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July 6, 2007

Issue 49, Wine: Sour Grapes

Joining the counterfeit world of forged hundreds and fraudulent Vermeers come bottles of fake Château Pétrus and Sassicaia. A top New York sommelier helps CITY’s Pameladevi Govinda sniff out shady wine.

fakewine.jpgBillionaire William Koch must have felt like he was buying liquid history when he spent a half-million dollars on five extremely old and rare wine bottles, including a 1784 and 1787 Château Lafite and a 1784 and 1787 Château Branne-Mouton, said to have belonged to Thomas Jefferson. But before taking his first sip, Koch was already asking for a refund: the wines are probably all fake.

Fraudulent wines are circulating the market at an alarming rate. Bottles of old Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC), the most famous Grand Cru Burgundy, and Château Margaux, a First Growth Bordeaux, have become as hot as the most sought-after art pieces. "Treasured wines are actively traded on the circuit like works of art, and like in the art world, you're going to encounter fakes," says Joshua Nadel, sommelier at Cru, arguably New York's best wine restaurant. "It's always a certain group, the type I like to call blue chip wines. It is most rife among First and Second Growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru red Burgundies because they command the highest prices and are the most collected."

Nadel says that while he's encountered fraudulent bottles at both Cru and Veritas Restaurant, where he previously worked, their contents have never passed a customer's lips. "They have rarely, if ever, been absorbed into the inventory," he explains. "If they have in fact slipped through our nets—there are good fakes out there!—they will not be served, as we taste each bottle before service."

It's outside the restaurant scene where Nadel sees and tastes his fair share of fakes. "It's been on the rise in the last few years," he says. "There have been more young people accumulating wealth and they're attracted to having these sought-after wines but don't necessarily have the experience of knowing the wines." Though it's still a rare occurrence, a good place to spot a fake is at a private wine dinner hosted by a green collector. Nadel is often invited as a guest through the sommelier circuit or sometimes he's there to work the event. The dinners might showcase verticals or just a bunch of rare wines with vintages that are older than the host. "There was one time we were meant to be tasting a Château Pétrus 1982 [a famed vintage in Bordeaux] and it tasted so obviously of Australian origin to me."

He also suggests that growing economies in countries like China and India and the taste for wine on the rise worldwide means more demand and not enough supply. There are no hard stats to support the number of legitimate bottles versus the counterfeits, but, as Nadel points out, there is a finite amount of this treasured wine produced. "For many of the first growth Bordeaux, it falls in the neighborhood of 20,000 cases, while Pétrus is closer to 3,000," he says. "It's not difficult to do the math on this, as each day the supply decreases, and I am sure more ‘82 Pétrus' has been consumed in Vegas and Moscow alone than was actually ever made."

Some wines, especially cult Burgundies, are made in even smaller quantities. "Take, for example, Henri Jayer Cros Parantoux, one of the most valuable of all wines," Nadel says. "He made about 3,500 bottles per vintage, weather conditions permitting. That is 300 cases, for the world, of which about 75 would come to the U.S."

For big time Burgundy fans, discovering your prized Henri Jayer is corked is enough to send your heart plummeting down to the pit of your stomach, but worse yet is finding out it's a fake. If you're still intent to drop a lot of money on rare wines, Nadel suggests spending a bit more cash to hire an expert to confirm the authenticity. "It's so disappointing when you discover a counterfeit; it really takes the air out of the balloon."



NADEL'S TIPS ON HOW TO SPOT A FAKE

If the Bottle Fits. Burgundies come in what is known as the Burgundy Bottle with a gently sloping shoulder, while Bordeaux wines come in high-shouldered bottles.

Through the Looking Glass. Glass technology evolved relatively recently. 
The quality, color, and sophistication (or lack thereof) in an old bottle is recognizable by 
those in the know.

Be Label Conscious. Check that the vintage date for particular wines and producers are in their usual place. Some producers number every bottle that leaves their estate. Be wary of any differences in font, subtle spelling errors, and anything that looks too freshly printed. Hoax labels are rarely perfect.

The Cork. Nadel recommends cutting away at the foil that wraps the cork to check for the brand stamp and correct vintage date.

Proof is in the Taste. Educated wine professionals are trained on tasting blind. They can taste New World over Old World and Cabernet over Pinot Noir. If this isn't something you're adept at, let the training begin. You'll often hear people say that a wine tasted surprisingly fresh despite being decades old but be aware of wines that have too many primary fruit characteristics. That old Rhône should be tasting more like earth and leather than berries and jam!



Photography Anthony Cross
Photo Assistant Danielle Stingu
Fake Wine Dealer Abdel Kachtiene


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Issue 49, God Save the Queen

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One quarter of America's honey bee population has vanished since last winter, and the impact on our food chain reaches far beyond honey. As scientists race to find the culprit, is the outsourcing of our farms inevitable?
By Matt Sullivan

It's late-late lunchtime on thE first sweaty May day  —  the kind that leaves you light-headed, or at least praying for one of the 2008 candidates to come up with a decent global warming policy. Two women sip mojitos and pick at appetizers outside of Esperanto, a noisy café in Manhattan's East Village. And then, from nowhere, squirming: The talkative one clenches her fork and swats it like a tennis racket, splattering a chunk of avocado on the bright yellow dress of the beautiful one, who wrinkles herself back in a folding chair, almost taking out the specials board just to avoid the very unwelcome third member of their party. What these panic-stricken lunching ladies don't grasp, however, is that this furry little guy, also clad in yellow, is just doing his job  —  more hunter than beggar, more gatherer than bachelor. That if he's at peace here on the corner of 9th and Avenue C, David Graves can actually put some food on his family's table tonight. And so can you.

Across the street in a community garden blasting reggaeton, Graves plops his gym bag on top of a vintage stove and climbs onto the roof of an old shack, blowtorch and aerosol can in hand. And then, from everywhere, swarming: Big, juicy bees  —  nearly 40,000 of them   —  cascade into the New York City sky, scouting the trees, the alleys, even the old beekeeper's leathery hands, which gently try to pour this healthy, imported insect colony into a dirty-looking, lopsided wooden box of a hive. Graves, owner of Berkshire Berries, is being extra careful this summer, and not just because City Hall deems rooftop and garden hives like his illegal for being "a direct nuisance to humans." He's also desperate. "I've gotta be cautious this year, and I want to eliminate every doubt," he says, waving his antibiotic spray and hypothesizing about a familiar bacteria that may have forced this box's last group of residents to leave behind an underwhelming batch of honey. "I've always had trouble with bees. It's been a rollercoaster."

