By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge Photographs by Jeff Hirsch
We managed but it is a little odd interviewing another journalist who specializes in design and Suzy Slesin really knows this world having written numerous books as well as working as a writer and editor at pretty much every shelter magazine you’ve ever heard of, including House & Garden, HomeStyle, O at Home and the Real Estate and Home sections of The New York Times. Not many of those left standing, alas. She hasn’t exactly chosen an easier, alternative path by founding Pointed Leaf Press, where she publishes monographs on personalities in art and design such as Dorothy Draper, Vladimir Kagan and Helena Rubenstein, who was her stepfather’s mother. Despite the challenges of publishing in the era of the screen, the books keep coming and the design world keeps turning.
A collector no more, she describes her own downtown home as “kind of a mish-mash”—a much better word than the irritating catch-all “eclectic”—which of course we never use in this column. We loved her apartment because everywhere there was something to interest the eye. The only “serious stuff” says Suzy, is some of the art, collected by her husband and art dealer, Michael Steinberg. As for the things to which she is drawn: “I happen not to like established, valuable things. I love everyday things—the things that have a purpose. One of my favorite collections was yellow ware kitchen bowls—that’s what I like.”
Having read what you wrote in the Times about clearing out a lot of stuff and moving into a smaller apartment, I realized that I have a bit of a fantasy about doing the same—what’s the reality like?
Do you want the short story or the long?
Um … the medium version.
We had this fabulous large apartment that we moved into in 1993 on Park and 84th Street and it was a complete wreck and we were very lucky to get it because nobody else wanted it—there were five maids’ rooms and the ceiling was on the floor in the living room. Anyway, we made a low offer and we got it. Six months later we moved in. I thought, my daughter’s going to get married here. I’m going to die here. Never thought about moving. Just loved it, okay? Then a series of things … our kids were getting ready to leave home … I had lunch with my friend Trish Hall (she was the editor of the Living section) at the Times. She would move into apartments, fix them up, sell them and move on. I said, “Trish, that’s so not me. I can’t stand change. I like to stay where I am.”
Anyway, she asked me if I would like to write about these new condo buildings that are going up, but she said you have to have a reason for it. And I said, “Well I’m not moving.” And she said, “Well, you could move … you have an apartment to sell.”
In the den area, Vitsoe library shelves are filled with 1960s Chinese propaganda ceramics made during the Cultural Revolution.
Suzy and her husband Michael had the sofa and chairs in the den covered in a favorite faux-bois fabric from Hinson. The coffee table is by Eero Saarinen. The white cloth wall sculpture hanging above the sofa is by Shinique Smith.
A close up of the Hinson faux woodgrain fabric on the furniture in the den area.
Peeking into the den area from the terrace. A small vintage Eames stool stands near the open door.
Bright tulips and a ceramic set of dishes by Eva Ziesel are arranged on a glass-topped table from the Lehmann Maupin gallery by the Korean artist Do Ho Suh.
A second seating area centered around the living room fireplace includes a chaise lounge from CB2, a 1950's chair by Pierre Jeanneret, and a table by Do Ho Suh. A large gold head by the Indian artist Ravinder Reddy, which dates from 2002, stands atop the Turkish marble fireplace mantel.
The metal link stool is from CB2 and the black-and-white striped rug is from IKEA. The staircase landing is encircled with glass blocks.
A 1980's cast bronze side chair by Bonetti Garouste, by the window stands next to a 1950's chair by Pierre Jeanneret. The French metal chair in the foreground is by Tolix.
So you moved because you wanted copy?!
Well, Michael [Suzy’s husband] always wanted to move downtown and I did a book on lofts in 1986 and I was always sorry that I didn’t move then. And one day I went to [write about] a building in the West 50s—a very interesting old building—and the broker insisted that I see his other project. I came down to what was the model apartment for this building. [Michael] saw the terrace … the terrace did it.
Were you still under the illusion that you could get rid of most of your stuff?
No. I had no idea … I didn’t even think about it. We were undecided … but Michael was very excited about it. To tell you the truth, we sold our apartment uptown September 4th and we closed on this apartment September 10th. It was really stressful. And we had the yard sale.
The contemporary WrongWoods credenza by Richard Woods and Sebastian Wrong for Established & Sons, stretches across a wall of the dining area. The oil painting hanging above the console is by German-born American painter Ernest Fiene.
The fiberglass table and chairs by Italian designer Pier Luigi Spadolini date from 1971 and came from Neo-Studio in Sag Harbor, New York, as did the vintage hanging fixture.
Magenta orchids perk up the kitchen counter. The painting on plywood is by George Hofmann from the Show Room 170 gallery in New York.
Two wooden heads by American sculptor Elie Nadelman, as well as a third that is anonymous have been arranged upon the WrongWoods credenza.
A 1950's light fixture hangs above the dining table. The ceramic tajine dish is from Morocco.
I read about that. I felt a little pain in my heart at the thoughts of your friends picking over all your treasures. Did they squabble?
Oh my God, it was terrible and I regret a lot of things. Off the record, I can tell you some stories! [But] we had tons and tons of stuff. It was hilarious. Your best friends come over and say, “Five dollars—for this?”
Can you explain the joy your possessions give you?
You know it’s not so much in owning stuff … I did a lot of books in the eighties, these collecting books with my friend Daniel [Rozensztroch – the art director of the French concept store, Merci.] And really my most relaxing thing is … was … going around flea markets with him. It’s nothing to do about value. We don’t have expensive things. This collection is the funniest [gesturing to the shelves ofChinese revolutionary ceramics] … I bought the first two and they were in our apartment for years and years. Then we bought a few more and then, when we moved down here, Michael went around Chinatown and he found lots of them. Friends bought us some too … and it sort of grew.
