David Easton

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Yet another death impacted the design world this past week, that of esteemed designer and architect, David Easton. One of our early interviews for the House column, we met with David in 2007 when he was still living in his downtown loft. He was on the verge of experimenting with living in a modular home in Charlottesville, Virginia. At the time the sale at William Doyle of a goodly portion of his worldly possessions was the first part of the experiment. Luckily he still owned the New York part of his life, which was put on show and which we are re-running for you today. He wrote the captions himself, and they do capture his voice. He really was a thinker, managing to sound erudite, charming, funny and slightly offbeat all at the same time. Rather thrillingly, he also told us that he drinks a glass of red wine with his breakfast each morning.

I’ve actually interviewed you once before, ages ago when I worked at Money magazine … I don’t even remember how I got your name or who you were. I just knew you were a well-known decorator …

[In tones of aghast, mock surprise] Are you here to interview me because I’m in the design world? I’m a sex therapist.

Then we have even more questions for you … Are you well-known?

I’m not Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Would you like to be Arnold Schwarzenegger?

I’d love to be running part of the government.

What would you do?

Well, the first thing I would do is … George Bush … I’m talking about cutting his …

Um … emasculating him?

Thank you. That’s so much more polite.

View of the east wall. The loft space was divided into three rooms that I made into a single 34L x 18 W space for one-room living to dine, entertain and work in. Large windows face south. There is sun in these windows all day. On the wall are eight watercolors of Mt. Vesuvius.
The mantel is painted wood and is a reproduction of a neoclassical mantel I saw in a palace in Corsica. It becomes furniture, following the old adage that the first piece of furniture that goes into a room is a mantel. The tripod table in the center of the room is Empire.
West wall study area, working studio area. These face one another for easy interaction, and I get to look out the window. The extending lamps are from a wonderful place, Meilleur in Paris. My English Regency desk chair is very comfortable! We have everything we could need right here. I love how technology and antiquities intersect in a fully functioning way without looking hard. My printer, stereo, fax and cd collection all live behind jobe doors. This is in some ways a compromise. I love Googling. I am an early morning worker and I dance to the tune of my computer. I start my day early, sending emails that span the globe connecting with friends from New York to Australia.
Desk clutter! Inset in a niche on the west wall is a pair of mahogany drafting tables I designed in 2002 and were inspired by an English drafting table I have owned. On the left is a painted panel of Tehran from a 1976 trip there. I love the graphics of the Islamic written word.
Then we have a 19th century terrestrial globe from Belgium next to 19th century copies of Greek vases. Finally, I bought this 19th century verre églomisé plein air painting of ruins in St. Rémy, France, for the charm of the frame and the image. Antiquity gives softness and patina to the world we live in today. I have loved antiquity with the same passion that I look to the future. Neo-classicism is almost post-modern in its simplicity. They knew how to edit.
Left: A vignette of the north wall has a pair of the Louis XVI chairs from a set of four bought from the collection of Daisy Fellowes. A wonderful 19th century architectural draftsman’s triangle from England (that I have actually used to design furniture) sits behind it. Technical instruments I have from the 19th century represent the kinds of things I am drawn to: math, science, logic. For walls, Venetian plaster softens the surfaces; the sheen provides depth and gives a sense of age.
Right: A quadrant of views of Vesuvius hangs above slightly inset banquettes which flank the mantel. The banquettes and chair are upholstered in Lee Jofa fabrics from my collection. If the first thing that should go into a room is a mantel, then the second is the upholstery. This creates a balance in the sculptural weight of the upholstered pieces.

What else would you do, apart from that?

I would get the troops out of Iraq. He’s so stupid he doesn’t know that Mohammed died in 632 AD and they’ve been fighting for fourteen hundred years and you’re not going to solve it. And we wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for the greed of oil.

Are you generally interested in history?

I’ve taught history actually, at Parsons …and I’ve got thousands of books to prove it. The problem is I think it is less and less relevant to the future.

Why? We don’t arrive out of a vacuum.

It’s not important anymore. I’ve built all these Georgian houses, we’re talking about fifteen to twenty-five thousand square foot houses. Young people are not going to build that way. They still are up in Greenwich but that’s the last blast. We can’t afford to. We’re not going to be able to afford to.

Inspired by a trip to Knossos, red has always been my favorite color. The red Greek terra cotta color used throughout the ages is exciting and Sir John Soane’s use of it has also inspired me. I particularly like it as an accent color in a room.
I have put hidden motorized shades on the windows to shield the great sun that I get all day. Inset mirrors in the pockets above and around the window provide the illusion of depth and lightness.