The furry little guys we all love to hate have thrown Graves, his colleagues, and a couple million suddenly sick-for-their-stomach people for a loop-de-loop since last fall, when 90 percent of his bees and billions of the world's began losing their way home in a phenomenon officially called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), though sometimes "Bee-S-I." Honeybees, by far the hardest-working vermin in the food business, normally learn their keeper's new land quickly, rummaging around gardens or vegetable patches to collect nectar and pollen in "baskets" on their legs, then dropping the good stuff from flower to flower, fruit to fruit, pollinating next season's crop with instant expertise. "They'll specialize as long as it's useful for them," explains Mace Vaughan, conservation director of the Xerces Society, a non-profit aimed at preserving invertebrate habitats. "They're like, ‘Hey, I'm getting good stuff from this avocado, so I'll keep going avocado!'  —  and then they just bounce around and go back to their hive." But for all the times a bee's memory is as sharp as its sting, he says, triggers exist that can make it forget where it's going and where home is: "To get into the mind of that bee, imagine just being out there [almost having] Alzheimer's."

Worse yet, imagine this: no apple in your kid's lunchbox, no avocados at Esperanto, no beet layer cake at Spago, maybe not even a ribeye at Morton's. That's the real, albeit long-term threat to the food chain: the power behind one-third of the human diet (plus the alfalfa that feeds cows) vanishing, from L.A. to Tampa and London to Taiwan. The real crisis, however, is that the all-star cast of researchers  —  from the guy who discovered the West Nile Virus to the one who found SARS  —  have been racing all year for answers to CCD and, for the most part, they've come up empty.

Rest assured, the apocalypse is nowhere within sight. But amidst all the hysteria and confusion over the 35-state-wide buzzkill, not to mention the spinach recall, the E.coli-laced lettuce that led to the 2006 Taco Bell shutdowns, the mercury that keeps turning up in our fish, and all that contaminated cat food from China, our control over what we eat feels anything like epicurean Eden. If 2006 was the year citizens of the world caught on to climate change, this year could be the one we catch up to our dinner plate.

"I don't know what's gonna happen down the road," says David Hackenberg, a burly Pennsylvania beekeeper who was the first to report CCD when he thought he was going crazy after losing 400 hives from his commercial beekeeping business last November. "I don't think the public really realizes where their food comes from, and I don't think half of the public really cares anymore. Someone's gotta wake 'em up."


bees-dropcap-I.giff the bee disappeared off the face of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left." Albert Einstein was supposed to have said that, but the answers to this vanishing  —  not nearly the first, but maybe the worst and certainly the least detectable  —  are everywhere, even on the cubicle desk of a twenty-something nerd in Harlem.

It's there, for 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, in Columbia's Greene Infectious Diseases Laboratory  —  past the RADIOACTIVE MATERIAL warning signs and next to the gene-sequencing computer  —  that graduate student Sean Conlan represents the last, most equipped line of defense set up to save the bees. Spreadsheet after spreadsheet, he finds overlaps in the honeycomb-style output slides from the computer, narrowing the leads to a possible (and currently undiscovered) cause, then going back to new samples from the CCD-impacted hives and starting all over again. "It's like taking [apart] five copies of Hamlet throwing them in a pile, and trying to put it all back together," says Conlan. "There's not that many groups in the world that are willing to tackle these unknown things."

Those that are, a select group of about a dozen high-profile labs, including the Columbia team, call themselves the Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group. Some have no background in insect analysis and all are working pro bono, but they now have a new resource: a sequenced bee genome recently made available "to let the bees themselves tell us how they are being impacted," as the working group's leader told a Congressional subcommittee this spring. The labs are now scouring the unknown and data-mining the known to find out why one quarter of beehives nationwide have died off since winter without leaving much of a trace behind.

What are they looking for? It seems the list of possible CCD causes is almost as long as the line of scientists trading 20-plus e-mails a day trying to confirm it: bacteria, fungi, viruses, mites (which took the blame for major bee losses in the '80s), new disease-causing pathogens, poor nutrition, plain old stress, even, yes  —  thank you Matt Drudge for scaring the hell out of us  —  cellphone radiation. (Don't worry, your CrackBerry addiction doesn't make you an agro-terrorist.) Like the beekeepers themselves, researchers are racing but not rushing to judgment. "Whenever you're dealing with agriculture, there's a great deal of concern," says W. Ian Lipkin, director of the Columbia lab and the man who first identified West Nile in humans eight years ago. "There are economic implications that can cost literally billions of dollars in many nations, and if you make the wrong call, there can be serious consequences."

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To avoid preemptive prescriptions and media maelstrom messes, such as a University of California at San Francisco entomologist leading the Los Angeles Times to believe one parasitic fungus was solely to blame (what Lipkin calls an "unfortunate event"), the CCD squad has honed in on three of the most likely culprits: unknown pathogens, environmental chemicals, and psychological and physical stresses.

After months pouring over more and more sobering numbers from beekeepers to help tackle that unknown pathogens question, Jerry Bromenshenk is almost as afraid as he is frustrated. "We knew how long this thing was gonna hang in there," says the president of central CCD samplers and surveyors Bee Alert Technologies. "But you can't solve it if the evidence has vanished." Imagine his relief, then, when a beekeeper's brother working at the Army's biochemical threat detection arm asked if a microwave-sized virus detector, normally used for identifying unknown strains like SARS or anthrax, might work for the unidentified bee killer, too. As great as the technology at Columbia is, it might take weeks for Lipkin, Conlan, and Co. to sift through their DNA analyses. Now scientists can take a raw colony sample  —  a surviving chunk of a hive, for example  —  and, in less than two hours, scan it thoroughly for any possible pathogens. And yet, speed not withstanding, discoveries have been sparse, with still quite a few samples to get through.

Measuring the effect of environmental chemicals like pesticides is taking even longer. They can localize themselves in a plant's pollen or nectar and crush a bee's already weak immune system. "Bees are now around more chemicals than they have been historically," says May Berenbaum, an entomologist at the University of Illinois. "They are encountering new and different ones  —  an ever-changing constellation of pesticides." Berenbaum's lab, then, is spending the summer doing microarray analysis similar to the Columbia lab, only searching for patterns of exposure to harmful pesticides in affected bees' genetic makeups, one different chemical at a time.

And all that stress? Bees' weak immune systems and short life spans don't match up well with migratory beekeepers trucking them thousands of miles across the country, or with the syrups they're fed  —  so sugary they'd make Violet Beauregarde pop twice. While several experts have stopped blaming these road warriors, some have begun to find the ironies in a ripple effect of malnutrition in the food chain, where domestication brings pain to the lower rung and ignorance breeds disaster everywhere.

"If you've got bees that were in a beat-down state in the first place, and then you hit 'em with the extra viruses, you hit 'em with the mites, you hit 'em with an insecticide, you bang 'em around on the truck, you do all this other stuff to 'em, they haven't got much of a chance," says Eric Mussen, an extension apiculturist at the University of California at Davis. "And it's gonna put 'em over the edge."


bees-dropcap-T.gifhe apple trees were coming into bloom but no bees droned among the blossoms, so there was no pollination and there would be no fruit," Rachel Carson wrote 45 years ago in Silent Spring, that luminous (if ominous) call to environmentalism. "No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves."