In warmer months, the outdoor terrace serves as a second kitchen.
Snow-covered views of the wraparound terrace with a view of downtown. One World Trade has since been crowned.
The wire sofa, now repainted over its original orange, is by Fernando and Humberto Campana for Edra.
The cement half-face planters came from Marders Garden Center in Bridgehampton, New York.
From the terrace, there are views of Chinatown, Little Italy, and Lower Manhattan.
Have you stopped collecting things?
Really, we have no room. And you know, eBay killed flea markets … and the Pier shows also.
Do you still go to Brimfield?
I don’t anymore. A lot of the furniture in our old apartment came from Brimfield. We had so much fun … I did a story for the Times on buying wire things with my friend, Daniel … you know … sloshing through the mud.
You’ve been part of the heyday of shelter magazines—but they’re closing or closed …
It’s very sad. I miss it. I loved my life as a magazine editor. It’s a different time.
The statue of Chairman Mao was used in a Kips Bay Showhouse room by Vicente Wolf a few years ago.
A ledge of the staircase landing is lined with ceramic pieces as well as a lamp from the Memphis collection by Ettore Sottsass, Jr.
A pair of self-portraits by Cindy Sherman hangs above a collection of ironstone and French pottery. The drawing on the left is by artist Jane Hammond.
Two portraits of men by Y.Z. Kami and a small painting on metal by Barry McGee hang above a metal chair by Robert Wilson. At the bottom to the right of the column is a painting by Brad Kahlhamer.
Part of Suzy and her husband Michael's art collection that has been hung salon style in the stairwell. It includes, but is not limited to, works by Red Grooms, Lisa Yuskavage, Tracey Emin, Su-en Wong, and Sean Mellyn.
Were you—are you—very bossy?
I can be bossy. I’m very controlling … the main thing is I really love working with other people. I don’t like working on my own at all … at all.
Why did you decide to become a publisher, particularly in the current era of publishing?
It’s a difficult business. I started it because my last editor-in-chief job—my only editor-in-chief job—was at HomeStyle and then that closed. It was the first time I had been out of work in thirty years and I was didn’t know what I was going to do. I started collecting materials for a book on Helena Rubenstein—you know she was my stepfather’s mother, don’t you?
Yes, I do know that. Did the book work out?
We took it the Frankfurt Book Fair to look for a publisher and we didn’t find anybody but a few months later, Thames & Hudson offered something but I didn’t feel right about it. My husband said, “Why don’t you publish it yourself?” So I decided to do it myself and once you do one book, you’re a publisher.
Pine storage boxes designed by architect Hassan Abouseda are filled with colorful pottery that include pieces by Desimone and Robert Picault.
A piece of modern Scandinavian glass and a madonna by Katharina Fritsch sit on the pine shelving.
A trio of vases by Hella Jongerius are part of a collection the Dutch designer created for Ikea.
Antique French and English trompe l'oeil dishes are displayed near a glass vase from Knoll.
A photograph by German artist Candida Hofer has been hung on the wall above a contemporary metal chest. The bowls are Moroccan.
Pieces of contemporary Greek pottery and a vintage Italian figure are grouped on the shelf.
Vintage Spanish liqueur bottles alternate with reproductions of papier maché figures by Russian constructivist Kazimir Malevitch.
"You Can't Lay Down Your Memory" is the title of a chest of many drawers by Dutch artist Tejo Remy for Droog and is the focus of the downstairs hallway.
The long painting above "You Can't Lay Down Your Memory" is by Frank Moore.
What are your memories of Helena Rubenstein?
You know I’m an ex-art historian and I really love the story behind the place. When I did the Helena Rubenstein book it was really as an art historian, digging through and asking: What were her collections? What did it mean to collect African art? She was one of the first major collectors of African art. [And] why did I have this memory of her apartment forty years ago? Because it was so strange and unconventional. She really didn’t care what people thought. She just accumulated things, good and bad. I like that.
What do you see in terms of trends?
Now? I’m glad I’m not working at magazine now. It’s very hard to determine trends—there are no great movements now. Over the years decorators have lost a lot of their power in terms of telling people what they want. People have empowered themselves—for good and for bad.
The drawing by the door in the bedroom is by American artist Steve Gianakos.
In the master bathroom, a painting by Rachel Howard hangs above the towel heater. The towels are from Missoni.
An extensive collection of art books fills the Vitsoe library shelving that lines the hallway to the bedroom.
Painted brick walls and a pine ceiling add to the charm of the bedroom. The watercolor above the bed is by Ouattara Watts. The lamps are from Artemide and the pair of vintage milk-glass topped side tables were designed by Florence Knoll.
A papier maché bull's head from Spain has been stored temporarily under one of the Florence Knoll tables in the bedroom.
The remote control rests on a tray with a Man Ray image.
A mirror with a Tramp Art frame is on the wall of the bedroom. Red bed linens and polka-dotted black-and- white pillows from Ikea echo the room's color scheme.
A side view of a wicker chair by Prague architect and designer Borek Sipek.
A "Feltri" chair by architect Gaetano Pesce for Cassina has been placed near the TV in the bedroom.
So let’s talk about living down here as opposed to living on Park Avenue—how do you like it?
I do. I only knew the Upper East Side—I never lived anywhere else. I never thought that I would live in such a strange neighborhood. I love the light here. I love the view. I love walking around—not on Canal Street. It’s too crowded and it’s dirty. My husband is very, very happy. On weekends he walks down to discover all these streets below here that are old New York streets that people never walk in. He loves all that.
Have you ever lived in another city?
Well, I went to grad school in London and I’ve been to Paris a lot. But I’ve never really lived in another place except New York. I never considered it. No. [Laughs]