Interior designer Iris Dankner was first diagnosed with breast cancer sixteen years ago. After her surgery and as part of her healing process she took it upon herself to devote her time and energy to raising awareness and funds for “the cause”. She became a major fundraiser for the Susan G. Komen foundation and in 2008 launched the first designer show house, which she called “Holiday House” because it was to be in the spirit of celebrating life. Designers pick a holiday or moment in the calendar that is meaningful to them and work their designs around that theme.
Now backed by the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, a newly-conceived summer Holiday House is holding its first show house in the Hamptons where designers and visitors can also give back, small or large, to fund the research and prevention of this widespread disease. Hamptons Holiday House is open in Bridgehampton through the end of July.
For more details you can go to: www.holidayhousehamptons.com
Let’s start with Holiday House, what the goals are and how it got started. What is Holiday House?
Holiday House is a designer show house which I started to raise money and raise awareness for breast cancer—and also to create an incredible house to show to the public.
How did you think of the idea? This is affiliated with the Susan G. Komen foundation, no?
Okay, let’s start from scratch because it’s not—it was. I’m going to give you the brief overview. Sixteen years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I got very involved with Susan G. Komen and I found that I had a team of doctors that put me back together. Emotionally, I needed to heal myself and I turned to Komen. I’m a strong believer in like, pay it forward. There were so many who helped me heal that the only way I could thank them was to help [other] people who need it. I started by forming a team for Race for the Cure. It grew over the next six years. I was the highest fundraiser … and they asked me to be on the board of Susan G. Komen. I took the seat on the board and after two years they asked me to chair the race.
How much does that race typically raise?
I took it from 2.5 million dollars to 5.7 million dollars over the three years.
And how did all this lead towards Holiday House?
So, here I was and I’m also an interior designer by profession so I actually had like two full-time jobs. The next thing that happened was my daughters came to me and they wanted to get involved. They started an event with Komen called Tickled Pink. It was sponsored by Diane Von Furstenburg and it was [to help] breast cancer survivors and their children. It was probably one of the most meaningful events I ever did to help mothers and daughters. Then I realized that there was nothing in the design industry that benefited any women’s issues.
I took a step back and said that’s unbelievable. Nobody thought about it. So I presented it to the [Susan G. Komen] board. I realized that you couldn’t put all your eggs in one basket—and about 95 percent of the income for Komen came from Race for the Cure.
Wow. I didn’t realize that.
So I said, “Let’s do the show house!” And remember that most of the people on the board are [in the] medical and financial fields. Nobody really knew what a show house was. They said [for various reasons] they couldn’t take it on as a Komen event but they said that they would support me. I also thought it was going to be about nurturing new business relationships—businesses they hadn’t targeted like paint companies and fabric companies—so they were totally behind me.
So when was the first Holiday House?
I think it was in 2008. It’s been in the same building on East 63rd Street ever since. It used to be The Academy of Arts and Science. It’s an amazing building but when we got into it, it had been really run down. Just nobody took care of it.
So how do you go about organizing it all? Do you start by soliciting designers and they pay for their own costs?
Yes, they pay to be involved and that money goes towards producing the house and maintaining a house that size. I am extremely lucky that the owners of that house, Emily and Leonard Blavatnik donate it for six weeks.
Why is it called “Holiday House”?
The name “holiday” was about celebration and how important it is to celebrate life. Each designer is required to pick a holiday or a moment in time that’s really important to them … not to be Hallmark.
That’s a very big event for one person to take on.
I have a staff and yeah, it is a small team and we produce a fabulous event. I was doing it for Susan G. Komen for the first four years and then when [they] de-funded Planned Parenthood, it was a huge deal. They had just asked me to come back to the board, and I knew at that minute that it was time for me to move on. Immediately that week I set up an appointment with the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. They said they’d love to have their name on the event and so [last year] I made that switch, which was huge for me.
Do you think the designers get work from these show houses?
I can honestly say designers from Holiday House have gotten jobs. You will hear different from people who have done other show houses but it’s true. It’s about a designer being present. It’s about the schmooze if you’re looking for more work. There are some big designers who will not be there and do not care but then there are designers that are looking to be in the papers, to get into the blogs and it’s important to be there.
Tell me how this has been cathartic for you.
Well it’s been incredible because it’s combining my two passions.
And you’re still doing interior design?
I still have a few projects. I can’t give it up. I do love designing. But I did make a decision last year that I need to focus more on growing Holiday House because we had such an incredible year last year. I’ve set the bar so high that we really had to keep it up. And we’ve also decided to open one in the Hamptons.
Do you find that more women are willing to do this than men?
Absolutely not. I found a variety and I’ve found male designers who have had breast cancer. Numerous designers have moms or grandmothers who have had breast cancer. And I would say one of the most touching things I found this year was having painters and contractors coming up to me and saying, “Thank you — I lost my mom” or “I lost my grandmother and I’ve never had the opportunity to do anything and this feels so good.”
I want to raise awareness as much as I want to raise money. I was diagnosed at my first routine mammogram and I was 40. And it actually saved my life because I was trying to get pregnant. I want to get the word out how important it is to have your mammogram. Do you remember about a year ago they changed the age [at which to have your first mammogram] and they said it only saves one out of every 1493 women. But if you’re that one, that number is huge.
How long have you been a designer?
I went to Carnegie Mellon—I was a printmaker and a photographer. I started working at Lord & Taylor … I wrote every ad that was released from the New York store. Then I left when I had my second daughter and started on my own. And then I went to the New York School of Interior Design and I worked really hard that year. Then I thought, “I can do this!” and I didn’t stay. I went out on my own.
Has having gone through the ordeal of breast cancer had on your design or not necessarily?
Not necessarily. I just see how important it is to make yourself happy. It just makes you happy if you live in a place that’s comfortable. I have a dear friend who was in Sloan Kettering and she was having a double mastectomy. I said, “What can I do for you?” She said, “I’ll tell you something you can do. I’m 50 years old and I’ve never had my own closet. Can you help me re-do my bedroom and my living area.” When she got home from hospital, we made her this glamorous dressing room and it just made her feel so good about herself. I do feel there are ways in which design helps you feel good. The other side of that is once I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I found it very hard because people would complain about “my new trim”.
That must have been difficult to deal with
When somebody is disappointed with the color that didn’t come out exactly or the hem on the curtain isn’t right … that’s what became annoying—get a life!