Science pundits spent what would have been Carson's 100th birthday this spring wondering if her plea against pesticides was, in retrospect, overstating the case. Around the same time, government officials as high up (if not higher than) the head of NASA began spending the summer after An Inconvenient Truth surmising that tackling global warming might not be a global priority. And when Colony Collapse Disorder quickly began transforming from details in an entomological report into Drudge headlines, even the greenest of treehuggers tried to take a step back.

To be fair, between severe mite infestations some 20 years ago in this country and the pesticide-induced "mad bee disease" in France less than a decade ago, we've been learning these lessons for a while now. And the honeybee population has been headed "demonstrably downward" for some time without any exact way of measuring it, a National Academy of Sciences report chaired by Berenbaum concluded in October. "Not only is it a wake-up call, it's also a snooze alarm," she says now. "It's like one after the other we've been reminded."

To be even fairer, we're not exactly going to be reduced to a bread-and-milk diet anytime soon. The California almond crop, which produces half of the world's almonds with half of America's honeybees  —  most of them driven (road trip!) west  —  is expected to reach colossal records this year. And local farmers like H.G. Haskell, just outside of Philadelphia, say "nobody around here is in freak-out mode yet."

But leading minds worry that such cautious optimism with the bees could lead down the same dangerous path toward delayed panic as climate change. They fear that waiting for scientists and experts to discover a silver bullet for what's more than likely a manmade environmental problem leaves the uninformed and the unmotivated equally vulnerable to even more compounding (if inconvenient) new truths.

"I'm not one to run around saying the sky is falling and that there won't be any food in the supermarket, because we know the dynamics of this  —  if we can't produce our produce and vegetables, somebody else will," says Bee Alert's Bromenshenk, breathing heavily as he crunches numbers from a recent hive visit. "But it'll cost us more, it may not be as good, it may not be as diverse. And the more worrisome thing to me is, do we really want our food and our stores to go the route of our gas and diesel fuel? We're going outside of the country for our primary sustenance."

Indeed, 2006 was the first year that the U.S. became a net importer of food. If most of America, now miles if not generations separated from the agricultural heartland, doesn't associate itself with the breadbasket of the world, then what remains of our investment in Mother Nature? The alternative, should crops begin to dwindle along with their pollinators and we lose our food independence, may begin to taste like globalization's weak backwash. It's become easier to stomach the outsourcing of the automotive and 1-800-number industries over the past decade, but the majority of the food we put in our mouths? That could be the worst return on the United States' 250-year-old stake in agriculture: A fat country once 90-percent farm-based, and then, from ignoring the very chain that sewed its soil, starving.

Some say the attention paid to the bee headlines and the massive lobbying to include pollinators and $3 billion in the new farm bill indicate that there's quite a bit of bang for our bees to be had. Others, like Stanford's Deborah Gordon, who studies the cultural behavior of insects, see this as a "silent spring" for the 21st century. "We are at a moment where, because of global climate change, environmental concerns really affect Americans," she says. "It's not just hope  —  everybody is going to have to start thinking about what they can do."

bees.gifWith demand (and prices) for commercial pollination soaring as fast as the bees are dropping dead, agricultural advocates are pushing new solutions  —  biodiversity, more reliance on native bees, healthier insect food substitutes, even a genetically modified strain  —  for when the summer we waited on the apocalypse doesn't end with a simple answer.

For now, David Graves is more concerned with supplying his customers their $15 bottles of New York City Rooftop Honey and fending for his own family (who happen to be his fellow struggling colleagues) than with a failing food chain. "Honey, it's difficult, because there is short supply—"

A blonde woman, the keeper of the garden on Avenue C, pops out of a bush and cuts him off: "How're the bees doing?"

"They're doing good right now," says Graves, as cautiously optimistic about the slow return of his furry little guys and hot, insect-friendly weather as he is about the promising early returns from faraway scientists and crop fields. "They'll be fine." He describes measures he's been taking to keep these mighty pests alive, from the sterilizing blowtorch to an increase in imported hives, proudly recalling a sign he'd posted the other week at his stand in the Union Square Farmer's Market  —  between Red Jacket Orchards and New York Beef: THE BEES ARE BACK! NEVER SAY DIE.

On Graves' way out of the garden toward Esperanto on the corner, a Puerto Rican woman, who shows more innocence than dread, catches him off guard, sending his cell phone flying off his belt clip. She pays it no mind: "We gonna have honey this year?"

"I hope so," he says, recovering the phone, brushing off some soil, and continuing on his way.


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July 10, 2007

Issue 49: The City Life

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A DAY AT THE PARK
With Barry Bonds' pursuit of Hank Aaron's home run record lingering over last night's All Star Game in San Francisco, veteran sportswriter Jeff Pearlman recalls the hot Chicago summer day he made it to the big leagues—a memory that still offers up much-needed relief for a longtime fan.

When most delve into summers past, they conjure up memories of barbecue cookouts and long walks on the beach and sex with Peggy Sue in the back of a T-Bird. I have no such recollections. Well, scratch that. I do have a few, but they’ve all been obscured by the summer of ’92—the worst friggin’ summer of my life.

It was a time when, against better judgment, I left my family, my friends, and my quaint lakefront hometown in upstate New York to take a $5-an-hour internship at the News-Gazette in middle-of-nowhere Champaign, Ill. Here’s how bad it was: My editor hated me. I could barely write a boxscore. I severely sprained my right ankle playing basketball, spent two weeks on crutches, returned to the court and—first game back—broke my other ankle. I had no friends. I was too young to get into any bars. My 13-inch black-and-white TV received two shows: Star Trek and the 700 Club. I didn’t know how to cook and called home to ask Mom why I was unable to slice open a cantaloupe with a butter knife. Occasionally my upstairs neighbor would scream “Stop hitting me! Stop hitting me!” at her boyfriend.

On the nights I didn’t weep, I bawled. On the nights I didn’t bawl, I sat in bed and wondered why God was punishing me.

Then, one morning, the phone rang.

It was Joe Lombardi, sports editor of my hometown paper, The Patent Trader. He wanted to know if I’d be interested in making the two-hour drive to Chicago’s Comiskey Park for a Mariners-White Sox game on August 1. Though Seattle was terrible, its star was a rookie southpaw pitcher named Dave Fleming—a kid born and raised right up the street from me in Mahopac, N.Y. The Patent Trader wanted a profile.

“You don’t even have to pay me,” I told Lombardi. “Just get me the hell out of Champaign.”

The day turned into more than just a momentary escape from purgatory. Though my goal was to write sports for a living, I had never before stepped onto the field of a major league stadium. It was as if, with one small step through the turnstile, I was transported to Wonderland.

I can still smell Comiskey’s grass. I can still hear the thud-thud-thud coming from the batting practice cage; the pop of rawhide hitting glove. I stepped into the Mariners’ clubhouse to meet Fleming and was overwhelmed by a sandlotter’s wildest dream: jars upon jars of Bazooka Bubble Gum, Ho-Hos, Twinkies, Blow Pops, Animal Crackers. Fleming and I sat down in the visitor’s dugout to talk. Yesterday I was watching this guy pitch at my high school field; now, here we were, major leaguer and journalist.

