The cab pulled up outside the high rise and, one ear-popping elevator ride to the edge of our atmosphere later, I was greeted at the penthouse by the same sight as always: some pristine backdrop of sumptuous serenity being crisscrossed by manic twenty-something’s wearing surgical booties over their shoes. These homes would never have so much—energy—in them again.
Among this abode’s many thrilling attributes the entrance gallery had been built over a water feature, like a lily pond, and you had to leapfrog across alabaster squares to get to the living room. According to the interview these photographs would accompany the owners wanted guests to ‘slow down’, forcing them to ‘take in the view.’ Because otherwise they might miss the three-story high windows looking all the way out to the Atlantic.
“Can you all please stop falling in the Zen gateway! You are all so fucking gormless.” That was Glenn, our photographer from South London. He talked like a Guy Ritchie film and was permanently angry.
Zoe slipped beside me and wordlessly handed off my coffee, which was somehow always still hot because Zoe was magic. “How’s it going?” I whispered.
“Glenn is having a hard time with the light.”
“I see.” Actually I couldn’t because I was squinting. The day I came to plan the shoot there’d been one of those hard August rains where the sidewalk smells like earth. Now the sun was shining and the all-white living room was blinding. Literally. Beams banked off the high gloss walls, the polished floors, the metal furniture—it was relentless. I slipped on my sunglasses.
“What is that in your mouth?!” I spun around, about to spit out my gum, only to discover the owner of the house, in white platform shoes and white harem knickerbockers, glaring down at her toddler. The child gamely shrugged as her Filipino nanny came running down the floating Plexiglas staircase. “Mrs., I so sorry. She got out while I was changing the twins.”
The child dropped her lower jaw and the mother reached in and extracted a small black lump. A raisin?
“Po, take her upstairs.” The mother deposited the item on the aluminum mantel. That’s when I saw the pile on the floor of identical lumps. Before I could introduce myself to her she dialed her white phone. “Hello, this is Mrs. Heller, I bought the sunflower seed installation. Yes, well, my daughter put one in her mouth. Well, there was a problem with toxic ceramic dust at the Tate, right? So do I need to do anything? Well, should I have my nanny take her to the pediatrician? . . . Okay, I’ll tell my nanny to keep an eye out for that. So how does this work? Will Mr. Weiwei send me a replacement? Should I put the broken one in the mail? . . . You’re joking! They just arrived and there’s no warranty? That’s outrageous! I bought—well I don’t remember the number, but it has Taoist significance and I don’t want to be one short! Put Mary on the phone!”
I tiptoed away so I could adjust the final compositions for Glen and keep my mind off Blake. Now, I’m sure you’re wondering what there could be left to do to a house that’s had millions of dollars of attention lavished on it? Well, for one thing the flower arrangements that make the homes seem alive—those were always brought by us. I remember this one shoot we did in a town house off Fifth. Five stories of authentic art deco no expense spared: gym, wine cellar, floor flown in from Italy, ceiling from France, but then the wife had a standing order for a fish bowl of pink roses for the front hall. From the deli. There was no pink in the house, it made no esthetic sense whatsoever, but there you go.
Then we heard, “Oh fuckety fuck fuck.” Even sight unseen the clipped vowels were instantly recognizable. So now we all knew what it took to make the great Kathryn Stossel swear: falling in standing water up to her calves. She rounded the corner, her sopping sling backs dangling off her fingers. “Can someone get my assistant up here with some shoes. Tell her I’m wearing the navy Balenciaga.” She said it to no one in particular, but within the hour her assistant would blow through the door. If Kathryn gave orders to an empty room I’m sure the furniture would strive to fulfill them.
Kathryn was the Editor in Chief of World of Decor, our boss, and official New York taste-maker when it came to all things esthetic. Kathryn Stossel thinks the new Bergdorf’s tearoom is ‘charming’? Bookings were harder to get than any actual service once you were seated. From Farrow and Ball to Crate and Barrel, nobody would dare put anything on the ten billion dollar home goods market without consulting her.
“Well, that’ll teach me to rush.” She kissed our hostess, who, I could tell, could not quite believe Kathryn was in her apartment. It had to be the culmination of everything she’d been hoping for since she was shown the first floor plan.
Kathryn only visited sets in person when the decorator was a ‘name’ because a certain dance had to be performed: we love your design so much we want it in the magazine, but Rory here is going to rearrange it. No reason. It was because what looked stunning in person frequently did not photograph well. Subtle layers of deepening grey looked monochromatically flat and needed the fuchsia bedspread from the guest room hung behind the couch like a wall covering. Or sometimes for texture I needed to grab a fluffy pillow from a kid’s room—or a maid’s. Also, frequently, people got so excited about being selected they’d run out to make their homes even better. So we’d arrive on the day to a host of horrors. I’ve switched out drapes, moved couches, re-hung art, all under the watchful eye of a decorator who would like to hit me over the head with the nearest Cycladic bust.