there was the big economic crash and it redefined our business, to a large extent. And I had the opportunity with real estate prices being at the bit of a low to take advantage of getting a space in Noho on Great Jones. And that was when we moved out there.

And that was when you were dealing with different makers, but also with brands at the time and I remember there was a little shop in the back, which was more retail, if you will. And so what was that mix like in Brooklyn and then in Noho for that sort of 1.0, 2.0?

Yeah. It’s interesting because the 1.0 really started as a furniture gallery, and we became known for this thing that became known as Brooklyn Design, and we championed that. We were working with… Not entirely an American program, but as I said, we were at the back door of these amazing makers, so we were working with a lot of those people and it had a real gallery feel to it at first.

Then the recession happened in 2008. This was a big thing to stay in business we developed an accessories program. And so I think when we first moved to Manhattan in 2009, that was still a lifeline for the brand to remain in business. And part of moving to Manhattan, the goal was to return to that ethos of being more of a design gallery. I realized I didn’t want to have a National Mall store. I remember thinking I could either go get some investors and try and turn this into a mall concept, and it just didn’t sound like what I wanted to do. I was much more passionate about the work that was being created by the studio makers and artists that I had developed relationship with.

So, that was the goal with Manhattan, and we slowly moved our way back to that. And I think part of the move there, one of the biggest things was we became the American distributor for Pete Heineck and all of his studio created work, and that really transitioned us back into showing a typology of work that was bigger, that was artist made, that had a really amazing presence to it and we began selling that work really well, and then of course, evolves everything else.

And then there was another big shift, which you’ll have to take me through what spurred this, is when you moved into the townhouse in Greenwich Village, which I feel like you were on the very tippy tip of the spear of this trend. And now everyone’s got a private apartment in a Brownstone, in a high rise, in a new luxury building, but you guys were the first. Tell me about that amazing space, and you’re still there now…

Yeah, we are.

… in New York. And it’s a beautiful space. Tell me about the space and also tell me about why you decided to do that.

Fantastic. I’ll take you backwards first, and I’ll try to be pretty quick. So, this concept was born from our desire to have a space in Los Angeles, and I had spent a lot of time navigating the Los Angeles retail world and could not figure it out. I have a space in New York, I understand that. I know how commercial real estate works. People walk by your store, they walk in, they buy things, that sort of vibe. San Francisco, same story. It’s really, it’s a city that I understand. I could not make sense out of LA. And long story short, I thought to myself, “Maybe I’ll just put the gallery in a house.” I’ll live there too. That’ll be great for me. I get a chance to kind of explore Los Angeles a bit. This answered for me something that I had been grappling with, which is just the usefulness of a ground floor retail space in the face of online shopping. A lot of our clients were doing a lot more showrooming of our work in our website and then calling our team and being like, “I’ll take this.” “I’ll take that.” So I was starting to question that. I think that’s still a major question for people is what is the thing I’m offering in the ground floor to be of interest to someone to have them come in? So this turned out to be a very successful concept. I mean, a lot of brands came, I should say it was 2017. At this point, LA is like an arts community, but at that time it was still like touch and go. I mean, brands opened in LA and they closed in LA as quickly as they opened.

A lot of luxury brands come to LA to die. It’s a weird market. But we were received incredibly well with this concept, and it afforded us so many unique opportunities, which we can get into if we have time. But then what I figured was it’s doing so well in LA, it’s so cool. Maybe I should look for a space in New York. I found this incredible townhouse in the West Village designed by David Chipperfield, it’s one of, I think only two residential spaces that he’s designed ever, or in New York. I mean, it’s a really rare space. It has this incredible sculpture of a staircase designed by him. It was designed for a very prominent finance family, and we took custodianship of that. And it’s just been an unbelievable transition for our brand. I mean, showing work in that context and against the backdrop of this magnificent sculptural staircase and in that beautiful space, it’s transformative to our program. It’s incredible.

And if you had to describe just The Future Perfect in general to a stranger, how would you describe it today?

Yeah. I mean, The Future Perfect is a champion of contemporary design. And I still have just such a passion for the emerging talent. And at this point, I don’t think we can say we’re an emerging design gallery. A lot of the artists that we represent are very well established. But my heart still sings when I meet and get a chance to work with someone who’s just completely undiscovered.

And which artist has been with you the most? The longest?

Jason Miller and Lindsey Edelman are probably the longest standing.

The OGs of-

They’re the OGs.

… New York lighting.