Once the game started, I spent two innings in the dank press box before snapping to my senses. The sun was shining, the breeze was slight, and the day was lazy. I rolled up my sleeves, bought a hot dog (extra relish, a drop of mustard), and a large Coke and found an empty seat along the third-base line. Though the game was an 8-1 White Sox romp, I could care less. The soothing voice of the PA announcer put me into a trance; each “Now batting, catcher, Dave Valle…” was music to my ears. I stood for the seventh-inning stretch, clapped along with “YMCA,” and gorged on soggy pretzels.

“This,” I thought to myself, “is the best day of my life.”

Fifteen years later, I have enjoyed plenty more “best days,” but fewer and fewer involving baseball. What can I say? Things changed.

It began with the so-called “magical” summer of ’98, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa engaged in a home run chase that anyone with a working brain now considers slightly less legitimate than a wooden nickel. Throw in alleged juicers like Jason Giambi, Rafael Palmeiro, and—of course—Barry Bonds, and what are we left with? As Bonds closes in on supplanting Hank Aaron as baseball’s all-time home run leader, he isn't simply cheating to break a record. No, he's cheating to expunge a man from the books who faced such intense racial hatred in 1974 that he endured multiple death threats and had to hire private security to watch his family. Aaron’s mark was not one for baseball, but civil rights. It was larger than life. It was … America.

Baseball—my baseball—has been rotted to its core; reduced from an American pastime cherished for its innocence to an American pastime cherished for its large supply of needles and medical supplies. It is sad and depressing and, quite frankly, I’d leave baseball for dead if not for one slight problem: I still love the game. Damn, I really do.

For every Barry Bonds, there are 100 Dave Flemings—good guys just dying to play a boy’s sport. When I’m able to look past the drugs and lying, I try and picture myself back in Comiskey on that summer afternoon, when my troubles were washed away, 6-4-3. That’s what baseball—at its best—did and still does. It takes you away. It drifts you off. It’s an alternative … to everything real.

Like it or not, baseball maintains a certain ethereal quality that prevents its extinction. Yes, the players cheat. And yes, the ticket prices are outlandish. And yes, unless you’re a Yankee, Red Sox, Dodger, or Met fan your team probably doesn’t spend enough to satisfy its fan base. But name a better way to spend a summer day than in a sunny seat in the stands, a program in one hand, a tall cold one in the other.

It’s what keeps you coming back. What keeps me coming back.

All these years later, through nearly a decade and a half of covering the game for Sports Illustrated and ESPN.com, inside of me remains a piece of that gawky, wide-eyed 20-year-old caught up in the moment.

I hope it never goes away.


Jeff Pearlman is the author of Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero. He is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and currently writes for ESPN.com.

Photography Betsy McDonald

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December 12, 2007

Issue 53, Raise The Roof

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RAISE THE ROOF

In crowded cities with equally tight real estate markets, sometimes the best (and only) option is to build up. As in up on the roof. Laura Neilson searches the skylines for penthouses that push the limits.


Standing at the edge of a cordoned-off street in downtown Manhattan, a crowd of onlookers waited. Just a few hundred feet down the block, an industrial crane idled. Several bystanders, many of whom first approached the scene with an air of casual indifference, quickly reached for their camera phones as the crane steadily hoisted a petite glass-and-stone structure from the bed of an eighteen-wheeler. Higher and higher it rose until the little house looked like a tied-up matchbox dangling precariously from one's finger. The crowd doubled, everyone's necks straining upwards at this marvelously bizarre occurrence, before the little house disappeared out of sight behind an adjacent rooftop.

Despite New York being one of those spectacular settings where you can see just about anything, a flying house isn't exactly one of the first sightings that comes to mind. But at Top Penthouse, a NYC-based firm that custom-designs, manufactures, and then installs rooftop homes, levitating houses are an integral part of the job.

This most recent project, a 370-square-foot structure residing on the roof of a former loft warehouse in downtown SoHo, will function as an additional living space for the building's penthouse owners. Indeed, the possibility of spotting an airborne house is reason enough to keep watchful eye skyward, but already perched atop the city's roofs are a fantastic and vast display of skyline curiosities: gabled cabins, quaint wood-shingled Cape Cods, mini glass-and-metal cubic structures, as well as DIY oddities and a few ramshackle remnants of "cowboy construction" projects of the late '60s and '70s.

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"If you're somewhere high enough, you can spot a whole new landscape," says architect Andrew Berman, who has worked on several rooftop projects. "There's an awful lot of unused space up there." But in cities where space is such a commodity, are these little rooftoppers high-class havens or sensible housing solutions?

What do these rooftop trailers and mini stratacastles offer urbanites and how do they affect the way their owners dwell and function within their environment? A transatlantic journey provides some answers.

Rooftopias, as it were, have been a trend on the rise across Europe for some time now, which isn't an entirely surprising phenomenon considering the prominence of low-rise roofs, the lack of densely packed skyscrapers, and the proclivity for prefabricated units. Whatever negative connotations may have been associated with "prefab" in the past (institutionalized, cookie-cutter, flimsy), the European market is quickly changing that; the range of products and construction--in style, size and cost--is quite extraordinary.

The Loftcube, a modular dwelling unit created by Berlin-based designer Werner Aisslinger, is a white-shelled pod that can be deposited onto rooftops via crane and easily transplanted to various locations--be it another rooftop or a trailer park. The concept behind this customizable 420- to 580-square-foot "iHouse" is two-fold. It can function as a pick-up-and-go living unit for individuals with nomadic lifestyles. Or, it can facilitate housing growth and help maximize unused real estate by providing relatively low-cost ($111,000-$180,000, depending on size and interior) apartments for building owners to install on their flat rooftops. That's a potential boon for Berlin's real estate market, where a myriad of flat-topped buildings were constructed during the post-World War II Communist era. Besides offering a snazzy little habitat to reside in, the company's larger goal is to provide the market with a financially and structurally accessible network of rooftop communities--not unlike a series of stylish rooftop trailer parks.

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While much of Loftcube's appeal lies in its distinctive, Jetsonesque aesthetic, the prefab abodes produced by the London-based design and development firm First Penthouse are more subtle, typically blending in with the roof's original architecture. The company, which acts as a developer by buying the roof space first, then adding the rooftop apartments and selling them off, was founded as a means of getting around the usual obstacles that can be expected when building on-site in the city: traffic, permits, and the often unpleasant British weather. "The difference is absolutely mind-blowing," says Hakan Olsson, who founded the company in 1992 with his wife Annika. "Life is so easy when you can have all the noise and dust elsewhere. And then one day it just shows up and you move in."

Despite the time-saving logic behind the execution of the Olssons' projects, the tony penthouse apartments themselves are in no way skimpy. Projects have ranged from 300 to 4,000 square feet per unit, and cost upwards of $1,000 per square foot, depending on the location's real estate demands. But times--and clientele--are changing; contrary to rising costs just about everywhere else, Olsson reports that First Penthouse's prices will actually go down.

