Friday, May 15, 2015

Donald Rattner

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch

In our last interview with architect Donald Rattner we found ourselves in lovely, antiques-filled, traditional Brooklyn Heights brownstone apartment—the kind of apartment that now causes a Brooklyn-bound stampede whenever one is put on the market. Well, the apartment was indeed sold and the Rattner family moved to Greenwich and house so different, that they can only be admired for having the open-mindedness to give it a whirl. Once owned by Donald’s mother, the house was built in 1962 and designed by Peter Ogden, who also designed many other Greenwich residences. It is a classic of its time and place, so for all our mid-century modern fans please enjoy this home that has been skillfully furnished so as to properly stay true to the original intent of the design.

In our previous interview we talked a lot about this tension between Classicism and Modernism …

It’s still there!

But this seems pretty much in the Modernist camp—did you settle for that then?

This is what it is. There was certainly some tension initially because we came into the house and the initial impulse was that, okay, we’ve got to transform it into something more of that ilk … I configured a bunch of schemes but by the time all this was done, I might as well have blown [them] all up and started over. I thought, no this doesn’t make sense, why don’t we work with the fabric that is here. Let it be what it is. It’s a very well-designed house—why would we fight that?
Entering Don's Greenwich driveway on yet another endless winter day—remember the snow lasted into March!
Don and his wife Gaby's home was built in 1962 by architect Peter Ogden.
In the foyer a pair of lamps from Robert Abbey and a FlexVase stand atop a mid-century console that was once in Don's father's office. A lithograph by Kenneth Noland hangs on the right wall.
A wall sculpture out of molded steel hangs on a wall in the downstairs wing.
But if you’re a person that loves classic moldings, how did you make this shift?

It’s a give and take—the best thing here is the opening up to the site. In a traditional home you would punch holes in the walls and you would get these framed views but here you can open up these sliders to get an in/out feeling.

How has your actual lifestyle changed?

It’s not that the lifestyle has changed that much. Clearly there’s now a sense of flowing space as opposed to discrete, defined spaces—it’s more about the space between things than the things themselves—and we have fewer things.

Does that mean you are more relaxed?

Yeah, it’s a more serene environment, a sense of release and quiet. It’s a very nice feeling!
The centerpiece of the downstairs family room is a Stitch Interlocking rug by Nauris Kalinauskas, which can be changed at whim. The rug can be purchased from The Creative Home. (
A flat screen TV hangs above a vintage credenza purchased on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.
A work by Tony Janetti hangs above a bright orange sofa from American Leather. The customized pillows are from Jonathan Adler.
A very tidy desk top includes modular pencil containers designed by Eric Pfeiffer and Scot Herbst for Amac available through The Creative Home.
Looking across the family room painted in Benjamin Moore "Green Thumb". A vintage clock from the family's onetime Long Island City paint factory hangs above a vintage steel bookcase.
Peeking into son Remy's room. The wall sculpture "Untitled Modular Art" is by Trevor Elliott and is made up of wood blocks with embedded magnets so it can be pulled apart and rearranged at will.
A mid-century rocker is arranged near a rug from The Land of Nod.
Remy's bed from Ikea is made up in linens patterned with designs of the solar system.
A white bookcase by Rosenberry is arranged with a mix of books, interactive toys, wood cars and favorite objects. The print above the bookcase is of old advertising decals rescued from the family paint factory.
In a corner of Remy's bedroom an old circus wheel hangs above a chest by ducduc.
A floor lamp from Target stand next to Remy's desk and chair from Ikea.
You look quite ‘60s with your turtleneck … you could be in a Michael Caine movie.

There you go! “Alfie”, perhaps? One of the early movies?

Or “The Italian Job” … well, why did you decide to move into the 1960s?