So OG, right. But there’s a lot of others too like Karl Zahn, for as long as he’s been working, he’s been working with us. He’s just not as old as Lindsey and Jason and I.

Okay, fair enough. So there’s a lot of people that we have a longstanding relationship with, but at this point, it’s more indicative of their age, how long we’ve been working with them. But when we develop relationships with these artists, we hang onto them, they’re family. They’re part of our crew, our world. And do you think the limited edition kind of era of design has kind of faded a little bit or kind of gone away in the sense of it doesn’t seem to be as cherished or as important as it used to be, I think? Or is that just me from the outside looking in?

Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, for me, on the inside, it still feels really important. I have a personal take on this, which is that I respect additioning work, but I always want to understand why the artist is choosing to addition the work. I understand that sometimes it’s necessary, but I’m not a huge fan of an arbitrary decision of eight for eight’s sake. It occurs to me. So I’m always interested in like, oh, well, it’s a ceramic piece and my mold degrades. I’m looking for a certain precision out of the mold, and I can only get 12 that I feel comfortable with. For me, that’s like, yeah, that’s really important, that’s valuable. And I think also for a lot of artists, they don’t just want to reproduce the same thing over and over again. They kind of want a chance to refresh, to share new ideas, to express something new, especially if they’re working in their studio and that’s what they’re doing all day.

And when it comes to back to New York, how would you describe the design culture in New York now than it was maybe back in the Williamsburg days?

Oh, I mean, it’s kind of totally the same and totally different. I think you’d probably agree. I think we’ve both been around for a minute. It’s still a wonderful, closely connected, rich community of studio makers and artists and artisans living and working in New York. I’m not sure that Brooklyn has the same relevance that it used to in such a concentrated way. I think Makers now are dispersed. Upstate is so much more relevant. Philly, I think is part of the New York community to some extent at this point. I think the extension, the allowance for people, this is not just a COVID thing, but I think COVID really amplified this, but people don’t need to work in New York to be a part of the New York community. So I think we see a lot more of that now. But it is still a very tightly connected group of makers, artists, galleries that are closely interlinked.

And when it comes to anyone listening where they are a designer or they want to open up a design business, maybe it’s a gallery, maybe it’s a studio, really anything. Which kind of advice would you give them for making it in New York in design?

Well, I just think there’s so much opportunity always. And that’s the thing. We are in a community of abundance and we don’t live in a community of scarcity at all. There’s so much room in the market for a new voice and for new ideas and for a new curatorial vision. So I am always excited when I hear about a new thing happening in New York, in the country in general. I think it’s great. It’s amazing. It’s exciting for the clients. This idea that exists in other businesses of market share, which is a very traditional way of thinking about your business. Coca-Cola has a 52%, Pepsi has 36%, and then other, RC Cola, that’s not how our business works. It’s like there’s a real eclecticism in the way that people consume design, and it’s the way people consume for their wardrobe as well.

We don’t singularly shop at a department store. We buy from all over. We buy different designers. We buy some Zara, we buy some high-end fashion, same thing in design. So I think it’s exciting. I think it continues to be an exciting time. I think you have to have clarity in your curatorial vision to be successful. And if that resonates, then bravo. Because you see that happening now on East Broadway and up in buildings in the Flatiron. I mean, it just doesn’t… There’s no like, oh, too bad. You’re not in Soho. But when we started, I mean, people were like, they’d come into our space or they would call us and say, “Hey, can you do something in Soho so that we can see what you’re doing?” And I’d be like, “You could come visit us in Brooklyn. It’s one stop on the L train.” They’d be like, “Yeah, I just don’t go to Brooklyn. That doesn’t happen.”

And outside of your own gallery in the design scene, whether maybe it’s a shop or a location or even another dealer, or if just a showroom from a particular brand, if you had to give me sort of three places that someone visiting should go and take a visit to kind of understand design culture in New York, where should they go or where should they look around?

New York has really changed. So I’m going to give you a few more than three because you can edit as you’ll, but I think your old school design galleries is like Carpenters, R & Company, Friedman Benda, Hostler Burrows. I think those are amazing spaces, they’re beautiful. And I think there’s a whole new scene that’s cropping up. So I think that what’s happening with Superstudio down on East Broadway or with Tiwa Select, I think those are awesome. I would definitely go check those out for inspiration. So also, for historical work, there’s even Liz O’Brien and Morgan that I’d be like, “Yeah, you got to go there too.” Amazing spaces. So New York is so chockablock, you could spend not days, weeks in New York, just trying to get a sense of the design/art scene that’s happening.

