When we first met with designer Sam Botero and his partner Emery von Sztankoczy in their East 70s apartment we were confronted with packing boxes and crates. They had moved in two months earlier and Sam, who had thought we were there to shoot a single portrait, was gracious enough to let us photograph the apartment ‘as was’.
Seven years later the apartment is complete, full of the spirited color that reflects their attraction to unique objects and Sam’s flair for giving spaces a visual sense of adventure. As a couple they have also reinvigorated their decorating business, recently opening a store and designing a line of furniture. In another exciting turn, they are also in the process of launching a documentary on Sam’s life and work.
While they lament the changes in the business, what they call “the loss of mystique”, they are nevertheless proof that the adaptable and the truly creative players do survive in this ever-changing, ever-competitive design landscape.
I recently saw the movie, “56 Up” and what’s really interesting about it is that the British film maker, Michael Apted, started filming a group of, I believe, fourteen British-born people since the age of seven and he has gone back every seven years to see how their lives have evolved—and when I was thinking about this interview, I thought, “Aha! I haven’t seen you in seven years!” So tell me what’s changed in your life?
Sam: Well one thing is that we have opened a design gallery. We have designed a line of furniture—and that’s very exciting. It’s wonderful to conceive of furniture inside your head and to put it together and to do a line.
What led you to expand your business?
Sam: I think the last few years have been for re-invention. We wanted to invent something that we can design in such a way that we can, if we ever decide to slow down, we can still keep our finger on the pulse.
Things have naturally slowed down because of the economy.
Emery: We’re fortunate in that we have a client base and they keep coming back to us but the upper middle class level of money, you know people who are upper income but not unlimited income, has fallen away. They don’t spend as easily. The really rich can still do whatever they want.
Sam: They’re much more careful. And prices have gone up.
Very true. I have noticed that even for very basic things, like food is much more expensive.
Emery: Things that are more basic have shot up, like milk and eggs. You go to the supermarket and sometimes you pinch yourself and say, “Wait a minute these two green peppers cost as much as a steak!”
Sam: At least what a steak used to cost.
I suppose with the economy changing, designers are moving in different directions.
Sam: I tell you, business is more and more difficult.
Sam: Oh well, the Internet. People have access to so many things now. You know, you’re looking for dining chairs and you’re looking for the chairs and then they go into some site and they say, “Oh, well I saw these dining chairs that suited everything perfectly. Why didn’t you find them?”
Emery: And then you say: “First of all, do you understand the proportions of the chair? Do you understand how it relates to where it is going to be in the room? And a million other things. But it’s, “Oh, but I like that chair!”
Sam: And there’s also the time. When you’re doing things that are custom, it takes time. It used to be easier to explain delays to people in the past [than it is now] because we’re living in the age of instant coffee and instant gratification. The mystique has gone.
Is that because of HGTV and makeover shows?
Sam: That’s one aspect of it. Another is that there used to be ‘to the trade’ and that was very respected. But it’s gone. There was an article in New York magazine [in 1987] that exposed the whole industry, the discounts … they put it all out there for everybody. Those things were secret. There was a mystique, there was a mystery. There was a Wizard of Oz who would help them create their fantasy.
Emery: Since the cell phone, everything has changed. The etiquette of time has changed. Up until the cell phone, when you closed your business at closing time, you were closed and now you get a call, “Oh I just thought of something” and it’s 11:30 at night.
It sounds like you have people fatigue!
Sam: We’re becoming much choosier as to who we give our services to. Maybe that’s part of becoming old, I don’t know.
Emery: We’re painting a very black picture here …
And seven years from now?
Sam: Well, the other thing that is happening is that there is going to be a television documentary on myself and my work.
Emery: It’s been accepted by Channel 13. It’s really happening.
That’s fantastic. How long have you two been together?
Sam: Eleven years.
Tell me about other things in your life that have changed. How’s your mother? I remember she lives nearby.
Sam: [Hesitates] My mom … she’s … okay. She’s going to be ninety. The good thing is that she has a very good temperament, she laughs a lot. She does have a hard time remembering things from a few seconds ago. She’ll ask me the same question over and over. It’s a very hard thing to observe and to deal with. And from a personal point of view it’s scary, you know: Is this where I’m going? This is your parent.
Having an aging parent … you never really thought of yourself as being in this position when you were younger.
Emery: I don’t think anybody in our society wants to deal with anything to do with death, as if we’re all going to live forever and nothing will ever change. And when you see someone who is really old, it’s like “Oh, that’s like another species. It’s not going to happen to us.” And then of course, it does.
Sam: You think of yourself as young. And all of a sudden, a number registers … or you walk somewhere and there’s a mirror that you’re not expecting and you see this older-looking person coming towards you—and then you realize it’s you! Or you open the door for somebody who is in their thirties or forties: “Thank you, sir.” Oh! … That “sir”! [Starts to laugh]
You had been together four years when we last met. What’s different in your relationship?
Emery: [Laughs] It’s much the same thing! It’s sort of plateau-ed. This the thing about being a designer, you never stop working. The hat’s always on.
Sam: The thing is, the foundation of our relationship is creativity.
Over the years you’ve been in AD 100 and the [other] lists of the top designers, sort of the pinnacle of where designers want to be, the star designers—are you still enamored with that?
Sam: I always wanted that. I like being a star.