"Originally our clients fell into the super-rich category, but we have streamlined the process so that we can build at a lower cost and more people will be able to buy them," he says. Olsson also plans to expand First Penthouse's developments to include other European cities, and eventually even the U.S., where the concept of plopping a prefabricated structure atop one's roof is a comparatively new notion. Indeed, New York, where space is at the greatest premium, is currently host to the most visible number of roof-rooted residences.

rooftopia

Top Penthouse has found a nice little niche for itself in Manhattan, though there does exist a growing number of architects like Berman who are willing to take on the challenge of building on-site. In 2005, he completed a 4,500-square-foot extension atop a Grand Street building. The space is a veritable rooftopia, surrounded by lawn, gardens, and trees, and includes a greenhouse, kitchen, dining room, and living room, all attached by an interior staircase to the penthouse below. The owners clearly wanted an existence within both environments--town and country--but why go through all the trouble of constructing a half-country house in the center of New York for the same cost of a buying a small property in the countryside?

"This was an extremely ambitious project," Berman says, "but [the owners] are committed to living in the city." Berman, who also has a site near completion in the city's Flatiron district, suggests this increasing trend is about ferreting out natural environments within the confines of the city. "Rather than creating an artificial living space in the heart of the city, it's more about the desire to create a natural environment within an artificial context."

rooftopiaMyriam Castillo, principal of Top Penthouse--which crane-deposited and installed a custom house on St. Mark's Place in 2005 to create a duplex apartment (which is often the case from the interior of these sites)--cited the project as an instance of expanding the residents' space within their means, a common motive among her clients. And yet Castillo maintains that at the same time, Top Penthouse's customized designs are certainly on the high-end of the housing scale. It's true that at $300-$400 per square foot, the company isn't exactly offering bargain-basement housing, but in a market where the average studio apartment is selling for nearly $400,000, everything's relative. The additional luxury and the additional bargain is the same thing: the savings of time and the lack of construction commotion--a benefit that applies to neighbors as well.

In other cities such as Chicago, where the greater land availability makes upward expansion less necessary, rooftoppers are rare. Architect Kenneth Schroeder owns and designed one of the exceptions: an additional "tier" to top off his two-story house situated on a half-size lot in Chicago's Old Town area. His motivation for the project was the need to expand on a very small area of land. He wanted, however, to maintain the integrity of the original 1930s building, which is why he chose to design a new 450-square-foot space that looked like a separate entity and set it back from the building's original perimeter foundation.

Though they're not as prevalent as in New York, Schroeder believes the city of Chicago's current green roof initiatives and prompts for "rooftop usability" may be an impetus for future projects. If you're going to have lawns and gardens up top, why not combine aesthetic and function by turning them into backyards for rooftop apartments?

But sensible as rooftop dwelling spaces may be, do they run the risk of alienating their residents from their urban surroundings, especially those of us on the ground? They shouldn't, argues Berman. "They give back to the city because they're pleasing to the eye--they're enhancing the environment," he points out. Indeed, diversity is a rare thing to encounter in the real estate market these days. In American cities where ground-level development means the opening of a new chain store or franchise eatery, these petite additions to the skyline--however exclusive--are apt to be a welcome sight. Famed urbanist Jane Jacobs might even have referred to them as "eye-catchers," an important category of urban diversity she described as being "more surprising, various, and interesting than anyone, aiming primarily at city design, could deliberately plan. Truth is stranger than fiction." Yes, Ms. Jacobs, especially when flying houses are
involved.

Published in CITY Magazine Issue 53.
Loftcube photographs by Steffen Jaenicke.

April 23, 2008

Issue 55, New York Observers: Amos Poe's Empire II

amos poeAt this year's Tribeca Film Festival, two filmmakers point their cameras at Gotham's ever-changing landscape. CITY's Erin Bremer speaks with Amos Poe and Douglas Keeve about shooting the city they call home.

Winnowed down from a record 4,600 submissions, some 200 films will greet audiences at this year's Tribeca Film Festival presented by American Express when it opens April 23. Founded to revitalize downtown Manhattan after 9/11, Tribeca is now entering its seventh year. On the eve of the festival, CITY caught up with two filmmakers whose documentaries in competition each focus on an iconic piece of New York history. For Empire II, Amos Poe filmed the Empire State Building and other sights from his West Village apartment for an entire year. He then compressed over 60 hours of footage into a three-hour homage to the city. Across town, Douglas Keeve documented the history and reinvention of the once-"democratic" but nearly defunct Gramercy Park Hotel, which debuted its controversial top-to-bottom redesign by hotelier Ian Schrager and artist Julian Schnabel in 2006. Keeve's Hotel Gramercy Park and Poe's Empire II are just a part of the festival's 2008 lineup, available in full at www.tribecafilmfestival.org.


stills from Empire IIAmos Poe: Empire II

After filming early performances by such artists as Patti Smith, Blondie, and the Talking Heads at legendary venue CBGB, Amos Poe edited the material and released The Blank Generation in 1976, establishing himself as one of the fathers of indie documentaries. For his latest film, Empire II, all he had to do was look out his window.

CITY: Where did you get the idea for Empire II?
AMOS POE: I was moving into this apartment and, of course, the view was the whole thing, so the first thing I moved in was the camera with no idea of what I was doing, really. But I just kept filming and capturing imagery over the course of a year, which is what I like about it: It's not premeditated in some way. There's no script, and you don't have to go out and raise money and all the usual stuff that you do when you make a new movie. It was really just experiential. So as things were going and I would fool around with the camera, it started to dawn on me that what I was doing was kind of a remake of Andy Warhol's Empire, which is such a classic of conceptual filmmaking.

So Warhol wasn't the original inspiration?
No. It became one of the reference points, but I realized that I was doing it so differently than what Andy did. It's not black and white. I kept thinking that I was going to add sound or spoken word or music or something and then it just kind of grew out of that. I shot time lapse, so a lot of it was one-and-a-half seconds every 30 seconds. And I never looked at [the footage] the whole year I was shooting it. I just said, "Okay, it's either going to work or not work but I'm not going to look at it until it's done." I gave myself exactly a year, so I moved in on November 1, 2005, and the film was finished shooting October 31, which of course would be Halloween.

And you had the perfect vantage point for the Village Halloween parade, which ends the film. Is it chronological, the way it's edited?
It's chronological but there's no editing involved at all. I realized that I did not want to edit one frame [even though] I ended up with 60 hours. So, how do I end up with three hours if I have 60 hours without cutting anything? That's where the whole digital thing comes in. I just told the computer to make it 2,000 percent faster or 20 times as fast. So, what you're seeing is not only time captured intermittently but then ultimately compressed 20 times as fast, which is what gives you the whole energy of New York.

