Mod Kicks

I love the designer George Nelson (1908-1986). His beautifully clean, functional, unpretentious designs are classics today, and they haven't lost a step. Nelson was a visionary. Not only was he a great designer himself, but he was an important writer on design and, as the company's head designer, he made Herman Miller one of the most innovative furniture companies ever, enlisting such designers as Charles Eames, Isamu Noguchi, and Buckminster Fuller. In my city pad we've got two leather-covered Nelson side tables and what is often called a blanket chest, but seems to be an LP cabinet.


In the photo here it's opening, revealing a stash of Jamaican dub and antique hip-hop. At the country place we have even more Nelson furniture—dressers, a vanity, and his old hi-fi cabinet which still looks modern but quaintly has one speaker opening—it predates stereo. Well, you can imagine how pleased I was to discover at Undefeated, L.A.'s premiere sneaker shop, this pair of Vans made with fabric designed by George Nelson. I think they cost $65. Maybe I can talk Vans into making up some slip-ons with the Josef Frank remnants I have laying around.


A Shrine of Design

Russel Wright (1905-1976) was the first superstar of industrial design. His extraordinary vision transformed the American home, bringing modernism to Mom and Pop and the kids, too. Wright didn't shock the bourgeoisie, he seduced it with design that is beautiful, warm, and remarkably practical. His modernism wasn't based on the shock of the new, or a strict regime of form follows function, but on a vision of life lived artistically in harmony with nature. His designs look as contemporary today as when they were first produced. Trained as an architect, he began his career as a theatrical designer, but he is best known for his tableware, furniture, and housewares. Wright was the first designer to sign his products, and when his new creations arrived in department stores customers would line up for them.

In 1942 Wright discovered an abandoned quarry property of 75 acres in Garrison, New York, about an hour north of Manhattan on the Hudson, and he began creating there a very special home, studio, and landscape. He called it Manitoga, which means "place of the Great Spirit" in Algonquin. Wright built a fantastic house and studio there, in collaboration with architect David L. Leavitt. The design of the house shows the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Bauhaus, and Japanese aesthetics, but its situation in the grounds and its interior decor is all Russel Wright. The house overlooks the quarry, which Wright turned into a swimming pool by diverting a stream. He also laid out four miles of hiking trails and spent countless hours improving the look of nature, in a natural vernacular. Manitoga isn't manicured. It has the random look of pristine landscape but it has been manipulated subtly, with a great sense of theater. Mostly working alone, Wright planted and transplanted native trees, plants, mosses, wildflowers, and ferns, and he moved rocks and boulders to subtly improve on nature. There is, for example, a stunning corridor of moss in the woods overlooking the house that was painstakingly transplanted by hand. Manitoga is now the home of the Russel Wright Design Center and it is open to the public. It's best to make an appointment for the tours, as I was once turned away because there were too many visitors.

The house is currently under repair and is not completely accessible. We got just a peek into the double height living room where boulders blend with furniture and the roof beam is supported by a cedar tree trunk. The studio, however, is pretty much as it was when Wright worked there—demonstrating his ingeniously simple design solutions. The studio ceilings are quite fantastic, with pine needles embedded in black paint creating an extraordinary surface. Fluorescent lighting fixtures are concealed and dimmed by grommeted burlap panels. Sections of ceiling in the house are paneled with Styrofoam. An extraordinary luminous wall was crafted by sandwiching cut sections of cardboard tubing in fiberglass. He also created beautiful translucent panels containing butterflies, flowers, and leaves that he collected. I highly recommend visiting Manitoga, even if you can't get the complete experience with the house under repair. I was really inspired by Wright's landscape architecture, and the fact that he did most of the work on it himself. I may ask for a backhoe for Christmas, so I can start rolling the big boulders on my land around. I'm also trying to think up a name for the place. I wonder if there's an Algonguin word for "Round Table."


Here is a view of the house and studio (foreground) overlooking the quarry pool, and a view of the moss corridor.




I like Ferraris, but I don't like the ones that look like they were designed by the same people as the Mach 3 razor by Gillette, like the FXX. Same with those out-there looking Lamborghinis and Lotuses. They are "look at me" toys, and they appeal to boys, and are we not men? Have you ever noticed certain woman snickering at $250,000 cars?

I must say I also have trouble with this glass bonnet covering the engine on the otherwise attractive Spider. Sure, it's a V8 that cost more than many people's residences, but there's something embarrassing about it. It's like a see-through blouse. It's showing something publicly that's more fun beheld in private.  I don't mind a little tease, like the red paint showing through Porsche's wheels, but engines should be heard and not seen.

Actually, I'm not crazy about most post-eighties Ferraris. I love the oldies. The 250GT 2 + 2, the 365 GT 2 + 2, the 208 GT4.  To me the really great Ferraris have a back seat. If I were to get a Ferrari I think it would be the old 400 or 412.  It's not really a sports car but what they called a "grand boulevardier," a high performance family coupe with a back seat. It's all about understatement. Apparently the idea was that on the Autostrade it could outrun any kidnapper in a BMW or Mercedes.  Although I bet my E500 wagon would give it a run for its money up to the electronically-limited 130mph.


Decorating with Ricky


I have a feature in the June issue of GQ about how to decorate your pad. In it I discuss, among other things, what I've learned from my decorator pal Ricky Clifton. Decorator doesn't really cover what Ricky does, though. It's inadequate. Since I met him he's been a taxi driver, a framer, a famous party crasher, and a gallery owner, and now he's sort of the ultimate personal shopper and decorator to the art world. And now he's invited to all the parties. He's an artist who comes to your house and moves your furniture around, tells you what to get rid of and shows up with things you have to buy. Irritatingly, he's almost always right. I just thought I'd throw in a couple of pictures of one of Ricky's better recent efforts, an apartment he did for the owners of the Zwirner and Wirth gallery.


The plywood bed was made by an L.A. artist. It has a secret pornography compartment. The lamp is made from a joint compound drum. The ceiling mural was painted by Ricky.


The warthog holding the reading lamp once belonged, according to legend, to Warren Beatty, who gave it to Diane Keaton, or maybe it was the other way around.