We were both ready to do it—Gaby might miss Brooklyn a little bit more than I do. We both lived in the city for forty years. I felt like I needed to try something different before it’s all over! My mother bought this house in the 1990s and she was using this house as kind of getaway house—she had a place in the city as well—and then she passed away. We were using it as a “country home” even though people don’t generally think of this area as that. But it’s great! It’s less than an hour’s drive from the city and it’s a beach town, which actually empties out during the summer because people go to their other homes in Nantucket and New Hampshire! We were half here, so we just kind of flipped the equation.
A modular, constructivist light sculpture by Remake Lighting in France dominates a wall of the front entrance hall.
A ceiling fixture by Brooklyn's dForm hangs in front of a modular string wall sculpture by Adam Brucker.
Looking down the main staircase. The carpet is by Alto Modular Carpets. (Available through The Creative Home)
Millbie, the adorable family Scottish Fold cat, catches Jeff's eye.
When we last interviewed you, this whole notion of “modular” that is all over your website just wasn’t part of your world at that point. Your whole sort of approach is a totally different deal, isn’t it?

Yes. One has to be, you know, nimble and not bogged down into one way of thinking.

Did you start smoking pot or something?

[Laughs] No, no … don’t mention that! A bunch of things happened in my architectural practice and [the interest in modular design] really actually did kick off when I was commissioned to design a grouping of modular structures for a spa resort in West Virginia. The resort itself is historic, it’s The Greenbrier—thirty identical structures—it was an extension of the hotel. The decision was to build them modular because they were repetitive, it was fast and the structural quality is more assured. The pieces were then trucked to the site and assembled. Well that just opened up a lot of thinking for me.

What possibilities did you see?

I was used to everything being handcrafted and unique and now you’re talking about industrialized architecture and you could mix and match.
A small folk art log cabin stands on a staircase ledge. The modular wall art is by LA artist Moshe Elimelech.
A painting signed "Merman 1958" is a family heirloom and hangs above a vintage bar in the style of Gio Ponti. The sconces were purchased at a Bowery lighting store.
In keeping with the mid-century style of their home Don and Gaby disposed of the Federal furniture that filled their Brooklyn townhouse and filled their new house with furniture from the period.
On the far wall a photo by Hendrik Kerstens hangs near a pair of 1960s chairs from Donald's father's office. The mirrored-pieces display mounted on the brick fireplace is "Nova Domino".
A custom banquette surrounds a coffee table topped with a foosball and knock hockey board.
A small geometric sculpture by Moshe Elimelech hangs above a folk art zebra.
Looking across the living room seating areas. The color scheme in tones of tangerine and avocado fit well into the mid-century architecture.
A photograph of Donald's father's office in the Long Island Paint factory that was once owned by his family. The picture shows the sofa and the two lounge chairs that now furnish the living area in this house.
Yellow lamps from Donald's former Brooklyn store Nova Zembla add another pop of color to the seating area. The metal nesting tables are by Stein World.
The open living/dining area makes for a perfect entertaining space.
Didn’t you feel that the level of quality was going to be compromised?

No, quite the opposite. Because you’re not in the field … you know the wind’s blowing at thirty miles an hour, it’s ten below zero and they’re trying to put in some plumbing roughing … I mean that’s exactly where an error can happen. Whereas [with modular construction] you’re under a roof, in a factory and guys can nail things together or screw things down much more firmly than you can out in the field so it actually increases quality. It just got my brain cooking and I went down this long road, combining things and re-combining things … it’s an architect’s wiring.

So I read the introduction to your catalog The Creative Home about convention versus creativity … can you talk about that?

Conventional is not necessarily a bad term— what I’m saying about the creativity element is that it’s taking things one step further. I could design a piece of furniture and it’s done, it’s handed down and it’s kind of a top down delivery: here it is; don’t touch it; never change it. The creative design however puts power into the user so that things become co-creative, collaborative and [there can be] user-generated content, which is not the way things traditionally would have been designed.

You see that happening in many different areas like crowd-funding and crowd-sourcing …

That’s right. It’s no longer a hierarchical world.
A pair of vintage bubble lamps flanks a wire sculpture by Tamiko Kawata.
A miniature-sized pool table—fun for both the family and Remy's friends.
Light fixtures by Dform hang over a glass dining table surrounded by chairs from Crate and Barrel.
Gaby and Don welcomed us with a delicious spread of crudités, cheese and pinwheels.
Millbie, not your typical cat.
A felt laser cut wall sculpture by Donald hangs above a mid-century console from Velocity Art and Design.
Glassware and a group of miniature chair models fill the dining room wall cabinet.
But it’s like … injecting creativity into convention … you’re forcing somebody to participate?