So you just sporadically turned the camera on and off throughout the year?
Yeah, I would turn it on for a few hours, and then turn it off when I got bored. Then I would turn it on for another few hours or a day or 10 minutes or whatever felt like the right thing, so it was completely like how you feel during the day. So, whenever I would look out the window and I would see something and go, "Oh, hey, that looks cool; I wonder what that's going to look like in the camera," I would turn the camera on and make it out of focus or high-contrast or make it really dark, whatever. So, basically what you're seeing is a chronological year but totally edited in the camera and there's no editing involved in the picture at all. So what I realized when I tried to lay music on there was that any music worked with it because the visual has a rhythm of its own because of the time lapse and the compression.

Along with your own spoken words, the soundtrack features everyone from Lucinda Williams to The Ramones. How did you pick the music?
I knew that for three hours, or even if they watch three minutes of it, I needed to take the audience on an emotional journey. So, the journey that they were on was going to be done through music, so sometimes the music will pick you up and sometimes the music will soothe you.


And all of the natural sounds, the rain and thunder and sirens and wind, were added in post-production?
Yeah, so while the imagery is completely accidental, the sound is actually completely manufactured -- the contrast between those two ideas.

quoted

How does this film fit into the remodernist movement that you're a part of?
The remodernist movement: I'm not even sure what that means, actually. It's just a bunch of kids who said, "Hey, you're a remodernist. You want to be a part of our crowd?" And I said, "Sure, why not?" [He laughs.] I'm not completely sure. I guess remodernist is the next variation of post-modernist, which is to take something that was in the culture before and then turn it into something else, like taking it out of context. So it's kind of what pop art was in a way. I was using Warhol as kind of a soup can. It's like redoing that but it's done in a completely remodernist way because it's using the technology and the sensibility of contemporary rather than nostalgia.

Tribeca will be the first North American audience to see the movie. What was it like showing this New York film last September at the Venice Film Festival? Have you shown it anywhere else?

The fun part of this movie is that when you show it in any [other] country, you're basically bringing New York to that place. So, if you show it on a big, huge screen in Venice, it brings New York to the Venice skyline. I showed it in a 16th-century Turkish steam bath in Greece. It looked really cool inside this four-century-old piece of architecture.

Do you think that viewers around the world have responded to it the way that viewers at Tribeca will?
I think they have a different point of view because for them it's also something slightly exotic. New York has a fascination outside that's different than for us who live in New York and kind of take it for granted. It's like we don't look at the Empire State Building in the same way. Warhol's thing was that he recognized that the Empire State Building is like a "star," he called it: "Empire State Building is a star," or "a movie star," and it's there all the time in the skyline. We just don't get it that much. But people other places are like, "Whoa, Empire State, ah, fabuloso!"

So you've screened it in Turkish baths and various other locales. Do you have an intended venue for this film?
Well, I thought that the best venue for it would be in very large piazzas, you know, very large scale, but it turns out that it's also working in theaters. I think we're still trying to figure out where we're going to show it in New York. One idea is to show it in Grand Central Station in the evenings and the other one is to show it in a movie theater.

Many of your films seem to draw considerable inspiration from older, landmark movies -- Empire, of course, but also Breathless, Taxi Driver, and films like those. What draws you to them and inspires you to reinterpret them?
I'm self-taught. I didn't go to film school. So what happens is that every once in a while you see a film and you go, "Wow, that's what I want to do," and you try it in your own way. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. With Unmade Beds, I was really trying to not even make a film. I was uneducated in filmmaking but I was so ambitious and so obsessive that I just wanted to make a film movement and that's how the New York, the indie, whatever you want to call it, underground thing got started. [It was] from that and my film, The Foreigner.

New York seems to be the one constant in your films, from The Blank Generation in the 1970s through Alphabet City in the '80s to this year's Empire II. How do you think New York has changed over the years?
I think in many ways New York has gotten a lot better. I know a lot of people don't believe that, but I think New York back then was so drug-infested, crime-infested. It was depressing. It was depressed. Okay, it was creatively energizing, but in many, many, many ways it was much worse than it is now. I mean, yes, the architecture of those yuppie apartment buildings on the Bowery are awful on some level, but they're much better than what it was before. So, I'm definitely not one of those people who thinks the past was better. I definitely think even filmmaking is more fun now in a way because you can do it in digital, you can put it on YouTube, and a lot of other stuff. So, I'm not a nostalgist for nostalgia's sake -- "It was better." I'm more like, listen, there are still problems. But, you know, if you really remember what it was like, it was horrible. I mean everybody was on heroin, you know? Crazy. So that doesn't mean it can't be crazy now, but I definitely prefer it now than then.

Lower Manhattan, and Tribeca in particular, have played a large part in that evolution. How do you feel going into the festival?
I'm supremely excited because it's the best venue for my work ever. And this may be one of the best things I've ever done, too, one of the most fun movies I've ever done, so I'm really excited about it. I'm really excited about the venue. I'm excited about the festival. It's the most interesting film festival in the United States at the moment. It's definitely got the most energy. Some of the older ones, like Sundance, have a certain cachet and business and all that kind of stuff, but I think in terms of excitement, to have a film festival in New York, that's riveting, that's great.

Poe photo by Alexis Dahan

Issue 55, New York Observers: Douglas Keeve's Hotel Gramercy Park

douglas keeveAt this year's Tribeca Film Festival, two filmmakers point their cameras at Gotham's ever-changing landscape. CITY's Erin Bremer speaks with Amos Poe and Douglas Keeve about shooting the city they call home.

Winnowed down from a record 4,600 submissions, some 200 films will greet audiences at this year's Tribeca Film Festival presented by American Express when it opens April 23. Founded to revitalize downtown Manhattan after 9/11, Tribeca is now entering its seventh year. On the eve of the festival, CITY caught up with two filmmakers whose documentaries in competition each focus on an iconic piece of New York history. For Empire II, Amos Poe filmed the Empire State Building and other sights from his West Village apartment for an entire year. He then compressed over 60 hours of footage into a three-hour homage to the city. Across town, Douglas Keeve documented the history and reinvention of the once-"democratic" but nearly defunct Gramercy Park Hotel, which debuted its controversial top-to-bottom redesign by hotelier Ian Schrager and artist Julian Schnabel in 2006. Keeve's Hotel Gramercy Park and Poe's Empire II are just a part of the festival's 2008 lineup, available in full at www.tribecafilmfestival.org.

Douglas Keeve: Hotel Gramercy Park
Douglas Keeve's Hotel Gramercy Park comes on the heels of his two widely acclaimed documentaries about the fashion world: Unzipped (1995) and Seamless (2005), the latter of which also screened at Tribeca. A fashion photographer for 15 years, Keeve is now looking toward a still-secret reality show and hopes to make his first commercial feature.

CITY: What was your inspiration for Hotel Gramercy Park?
Douglas Keeve: Well, I've lived in New York for 20 years. A lot of people have just been kvetching to me about how New York was losing its soul, and I've been kvetching internally about the same thing, and I think that was a big reason for doing this film -- to just witness the changes taking place and, from a journalistic point of view, to tackle whether it was good or bad and whether it was happening and whether it was right or wrong. And as is usual with these films, I wind up with more questions than answers. I think I've always had a love-hate relationship with Ian [Schrager]'s hotels because maybe I felt like I was never cool enough to go to them. And I think [I've always had] just a fascination with the man himself.

