After graduating, Katz moved to Manhattan, where he quickly zeroed in on some of the city’s most interesting people—Robert Indiana, Marisol, Andy Warhol—and made himself indispensable. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” he recalls. “So I would work in the studio, stretch canvases, run errands.”
Later, Katz worked for many years as a set designer and accidental architect, designing, among other spaces, the restaurant Chanterelle. (Because he’s not a licensed architect, he collaborates with established firms on most projects.) The first artist’s studio he worked on, in 1974, was a log cabin in New Mexico for his friend Agnes Martin. They built the whole thing together, but from the outset, Martin made it clear who’d be calling the shots. “Agnes was a do-it-yourselfer,” Katz says. “She told me, ‘The last studio I built, I built with a 12-year-old boy.’ I said, ‘Okay, Agnes, I understand the message here.’”
One reason for Katz’s success, clients say, is his sixth sense for grasping each artist’s wants and needs. “Bill genuinely knows the artists and has ideas about their work,” says Johns. “That allows him to interpret their needs in a meaningful way.” Von Furstenberg often teases Katz for being the ultimate “artist groupie,” though she points out that the admiration goes both ways. “The artists trust him and depend on him,” she says, calling Katz a “magician” who may have the best eye of anyone she knows.
It helps that Katz’s style is not about making its own grand statement but about letting the artwork be the star. And even that, Katz believes, is easily overdone. One of his pet peeves in museums and galleries is lighting that draws attention to art in an obvious way. “It looks like you are trying to sell something,” says Katz, who usually favors inexpensive bare bulbs.
For Phillips de Pury, of course, selling things is the raison d’être, but the auction house has nevertheless hired Katz to design all its spaces in recent years. Its new European headquarters, 40,000 square feet of mostly open-plan layouts, required an approach that was, in typical Katz style, both radical and understated. His main directive was to cut a 100- by 20-foot hole between the first and second floors, directly below a skylight of the same dimensions, so that the entire building would be flooded with daylight. “Bill has this holistic, almost shamanistic approach to figuring out a space,” says Rodman Primack, who runs Phillips’s London office. “It’s not about showing how clever he is. It’s about simplifying to the best extent.”