No Room For Mistakes
TODD WATERBURY’S apartment is just perfect.
No, really. It’s not simply that his book collection is restricted to titles with black, gray or white bindings, and stacked, jacketless, in neat horizontal rows (and mostly reflects the work of artists who are themselves interested in stacking, grid-making, mapmaking or otherwise marking time and space in obsessive and orderly ways). Or that nearly every item here (the sofa, the chairs, Mr. Waterbury’s suits) is also either black, gray or white, including the paint on the walls (gray with white trim) and most of the artwork, like a painting by Peter Wegner, Mr. Waterbury’s best friend, of a simple font chart from the 1940s showing black type on a white background.
Actually, there’s an even deeper level of “perfect” at work in this large one-bedroom apartment near Central Park South. It’s an underlying order that compels Mr. Waterbury to arrange his dining chairs not around his dining table like the rest of us, but in neat stacks on either side of Mr. Wegner’s font painting, to match its stack of words.
“And if you stand right here — — ” said Mr. Waterbury as he directed a visitor to what he called the sweet spot of his apartment, a vantage point that took in the stacked books, the stacked type painting and the stacked chairs, as well as the plywood edge of another Wegner painting (or really two paintings, one hung above the other).
“If you stand here,” Mr. Waterbury continued eagerly, “you can see the wood edge of the paintings, and relate it to the wood of the dining chairs. I really like that.”
By now, it is clear that Mr. Waterbury — a creative director and brand consultant who spent 16 years at Wieden + Kennedy, the ad agency, before going out on his own two years ago — answers to an aesthetic dog whistle, as he put it, that few can hear. He is a design perfectionist, a curious breed that outfits its habitat not according to style or fashion, but to a set of fastidious inner rules that are usually minimalist in nature, but not always.
Some are so fastidious they have no furniture at all, being allergic to the “visual clutter of objects” in particular, as Klaus Biesenbach, director of PS1, the Museum of Modern Art alternative outpost in Long Island City, Queens, likes to say — and to design in general.
“I hate design,” Mr. Biesenbach will tell you emphatically. When he travels, he has a habit of stripping his hotel room of anything that moves (furniture, colored pillows, desktop accessories) and stuffing it all into the closet. “It’s a little bit of curatorial disease,” he said. “I like to reduce everything to its original surface.”
For the last five years, Mr. Biesenbach has been living in a nearly empty apartment in Seward Park, the former union co-op complex on the Lower East Side. Until recently, the place contained not much more than a mattress and a television. After W magazine published an article on it three years ago, Mr. Biesenbach suffered from the blandishments of friends, who kept trying to buy him furniture. And when CBS profiled him for its morning news program soon after, a reporter arrived with a bouquet of flowers, hoping to irritate Mr. Biesenbach with the gesture. He did.
Then last summer, Mr. Biesenbach, who was traveling a lot for work, lent his apartment to an artist friend whose studio roof had collapsed during July’s heavy rains. When Mr. Biesenbach returned, his home had been altered. The artist had brought in his own sofa, dining table and chairs, and painted the entire apartment — the walls, that sofa, even the DVD player and the cable box — in white house paint.
“He tricked me, and I should have been angry, but I was completely charmed,” Mr. Biesenbach said. “He thought I needed to loosen up a bit.”
True, the DVD player, the microwave oven and the espresso machine no longer functioned, but that didn’t bother Mr. Biesenbach. It was the sofa that grated on him. The other day, he skirted it warily, like a cat introduced to a large, slobbering golden retriever.
“I nearly feel fine, I can almost imagine buying a sofa for myself,” he said. “It’s white, so you don’t really see it, like an ice bear in a snow landscape.
“Also, it has a story. It is more performance than object. And the story allows you to throw it out because you are not throwing out an object but ending a story. One day, I will call and have it trashed, and then maybe I will get my own couch.” (Performance, of course, is Mr. Biesenbach’s bailiwick. He organized Marina Abramovic’s MoMA epic, “The Artist Is Present,” two years ago; Thursday’s performance at Radio City by Antony Hegarty, the pansexual crooner and art world darling, is his doing as well.)
Mr. Biesenbach has not gotten around to actually sitting on this particular story, though he said he occasionally perches on one of the dining chairs.