So has New York lost its soul?
It's very hard to look at anything in the world and not think that it's changed for the worse. It's impossible not to feel that [New York is losing its soul] but whether it is or not, I don't know. Like it says in the movie, New York is always changing, and I want to believe some of the voices in the movie that say that New York will always be the best city in the world, which is kind of how I feel, even though Paris is more beautiful and the food is better in Milan or in Italy. But I love New York -- it is the best city in the world. Whenever I've gone on a trip and I'm coming across the bridge I get this overwhelming kind of giddy, nostalgic glee, sort of like I'm a kid. It's really hard to find that in a lot of places in my life. I think it really lives inside of one and so the answer to the question is yes and the answer to the question is no.

I feel the same way every time I come home from a trip. I wave hello to the Chrysler Building from the Williamsburg Bridge, which I always felt was a little strange, but now I guess maybe it's not so bizarre.
Yeah, it's funny because you forget all of these things in your life, you know? We forget most of our lives, most of our memories, most of why we became filmmakers or writers or whatever, and it's so easy to be jaded and coy and hardened by life and by the city, but New York doesn't let you forget that. It kind of makes you remember. It makes you remember your roots. It makes you remember why you're here.

residents of the gramercy park hotel

residents of the gramercy park hotel

residents of the gramercy park hotel

Above: Long-time residents of the Gramercy Park Hotel
discuss the history of the New York landmark in Hotel Gramercy Park.


The Gramercy Park Hotel has such a strong history with celebrities and rock stars, especially the British rock scene. Why did you choose to instead focus on the family that formerly owned the hotel and the longtime residents who refused to move out during the renovation?
When I heard that people were living through the renovation, I said the same thing as [New York's] Sarah Bernard. She says in the movie that you just can't believe these people are living there. First of all, after all these years, and second of all, during this crazy thing, which anybody who's been through any kind of home remodel knows sort of what it's like. I just couldn't believe they were there. I sort of could understand that it would be crazy to move but it would be crazy not to move. Ian was building his hotel around them and they weren't going anywhere. And I met Ira [Gasman, 32-year resident of the hotel] and I kind of fell in love with him. And I met Regina [Godfried, 21-year resident of the hotel] and I kind of fell in love with her. You know, they're just lovable. I fell in love with them because they represent a past that is rapidly disappearing. Ira is this Broadway veteran. He just represents what I think people were so upset with when they heard the hotel was closing -- a sense of tradition. It was a very democratic hotel, a cheap hotel, and a lot of people could have afforded to stay there. But it was also kind of magical in a way. It really did have all those ghosts when you walk in, whether it's the rock-'n'-roll era or whatever. When you walked in there in the '90s you kind of felt it. It seems like every person in New York has stayed there at one time or another. We always called it a beloved institution, but it was, and I loved the hotel.

How cooperative was Schrager with your filming? Was he happy that this was going on?
Was he happy? I don't think Ian is ever happy to be in front of a camera. He's actually a shy person, and he, I believe, says in the movie, which is true, that Steve [Rubell, his late, longtime business partner] was the front man and Ian is the mad scientist, the master builder. One of the things I had a hard time with was capturing him because I never felt like he came off on camera the way he really was. I had a hard time capturing his giddiness and, in spite of all the hardships and the difficulties, he loved doing it. He was extremely generous with his time and he's never done this before with anyone. I doubt if he'll do it again with anyone because it was hard for him. He doesn't like to be the front man even though he is. The one thing that I just couldn't believe about Ian is what a perfectionist he is and how involved he is in every single detail. I'd be in the hotel at two in the morning shooting details or something, and Ian would show up for a lighting test or something and I would just say, "Don't you work hard enough in your 18-, 20-hour days? Do you really have to be here at two in the morning, three in the morning?" And he'd be like, "No, it's great. We're doing the lighting, we're doing the lighting! It's going to be great. I've been waiting to see this." But it was shocking in a good way how much he cared. He doesn't leave it up to other people. He worries about every detail. [It was] incredibly impressive.

What do you think about Julian Schnabel's design? Was this his masterpiece?
Well, now that he has a hit movie, you better like it. . . . [He laughs.] I will say that to this day, and I don't know why, but I love going to the hotel. I love sitting in the lobby in front of the fire. It's probably partially because I practically lived there at the time Ian was redoing the hotel. But part of it is that I can go into the lobby and sit in a chair and be in front of the fire and just look at the Cy Twombly painting, which is incredible [Ed.: though recently rotated out], and, since I don't have one in my home, I love that. I used to send Ian emails saying, "I'm sitting here staring at the Cy Twombly and it's just my favorite thing to do." And I meant it.

quoted

What is your final opinion on the hotel?
Personally, I think the hotel is genius. Do I want 500 Gramercy Park Hotels in New York? No, but I love the hotel. I think it's very special and I like it a lot and I think that Ian in a way kind of did his masterpiece. But I mostly spend my time going to dives so I'll always miss the old hotel as well.

How does it feel to be a returning filmmaker to Tribeca this year rather than as a first-timer?
It's a great festival. I was like, "We're not ready! We're not ready! We're not going to be ready!" And everybody's like, "You've got to be in Tribeca. That's the hometown festival. It's the Gramercy Park Hotel." And I was like, "I'm sorry. We're not ready. I am finishing this film. The film is finished when it's finished and it's not finished." So we did finish and Jane Rosenthal [co-founder of the Tribeca Film Festival] was incredible to me. I've known her for years, and when we screened Seamless, she was really incredible and I was a nervous wreck. I'm not fond of public speaking and she was just brilliant. She calmed me down brilliantly and took care of me. And she was wonderful. So I'm thrilled. I'm thrilled to be there and really looking forward to it being over because it's the most wonderfully nerve-wracking thing a director can do.

 

May 21, 2008

Zen and the Art of Catholicism

Creative Director Andrew Egan's New York office and apartment strike a balance between two disparate but harmonious philosophies.

Written by Alex Garinger, with photos by Martyn Thompson

photos by martyn thompson


How much office space does a four-person creative direction firm really need?

andrew eganOkay, let's grant Andrew Egan and his CoolGraySeven colleagues this: They had certainly outgrown Egan's one-and-a-half-bedroom West Village apartment, that half-bedroom (which is more like an outcrop off the living room) operating as a makeshift headquarters.

"It was me and Amy in the office," Egan recalls, "Ernie was working on the sofa, and Johanna was in the bedroom, and I was just like, 'You know what? We have to get an office.' " About eight blocks up Sixth Avenue, their search ended emphatically the moment they stepped into a loft space on 17th Street.

