New York just before Christmas is the best. It’s cold like winter but not uncomfortable. A little rain, but not too much. By February or March, it’s too gray and slushy. And there are the lights. For some reason, Christmas isn’t tacky in Manhattan. No overscaled candles or obese Santas. For holiday décor, the Bergdorf’s windows won hands down. It’s my own private ritual to stop and marvel at the ingenuity of the window designers. Mind you, I am not advocating mindless materialism, just sparkling creativity.
My visit at this time of year is anchored by the Interior Design Hall of Fame awards gala, where I get to see dozens of old friends and some good design. It’s held in the Waldorf Astoria ballroom, and you feel like you fell into someone else’s dream. We just don’t have many rooms like that in the West.
This year was extra-special because my good pals (and clients) Primo Orpilla and Verda Alexander were inducted into the Hall of Fame. If you don’t know, their firm, Studio O+A, was responsible for some very cool spaces for the young Facebook, AOL, and more recently, Yelp and Uber. Sharing this moment of recognition was one of the highlights of my career. Cindy Allen and her team put together an amazing video of Primo and Verda, which included a visit to the salvage yard, one of Primo’s inspirations.
The night before the big do, there was an intimate event at the Milliken carpet showroom, where I made an impromptu toast to Primo and Verda, my good friend (and former client) Mark Harbick, and former Contract editor Jennifer Busch, and I said that my work has been fulfilling because I moved toward kindness. That’s my business philosophy in a nutshell.
Made my way over to MoMA, and while I am still mad at them about tearing down Williams and Tsien’s Museum of Folk Art, I renewed my membership. When it comes to waiting in lines, I throw my principles out the window. It’s like torture for me. So you skip the lines and waltz into the Picasso sculpture show. Oddly enough, the latest work is right at the beginning, outside the main exhibit. Picasso was not trained as a sculptor, so he approached that work with a fresh eye. His work always has a childlike perception of time and space.
Also went over to the Whitney, where Frank Stella gets his due at the end of a long career. I love the early work, where he carefully explores the edge of painting. Eventually he moved into huge geometric shapes, pushing the shape of the canvas and the color combination. Eventually he went three dimensional, and that’s where I lost him. As with Philip Guston before him, the later work doesn’t move me. With Guston, it was grim, and with Stella, it is playful. But too playful. Like children’s toys and play structures exploding into a room. They feel like one moment in a child’s tantrum—frozen for all time. I like that the show, while generally chronological, also inserts some pieces out of order so the viewer can make comparisons in the artist’s work over time. As others have probably said, a show of this scale couldn’t have taken place in the old building.
Our pals at Architectural Record have decamped to the Empire State Building. Unlike with most buildings with surly guards, here you feel like you are in a white-glove apartment building when you finally find your way to the desk that’s not for tourists. And the views! Record had just moved in, and there wasn’t a table in the conference area yet. We sat in a circle of chairs and joked that it was like group therapy or an AA meeting. Our longtime friend Cliff Pearson, who is leaving to take a job at USC in a few weeks, said, “Hi, I’m Cliff, and I am a recovering editor.”
At the D&D Building on Tuesday night, the magazine hosted a party for the architects appearing in the Design Vanguard issue. Nobody went outside on the terrace, but the view was incredible. More lights!
On the food front, Maialino proved dependable as always, and we caught up with Mark Harbick, who is now on his own; fellow PR pals Yosh Asato, John van Duyl, and Sofia Zimmerman; and editor Sam Lubell, who is curating a show called Unbuilt New York and writing several books.
Yosh also took me to a wonderful Korean dumpling place, which was packed. One of those only-in-Manhattan kind of places.
I often meet pals from The Architect’s Newspaper at Blaue Gans because it is quiet and feels the way a Bohemian café should. The squash soup and poached soufflés were especially good. A bonus was seeing Yoko Ono walk right by us to a small table in the back. Yes, she had the funny jaunty hat and the spectacles on her nose. Nobody bothered her, which is another thing you’ve got to love about New York.