So have we moved, is it weird to say that maybe the era of craft is over, but we’re in the era of craftsmanship instead?

I think we might still be in that era of craft.

Really?

Well, I always think ceramics. Ceramics are a huge part of our program. They seem to be a huge part of everybody’s program. That includes art galleries, design galleries, vintage shops. I mean, this is not just us. So I think of ceramics as craft. It’s an incredible medium by which an artist can express their vision. So they are art. But how you learn how to create ceramics is you’re learning a craft. And that to me feels like the relevance of that is it’s not like the craft show that my mom used to take me to back in Seattle at the Bellevue Square. That’s not the kind of craft we’re talking about now.

But we’re talking about craft masters in their craft. A master ceramicist, like an Eric Roinestad, Ronaldo Sanguino, others who do this, Floris Wubben, this is our program. But Leena Similu, Barry Ziperstein, I mean, we work with so many of these people and they continue to get better, which is very much this Japanese idea of, you might think you’re good now at 27, and you might actually have a career, but you’re not a master until you’re like 90. So keep going, keep working.

If you had to give a letter grade to the design scene in New York at the moment, what letter grade would you give New York?

This is hard for me to answer because I do split my time. So I’m spending a lot more time in LA. I actually feel like I could give you more of a letter grade for LA than I can for New York right now. It’s kind of been since pandemic, if I’m being really honest with you. I mean, I still go back and forth New York. I still have a home in New York. I still am in New York, but I am not in New York enough to give you that letter grade of what it is right now.

What’s the LA letter grade?

I feel like LA especially in the ceramics and the art side of this whole thing, it is like a B+.

You said that with such passion, but I know what you mean.

Well, it was a D, it just was. I mean, well, LA has been transformed not only by the pandemic and by so many people moving out here, but by so many businesses also opening here. So many art galleries being here, the newest of which is David Zwirner, which I think paints a picture that says that it’s not just Hauser & Wirth out here right now. What’s that one called? Pace?

Pace.

Pace Gallery just opened up here. I mean, it’s like every day you’re looking at the new galleries that have opened and you’re like, “Oh my God, seriously? They opened?” Spruth Magers is here. There’s so many of these amazing galleries that have opened here, and I think for a long time, artists working here, artists, the art scene here has an A++. I think we all know that most of the major American art talents, or I’m not going to say most, many of the major American art talents are living and working in Los Angeles. That’s been going on for a long time. But I think the design scene is following suit with that. And I think there’s so much happening out here. It feels rich with talent and diversity, which is incredible.

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Illustration by Zebedee Helm.

Okay, enough talk about the bleeding edge of this or the ultra exclusive that New York might move at the speed of now, but it has an old soul too. One that appreciates strolls in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a good book and an appreciation for history and the finer things. And if all of that appeals to you, my next guest, Michael Diaz-Griffith, is someone you must know as the executive director of the Design Leadership Network, AKA, the DLN. He knows the ins and outs of my world extremely well. While I hope he doesn’t mind me calling him a dandy, and I mean that in the best way possible, he’s had a beautiful career for someone so young, including his time working for antiques fairs and running the Soane Foundation.

But most importantly to me, the Alabama native’s recent book that’s much talked about, The New Antiquarians is an inside look at a new generation of collectors that are inspired by the past. I caught up with Michael from his apartment in New York to talk about his adopted hometown, how young [inaudible 00:51:36] are living in New York today, and where the trendsetter sees all of it evolving from here with a few suggestions, of course.

So Michael, I’ve known you for a long time and I see you as kind of part of now the design cultural firmament here in New York City. But before you start with DLN, can you tell me a little bit about your career path leading up to this role?

Sure. I do have a background that is firmly in design in the sense that I studied design in college, and my parents built houses. They built houses in rural Alabama. So we’re not talking about a massive real estate development corporation in the Northeast. It’s a very humble business, but I was involved in it from a young age, designing millwork, bullying them into directing the sidewalks to the street instead of to the driveway, trying to argue for deeper front porches and working shutters instead of fault shutters, all those good things. And I did study design in school. But along the way, I was sort of seduced by the humanities. I studied literature and philosophy and architectural history, and sort of ended up more on the art and architectural history side of the coin.

And that led in a roundabout way to the antiques world and running antiques fairs and museum foundation, the Soane Foundation, which is the American fundraising arm of the Soane Museum in London. So that’s my path before the DLN. But the fun thing about this whole sort of sweep of career experiences is that they all involve design. They all involve the decorative arts, and they all involve people and cultivating relationships with brilliant people I admire, whether they’re architects or interior designers or curators or craftspeople or antique steelers. So that’s a little bit about me.

