For most of us, Barbara Tober’s name is indelibly linked to the Museum of Arts and Design. In fact, it is figuratively so. A plaque reading The Barbara and Donald Tober Grand Staircase greets all as they enter. The museum’s moniker is linked to her as well. As Chairman of MAD’s Board, she led the charge for a new name and new home.
Mention Barbara’s name to the many who know her, and they all respond in kind: “I love her!” She’s been called the jewel of Manhattan. With her flawless sense of style, genuine charm, unpretentious manner and generous spirit, she is a modern day Grande Dame.
Tober was an award-winning clothing design student, a fashion editor, a painter, a knitter — in short an embodiment and collector of beauty — before connecting with the museum. “Craftsmanship has always been something that I salute, care and value,” she told me recently. “It includes folk art, cave art, Grecian urns and so much more, because there are certain boundaries that are crossed. Over time, people have created some of the most exquisite objects. This is hallowed ground and a very important thing to continue, care about and put in museums.”
The MAD Ball, celebrating its 65th anniversary and new director Tim Rodgers, filled the museum’s Columbus Circle home. The party ranged from a young, hot cocktail reception with club music on one floor, to a dinner overlooking the park, at the Michelin-starred Robert penthouse restaurant.
Tober’s art and design inspirations include former MAD Director Glenn Adamson, author of many books on this subject and Julie Schafler Dale. Dale was the early champion of wearable art who brought Barbara into the museum. One day, newlyweds Barbara and Donald were walking down Madison Avenue, when they spied an objet in Julie: Artisans Gallery, the boutique that arose from Schaffler Dale’s collecting.
“We were looking for furniture and little bibelots to make our new apartment into a home,” remembered Barbara. “She had an absolutely charming large lamb made of wool and suede that I thought would make a great footstool.”
This put the Tobers on Julie’s radar. She kept tabs on her significant clients, in case she wanted to borrow things back for museum shows. She invited Barbara and Donald to a fundraiser for the museum. Barbara bought the coat featured on the invitation, joined as a museum Associate and kept going. When Barbara grew tired of discussing “whether table cloths should be pink or yellow,” she joined the board. A few years later, she was chairing it.
All the while, Tober was working full time. She helmed Brides Magazine for 30 years, the longest tenure of any editor-in-chief in Conde Nast history. “My top editors and I all grew up together,” Barbara said. “We’re still friends and love each other as family.”
Tober had always painted, knitted and made her own clothing. “I got my job at Vogue in the mid 1950s wearing an outfit I designed and made myself,” she told me. She received an award from The Traphagen School of Fashion (that trained Geoffrey Beene, James Galanos and Anne Klein), and studied at FIT. She started at Vogue, then went on to other magazines.
“I learned a lot about why things are beautiful and how they are made,” she said. “I give money to the Isabel O’Neil Studio, because they are teaching an antique style decorative painting that is not used enough today.”
Barbara has always had unique, well-crafted homes. Someday, she muses, a new owner will gut her hand painted walls and artisanal decor for the modern look: steel, white walls and hard edges. Until then, Tober continues to celebrate handmade objets with the “wow look: so precious, priceless and fabulous that you want to own them.” And she’s constantly on the hunt for the next must-have creation.
Meantime, Barbara, herself, will continue to wow. She remains an inspiration to me: how to live, how to treat others, how to persevere, stylishly and gracefully. After hip surgery, she swanned around in a wheelchair, then a walker. Today, she walks perfectly. Because, exercise has always been part of her daily routine. She was always an accomplished equestrian, then learned to ski for Donald.
I wanted her to hear her philosophy. I like to joke mine is “Party On,” but it’s somewhat more fleshed out. Before I could ask, she told me she keeps it on her walls:
She must have had to dig deep, last year, to get through losing husband Donald. It was hard to think of one without thinking of the other. They were regularly spotted, arm in arm, on Madison Avenue, or dancing the night away at the many galas they supported, like newlyweds. I wondered how she would manage without him. “It was a terrible shock,” she replied. “He was my partner, my friend and my lover for 49 years. I miss him every day.”
Barbara keeps his room as a memorial, asks for his guidance and gets it. Almost a year later, there she is, creating a life with friends and extended family, continuing to love and inspire love. This spring, she said she’ll take her staff to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, ”because everyone worked so hard on the memorial and celebration.”
Like Barbara, the Museum of Art and Design is looking towards the future, with Tim Rodgers as new director. I knew Tim from the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami Beach, was sad to see him go and delighted to have him here. He has a way with people. “Tim was always reaching out to meet one-on-one,” interior, lighting and home furnishing designer (and Wolfsonian Board member) Kevin Gray said. “He’s passionate about museum arts. He’s a team player as well as a ring leader. Tim was a big reason the Wolfsonian expansion is finally happening, 20 years after getting the grant.”
Rodgers left Miami for his home town of Phoenix. Sorry, Tim, those sun kissed days are over. “It was like tempting a child with candy,” he says of the MAD offer “And I always wanted to live in New York.”
Rodgers believes strongly in the museum. Craft, design: who’s to say what’s art? ”MAD exists on the edge of the art world,” he says. “Let’s put the edgy back in.” We saw a little of that already with the performance artist Machine Dazzle, who sang at the dinner. “He does these elaborate over the top drag costumes like RuPaul,” Rodgers said, “but a little crazier.”
Tim also suggested architect and interior designer William Sofield as an honoree. They met in Italy during one of Mickey Wolfson’s big birthday bashes. “Sofield has done the interiors in a number of the pencil towers here,” Rodgers said. “And such stores as Gucci, Yves St. Laurent, Tom Ford, Ferragamo, Bottega Veneta and Coach. One of the reasons we’re honoring him is his predilection for the old school craftsmanship of carving stone and decorating things with elaborate designs. He brings back much of the craft that modern architecture has stripped out.”
Moving forward, Tim has some big ideas to bring in the community, with outreach programs for all, including the next generation of supporters. “We have a very beautiful theater,” he said. “So I would really like us to do regular film series. I enjoy getting to know people and to talk about the material, so I’ll do more of the kind of talks I did during the first hour of the party.
“We have some really stunning exhibitions coming up. In the spring, we’ll work with lower designers to do a whole series of one week flower craft exhibitions, (the flowers don’t last), and tutorials on how to do it yourself.
“Next fall, we’ll do a show of over-the-top costumes with more performance and community involvement components.”
The time is right to bring a new wave to MAD, he says. There’s a growing DIY mentality that shows like Project Runway have fostered. “Young people are embracing craft, designing clothes and doing needlepoint,” he notes. “When Tom Daley the Olympian is spending his time knitting, you know that this is a trend.
“So, let’s have some fun,” Rogers laughs. “It’ll be a kick in the pants!”
Hmmm, a movement away from hard edges to more is more? Barbara Tober, you can stop envisioning that steel and glass makeover for your Park Avenue apartment. You are on trend!