Also had a delicious dinner at Il Buco Alimentari to wish Cliff Pearson good luck as he starts living in California and Shanghai! You have got to try the artichoke hearts. Crispy on the outside and soft inside. Although the pasta with anchovies sounded simple, it was stellar. This place and its bigger sibling Il Buco are my current favorite Italian restaurants in New York.
I flew out of Newark this time, and all the new restaurants had iPads. They are not intuitive. Indeed, mine was broken. And there is an ugly payment box between people on a two-top. Does nobody converse during a meal anymore?
London and Wales
Our first stop in the UK was the Chua family garden near Milton Keynes. This is a landscape designed by an architect friend of Paul’s uncle named James Chua. The amphitheater that James built would be the perfect wedding site. He lined some of his paths with huckleberry twigs. They reminded me of rushing streams. There was a new folly, which will join two others. I could never be a gardener, because of the labor and the patience. I’m not good with either. Our garden tour was followed by a delicious Malaysian inspired lunch cooked by James. His wife Emily, Aunt Jenny, and Paul manned the puzzle table.
We had a traditional family Christmas in Wales, where it looked like we might be stranded when the bridge flooded. Curiously, nobody seemed stressed about it all. Our host, Paul’s hearty cousin John, who oversees mountain climbing standards in the UK, assured us the rain would stop and the river would go down ten feet. We went on a hike during Boxing Day and saw nothing but water in the fields, and what are typically waterfalls had been replaced by a rage of water. The next day, the rain stopped, the fields returned, the waterfalls reappeared, and the bridge was passable. Have faith.
Back in the Midlands, we went on an outing to Cousin James’s new land near Husbands Bosworth. I believe that these seven acres were once part of the airfield there. Down the street, you can see the remains of the air tower. During World War II, the women in the RAF were housed on this land. A few of the concrete barracks remain, along with brick foundations of all kinds. After the war, the barracks housed Poles being resettled. A lot of Polish soldiers fought alongside the Brits. After the war, when Roosevelt and Churchill gave Poland to Stalin, these men couldn’t return home. Later we went online and found a journal by a woman who used to visit her relatives in this very location. Turn down a muddy country lane and there is a rich history waiting to be uncovered.
Although there are solid roadways and paths, Aunt Jenny turned off into the mud. It took a bit of the old heave-ho to get her out. But again, nobody seemed the least bit concerned. By the time we got to our destination, Cousin James had the camp stove out and the tomato soup bubbling away. Others made a bonfire, and we had another fantastic family outing. James and Chloe’s plans for the land are also exciting. They plan to build a house that settles into the forest, but they also plan to return the land to its more original state.
We went on to London and stayed in one of my favorite hotels, the Park Tower. Honestly, it’s a hideous corncob of a building. The new lobby area is really tacky, although the bar is OK. But what I love are the compact pie-shaped rooms where everything is built in, as if you’re in a ship’s cabin. And the mattress and sheets are divine. Who ever heard of sleeping their way through London?
We did walk around quite a bit and took in two plays. The first was Mr. Foote’s Other Leg, about the 18th-century actor. The famous amputation scene was described in gory detail with words, but I had to close my eyes. After it’s over, they hold up the leg! Well, the woman two rows in front of us didn’t do so well. She passed out and had to be helped out of the theater. The cost of the play, my dear.
The next night we went to see The Homecoming by Pinter. The set, lighting, and sound were all a bit clever. Made us want to return to the film of the play that was made in the early 1970s. Vivien Merchant plays the wife who is drawn into the men’s sinister web. A friend of ours acted in a college production and confessed that he didn’t know what it was about at the time. I remember seeing that film with my mother when it came out. That was another quiet ride home. Though not as comfortable as when we saw Genet’s The Maids.
The after-Christmas sales are a British tradition in London, and the stores were mobbed. Harrods is still a lavish spectacle, but Liberty seems hollowed out. And Fortnum & Mason holds on. Pauly loves a good sale and got himself a handsome set of new brogues at Tricker’s. Worth the whole trip!