David Mann

Hah! We’ve found another architect with a sense of humor, so that’s two … (the other one is Alex Gorlin, whom we interviewed in October last year.) David Mann of MR Architects lives in a very simple space with a spectacular terrace, which he and his partner, Martha Stewart style editor, Fritz Karch, use as a party space. David told us that he although he “never stops talking”, he is in fact “extremely shy on the inside”. Towards the end of the interview we had a very open discussion about his stutter, although it was hardly in evidence during our conversation—something we took as a compliment because apparently he stutters more when he talks to “people with whom I have nothing in common.”

You do live very sparingly in this apartment.

The truth is I’m never here. This is really rare for me – to be home. I’m at the office or going to job sites or going out to eat with friends and then I come home. I do have parties out on the terrace.

What’s your format for a party then?

Well my partner works for Martha Stewart, so he’s good at cooking. He does a whole food thing and it looks as good as it tastes. And I’m good with mixing alcohol—and drinking.

What’s your signature cocktail?

Oh … white wine—but for other people I can do anything.
Black ebonized floors provide a stark contrast to the plastered and waxed floors and ceiling.
Standing atop a stack of books is an orb by Pamela Sunday and a student project. Wall art by Mike and Doug Starn hang in the front entryway.
In the living area of the studio, Pierre Chareau-style chairs flank a 1920’s Swiss hospital table found at a flea market. The painting is Self Portrait by Benjamin Cottam.
A folding chair belonging to David’s partner, Fritz Karsh, stands next to a pair of vintage metal cabinets.
What does your partner do for Martha Stewart?

He’s a style editor and the collecting editor.

What’s his name?

Fritz Karch.

Oh that’s your partner? He’s really talented. How long have you been together?

Eighteen years.

We just interviewed Carol Prisant and we were looking at pictures of the Victorian house she once owned—then I went to check out your work on the internet, and it’s so sleek—it couldn’t be more different from that curliqued 19th century elaborate aesthetic. Why have we moved on to something so much less decorated?

When I show people my work I like to say it’s diverse and that it goes all over the place from Takashimaya to cabins out West. I love to work with people with strong opinions. I love to work on projects where I’m working with somebody else in their world, kind of like an actor does. And then when I’m on my own, I like to do this Modernist thing, and that’s what you’re probably seeing. I think [many people] like to see this really clean little shell—which I create for the—and then they start layering their stuff on top.
An enormous Mongolian lamb bedspread from J. Mendel keeps David warm in the winter months.
A photograph by Dietmar Busse leans against a corner wall.
A pair of 1880’s pie-shaped chairs and a plaster owl sculpture are found objects.
Reflections of the apartment (and JH) from a ceiling fixture.
So you’re not like Frank Lloyd Wright who even designed the dress he wanted the hostess to wear to dinner in the dining room he had designed.

Yeah, he would be appalled. He would be appalled that he wasn’t controlling everything.

Why are architects so autocratic?

A lot of them are – and I think that’s why I’m finding great success because a lot of people are refreshed to work with someone who allows them to be who they are. Mind you there are a lot of clients out there who have really bad opinions or they don’t really know what they’re looking for and it becomes tortuous … [but] I enjoy people – that’s what this is about.

Did you realize that when you began to study architecture?

[laughs] Then it was all about being an autocrat!

When students enter architecture studies, it seems that they’re all being trained to become “first violin” – how does that translate into the realities of getting a job?

At the beginning I was working in humongous projects and I felt like a peon, just a cog in the wheel.
A stone from David’s land in Palm Springs is a reminder of his ‘other life.'
A drawing by Agnes Martin stands behind a pair of leather boxes and other keepsakes. An anonymous ‘ravioli sculpture’ stands atop a shagreen box.
An orb by artist Pamela Sunday standing atop a stack of books shares space with found objects.
More books.
What was the project you consider to be your first “real” design?

Actually, if I really think about that, [my family] raised dogs and I designed the dog runs so that we could hose them down easily and keep everything clean.

Really? What kind of dogs were they and how many did you have?

At the most we had 36 dogs. We had whippets and long-haired dachsunds.

Short and tall!

Short and tall, and we would show them and I would work at dog shows.

That’s actually a very good marketing thing—so many people have dogs.

Most of them don’t have 36. [laughs] I thought my mother was crazy!

Are you still a dog person?

I did have a dog and actually his name was Goliath, because my name is David. And his last name was spelt D-O-G-G. Now I travel a lot and I work a lot and I just don’t think it’s fair to have a dog.
A view into the kitchen from the studio. The standing wire sculpture, purchased in Palm Springs, reminded David of a Harry Bertoia work.
David’s kitchen shelves are a mix of practical items and art; a drawing by Roy Lichtenstein, rare candlesticks by Elsa Perreti, and a drawing of a bird by Anthony Viti.
A group of white porcelain cup and bowls fills the open kitchen shelves.
Stacks of green glassware stand next to a sample ‘Braille’ tile.
David’s bar is ‘within reach’ atop the apartment oven. Opposite, a bookmark by artist, Robert Gober overlays a drawing of a building by Mies Van der Rohe.
Mint tea brews in a vintage glass coffee pot on one of the kitchen's two gas burners.
So do you work when you’re at your country house?

Well I’ve been working on the house … first of all I have a garden there so there’s that… and I keep on moving furniture all the time.

What’s behind the compulsion to do that?

That’s a very good question. My mother would do that too. She would re-arrange the furniture all the time if she didn’t buy new or move.

[Sian]: I can’t stop fussing with my apartment.

I think partly it’s a love of the new. If you just move something from here to here you’ve got a new experience. Um … there’s something deeply psychological about this but I never know what it is … [laughs]
Looking north towards the Empire State Building. A side view of the painted white brick Albert Hotel is straight out of a scene from Hitchcock’s Rear Window. An ornate balustrade is original to the 1927 Emory Roth architecture.
Looking north.
A city view reflection from the terrace casement windows.
Hundreds of potted plants line the floor of the terrace.
A double row of succulents.
A wooden bench made out of a tree root fills the north corner. Looking West.
A Hollywood actor’s penthouse across the street adds a bit of glamour and intrigue to everyday life.
More view of the David’s amazing outdoor aerie.
Did you think you were going to be famous?

Yes. I thought I was going to be the next Frank Lloyd Wright [laughs]. I really did think that. How disappointing!

You’ve done pretty well.

I’m pretty happy with what I have. As a child I was a Jewish gay kid in Phoenix, which was a freak show to begin with, and I did think I was very different from everybody.

Well you were. How old were you when you realized you were gay?

My mother says she could tell when I was two but I didn’t label it until I was twelve or so.

You told us at the beginning of the interview that you stutter sometimes—is stuttering something to do with being nervous or is there another cause?

I stutter really badly sometimes and I am extremely shy inside and I’ve always thought that could get the better of me and I always strive for it not to. I’m extremely shy but I never stop speaking. My brother stutters too—it’s funny to hear us talk to each other. It’s much, much better now. Even in college I could hardly talk. But as you get older you don’t care as much what people think and it’s getting anxious that makes me stutter.

So it is to do with anxiety?

I think so.

Do you prefer people to wait until you have formed the words or does it help if they say the word they think you’re trying to say?

I prefer them to wait for me to say the word.

What did your parents do about it?

Sent us to speech therapists.

Did that work?

No. One of them made me stand inside a garbage can and talk.

Well, you kept your sense of fun and you like parties – are you a dancer at parties?

No. I used to be …

Why did you stop?

Gravity.
• Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
• Photographs by Jeff Hirsch