Sam Botero

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch

When we first met with designer Sam Botero and his partner Emery von Sztankoczy in their East 70s apartment we were confronted with packing boxes and crates. They had moved in two months earlier and Sam, who had thought we were there to shoot a single portrait, was gracious enough to let us photograph the apartment ‘as was’.

In 2006 we were met with packing crates, boxes, tins of paint and art works stacked against jewel-colored walls.
Seven years later the apartment is complete, full of the spirited color that reflects their attraction to unique objects and Sam’s flair for giving spaces a visual sense of adventure. As a couple they have also reinvigorated their decorating business, recently opening a store and designing a line of furniture. In another exciting turn, they are also in the process of launching a documentary on Sam’s life and work.

While they lament the changes in the business, what they call “the loss of mystique”, they are nevertheless proof that the adaptable and the truly creative players do survive in this ever-changing, ever-competitive design landscape.

I recently saw the movie, “56 Up” and what’s really interesting about it is that the British film maker, Michael Apted, started filming a group of, I believe, fourteen British-born people since the age of seven and he has gone back every seven years to see how their lives have evolved—and when I was thinking about this interview, I thought, “Aha! I haven’t seen you in seven years!” So tell me what’s changed in your life?

Sam: Well one thing is that we have opened a design gallery. We have designed a line of furniture—and that’s very exciting. It’s wonderful to conceive of furniture inside your head and to put it together and to do a line.
There are strings attached: Sam and Emery's corridor wall covering has a mind of its own.
What led you to expand your business?

Sam: I think the last few years have been for re-invention. We wanted to invent something that we can design in such a way that we can, if we ever decide to slow down, we can still keep our finger on the pulse.

Things have naturally slowed down because of the economy.

Emery: We’re fortunate in that we have a client base and they keep coming back to us but the upper middle class level of money, you know people who are upper income but not unlimited income, has fallen away. They don’t spend as easily. The really rich can still do whatever they want.

Sam: They’re much more careful. And prices have gone up.

Very true.  I have noticed that even for very basic things, like food is much more expensive.


Emery: Things that are more basic have shot up, like milk and eggs. You go to the supermarket and sometimes you pinch yourself and say, “Wait a minute these two green peppers cost as much as a steak!”

Sam: At least what a steak used to cost.
In the den, a Regency chair is positioned near a mid-century teak wall unit. A portrait of George I, Elector of Hanover hangs over the TV. Sam and Emery have a great many books. This is a small sample.
The deep brown walls sets off the artwork. The Biedermeier portrait of a gentleman is contrasted with a Yahne le Toumelin abstract painting.
Raul Julia, a client, gave Sam the poster of the Three Penny Opera he starred in on Broadway. He was a dear friend whom they miss very much.
Sam and Emery like masks and art hung salon style. The sofa and the cocktail table are both Sam's designs. The table is available, to order, through the Botero Design Gallery.
One of a pair of Weller lamps from Sam's early years in the US bought at a thrift store stands next to a bronze Western hat sculpture from a friend. The photograph is of Emery's mother.
A marvelous Mandruzzato vase stands near a wooden Buddha sculpture that was a present from a friend. The modern stone sculpture was bought in South Africa and the miniature oil of a winter scene was purchased in Budapest.
A miniature oil of a Paris street scene bought in Belgium stands near a handmade wooden bowl by Phil Gautreau.
I suppose with the economy changing, designers are moving in different directions.

Sam: I tell you, business is more and more difficult.

Why?

Sam: Oh well, the Internet. People have access to so many things now. You know, you’re looking for dining chairs and you’re looking for the chairs and then they go into some site and they say, “Oh, well I saw these dining chairs that suited everything perfectly. Why didn’t you find them?”

Emery: And then you say: “First of all, do you understand the proportions of the chair? Do you understand how it relates to where it is going to be in the room? And a million other things. But it’s, “Oh, but I like that chair!”

Sam: And there’s also the time. When you’re doing things that are custom, it takes time. It used to be easier to explain delays to people in the past [than it is now] because we’re living in the age of instant coffee and instant gratification. The mystique has gone.
The bedroom is lined with this framed twelve-panel watercolor series of a Japanese picture poem depicting the road to enlightenment from the 18th Century.
The trompe l'oeil highboy depicting inlaid veneers has a steel exoskeleton holding lighting and a mirror. It was designed for the AD 100 invitational showcase (Architectural Digest sponsored for the opening of the Time Warner Center). Flanking the highboy is a pair of 18th century French bergère covered in tan velvet.
Sam and Emery particularly like Asian art, especially Japanese works on paper. Here, in their bedroom, a Samurai screen from the Edo Period hangs above an Italian Deco bed. The three Sharaku wood blocks above finish the composition.
A view of the main corridor from the bedroom to the living room. The walls are covered in string.
Is that because of  HGTV and makeover shows?

Sam: That’s one aspect of it. Another is that there used to be ‘to the trade’ and that was very respected. But it’s gone. There was an article in New York magazine [in 1987] that exposed the whole industry, the discounts … they put it all out there for everybody. Those things were secret. There was a mystique, there was a mystery. There was a Wizard of Oz who would help them create their fantasy.

