New York Studio Tour
Part I - The Design Offices
Critique 7, Winter 1998
SO YOU WANT TO MOVE TO NEW YORK. I understand. Even though you have a Saab convertible in the garage, a Weber grill on the patio, and a 150-pound sheepdog at your feet, the Big Apple beckons.
I understand perfectly.
Twenty-five years ago I traded my Karmann Ghia and the Pacific Coast Highway for a ten-pack of Lexington Avenue IRT tokens. Then, there was precious little graphic design work in L.A. (especially for young women who didn't want to fetch chilled white wine for Robert Miles Runyan). Minneapolis, Dallas, Seattle, Vancouver? Fuggedaboudit. Today, however, you can stay right where you are. You can do great work, be internationally recognized, and keep the car, the grill, the dog. And you can mountain bike, surf, ski, live. So why not come to Manhattan once every year or so to visit the museums, Bloomingdales, and AIGA headquarters? Maybe a few top New York designers will let you tour their offices firsthand, if you write, fax, or e-mail first, persistently. Sounds like a sane idea.
Except. Except there's a tiny nagging voice inside you softly singing, "New York, New York..." I know what you're thinking: You know you really could make it here. Big time. Hell, you don't want to go to your grave never having cracked Where It's Really At. And you don't want to move to New York to work for somebody else. No. You want to open your own office. In the Flatiron District or Silicon Alley. Or in an historic brownstone just off Gramercy Park. Mazel tov! Have I got stories for you.
You are familiar with the mantra of New York Real Estate, are you not? "Location, location, location." A few amenities count, too. An airy corner loft, about 4,000 square feet, on a high floor, windows on at least two exposures, anywhere between Houston Street and 27th Street, Sixth Avenue to Lafayette Street, will do just fine. You'll be fashionably poised to gaze up at Midtown's twinkling skyscrapers as well as down to the towers of Wall Street, from which your future business and money will emanate. An architect friend can draw up the plans and you'll help build it yourself. With a clever layout, your employees will never see your unmade bed or bagel crumbs. You'll keep the Saab a few blocks away in one of those garages where they bring the cars down on an elevator (what's another 400 bucks a month?), and you'll keep the mountain bike up on a hook for Sunday rides in Central Park. If you're lucky there might even be a spot of outdoor space for a modest roof garden with hibachi. It'll be a fine starter setup until you've earned enough for the office in the Class-A building, the apartment on Central Park West, and the weekend house in the Hamptons.
So you start making the rounds. A million-two for this? A former hat factory above a hip-hop club on Avenue C? When you squint through the steel-gated windows, an expanse of brick wall hits you in the face. Does that dusty window offer a view into the bedroom of...? Uh, oh. The real estate agent says not to worry about the holes in the floor, either. The super will patch them up, sometime. You do have good liability insurance and belong to an HMO, don't you? A few blocks away -- also a bit outside the desired territory -- they're asking only $895K for a Bowery walkup. Didn't Jay what's-his-name, the world's greatest photographer, buy that entire building on the corner, a former savings and loan? That could happen to you, too. Your architect friend says the place would be divine with only a four-hundred-thou renovation. But he has to consult with an engineer about the HVAC and whether you need a second means of egress to be up to code before filing with the BD. The maintenance (that's to keep the lobby swept and that lovely freight elevator operable) is a mere $2,150 per month, in addition to the mortgage, utilities, garbage-pick-up, security monitoring, and debt service on the construction loan.
Well, how about a rental, to start? Here's an intimately scaled (as in walk-in-closet-sized) flat in the East Village for just $1475. You'll have to plug your computer and toaster into the same outlet, and when you add the scanner and printer it'll probably blow up the whole building. Not quite the right image for your clients (which you don't have any of yet, anyway, except for that candy-bar entrepreneur who said it didn't matter that you'd be 2,000 miles away, what with the Internet and all). Well, you could live here for a while and share a friend's office.