Forcing hopefully in a good way! Actually they’ve done some scientific studies where people feel much more invested in things when they have a role to play, however modest. Back in the 1950s actually, Betty Crocker came out with a cake mix and all you had to do was add water and the cake was done. Sales were totally flat—if you’ll pardon the expression for a cake—and General Mills went to some psychologist about it. They said it was the egg—you’ve got to put in the requirement that the chef put the egg into the mix. So they did this and sales went up. Just adding the egg provided the [participation] and the sense that the consumer made the cake. They took ownership of it. People want a hand in creating their world.

Up to a point, I suppose. So was this a sort of epiphany, this “modular” conversion – what was it like? I’ve never had an epiphany.

[Laughs] Er … it seems to have been because it unleashed a whole way of working that I had not anticipated. It was just … “oh, wait a minute!’ I still do work on traditional houses … look, I don’t want to substitute one ideology for another and you don’t have to.
A 1960s wall unit purchased in Williamsburg is filled with mid-century ceramics, sculpture and games from Donald's company The Creative Home.
A kitchen wall also doubles as a place to write notes and draw. The modular organizer is from Urbio.
The powder room. On the far wall is a 2007 sculpture by Canadian artist Rod Mireau.
I very much admire what you have done … a receptivity to a new set of ideas. I couldn’t do it. I don’t want new stuff. I was just on the subway and someone was reading a book called “The Power of Habit” and I thought that is about the most powerful thing that governs our lives.

That’s interesting because one of the things you have to fight is habit when you’re trying to be creative because our minds come back again and again to these patterns, these models. It’s just human nature.

I am beginning to hate the way the word ‘creative’ has been appropriated by big corporate entities and it’s basically become another term for marketing. Everyone in our building in Williamsburg calls themselves “creatives”.

Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. Someone referred to it as “the creativity-industrial complex” and I suddenly realized what they were talking about. A lot of consultants talking about how to be “creative and innovative.” The word has changed in the last fifty years. Creative has been extended to mean problem solving.
The upstairs family room: open flat shelves store volumes from Donald's architectural library.
The family room shelves are filled with family photos and architectural models of well-known buildings including the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building and The Chrysler Building.
A circa 1940s desk from the Long Island City factory faces a seating area that includes a sofa inherited from Don's mother. The pillows are from Inhabit.
Photos of Gaby and Donald's families are arranged above the family room sofa.
Miniature models of furniture are carefully arranged on the family room windowsill.
A bronze sculpture after Hans Arp stands next to a vase filled with fresh orchids.
More favorite objects including a Greek-style vase from Portugal, several modular design products and a bottle of sand swiped from a Bahamas beach line. The striped and patterned book covers are part of an art project Don did several years back.
Looking into the master bedroom from the upstairs family room.
A handy telescoping aluminum ladder by xTend makes for easy access in the study.
A modular wall sculpture by Don hangs above a rattan chair and ottoman covered in fabric from Kravat.
A vintage wall mirror hangs above a vintage chest of drawers purchased in Williamsburg. The 1970 ribbon sculpture is by P.A. Solman was found at Twentieth, a gallery in Los Angeles.
The tidy master bath still retains its original fixtures and wallpaper.
A wall sculpture by Schleeh Design in Canada hangs above Gaby and Donald's bed.
A cube clock by Jonas Damon for Areaware stands in front of a lamp by Robert Abbey. The heart-shaped changeable paperweight was designed by Francois Dallegret in 1974.
In the dressing room 1940s Laurel and Hardy dolls sit atop a Herman Miller dresser designed by George Nelson.
Dressing rooms shelves are filled with more books and family photos.
I’m sorry but now that we’re finishing up we now have to talk about your cat. She looks like some magical woodland creature out of Narnia.

She’s a Scottish Fold—and she’s incredibly human.