Victoria Benatar

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Architect and professor, Victoria Benatar lost us almost immediately when she started to explain her music system, a small, inscrutable red box with no buttons or knobs or anything lumpy and low tech like that—we’re both hapless when it comes to technology. She clearly isn’t. Twenty-six years ago she said she was immediately drawn to one of the very first PCs (one that belonged to her stepson) and snuck into his bedroom while he was at school to mess about on it. That, in time, led to a teaching job at Columbia University where she also completed her masters in urban design (she now teaches at Parsons The New School for Design at the school of constructed environments). She sees architecture as a form of social work saying, “If your environment is well-balanced, then you’re happy.”

I was interested to see that you will sometimes visit someone’s apartment “virtually” in order to give them advice or an estimate.

Yes, sometimes, especially if they are somewhere like Caracas. They take little videos with the iPhone or communicate in other ways with pictures.

That wouldn’t even have been thought of ten years ago.

It’s amazing. But in the end you have to go to the space.

Looking across Victoria’s sunny Upper East Side living room. A coffee table by Isamu Noguchi stands in front of a sofa from B&B Italia.
Shelves, displaying art and objects flank the living room sofa.
A work by Laurie Simmons, “Clothes Make the Men,” is arranged above a piece by Venezuelan Op and kinetic artist, Jesus Rafael Soto.
L. to r.: From the top shelf down: A box made by Victoria’s daughter, Gala Delmont-Benatar, the red glass vase is a present from friend and fellow designer Chris Coleman; below is a Chinese Feng Shui fountain and a LED sign by artist Jenny Holzer.; Marble cups found at a flea market, Coke bottles arranged as an art piece by Victoria and a bronze sculpture by her Venezuelan friend David Cohen are arranged atop some of the living room wall shelves.
A close-up of “Clothes Make the Men” by artist Laurie Simmons.

Why did you come to the US?

When I had my daughter [26 years ago in Venezuela], her father had two kids from a previous marriage. [One of these] kids came with his homework one day and I was like, “What kind of typewriter did you use to do this?” It was a computer … so when the kid went to school, I squeezed into his room and I started learning how to use it. I started loving it and you know, those moments of genius that you have and you don’t really know what it means for the future? But I said, if I don’t learn this, all the kids that study architecture are going to take me out of the market, so I’d better learn this. So when my daughter was seven, we moved to New York and I wanted to do my masters [in urban design from Columbia] and advance my digital knowledge.

So technology was something that you quickly knew you had some affinity with?

Yes, I do. I don’t know why. And my students ask me sometimes, “How do you know that?” and I don’t know how I know. When I was at Columbia, to my surprise there was only one computer class. When I graduated, they computerized the whole school. I offered innocently, “Do you need help?” And they hired me!

An acrylic and metal tube kinetic sculpture is by Venezuelan Op and kinetic artist Jesus Rafael Soto.
L. to r.: A photograph of pigment film on plexi-glass with a metal edge by Colombian artist Monka Bravo hangs above a Prellina table lamp by Gio Ponti and a bronze bust by Victoria’s mother, Tamara Benatar. ; Hanging on the far wall is a dissection of a rose in the form of a sequential print by Columbian artist Roberto Obregon.
Victoria’s flat screen TV, ipod and Bang & Olufsen speakers are housed in a custom console from IKEA.

Bright pink orchids and colorful Murano glass ashtrays on the white TV console.

A coffee table by Isamu Noguchi stands front and center in the living room. The hand-made rug was designed by Federica Tondato for Fedora.

Was that what you wanted to do, though, teach?

They asked me, “How come if you have such a profitable practice in Venezuela, why would you want to come here and teach?” At the time I thought I wanted to become Minister of Development in my country, so I there was a lot to learn. And the best way to learn is to teach.

But you didn’t become a minister—would you go back to Venezuela now?

That’s the thing, I still would like to. But politically … it’s not really like … I don’t want to talk about politics.

I always wonder about solutions to low cost housing—architecture seems to moving towards designing small spaces and building sustainably …
Everything changed from the eighties when everything was all lavish and we wanted to shop and shop. In my work, I try to use spaces for two or three functions. For example here is a sitting area but it’s also a media room. For me there is no impossible space.