Desk shot. This wonderful painting, a reproduction I commissioned from the Hermitage, is of a Danish 19th century painting of Philoctetes bitten by a snake.
I designed this small oval red accent table to work with all the rectangular furniture in the room. A shelf for books, and a pull out shelf for a quick glass of wine. Beside it sits one from a set of four Louis Philippe painted-and-gilt French chairs from Paris.
Books are such a part of my life that they fill the bookshelves in my room. I put the painting on the shelf to break up the look of the vertical spines of the books and it is a great place to hang something if the wall space is limited. It is interesting to arrange bookcases like this; the wall does not get confusing with too many decorative items
I have more than 4000 books – that’s a plea for help! It’s like having 4000-plus friends entertain, educate and give you comfort. Books have given me great solace in looking to the past. I have books in almost any category, from history, religion, architectural, furniture, travel and reference materials.
One of my favorite books of all time is The Illustrated History of Furniture, by Mario Praz. I purchased a copy from a First Avenue shop Beekman Books when I worked for Edward Wormley.
My night table is crammed with my current dose of reading material and photos of (furry) friends and family.

Looking east from the foot of the bed.

Do you think it’s necessary for people to have such large houses?

No, I think in the day and age when people are starving and dying … I know I’m sounding like Mother Theresa. Did you ever see her when she was dead with her feet? … She had these little tiny feet like bird’s feet … that’s subtext …um … the population is changing. The earth can’t afford it. That’s why Jimmy [his partner] and I are going to build a modular house, just as an experiment to learn how to do it. And it’s not going to be classical.

You think this is one of the ways people are going to be building in the future?

I think it’s the only way people are going to be building in the future.

By bringing furniture into this room you make the bath into a living room that is both useful and comfortable. A table to rest a book, stack towels, a chair to drop a towel on, the characteristics relate to living in the bathroom. The warm glow the parchment shades give off is soothing, the flowers bring the outdoors in, and the watercolors are a gift from a friend who is also a client.

When you say modular do you mean it’s in pieces, like a kit?

There’s several different modular productions of houses. Actually Sears Roebuck, if you look at the 1908 catalog, you can get a two-bedroom house for $359 and then you can buy your stove, your refrigerator, your bananas and your underwear …well, not the bananas … but when the population doubles, what are you going to do? – if we survive

Well we’re just going to be living in these mammoth cities, aren’t we?

Look at science fiction. Read William Gibson’s Necromancer. Look at the world of the future or go all the way back to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, 1932. Fucking cloning, cloning! All those things, well not all of them but a lot of them, are going to come true. Jules Verne, 1853, Around the World in Eighty Days and that kind of thing. But certainly the technology, the advances of technology, the requirement for technology, certainly the population, and most important in America is the demographics. The White Anglo-Saxon Protestant drops from 72% to 54% (I’m all for it – that’s what America is all about) It’s going to change the value system for classical architecture.

What is going to happen instead?

When you read Gibson or [Neal] Stephenson’s Snow Crash, you read about people who don’t live any place. They’re all in flux. They’re bunking in bunks that you pull out of the wall, as you’ve seen in Hong Kong or Tokyo.

Isn’t that fundamentally against our nature? I mean we need a cave to call our own.

No, we adapt. That’s what we do. It’s Darwin. Richard Dawkins and his book on God. This whole thing of science versus God is a critical factor in terms of change. Will Christianity survive? We’re gonna get what we deserve starting in 1094 with the first Crusades.

You’re not factoring in the triumph of science over religion. You’re saying that Islam will take over and secularism will give way to another belief system. am [factoring that in.] When you look at history, Mesopotamia, Iraq, those religions are gone. Five thousand years ago, you look at Greece and Rome – gone. Christianity is weakening.

Great art came out of those religions …

You can’t deny the great things of religion but it doesn’t stand the test of intelligence. I believe in science.

Photos of friends surround me. A mini tole chest from France houses cuff links.
The dressing room. Designed with as much organization as possible, there is a shelf for everything
As quietly as possible and as easily as possible, watch those ties disappear in the future!

Doesn’t affluence, above all else, sound the death knell of religion? Richer countries are less religious than poorer ones.

I understand what you’re saying … but I think in the end survival will defeat religions.

I take it you’re not religious then?

Absolutely not. I had 20 fucking years of Catholic education. [laughs]

You sound pessimistic although you don’t strike me as a pessimist.

Oh, I’m not pessimistic. I only saying change is going to take place. Also I find our work is changing.

The kitchen has everything you need. Jimmy’s [my partner] rendering of a basket sits next to a silver pitcher from Haga in London. Even in the kitchen pencils are at hand for a quick jot or a sketch. I have them everywhere I might need to record an idea that comes to me.
Travels mean so much to me and the things I bring back and live with are a constant reminder of the people I met and places I visited.
This is a place seldom visited except by our Norfolk terrier, Lizzie, who dines here. She eats in, but, like most New Yorkers, we eat out.