"We walked in at first and looked around and said, 'Whoa, this is great,' and then turned the corner, and went, 'What?!' " The incredulity is understandable. Even today a stern wall to the right of the entrance hoodwinks visitors -- you walk in and think, "This is a nice space." A few more steps and a turn of the head, however, and you're suddenly wondering where that adjoining football field with the 10-foot ceilings came from. "It was really a much bigger space than we needed," Egan, a Brit who moved to the States about eight years ago, admits sheepishly, "but it was within our budget. It was amazing."

photos by martyn thompsonAt 2,000 square feet, amazing is an understatement, and the only consolation for your own office-space envy is just how elegantly they've treated the cavernous room. "This space is so inspiring," Egan says as we sit down in a far corner at what can best be described as the ultimate conference table -- two identical hulking rectangular wooden tables, at the moment joined at their longest sides to form a square. "The work we do is very simple; it's almost zen-like in its thought process," he continues. "The aesthetic value of it is quite monochromatic; we use color when it's necessary -- we don't use color for the sake of it." Indeed, the office is a mix of white, black, and slate gray, with the occasional splash of red. But the aesthetic philosophy goes beyond simple color schemes: "We don't use 'design'; well, we use design in a way that's very simple, where things are more under-designed if anything. I think the calmness in the work needs to be reflected in the environment."

CoolGraySeven's portfolio includes fashion and luxury brands (Dana Buchman, L'Occitane, and Donna Karan's Urban Zen initiative), books and publications (they redesigned Enso, the Village Zendo's Buddhist Arts Journal), even hotels and restaurants. Natori, the Asian-inspired lingerie company, is the firm's longest-running client. The day CoolGraySeven opened for business three-and-a-half years ago, Natori called up looking for creative design help. By day two, Egan had met with owner Josie Natori; by day three, the firm was on retainer ("which was so God saying, 'Yes, this was the right time to do it,' " he says now with a laugh). While recently creating a book to celebrate Natori's 30th anniversary, the loft's sprawling space came in especially handy.

"We had everything laid out on the floor, and that's how we figured out the flow of the book," Egan explains. "When Josie came in here, we were literally picking up prints and moving them around. I love that idea that you'd use this space in that way."

The office remains so open in large part because inner-offices or cubicles don't clutter the space. A single, long desk hugs the length of one wall, where at least six computers hum, depending on how many of the often-eight-strong team (freelancers included) are working on site. In this office, the computer is simply a tool, Egan explains; the real creative process -- the drawing, brainstorming, and strategizing -- takes place elsewhere in the space, which can adapt easily to whatever project or task is most pressing. Those adjoined conference tables, for example, can be arranged lengthwise to form a production line when the firm must put the finishing touches on a bespoke projects, like clients' custom invitations or Christmas gifts.

photos by martyn thompson

The space can also adapt to become more than just an office -- say, a performance studio or art gallery. "A friend of mine is a cellist," Egan says, "She's recording the Bach suites right now, and before she goes into the studio, she'll come in here, and we'll invite 20 people over, and we'll just have some wine, and she'll play. The acoustics are fantastic." What's ironic, of course, is that the space can easily hold 200 people, if not a cramped 2,000. In September, the office will temporarily give way to the art work of painter Jessica Langton. The artist is already well represented in the space: Seeing Red, a large canvas that hangs on one wall (at one time above two white Barcelona chairs, now over another single row of computers) provides the biggest splash of red. Like the cello performances, an intimate gathering will mark the opening -- Egan says he doesn't want "50,000 people drinking warm white wine and not even looking at the paintings," as at other openings. After four or five evenings as an open gallery, the paintings will then be available by appointment only, as the busy firm gets back to work.

The logistics of the office-cum-gallery is churning in Egan's head, but he's also eager to show me the apartment where CoolGraySeven first sprung to life, so we take a quick walk down Sixth Avenue. The weather today is a touch of London gray -- dark clouds linger with misty, spitting rain. When I ask Egan if he misses the city where his career began, he says he still whets his London appetite when he visits to meet with clients. "I love New York, though, it's more inspiring."

We soon find Egan's apartment on the second floor of an understated brownstone. The tour begins at the little space off the living room; it's smaller than one of the conference tables in the new office, though now with room for just one, it seems reasonable. The apartment sticks to the color scheme that seems to define Egan's life and work: white, black, gray, with touches of red thrown in for good measure. In his bedroom, however, another design motif emerges: Christian crosses.

"Being brought up Catholic in the North of England, which is kind of cold and miserable," Egan says, "I think I just became fascinated by the iconography of it." Crosses found in Mexico hang on one wall above his bed, while more than a dozen more run along the length of one shelf of a wall-sized bookcase; these came from a church in London. On another wall, his own artwork, Need, hangs. The piece is comprised of more than 40 white crosses painted on individual black tableaus. Though the cross pattern repeats itself, each cross is different and each is emblazoned with the word "NEED," which has then subsequently been crossed out.

"I guess the thing about Catholicism is that I'm aesthetically attracted to the religion," he says. "I'm not heavily into the whole spiritual side, though I do love church, but maybe from an aesthetic or an emotional perspective -- things being cold or dramatic."

Although Egan's grays prevail in the apartment, it is balanced by natural light that pours in from the bedroom -- which looks out onto a courtyard -- and from the living room, which overlooks the street below. That balance seems to extend the deal Egan has struck between his Catholic upbringing and his more Eastern tendencies. "My thesis [at university] was about comparing Buddhism and poetry," Egan says of the early roots of the latter. "It was called, 'Zen and the Art of Writing a Dissertation.' It was bizarre."

photos by martyn thompson

For Egan, the art of decorating an apartment evidently means surrounding oneself with objects and art that represent simple beauty. In a small vestibule by the front door, a cello waits patiently, flanked by a wall of photographs. It turns out the "friend" who often performs impromptu sessions in CoolGraySeven's loft is in fact Sara Sant'Ambrogio, a Grammy Award-winning cellist who has been teaching Egan, a one-time bow-slinger in his youth, for eight years ago.

In the living room, art work by Andrea Byrne, another Egan favorite who often contributes her paintings to his design projects, finds equal space alongside modern, shin-high pieces of furniture like an elegant Kartell white foam seat, more of Egan's cross paintings, and found items from his worldly travels.

His collection is ever changing, he says. "I'm always moving pictures around and taking things off the walls and hanging other things." Every new trip seems to yield a new piece. On a recent trip to the Philippines, he found three pieces of art that use -- what else? -- Manila envelopes as their canvases. Metal numbers from an Australian cricket board run along another shelf in the bedroom, while a Chinese lamp sits in the small office. Sometimes, the discoveries can happen in New York as well: "When I first moved into this apartment, I didn't have any furniture, except maybe a table and two chairs. I went out to buy furniture, so I went into Paula Rubenstein [a downtown design store], and I came out with those." He points to a collection of long, red-and-white surveyor's poles propped up in a corner of the living room. "Oh great, poles, they're really useful," he says with a smile, "but I do love them."
And with that, Egan's iPhone buzzes, beckoning him back to the office. It's an eight-block journey he's more than happy to take.

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This page contains an archive of all entries posted to CITY Magazine : The Destination for Style in the Features category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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