Your Place or Mine?
When designer Alexander Wang bought his Tribeca apartment, he never imagined that the previous owner— a former New York Times Style Editor—would be back to check up on him. Holly Brubach goes home again.
“I guess you have the address,” Alexander Wang’s press director wrote in an e-mail confirming my appointment at the designer’s new apartment. I did, not that I needed it. My feet knew how to walk there. The following Friday I rang and waited at what for 15 years had been my own front door. Wang buzzed me in. Four o’clock—the mail should be here by now, I thought as I passed the boxes on my way to the elevator. During its slow ascent I listened to the turn of the gears; I knew their rhythm by heart. And then the door opened, and my déjà vu abruptly ended.
“Welcome to your apartment!” Wang greeted me, as if I were just returning from a long vacation and he had redecorated in my absence. In fact, I had sold him my loft eight months before. Standing in the place where my pantry used to be, I took in the scene: white walls, black velvet couch, black Karl Springer coffee table, black crocodile dining chairs, black Serge Mouille floor lamps, a pair of chairs covered in black goat fur, zebra rugs, a black fox throw. An entire black menagerie seemed to have given their lives for the privilege of a place in the home of New York’s hottest downtown fashion designer. “Well,” Wang corrected himself, “my apartment.” In keeping with the no-color scheme, he was wearing a white T-shirt and black jeans, which confirmed the impression that his outlook on life and the world brooks no ambiguity.
Accompanied by his decorator, Ryan Korban, Wang led me on a tour. This loft, they claim, is the most personal expression so far of the visual “language” the pair have formulated over the course of five years and two apartments, Wang’s showroom and first store, and the shop-within-shops that serve as worldwide outposts for his brand. “Very rich, very luxe” is Korban’s verdict on the result.
Their collaboration was founded on a friendship dating back to their years in college (Korban at the New School; Wang at Parsons) and solidified by parallel paths in their chosen careers. “Ryan never had formal training in interior design and architecture,” Wang says. “And when I started my line, I didn’t have formal training or experience in fashion, so we shared a lot of the obstacles in setting up our own businesses and breaking into a world we felt was foreign to us. We had our own ideals and ideas about ways of doing things.”
For Korban, those ideals came from fashion. “The sexiness and the youthfulness—that’s what gets me excited,” he says. “Even the people at the top in fashion, even though they’re older, I see their desire to be sexy and young, and I feel that is lacking in the interiors world. I’m trying to bring a sexiness to everything I do.”
“Sexy.” Now there’s a word no one would have ever used to describe my loft, much less “rich” or “luxe.” “Serene” was more along the lines of what I had in mind. But then Wang and I had arrived at these same 2,200 square feet at different times in our lives, via different routes. He in his mid-20s; I in my early 40s. He by way of a college dorm, where he shared small quarters with “three straight guys who’d come in with their soccer shoes and get mud on my bedsheets”; followed by a small apartment in Chelsea with parquet floors, which he loathed (“that bad blond polished-wood color”); an East Village studio where the living room doubled as his showroom, with a curtain down the middle concealing the bed; and, most recently, a furnished sublet in Chinatown while his own stuff sat in storage. I after 20 years in a tiny, rent-controlled Upper West Side walk-up, whose low overhead had enabled me to travel and live abroad.
It was the first loft I saw, and it had the TriBeCa trifecta: open space (no columns); lots of light, even in the back (no building behind it); and high ceilings (the original coffered tin). Sometime in the Seventies it had been converted from a factory for nuts and bolts to a residence, with carpeted platforms and Sheetrock partitions indicating bedrooms. For the renovation I hired Richard Gluckman, an architect best known for galleries and museums, whose skills and reputation were out of all proportion to my budget.
Like most new homeowners, Wang and I came with fantasies of change. His: “Having lived in New York, where you’re always out and your friends are always out because no one has enough space to entertain, I imagined an apartment where I could have my friends over and on the weekend not have to leave because I feel claustrophobic,” he says. “Where I would learn how to cook or do crafts projects.” Mine: I would host big parties and bring together people from different fields; I would cook intimate dinners for friends who would linger late into the night; I would retreat from the city’s assault on my senses, read, and write.