Emery: Since the cell phone, everything has changed. The etiquette of time has changed. Up until the cell phone, when you closed your business at closing time, you were closed and now you get a call, “Oh I just thought of something” and it’s 11:30 at night.

It sounds like you have people fatigue!


Sam: We’re becoming much choosier as to who we give our services to. Maybe that’s part of becoming old, I don’t know.

Emery: We’re painting a very black picture here …
An early George Nelson chair covered in leopard velvet is grouped with a small Italian iron side table, a German baroque armoire and a red modern abstract work on paper. A series of early Hunt Slonem watercolor portraits.
Views of the living room and reading alcove. A Hunt Slonem oil painting hangs on a wall above an Art Deco credenza that is covered in cream leather. Atop the credenza is pair of Japanese bronze urns as well as a pair of Billy Haynes carved wood lamps in the form of Greek busts. The Han dynasty horse works well as a room divider. In the reading alcove, another large Hunt Slonem oil painting hangs over a Jensen Paris day bed. The large bookcase is 19th century German.
A pair of 19th century bronze doré candlesticks are arranged atop the fireplace mantel. Hanging on the wall above the mantel is a Louis Philippe mirror.
The Austrian Biedermeier architectural chest of drawers flanking the mantel gives the wink to a Fornasetti Palladiana chest painted with a classical architectural façade. A pair of 18th century portraits of children and a portrait of Emperor Franz Joseph hangs respectively over the two cabinets. Vienna is one of Sam and Emery's favorite cities ergo Franz Joseph.
Two pairs of Danish Deco chairs bought in Copenhagen are the proper proportion for the space. "They are graceful yet exceedingly comfortable," says Sam. The deep red Gaufrage velvet upholstery is original. A beautiful blue-and-dull gold Fortuny fabric covers a second pair. The Deco cobalt Chinese rug works as a foil to the reds and golds.
The living room is quite eclectic, containing furniture and objects from many periods representing the many trips Sam and Emery have taken.
Cut crystal decanters are arranged behind the living room sofa.
And seven years from now?

Sam: Well, the other thing that is happening is that there is going to be a television documentary on myself and my work.

Emery: It’s been accepted by Channel 13. It’s really happening.

That’s fantastic. How long have you two been together?


Sam: Eleven years.
A Han Dynasty horse works well as a divider between the living room and reading room.
The amber-gold Venini Soffiato vase from the 1920s complements both the 1930's Georg Jensen column vase and a small and exquisite Japanese cloisonné Ginbari vase.
A 19th century polychrome bust of a Renaissance woman is backed by an assemblage of oil "Santos  Images" by Hunt Slonem.
Tell me about other things in your life that have changed. How’s your mother? I remember she lives nearby.

Sam: [Hesitates] My mom … she’s … okay. She’s going to be ninety. The good thing is that she has a very good temperament, she laughs a lot. She does have a hard time remembering things from a few seconds ago. She’ll ask me the same question over and over. It’s a very hard thing to observe and to deal with. And from a personal point of view it’s scary, you know: Is this where I’m going? This is your parent.

Having an aging parent … you never really thought of yourself as being in this position when you were younger.

Emery: I don’t think anybody in our society wants to deal with anything to do with death, as if we’re all going to live forever and nothing will ever change. And when you see someone who is really old, it’s like “Oh, that’s like another species. It’s not going to happen to us.” And then of course, it does.

Sam: You think of yourself as young. And all of a sudden, a number registers … or you walk somewhere and there’s a mirror that you’re not expecting and you see this older-looking person coming towards you—and then you realize it’s you! Or you open the door for somebody who is in their thirties or forties: “Thank you, sir.” Oh! … That “sir”! [Starts to laugh]
The back of a 19th century papier maché chair is exquisitely decorated and relates well to the Fortuny upholstery on the Danish Deco club chairs.
In a corner of the living room, a pair of small crystal lamps and a grouping of some favorite objects collected over the years.
A bronze Georgian candlestick in the 'antique manner' is backed by an Austrian porcelain faced silver cigarette case of Imperial manufacture. It once belonged to Emery's grandfather.
The Chiku table in bright lacquers from the Botero Design Gallery is topped by an Art Deco modernist lamp from France. A gilt "Hand of Buddha" sculpture is a treasured gift from Sam and Emery's friend Joe Carrini who purchased it on one of his trips to Tibet.
The porcelain figure of an opium smoker was purchased in Beijing.
In the reading alcove, an oil painting by Hunt Slonem hangs above a Jensen Paris daybed.
In the alcove, a German bookcase is topped by a pair of sky blue Roseville urns.
Small Russian Cubist watercolors hang next to a Spanish abstract work from the 1960s by Antonio Guijarro. The African mask was placed beside it to create a play of textures.
You had been together four years when we last met. What’s different in your relationship?

Emery: [Laughs] It’s much the same thing! It’s sort of plateau-ed. This the thing about being a designer, you never stop working. The hat’s always on.

Sam: The thing is, the foundation of our relationship is creativity.

Over the years you’ve been in AD 100 and the [other] lists of the top designers, sort of the pinnacle of where designers want to be, the star designers—are you still enamored with that?


Sam: I always wanted that. I like being a star.
Sam on move-in day in 2006.
Sam, today.