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Round Table Discussion: Kitty Hawks at Parsons
During a conversation at the Interior Design Hall of Fame dinner last fall, Kitty Hawks, herself a past inductee, mentioned to me that she would be teaching a course on interior design at Parsons. Kitty and I go back a bit, as she used to come down to SoHo to see my shop and my Jack Russell terrier, Winnie. I’m not sure whether Kitty remembered the mid-century design or the dog more, but she invited me to speak to her class about matters of design, taste, and style. I logged much of my misspent youth in classrooms, as an undergraduate and graduate student, but had not set foot in one in decades, so it was with some trepidation that I agreed.
A few days before the class, my assignment arrived via e-mail: “Considering how important the mid-century aesthetic is, and how influential the dealers were in making it so, it would be great to hear how you started your business, and how it changed over time. Include visuals.” Once I got over the disappointment about not being asked about the hermeneutics of taste, or gender politics in French modernist interiors (can you spell relief?), I quickly scribbled some notes about my own experiences and cobbled together some jpegs on a disc. The discussion went pretty well, lasted an hour or so, and was shepherded along by Kitty and her colleague Danielle Galland.
In recounting the early days of my first gallery, Lin/Weinberg, I realized that we opened during an economic downturn in 1994, when spaces were available to start-up businesses, and we entered a field—mid-century design—that was still forming, and was hence something of a free-for-all. The period after WWII witnessed an explosion in material culture, some of it great, some good, much either not so good or downright awful. Our job was to sift through this mountain of material and decide which pieces to reintroduce to the market. Kitty praised me for having “authentic taste,” and I took this as a compliment without knowing exactly what she meant, but if it is a function of talent and application, I would submit the function is skewed toward application, toward the untold hours spent researching and handling objects. Much of the visual skill I acquired, I told the class, came from looking closely at the things themselves.
Over the past decade, dramatic changes have taken place in the modern design market, affecting dealers, interior designers, and consumers alike. A considerable part of the class was spent tracking these changes and their implications. I noted or should have noted the following: the market for modern design matured, with the canon becoming more tightly defined and information becoming more freely disseminated. More dealers entered the mid-century field, and more mid-century designs were copied or re-issued, putting downward pressure on the prices of mid-level vintage pieces and on upholstered items like sofas in particular. At the same time, magazine-fueled demand and finance-sector money sent the prices on top vintage pieces skyward, at least until recently. Auction houses, notably Sotheby’s, Phillips, Wright, Rago, and LAMA, became leading-edge retailers of mid-century design, taking market share from galleries and drawing in a steady flow of the best material.
All of this was driven and abetted by the rise of the internet and its increasing influence on the market for modern design. From websites like eBay to 1stdibs, more and more business was done via search engines and email. The net result has been a scramble to find new business models to adapt to these changes. Branding, marketing, and publicity have become more important, galleries have added design services (take note, Parsons students) and product lines, and have sought out emerging talent. The main point Kitty made for her class is that in an era of virtual shopping and designing, it is still imperative to have hands-on, tactile experience—you still need to sit in chairs and to look closely and carefully at details of construction such as wood graining and joinery.
At the end of the discussion the floor was opened for questions, and inevitably the first question asked was “What is the next big thing?” or “What do you do when you graduate in the middle of a depression?” Kitty bailed me out on this by suggesting that young designers should develop and cultivate their own taste and interests, and also should work hard. I suggested that they draw on their youthful enthusiasm and energy, and pointed out that in grim economic times there is opportunity for creativity and innovation. Actually, I read this latter part somewhere but believe it to be true—storefronts are available again in New York, for one thing. Time ran out before I could tell the old joke about career prospects in our field: How do you make a small fortune in interior design? Start with a large fortune.
Some things are better left unsaid.
From top: George Nakashima table and chairs, Lin/Weinberg Gallery; Kitty Hawks, Photo by Eric Laignel; Vignette at Lin/Weinberg, c. 2002, Photo Lin/Weinberg; Lin/Weinberg booth at Modernism, c. 2002, Photo Lin/Weinberg; Part of the Lin/Weinberg collection, from Interior Design magazine, Photo by Eric Laignal; Winnie at Lin/Wienberg Gallery.