The kitchen was central to both of our scenarios. Wang has moved all the appliances against a perimeter wall, with a marble-topped island nearby. “I have always loved an open kitchen,” he says. I’ve never understood an open kitchen. Or maybe it’s just that I’m too nervous a cook and an open kitchen leaves me nowhere to hide. The galley configuration that Gluckman came up with (and Wang did away with)—counters and appliances in two long, parallel rows, with tall boxlike storage—not only obscured prep bowls and dirty skillets, it also allowed me to stir the risotto, deglaze the roasting pan, and burn the beans in private, without feeling obliged to feign the convivial ease of a celebrity chef on the Food Network.
Wang’s intent, he explained, was to “open out” the space, and seeing it without the walls in the kitchen and beyond reminded me of how it had looked after the demolition crew I hired reduced it to its shell and it seemed, paradoxically, smaller. His living, dining, and media areas are continuous, defined by the arrangement of the furniture. The 90-foot sight line from front to back is intact but without the narrow focus of a hall that ended in an arched window. And the four arched windows, set deep into the building’s landmark cast iron facade, have disappeared behind square-topped roman shades in a dense black wool—another of Wang’s signature statements: “Bold and graphic,” he says, “like color blocking.”
To each his own. My loft was, let’s face it, as eccentric as I am, custom-tailored to a woman who loves to cook and happens to own a few hundred shoes and thousands of books. If Wang failed to appreciate my favorite things about it, I can hardly blame him. They just weren’t relevant to the way he wants to live. The pigmented plaster wall, a gradient that ran the length of the space—chartreuse at the front and progressing to gray at the back—is gone now. As are the curtains, made from aluminum organza sourced in Switzerland and mounted on tracks to mimic the translucent wall that bordered the dining area. The wall is gone too.
Maybe, then, it’s not so surprising that what I had come to view as my loft’s biggest drawback turned out to be, as far as Wang and Korban were concerned, its biggest selling point. When, two years ago, New York Law School put up a building on the adjacent parking lot, the view from my bedroom windows—a tableau of low-rise rooftops and water towers, with the needle of the Empire State Building beyond—was replaced by an air shaft, its blank walls lined with corrugated metal that made waking up there feel like rise and shine at a federal penitentiary. But for Wang, “that was the kicker,” Korban recalls. “There was something about it that felt so steel and so industrial and so Alex.”
IT’S HIS HOME NOW, free and clear. If ever I had any doubts about leaving behind the haven I had made for myself, any apprehensions about seeing someone else living there in my stead, they had been put to rest by the time our tour ended and the door closed behind me. My loft, I now understood, had been my private Camelot, and it had vanished. As I walked away, I realized to my amazement that I didn’t even mind. I’ve built a new life elsewhere.
Before I moved in, a friend had come by and paced a big circle, waving a smoldering bundle of sage guaranteed, she claimed, to neutralize any bad juju. I place no faith in sage, but saw no harm in hedging my bets. What I do believe in is goodwill, the beneficent wishes that travel across distances and time. There was a moment when I envisioned some magnanimous handoff—a bottle of champagne in the refrigerator, my custom stationery in a drawer. My magnanimity passed at some algid point in the negotiations.
But never mind, Alex, all is forgiven. To the extent that what takes place within a space reverberates and lingers, I bequeath to you the dim echo of New Year’s Eve dinners for 16 in black tie; lazy Sunday mornings; a candlelight picnic in a blackout; a long recuperation with friends at my bedside reading P.G. Wodehouse novels aloud; a Christmas tree trimmed with small photos by someone I loved; a Super Bowl party preceded by a curbside tailgate; and the occasional spontaneous outburst of dancing brought on by a favorite song, for an audience of no one. May the memories you make there be as happy as the ones I take away.