Friday, October 13, 2017

Brian Sawyer

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch


“This,” said architectural designer, Brian Sawyer, indicating the rooms of his Greenwich Village apartment, “obviously, is full of stuff.” But “stuff” seems like an unworthy word for all his beautiful possessions: Chinese scholar’s rocks, glass cases filled with creatures furred and feathered, Thracian jars from Bulgaria, ammonites and amulets, ostrich feather dusters and yet more treasures tucked in away in drawers and boxes. “I just can’t deny myself a beautiful thing.”

An amber alabaster urn glows in the entryway to Brian's Greenwich Village apartment.
He has amassed collections since his childhood, growing so many plants that eventually his father built him a greenhouse. That particular passion led to studying landscape design at the University of Virginia and a first job working for the Central Park Conservancy—“The best first job anyone could ever have.” In 1999 he founded, together with John Berson, Sawyer Benson, an interdisciplinary firm that practices architecture, landscape architecture and interior design and although things are busy, he is also designing a new home for himself in Bellport, where at last, he hopes to recreate a garden he once made as a young boy.

So you were telling us that you’ve been really busy—what’s making you so busy?

There’s just a lot of activity, a lot of new projects—and quite a few projects in the Hamptons, more and more site visits.

Some of the people we’ve been interviewing have been saying that there’s been an uptick in business since you-know-who has been president. Some of them have been a bit uneasy about saying it …

I’m not ashamed. I’m delighted! There’s an uptick in activity but not necessarily in commitment. People take months to decide what to do and who to hire—probably two to three times as long than before.
Brian's foyer also functions as a dining space and a gallery for his collections of objects. The Maison Jansen-inspired table with a cordovan leather top is by cabinetmaker, Greg Gurfein. The chairs, which were purchased from close friend and architect Alan Wanzenberg, are by Danish designer and architect Kaare Klint.
Ostrich feather dusters are both decorative and practical.
Brian's paneled dining room walls are painted in Benjamin Moore's "Witching Hour". The deep slate gray matches the veining in the marble of the original fireplaces and is a fitting backdrop for his artwork, objects and notable collection of taxidermy.
A collection of porcelain pugs and a bas-relief of poet Robert Burns hang above the marble mantel.
Why are they taking their time like this?

People are very measured. As much as they want to spend and do things, I think everybody approaches things with a good bit of caution. People are as rich as they’ve ever been [while] also remembering what it’s like to be smacked down in a financial crisis.

What proportion of your work is landscape design and what proportion architecture and interiors?

Our primary business in architecture—that’s where it starts. It’s either building a new apartment or building a new house. Landscaping is only about twenty percent of our work. We seldom do gardens on their own.

Oh—I thought that was your first love.

Oh, absolutely. I’m a landscape architect.
Looking across the dining room into the adjacent wet bar, perfectly located for conversing with friends while mixing cocktails.
Mahogany shelves above the wet bar sink are arranged with cocktail glasses and other favorites items including horn bowls purchased in the East Village, terracotta Thracian jars from Bulgaria, and a group of Delft porcelain flower bricks from the estate sale of Bunny Mellon.
Looking across the dining room into the living room. To the right of the opening, a small antique chest holds collections of rocks, shells and various items plucked from local flea markets on faraway travels.
The dining room table, really the heart of Brian's three-bedroom apartment, is carefully layered with more finds, including a small bronze bird recently purchased at the Rhinebeck Antiques Show, jade rings and blue-and-white tiles from Portugal.
Peeking into the living room from the dining room.
So when you study landscape architecture, I always think it must be a happy thing to study. Am I being too romantic about that?

[laughs]Um … it's not quite that. At the University of Virginia, it was steeped in urban design and the history of cities and buildings and gardens and landscapes.

Oh … it sounds so academic. I thought you spent time tramping around outside in your rain boots.

That’s only a tiny part of landscape architecture. To be doing special gardens of just pretty things is a very rarified niche. I’m more interested in urban planning.

Well I didn’t mean just gardens—I meant parks or open city spaces but even so, why is it called “landscape design” if it is really urban planning?

Because you’re designing the spaces between the buildings and not the buildings—it’s hard to describe the point of departure but what it means is that you’re exposed to the urban planners, the architects and the other landscape architects and you’re all looking at different pieces of this puzzle. You need to understand the entire context of the city before taking on the boulevard or the park. But I grew up making gardens.
Light pours into Brian's living room from a large skylight made out of squares of pale, colored glass. The apartment, which is situated on the top floor of a Queen Anne-style building, was constructed in 1883. When Brian purchased it thirteen years ago it had been completely destroyed by a fire. As far as Brian was concerned it was the perfect place to make his own mark.
The sofas and coffee table were designed by Brian and fabricated by Dune. Hanging above the sofa is a bronze repoussé as well as a woven photograph of a Greek head by Fernando Bengoechea (top right).
In the front corner of the living room a Chinese vessel from Aero stands upon a 1960s Dunbar column purchased from a Hudson antiques store. Next to the column a drop-leaf table displays an ammonite fossil, a Chinese scholar's rock and a gilt wood tie-back from John Derian.
So tell us a bit about that. How old were you when you started collecting all your rocks and your plants?

Ever since I can remember. We had a big peony garden in our first house. It had been there probably for fifty years before my parents got it and a hedge of lilacs that I’ll never forget. I can remember all the trees and shrubs on that property: laburnums and a fantastic catalpa tree and a beautiful magnolia solangiana—I remember them very specifically because I was fiddling around in the garden. I was gardening with mother who was badgered by my grandfather, who was Dutch, into doing it. He was the one from whom I really learned.

So do you have Dutch family still?

