Photographer Jay Maisel turns a Bowery bank building into a living still life
Fred A. Bernstein -- Interior Design, 9/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Jay Maisel doesn't like to be called a commercial photographer. "That suggests I shoot what other people want," he says. "Mostly, I shoot what I want." Yet in a 50-year career, his astonishingly well composed color images of everything from hummingbirds to 747s have satisfied hundreds of clients. He has the prints, transparencies, and negatives to prove it: more than a million stored in boxes in a climate-controlled vault.
The vault is in Maisel's basement on the Bowery. Since 1966, he's been living in a structure completed in 1898 for the Germania Bank. (Manhattan had a large German-speaking population before World War I.) When Maisel bought the building, it was a Manufacturers Hanover Trust warehouse. The neighborhood wasn't exactly a desirable place to be back then. "Let's just say no one was bidding against me," recalls Maisel, who grew up in a two-family house in Brooklyn. He describes the aftermath of his purchase this way: "My parents cried."
Cried all the way to the bank building. What Maisel got is a soaring lobby and five levels of antiquated offices with room numbers still gold-leafed on the frosted-glass inserts of heavy oak doors—609, for instance, is the master bedroom. He uses the top floor as living quarters and the ground floor as an office. At 36,000 square feet, though, the place is so big that he's able to devote the second and third floors to galleries, where he displays the large color prints sold directly to collectors, and the fourth and fifth to workshops, where he either stores tools or exhibits art or, in a variety of ingenious ways, does both at once.
Among his artistic soul mates is Louise Nevelson, who turned urban detritus into some of the 20th century's most compelling sculpture. But while Nevelson covered her surfaces in paint to create unified compositions, Maisel tends to keep raw materials, from screwdrivers to plastic eyeballs, exactly as he found them. Another kindred spirit is Charles Eames, whom Maisel knew—and whose Los Angeles studio was the kind of tinker's wonderland that Maisel has emulated on the Bowery. Eames, of course, was a modernist. Maisel insists he's a modernist, too, at heart. "I always aim for Bauhaus," he says. "But I end up with Salvation Army. I just have no restraint." Perhaps he's simply asserting his right to be different. He recalls his mother's favorite admonition: "When you grow up and have your own house, you'll do it your way."
Maisel, who is 71 but looks 51 and has a 9-year-old daughter, no longer answers to his mother. As for his wife, Linda, he says, "She's incredibly adaptable." By this he means that, in 13 years of marriage, she has asked for only a few small changes in the sixth-floor family quarters. He's still building her the shower she requested during the first Bush presidency. Nevertheless, Maisel says, "When I see her with a tape measure in her hand, it strikes fear in my heart."
One of his favorite pieces is a 10-foot-long George Nelson sofa that he bought from Herman Miller—getting a bargain because nobody else had enough space—and carried up five flights of stairs because the bank building's quaint copper cage of an elevator was too small. "Of course," Maisel says, "it's the one piece Linda wants me to move." The living room, once a dining room for bank employees, has become "more people-friendly" under her sway, he concedes, though the feel remains more that of a 19th-century cabinet of curiosities than a 21st-century residence.
Maisel sees his home as a problem to solve. After being told by air-conditioning experts that window units could never cool a space as big as his, he bought six regardless and created makeshift ductwork out of giant plastic bags, which hang overhead like balloons the morning after a party. "Maya Lin was here, and she told me she had to steal the idea," he offers, a cigar dangling from his mouth. When the kitchen ceiling sprang 18 leaks, he didn't resort to 18 buckets. Instead, he hung a sheet of Mylar, angled to drain over the sink. He does most of the maintenance himself. And he doesn't like tenants. Roy Lichtenstein rented the fourth floor in the 1960s, and Maisel is still smarting over a party for 600 thrown by the pop artist.
Maisel would never invite 600 people over. He would, on the other hand, take in 600 pairs of pliers or 600 plastic eyeballs. And he thinks nothing of snapping 600 pictures a day. Two of his books, Jay Maisel's New York and his World Trade Center commemoration, A Tribute, are currently in bookstores. When he heads out with his camera, he says, "My motivation is not to show you how clever I am. It's to show you how great the world is. Basically, I just stand back and react." That goes equally for the content of his photos and the contents of his house.