How is that changing?

Well it’s just that we’ve done more modern things than previously … we are doing a job in Jackson Hole and they put in front me these log cabins and I said let’s just look at more modern contemporary wood buildings. I put together a package of images of more country-style houses from all over, but some of the most critical ones were in Belgium, because there’s wonderful style going on there right now … really wonderful. I travel a lot … you can buy mushrooms in Amsterdam. Happy Valley it’s called.

Were they good?


Do you think Europe is more exciting –design wise– than the United States?

We’re too rich. We’re too rich. I mean we don’t have to adapt.

A photo of Einstein and his daughter is one of my inspirations along with Freud, in terms of what one man’s mind can bring to our works. The small figure is a Japanese ivory wise old owl, my favorite animal (after Lizzie that is!)
A life-size owl keeps watch.
My favorite object in the room is a working telescope from a shop on the Rue de Bac in Paris. It has a sculptural quality to it but it also functions, it has a history and I look at the moon and stars. The science and technology fascinate me.
Confession: After many years of traipsing trees up and down in the elevator, working at the desk and hearing leaves drop to the floor, I have found wonderful trees that do not need anything but looking at. They have been here six months and have been a great pleasure. I like bringing the outdoors in with greenery. It gives a rhythm to the room and green adds brightness. The chandelier, another nod to the past, is an English Regency period fixture from Pimlico Road, London.
Bought again on Pimlico Road. The metal table is an old sculptor’s table; the thin legs give it lightness.
I got this plaque in 1972 at a bazaar in Isphahan. It says ‘David Easton’ in Farsi. I have not yet hung it on my door, but maybe I will when I do my house in the country. I am proud of it, proud of the beauty of the Islamic calligraphy.
A terra cotta Janus, the household god looking from the past to the future, was a gift from Edward Wormley, with whom I worked for three years. Wormley once named a furniture collection ‘Janus’, after him. When I finished my thesis at Pratt, I was asked to participate in a selection process for a scholarship in France that Wormley was on the committee for.
He looked at my presentation of creating an inverted pyramid for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a pavilion house. When working for Edward Wormley he saw that I was inspired by the great buildings of the past. After apprenticing for him, I got a scholarship to Fountainbleu. When I left for Europe, Wormley said to me: ‘when you get back please call me, maybe there is a place in our office for you.’ After five months there and having seen the work of Sir John Soane, Schinkel, the great houses of England, the Maison de Verre in Paris, I was offered a job with Wormley. It has been a treasured piece in my life and has followed me wherever I have been. Today, on the day that I am writing this, I was in a shop in Brussels, Philippe Denys on the Rue Sablon, I was attracted to a wonderful sculptural table in the window. After looking around, Philippe came in and explained to me that Wormley had designed the table. What a coincidence on the day that I am writing this!

What do you think of all these glass buildings going up in the city?

They’re inevitable … ubiquitous in their decoration. They’ve all become so simplified that they all look alike.

Why are we becoming so conformist?

I always think that maybe life has become so rich in other things than possessions. I’m not saying that everyone that has a glass-walled apartment building is intensely intelligent but I think that there’s an acuity that exists in New York that is so focused on success and survival and moving forward that often times we put away a lot of our stuff.

That sounds awful to me.

Read Clockwork Orange.

How do you define success?

Honey, it’s one thing. Money. Honey, money. Money, honey.

What’s your attitude to money?

Well I realize as I’ve gotten older that’s it’s important to have accumulated in terms of what people have generally, no a lot but enough that I know that I could survive. This apartment, which I  know it’s vulgar to say it, but it only costs $834 in maintenance, and so I know I can pay that and this project we’re working on, the modular house down in Charlottesville [VA], and I’m going to go teach and live there.

When I walk in the door, this is the first thing I see. A verre églomisé painted image of Roman ruins bought from an antique dealer in San Francisco.
19th century console bought in Australia. Leashes and umbrellas galore! To the left is Lizzie’s closet. She prefers blue but I love red so we compromise on her leashes. Hiding under the console is a 19th century bronze of a Roman youth.

So that’s the experiment.

Well, the modular is an experiment and so is living there. I don’t know if I can live in Charlottesville …What I’d really like to do is open a bookshop with a fireplace and a wine bar and a long table and lots of books and have people come in and talk all day.

Why can’t you?

It’s a wonderful dream but … small bookshops, they’re edgy financially. As a joke I said:

What the hell, I’ll open a sex shop in the basement. There are no sex shops in Charlottesville … that I know of.

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