And for those that are totally uninitiated, how do you describe the DLN to a total stranger?

It’s a professional association for architects, interior designers, and landscape specialists, but in particular for principles of design firms within those disciplines. And so, we’re within those disciplines. And so we’re an association that brings together different parts of the design world so that they can be in dialogue with each other. And at the same time, we’re always speaking to the business context. So, leadership training, business conversation with your peers, who are also creative entrepreneurs who are trying to be brilliant designers, but also trying to run a firm. We facilitate education and conversation, and a sort of network of mutual support around those dynamics.

We’re 17 years old and I’m really proud that the DLN has become a kind of firm pillar within the design world where people can know that if they join, they’ll have this web of mutual support and a context for thinking about the problem, the situation of being a creative entrepreneur, who didn’t go to business school but is supposed to run a successful firm. You have to be successful in business in order to be a great designer, they go hand in hand. So we’re here to kind of speak to that context, and we have over 530 members who are designers and 60 design industry partners who help us to convene programs, and travel experiences, and educational initiatives around those themes.

And as someone who has the ear of a lot of different big wigs as we can call them, what’s a good New York phrase? I don’t know, muckety mucks.

Muckety mucks, or as Fran Drescher said this week, fat cats—

Fat cats. I love fat cats.

… in the entertainment industry, although don’t tell anyone I said that. Very nice influential people.

As someone who knows a lot of fat cats, what is the state of the design scene in New York today? I mean, now that we’re coming out of this post-pandemic moment, but we’re still in kind of a moment of change on so many different levels. And especially when you’re talking about design, it’s really a global industry, so you’re talking about trade and other countries, and what the French think about recessions possibly or whatever. So what’s the word on the street? What’s the gossip in the back rooms of the DLN?

Well, I’m sure that you’re more expert in this subject than I, Dan, but I think that the New York design scene is explosively vibrant. We could talk about the dynamic between Italian design businesses and their American arms, or supply chain issues between Europe and America, etc. But in terms of a kind of gut check on what’s happening, I think that the hospitality sector could not be more exciting, it’s poised for continued growth. Obviously we’re coming out of a boom in the residential sector, that sector may be cooling, but there’s still just so much that’s exciting in it right now. And when I say exciting, I do refer maybe obliquely to business opportunities. I think it’s a great time to be in the design business, but I, on a more personal level, am excited and energized by the vibrancy of the design scene as a design scene.

And I think that you’re really good at looking at not just sort of industry considerations, but on this podcast, thinking about collectible design, thinking about the way that America and Europe influence each other, the influence of travel and the sort of wide exposure that we all have on more local design scenes and tastes. And I think that in this time of kind of ultimate plurality where we could see anything online or travel to almost any destination within half a day, a place like New York just becomes kind of exponentially more dynamic all the time. If you want to see it, it’s here. And there’s a pretty great pressure on gallerists, and makers, and businesses to provide that experience or design service here.

But I think that while that may be experienced as a pressure on a business for an onlooker, or for consumer, or for someone in one sector who’s kind of enjoying what’s happening in the other one, we all benefit from what’s happening in hospitality because we are all guests in hotels. It’s fun, it’s energetic and fun. And I think that we might not have been able to see that it would be so fun in March 2020, but through the boom that followed the lockdowns and right up to today when there’s still some fear about a cool down, it’s a time to be optimistic, I think.

Can you walk us through maybe one particular New York project that you think is the most New York, or the one that might represent New York today the best?

I think that one would have to be the apartment of Emily Bode and Aaron Aujla, which is at the very front of the book. And in a more superficial way, it expresses the mood of what has been called Dimes Square, that—

Tell people what that is.

… Lower East Side Chinatown arts, culture, and design scene that is in some ways the incubator for that sort of historicist taste that I described earlier, as emergent in the design world. But I have known Emily and Aaron since they really began their businesses, she in fashion and he in design. And throughout their careers and the time that I’ve known them, they’ve been incredibly consistent in being utterly obsessed with old things and being completely influenced by them in everything they do. And I think that what is special about them is that they’ve built businesses, very, very successful businesses out of that interest. And they’ve been very influential because of that, because their businesses have been successful and they’ve reached a wide audience. But more importantly, they live with their collections in a way that feels very New York to me, and that it complements the way they conduct their businesses.