A bright orange chair from CB2 adds a burst of color to the living room. The side table is by Eileen Gray and is from MOMA.
In a second seating area a wall sculpture by Pedro Tagliafico hangs above a leather by Le Corbusier. The ARA table lamp is by Philippe Starck. The X-stools are from Neidermaier and the contemporary side table with casters is by Toshiyuki Kita.

L. to r.: A triptych by Sandra Bermudez, ” I miss you, I need you, I want you,” hangs above 1950’s Murano glassware collected over the years. ; Wall art by Italian artist Rogello Policello hangs on a wall separating the living room from the dining area.

So tell us about life growing up in Caracas.

I am first-generation Venezuelan. My mom is a Russian-Jew and my father is a Moroccan-Jew.  My grandparents were Russian doctors. So I was a multi-cultural person but of course the main religion there was Catholicism—and I lived in an environment where they said, “Are you Jewish?” But for me it added another little ingredient to my multi-cultural-ness. My father was Sephardic and mother was Ashkenazy, so that already makes a big difference.

But the thing I love about South America, [is that] you’re in nature, even if you’re in Caracas, you’re in touch with all these colors—it’s amazing. It’s so fertile—you find a little group of plants growing on the sidewalk. I used to go climbing in the mountains [around the city] and I said to myself each day, “Today I’m going to find a different blue or a different green.” And every day you can find a different blue or a different green based on how the light falls.

Was that when you were a child?

No, that was after I studied architecture. I can say my life is before I studied architecture and after I studied architecture. That’s what I tell my students. In the school, they teach you how to see things differently. Even if I watch a movie, I’m looking at the spaces and the how the sets are done. To be a good architect, you need to observe.

Peeking into the dining area from the kitchen. Regency dining chairs surround a table from The Conran Shop. A piece hanging on the right wall is by Argentinian artist Fabian Marcaccio.

How does technology help you to design?

I am very structured and organized. Technology allows you to improve that because computer software works in layers. So you can separate information and then put it together. You don’t lose your instinct—technology is just another tool. It’s a process of trying to tell the truth—when you think it’s in your brain, it’s not in your brain. You say something and then you draw something different. I teach my students to use the computer but I also encourage them to use their hand. The brain is connected to the hand. The computer is another step.

So when you get a project, how do you start?

I start by hand. I sketch. I was trained by hand but now kids want to go straight to the computer. I was not a very good drafter. I had to learn.

How do the students respond to being asked to draw?

The ones who don’t know how to draw do a little complaining. But these kids, I’m telling you, they’re so smart. I always say to myself, “If you knew how much I learned from you …”

A photo collage by Victoria, ‘ Shoes Make the Woman,’ was inspired by artist Jenny Holzer.
In the bedroom hallway a set of vintage Venezuelan iconic bingo cards hang near a color photo of flowers purchased at an auction for the New Museum by Marina Rosenfeld.
Looking out from the master bedroom toward a painting by Matthew Weinstein represented by the Sonnabend Gallery.

Are kids smarter than they were?!

We were smart but I call my generation “the silent generation” because we were not allowed to speak when we were kids. You know, kids don’t speak when adults speak …

Now they don’t shut up.

But they have a lot to say and I’m very open to listening to them. They are very ambitious—there’s so much competition now. And they are more knowledgeable—it’s easier for them to access knowledge. My objective is that they become better than me. I like to empower them.

A view across the master bedroom. All cabinetry is custom-designed by Victoria.
Bedroom shelves house paperbacks, objects and a few photos from Victoria’s recent trip to India.
An oversized mirror from Ikea stands next the requisite flat screen TV.
L. to r.: A wall sculpture by deceased Venezuelan artist Oscar Armitano hangs above the bedside table. The rugs were purchased in Jaipur during a recent trip to India with close friends.; Bedroom shelves house paperbacks, objects and a few photos from Victoria’s recent trip to India.
A close-up of the Oscar Armitano wall sculpture.

What do you do to have fun?

I have fun working—and I just went to India, to Rajasthan with my girlfriends to celebrate my birthday. They’re all married so I tried to think, where can we go where the husbands would not want to go?

What’s it like being Jewish in New York after being Jewish in Caracas?

It’s amazing—except that people now say, “Are you really Jewish?”

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