A long, thoughtful interview this week with Alan Wanzenberg, whose new book, “Journey: The Life and Times of an American Architect” (Pointed Leaf Press) chronicles the development of his design career.
The book includes a long personal essay about his childhood, the times in which he was studying both at Berkeley and Harvard as well as his life with his late partner, the interior designer Jed Johnson. He now lives in a relatively Spartan apartment on the west side and shares an upstate country home with his current partner, landscape architect Peter Kelly. Influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, Alan’s designs are deeply honest and have attracted clients such as Mick Jagger and Richard Gere.
He knew Andy Warhol well and mixed with a host of other “names” so we teased him that he seems to have a knack for meeting famous people although it does seem as if he just falls into it—Ruby Wax, with whom he is still very good friends, just happened to be placed after him in the alphabetically-arranged classroom seating plan at high school.
We seem to be asking a lot of people lately about why they moved—did you feel that if you didn’t do it now, you would never be able to do it?
I think you can have a lot of fun if you hit it right—not everything is going to fall into place but I think I just thought, “When’s the right time?” I had lots of stuff and things. Then you think like, well I’ll let that go. I’ll move on and I don’t have to be ruled by it.
I like that your book is called “Journey: The Life and Times of an American Architect”. Why did you want to write about the times?
That was sort of an editorial decision. I had a funny title—I wanted to call it “Design Trips” because it was about travel and about that era of the 60s and the 70s but my editor didn’t like that idea. She thought it was too suggestive.
I didn’t get the impression you did a lot of tripping.
No, no, I didn’t! But I thought it was a funny title. I like this title too because Suzie (Slesin) wanted readers to know what the context was.
Yes, it did seem that you were trying to evoke the times when you were learning as well as the times when you were practicing as an architect.
What I was also trying to make clear was the idea that you don’t necessarily understand influences right away. You understand them sort of … later.
Yes, your unconscious can work ahead of your ability to understand things.
Right. Like you might meet somebody and or read something and think it was insignificant and then come to learn it was quite significant. Part of what was driving a lot of the book for me was this aspect of social media and the idea that in social media, if you don’t own the story, someone else is going to own it for you. I saw part of that when our work would be on Pinterest or somewhere and people would just attribute it erroneously.
I don’t know where the line is drawn between sharing and the protection of intellectual property or privacy—perhaps younger people than us know, or else they’re not bothered. They think about these things differently.
I was at the [party to mark] the 30th anniversary of Interview magazine and I just said, “Put me wherever you need to put an extra guy.” I got put at a table with very young kids [including] Mira Sorvino. She was dating, at the time, Olivier Martinez, this very handsome French actor, who was a very nice guy. Generally with actors, you get them to talk about themselves because that’s what they like and that’s what they’re used to. Anyway, at one point I asked him what his connection with Interview magazine was and he said that when his movie came out they were really behind it. He then said, “How do you know Interview magazine?” And I said that, you know, I kind of remember it when I was really young and I also knew Andy Warhol. So it was like the parting of the waves and he says, “You knew Andy Warhol!” And he wanted to know what he was like and so on. Then he turned to me and he said, “But what does Andy Warhol have to do with Interview magazine?” …. there are just these huge gaps in context.
But I guess we don’t understand a lot of things from our parents’ generation. We all love our own era, or our memories of our own youth. What do you say when people ask you about Andy Warhol? Do you have a prepared spiel?
Well, no I don’t have a prepared thing and people don’t ask me that much. But what I would say is that he had this wicked sense of humor. He knew how to tease people.
Did he not take himself too seriously? That would be rare for an artist.
I’m sure he did. But there’s a lot of artists—I don’t want to name names—who are really dreary and he wasn’t. I thought he was easy to be around … all great art takes a power. In Andy’s situation, he always made himself look older and he always dressed the same. It was later in his life that he started to do all those changes with the fright wig and things … but in general he established a look and he stuck to it. I think that that gave him power because he was quiet and unthreatening, seemingly more passive and so a lot of people might have misinterpreted that. He also loved gossip.
