Lofty Ideals

Decades ago artists began colonizing downtown, creating a social phenomenon that now reaches its ultimate culmination with Piero Lissoni’s Soho showroom.

It was another world in New York in 1946 when Willem de Kooning rented his East Village loft on Fourth Avenue. In the words of de Kooning biographers Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, the place was “cold and dingy and decrepit. The back resembled a cave and was illuminated only by naked lightbulbs dangling from overhead. There was no heat. De Kooning had to lug five-gallon cans of kerosene upstairs to use in a stove that he installed. There was no hot water and only a shared bathroom in the hall outside.”

It has also been a long time since neighboring Soho was a place discovered by artists for cheap rent in cast-iron former manufacturing buildings, bravely colonizing space that was not legally zoned for living and working. Nevertheless the aura of the “Soho loft” has taken on mythical significance, and it is this remembrance to things past, to ad­ven­turous living in simpler times, that the new show­-­room for three Italian companies—Boffi, Porro, and Living Divani—recalls in its fifth-floor Greene Street space, designed by Piero Lissoni.

First a confession: I am an architect who has not only designed numerous lofts but has lived in them as well, and I am a Lissoni junkie. I have admired the definitive, clean, classic modern lines of his designs and live with them in my office, my home in New York, and my Miami Beach apartment. Piero calls me a “victim,” so there!

Lissoni has not designed the typical showroom here, with pieces scattered about or displayed in a museum setting, but what he calls a “normal” 5,000-square-foot loft for either “himself” or whoever can afford the outrageous price of a Soho loft “along with their Aston Martin.” The unique aspect of the loft is its lived-in quality, giving the impression that the owner has “just left or will be back in five minutes.” Lissoni used the word cozy a number of times in our interview, a term not readily associated with Boffi kitchens, which look more like Donald Judd minimalist sculpture than Mamma’s Italian cucina. Though chillingly beautiful, they are “molto freddo.”

Anyone who has lived in a Modernist designed space will know that it is a constant battle between the detritus of real life—the casual chaos of the daily mail, newspapers and magazines, unwashed dishes, laundry, blah, blah, blah—and the impossible rigors of orthogonal geometry and their perfect surfaces, which demand to be seen in all their glory. Somehow Lissoni and the Boffi stylists have come up with a space that appears to include the “everyday,” the quotidian, without being a total mess. He consciously chose not fabulous coffee-table picture books but volumes from secondhand shops and a number of pieces that were “wrong,” as he put it, not tasteful. It is the opposite of what one would expect to see in a showroom, or a neu­rotically anal apartment by John Pawson or Claudio Silvestrin, which actually depends entirely on hidden closets to transform life into art. Lissoni uses the term contamination (currently in vogue in the art world) to characterize his showroom, which recalls Charles de Beistegui’s surreal apartment, designed by Le Corbusier in 1930. Its purist Mod­ern interior was also “contaminated” by Baroque chandeliers, parrot cages, and a traditional outdoor mantelpiece straight out of Magritte.

Although the fabrics, leathers, and carpets are in masculine black, taupe, umber, and a splash of natural leather, the walls are all white, a touch that at first glance appears somewhat dated. Except that in our discussion Lissoni and I shared a moment of cult recognition when I mentioned the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale” from Moby-Dick, an obsessive rumination on the mystical nature of white that must be one of Richard Meier’s biblical touchstones. Fortunately, the title is equally alliterative in Italian: “Il Bianchezza della Balena.”

For all its originality in the Modernist mode, the showroom vaguely recalls Ralph Lauren’s conceptual mix of clothes, furniture, and objects in an intimate residential setting, epitomized by his flag­ship store located in a grand turn-of-the-century mansion on the Upper East Side. Surprisingly, the source of modern design in domestic settings is the American department store of the late 1920s. Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, and B. Altman & Co. (the first two in cooperation with the Metropolitan Museum of Art) all created showrooms featuring contemporary design. Marilyn Friedman, in her fas­cinating study Selling Good Design: Promoting the Early Modern Interior, has unearthed a forgotten chapter of design history, documenting how fashionable showrooms were used to introduce mod­ern design to Americans not used to these newfangled ideas from Europe. Dining rooms, living rooms, bedrooms, and libraries were created by the best European talent—Josef Hoffmann, Pierre Char-eau, Gio Ponti, Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann—to dem­onstrate how contemporary design could be domesticated for the public. These exhibitions took place in 1927–30, long before Target discovered Michael Graves, predating even Philip Johnson’s International Style exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

The Boffi–Porro–Living Divani collaboration, called By New York, now reapplies this concept to the con­temporary loft in order to sell their wares on a larger scale to developers, interior designers, and architects for hotels, resorts, and apartment buildings. They chose the downtown loft as a setting because of its immense cultural cachet. Soho is the birthplace of a national phenomenon that has seen cities and even suburbs constructing new “industrial buildings” to promote “loft-style” living.

But what exactly is a loft? Google the word (modern man never uses a dictionary) and a range of images arises: New York lofts, a literacy center in Minne­apolis called The Loft, Ann Taylor Loft stores. In New York, of course, lofts were first associated with struggling artists who reclaimed abandoned industrial or manufacturing buildings. These large open spaces with long-span beams and grids of giant columns allowed for a flexible area to work and live. For all the struggle involved, de Kooning’s $35-per-month space was a hundred feet long, a far cry from the confined nineteenth-century artist’s garret of Paris. Spatial extravagance defines the loft, as do the industrial details of exposed pipes and rough brick walls—a tough frame for living. This is in contrast to the prissy classical detail of Park Avenue apartments or the low-ceilinged Sheetrock palaces of New York–developer residential towers from the 1950s through the ’90s.

My own experience dates from working in the mid-1970s with the loft master Henry Smith-Miller, a pioneer of the Soho model. His were modest lofts for actual artists, all carefully crafted and inserted into a cleanly delineated industrial frame. But as the idea caught on and tax laws were changed to encourage living in former manufacturing areas, the budgets got higher, and the loft became a canvas for experimental architecture. Of course, a callow artist cannot afford too much architecture. So just as the arrival of the artist signals the discovery of a new and desirable neigh­borhood, the arrival of the architect signals its imminent gentrification and ultimate unaffordability. Perhaps the final straw is the design shop: when Murray Moss arrives, as he did on Greene Street, it may be time to flee. But then why should the wealthy be deprived of the frisson of rediscovering the loft? Every new generation deserves to experience the thrill of being an artist in a Soho loft, to escape from the rigors of the Upper East Side, just as Marie Antoinette left Versailles to milk her cows at the hameau.

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