Most of the relatives, what’s left of them are in Iowa, where they all moved in the 1870s to farm. It was almost a little bit … exposing, for me, because I was so interested in all that, exposing in a sense that it was very shocking to finally see what the greater part of my family had been doing for the last hundred years or so.  

How old were you when you went to Iowa to visit them?

I was an adult—maybe thirty-five or something. I went to the final family reunion. There are not many of them left. I met my great-aunt and my great-uncle who were a hundred years old, but still working. And the one who is the taxidermist was ninety-eight.
Atop the marble fireplace mantel, a sculptural Chinese scholar's rock stands next to two small paintings purchased at a now defunct antiques store on Kenmare Street. The cloudscape painting above is by artist Tom Borgese.
A nickel tray placed on top of the coffee table displays a staghorn fern, a bowl filled with crystal and rock specimens, candles and "JBS" découpage dishes from John Derian.
A wall dividing the living room from the dining room was also designed to house books and a flat screen TV. The sliding pocket doors are original to the apartment.
One of a pair of mirrors by Bark Frameworks hangs above a Danish desk purchased from an antique dealer in Hudson. The Chippendale chair is from Hudson City Antiques in Chelsea.
An uptown view from Brian's living room, including a charming penthouse across 9th Street and the top of the Empire State Building.
And he was the one who left his collection to you, right?

He left a lot of it—most of which burned in my parents’ house.

Your parents’ house burned down?

It burned down and most everything burned down—in 1992 or was it ’94?

And how do you feel about that now and how did you feel at the time?

I remember getting the phone call—it’s a death. They were okay but their favorite dog died. They’ve rebuilt the house in kind. Oddly enough there was a cache of photographs that survived. It was just the weirdest thing.
An upright piano in the dining room provides another display surface. The wall ledge is lined with some of Brian's taxidermy collection, much of it inherited from his great-uncle, a grocer, who ran a taxidermy side business for hunters in Manson, Iowa.
A young swan, surrounded by cattails and tucked into a large display case, does double-duty as a surface to showcase a giant snowy owl, hummingbirds and a Chinese miniature chest of drawers.
Brian selected glossy black porcelain tiles and a marble washstand from Urban Archeology for the guest bath.
The ceiling of the guest bath is actually a photo of a Caravaggio painting re-invented as wallpaper.
Brian's pug, Alice, sleeps in a corner of the kitchen. The rug was purchased during a trip to Morocco.
In 2009 Brian bought an adjacent unit and enlarged what was a one-bedroom apartment into a three-bedroom and added this full-size kitchen.
The "New Amsterdam" wallpaper from Studio Printworks simulates Dutch tiles but with contemporary scenes and famous people.
Does the loss of all those possessions play into the fact that you’re such a collector?

I have a photographic memory for things—not for music or writing—I can’t recall a page out of a book. So to the extent that I can remember almost everything I had as a child, what it looked like and where it was, it’s there, in my mind somewhere, whereas … this [indicating the apartment] obviously, is full of stuff …

Do you keep accumulating?

I do. There are boxes and boxes and drawers … this is only about half of it.

So it doesn’t bother you, the accumulation of things that you don’t display?

No, it’s very reassuring. It’s like eating … like you can’t eat enough; you’re always hungry. I just can’t deny myself a beautiful thing.

Well we shouldn’t be asking to examine it as though it was something to be ashamed of!

[laughs] Almost like a mental condition … bordering on hoarding …border on hoarder …
In the guest bedroom, an original marble fireplace mantel displays more taxidermy and a blue-and-white Chinese porcelain canister.
Looking into the corner of the guest bedroom, lined in taupe ultra-suede. A 1960s leather chair from Laurin Copin antiques is tucked under an antique Chinese table.
Double closet doors painted in a high-gloss black paint are original to the apartment.
Flea market finds.
Table lamps from Blackman Cruz stand atop custom bedside tables made by Dune.
Wonderful views of the West Village from the guest bedroom windows.
But of course you’re called upon to create modern, clean spaces in your designs.

Most of our work is very modern. This other new house for me [in Bellport] is from 1920 and it will have very, very few things in it. And some of our clients’ houses are extremely severe and clean—in a large part influenced by the Belgian thing, although that has now vanished if you look at the magazines—it’s all about color and layering. But the clients are still in the other mode.

So you must be looking forward to that trend, velvets and color and so on.

Oh, I’m all for it but either [trend] can easily be de-railed.

We know you like to travel—I read something about you once climbing a volcano somewhere. What was that like?

Where did you read that?! That was years ago! Yeah, my friend Stephen and I hiked into a volcano. My socks were so hot that they melted into the bottom of my boots. I began to think, this probably isn’t good … then the guy who had taken us up abandoned us. You’re not supposed to be near a crater smelling the fumes. [He goes off to rummage in a drawer and comes back with a Swedish tea caddy, within which is a bag of volcanic dust] I had a bigger bag of it but it was thrown out by my housekeeper. I made her feel guilty by telling her it was my grandfather.
In the kitchen area, Ruhlmann-inspired leather chairs surround a round glass table. The sconces on the far wall are by James Mont.
In the master bedroom, abstract paintings purchased in Sag Harbor hang above a bed from Crate & Barrel.
Cactuses decorate the corner of the bedroom.
A comfy corner chair from Aero stands next to an American library table from Mondo Cane.
Bookcases are filled with bedtime reading, more favorite objects and photos of family and friends.
That was mean! Are you an adventurous traveler?

I wish I was more adventurous.

Give us your image, your dream, of the garden for your new house in Bellport.

Oh my gosh … right now the dream is a lawn full of clover and violets surrounded by a bed of nicotiana, the white flowering tobacco—they’re star-shaped and they open mostly at night. Under a full moon the garden looks like it has millions of white butterflies in it. I tried it once as a kid, so I want to have that garden again.