He always struck me as something of a snob.
What he really loved was physical beauty—if somebody was beautiful, then that was the most interesting thing. Another friend of mine, Kynaston McShine, says that Andy Warhol brought café society back to life.
I think people have a tendency to personify him in a way that is maybe not accurate. He had an illness when he was very young; he had St. Vitus dance; he was bald; he lived with his mother until she died; he knew all these people because he worked in fashion and commercial art. He was a multi, multi millionaire well before he started the painting.
Gosh, I didn’t know that. Anyway, let’s get back to you. I liked something you wrote in your book about how boredom leads to creativity.
What I’m talking about is doing things over and over again and the routine that that provides you. Also no one opens up the back door anymore and says to kids, “Go out and play.” Most artists evolve through periods of isolation and periods of tedium. For me, part of what it is, this notion of boredom, it’s where you flatten out whereas today everyone relies on external stimulation—and there’s so much … then there’s the whole materialist thing.
I’m a bit more encouraged on that score because when I was in my twenties it was the 1980s and very yuppified—we all wanted lots of expensive stuff—but [mine and Sian’s] kids seem to want to do something meaningful rather than earn big salaries.
You know I think we can overemphasize this idea of meaning a little bit. I don’t believe in astrology but many years ago somebody introduced me to this astrology column in Town & Country. It’s like admitting to pornography or something but I would look at my [sign] and when it works for you it makes you feel good and when it doesn’t you just dismiss it.
You mean you assign meaning to something only should you choose to?
Yes. But the curious thing it keeps on saying that [I’m] under the influence of Saturn, which is these series of trials because Saturn takes 30 years to rotate around the sun. In one’s life, in theory, you’re going to have these trials, like in one’s late twenties and then again in one’s fifties or sixties and if, you’re lucky enough in your nineties. You’re accommodating these new physical and emotional things.
What were your trials in your late twenties?
I just remember years ago being interviewed by one architect and I remember telling him I didn’t know what I was thinking of doing … you know … that confusion. And he said, “You know just do whatever you want because you can do anything you want until you’re 30 years old. But once you turn 30 you’ve got to settle down. You’ve got to make a commitment to your career; you’ve got to make a commitment in a relationship. You’ve got to commit. But until then you can do a lot of different things, as long as you do them purposefully and with good intent.
But I think you have to lay the groundwork for that commitment. You can’t just drift.
No, you can’t. When I interview young people for jobs, I say, “Show me something you do well. Don’t be embarrassed. Bring in a broom and sweep the floor; do a tap dance! Anything!” If you can do one thing well, you can do many things well.
You did plumbing and fitting didn’t you?
Well my Dad was a contractor … he made it clear: “As soon as you can, you’re going to join the union.”
How long did you do it for? Can you fix your own toilet?
I did it for three years. And yeah, I can still fix things.
When Jed died, was work the best place to go?
Yeah, it is. It’s interesting you mention Jed but because one of the things we struggled with early on in our career was that he was so unique because he had no formal training. I think it also came out of that experience that came out of The Factory, because as familiar and as close to Andy as he was, Andy did this thing on Sundays, which was called “making money”. So what he would do is he would go to church and then after that, that was the day he worked. On Sunday afternoons was when he would do his drawing. That’s when he’d do his thinking. And he always said, “That’s the day I make money.” When we worked together, Jed and I, his idea was every day we’re doing something. We’re not going to take off the weekend.
So one thing I have written here is: “pliant, sensuous, open minded” and then, “cold, directed, rigorous” and I take it those are your ways of describing your time at Berkeley and your time at Harvard. Would that be right?
Yes, it is. That tension is very important. You need to know how to navigate between those two things. You need to know when to pull back from something.
You seem to have a knack for meeting famous people … Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, Ruby Wax, to name a few.
[laughs] Ruby Wax and I went to high school together … if you look at it, it was Wanzenberg, then there was a student who sat between us named Helen Waters and then it was Wax!