So for example, in the sort of converted loft that Aaron substantially redesigned, there are pegs on the wall, not for hanging permanent installations of art, but so that Emily can hang the antique textiles that she collects and that she’s inspired by in her work, which is very seasonal because she’s a fashion designer and that work is caught up in the fashion cycle. And so the pegs are there, they’re beautiful, the design is, I sort of describe it as like Chandigarh meets Cape Cod. There’s an element of mid-century design there that feels a lot like Chandigarh in India, the city designed by Corbusier. There’s also a kind of feeling of a rural cottage in this apartment that’s swirling above Manhattan, and that reflects the world that Emily inhabited as a child, in Cape Cod on summer vacations. But it’s not precious and it’s a part of their working lives.

The apartment is sort of like a laboratory for ideas, but those ideas are expressed as objects, because it’s about moving their things around. They have a warehouse in Brooklyn, and so if something is in the apartment today, maybe inspiring a collection of Emily’s, it could well be in the warehouse tomorrow and something from the warehouse might be brought into the apartment to act as inspiration for whatever she’s working on.

And I just think it’s such a New York kind of dynamic, that in a way, their apartment is like an atelier. The people they work with come in and out all the time, and it’s got the energy of a little bit of a collective. There’s a feeling that their collaborators are possibly there as frequently as their family members or their friends. And it’s just a fun dynamic, and I think those who perceive collecting as a sort of precious activity or who perceive antiques and historic art as being delicate, or as somehow needing to live under glass or in a vitrine, we’ll be able to see in that chapter of the book a much more tactile and interactive way of living with things.

And if you had one day to see something in New York to kind of soak up some antiquarian good vibes, where would you go? Would it be to a museum? Would it be to a gallery? Would it be to a neighborhood? Where would you go in the city?

I think if someone is interested in that sort of downtown historicism that I was describing, they could go to Jacqueline Sullivan’s Gallery, they could go to Giancarlo Valle’s new Atelier, which is beautiful. And there examples of modern design there that are a little oblique, a little bit unexpected, which is certainly reflective of the moment we’re in, where people are more interested in interwar design and things that maybe weren’t as widely valued during the first flush of mid-century mania that favored Italy and Denmark. While you’re downtown, you could also visit the gallery of Frank Levy, who’s a great antiques dealer of Bernard and Estine Levy. And he’s moved from the Upper East Side to Chelsea. So you could get a taste for a very, very tenured antiques dealer who has embarked on a new life downtown. And you could also see what’s happening with younger people who are dealing in antiques and historic design.

That would be one version of the day. And undeniably coming uptown to the Upper East Side would be another version of the day. And I think it’s important to note that the Upper East Side concomitant with this rise of interest in antiques, has also become much more popular with Gen Z, I would say, than it was with millennials. And so a big part of what I was doing at the Winter Show for years was trying to demonstrate to people that it’s glamorous uptown, come up from Chinatown, we’ve got martinis. And I would always make our photographers take closeups of manicured hands loaded with diamonds, gripping martinis as if they were a lifeline. And that world, which is so fascinating and kind of redolent of the novels of Donna Tartt and others, that’s there, and that’s fun to look at. And I honestly think that people finally figured that out, which is why there’s a line out of the door at Bemelmans, The Carlyle, and you can barely get in now.

I mean, I can get in because I know what to say to the guy, but it’s harder for a tourist to go there, because there’s a line of 20 somethings trying to get in, which we love. But while you’re up there, you’ve just got to be a good citizen and go to the Met. I mean, I really do emphasize this because I think as New Yorkers, we actually take for granted that it’s there and we don’t go as frequently as we might. So that’s important. And another really essential stop these days is the 72nd Street gallery of Olde Hope Antiques, which is one of the great dealers of American material. They started in 1976 in the flush of the Bicentennial. I’m very close to Pat Bell, one of the proprietors. And years ago we were sitting around at the Winter Show and talking about how folk art dealers who had once been numerous in Manhattan, were gone, and none were left with physical locations in the city.

So Pat, who is beginning to enjoy coming in from Pennsylvania to the city more and more just to see theater and his friends and to have great meals, saw this opportunity to come back to the city and establish what is now effectively the only folk art gallery in the city. And it’s a great one, and it’s open on the weekends or by appointment during the weekdays, and it’s where you can see the country’s very, very best, Americana folk art, et cetera, and that’s hugely exciting. And I’ve sent younger friends there who have walked away in love with material that I don’t think they would have discovered if Olde Hope had not taken a location in the city. So I encourage people to visit, Pat as well. And then you could meander to any other museum you’re interested in from there.

 

You can read the article on The Grand Tourist here.

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