Like we all did. Most New York design firm principals started off by renting a couple of cubbies in someone else's space. A few years later we got our first office on a side street and furnished it with hollow-core doors on top of filing cabinets. We bought our Pollock chairs at the Knoll outlet in Long Island City and brought them back in a taxi. Our next office was architect-designed and did not have views of brick walls (but in our hearts we loved the ones we did ourselves the best). We hated haggling with landlords' attorneys over square feet and escalation clauses, and ended up paying 20 percent more than we wanted for to 20 percent less space than we needed. We endured elevators that broke down, windows that leaked (or worse, got broken into), rat droppings near the coffee pot, and garbage strikes. We got clients, got married, had kids, got weekend places, and still put up with everything. Although most of us are committed to New York City (and to improving it by donating time and money to its many cultural and charitable causes), increasing numbers of us are choosing to move our homes and/or places of business out of town and still be within its charmed circle. The former hinterlands of Connecticut, Westchester Country, and New Jersey are packed with clients (Fortune 500 and otherwise) and offer a relatively normal suburban-country lifestyle. New York clients don't care where your office is (as long as you come in to visit them).
I can't quote any statistics, but most people who set up shop in New York City never leave. There's too much to get addicted to. Restaurants. Theaters. Movies. Live music of every ilk. On a typical weekday evening, you could listen to Arvo Part in a Park Avenue cathedral, D.J. Spooky at a downtown club, the Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall, or Bobby Short at the Cafe Carlyle. The museums: at lunch time or any time, you can hop over to the Guggenheim, the Whitney, the Met, MoMA, the International Center for Photography, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. If you're downtown, you can visit the Guggenheim SoHo for multimedia art, dozens of galleries, restaurants, shops.
Every business resource is at your fingertips. Libraries. Printers. This is important: great printing companies are within ten minutes of anywhere. You can watch a press run and spend most of the day in your office. Hundreds of top photographers are here. Stylists. Talent. Art and photo-supply wholesalers. Service bureaus galore. Blocks of stores where you can buy every conceivable prop and tchotchke for a photo shoot. Run out of toner cartridges? No problem. Three stores right downstairs sell them by the case.
New York is a city you never get tired of exploring. Especially for shopaholics and foodies. Whether it's finding the right Prada suit on upper Madison or a knockoff at a fraction of the price on Orchard Street; whether you like to dine at Asia de Cuba or Lutece, it's all here. And don't forget the banks and accounting firms and consultants and investment firms. This will always be the financial capital of the world. As Seymour Chwast says of people who are not New Yorkers, "They should live and be well. Everything you could possibly want is right here." Whether it's throwing a Halloween party or a marathon, New York does it bigger and better. There are even good supermarkets these days. And butchers and fruit markets and places to buy ingredients for any kind of cuisine. You don't actually need a car. Jan Uretsky, a designer who's successfully lived and worked in New York for his whole life (he's 37), doesn't even know how to drive. If it's too far to walk, you can cab it or take the subway. Every store, restaurant, and dry cleaner delivers. You can take trains and buses out of town. Or fly. With the money you save on parking, you could fly to Aruba or Paris for two weeks every year. Here's an idea: Get European and Asian clients, and let them fly you.
Sure, the city has what Tibor Kalman has called its violent and insane side. But most of us, like you, watch it on Law and Order and NYPD Blue. The Giuliani Administration's "quality of life" commitment has brought down crime and made the city cleaner and more inviting. Taxes are lower. They've reduced the onerous tax codes, making it a more hospitable place to do business. Don't come for the nice weather, though. It's 72 degrees and sunny, like, six days a year. And don't come if you think you can charge higher fees. Clients here, too, want to pay $5,000 for a $20,000 job -- and get it delivered tomorrow. But if you thrive on competition and stimulation; if crowds don't make you crazy; if you're into high anxiety; if you want to eat in a different restaurant three times a day, 365 days a year; if you want to see a movie at the Angelica Film Center (and not at a theme-park imitation of it at the mall); if your dog can stand pooping on asphalt; if you can stand scooping it up (required by law under penalty of fine or imprisonment or both), see ya. Just call. Come for lunch (say, smoked turkey on sourdough baguette with herb-horseradish mayo) and we'll tell you what it's really like.
- - - - -
Critique 8, Spring 1998
Part 2: The CorporationsEVERY WEEKDAY, Todd St. John, born in Oahu, Hawaii, schooled in Tucson, Arizona, most recently from San Diego, California, rides up 24 floors to his office in the Viacom Building on Times Square to his job as an art director at MTV Networks. There, he's found his true element. "You give up a lot of things in New York," he says. "Space, time, time for yourself. But as soon as you let go of your old expectations, you're fine. Professionally it opens up all kinds of things." For St. John, it was the opportunity to work at the epicenter of what he calls cross-media: video, print, on-air and off-air projects, with direct access to the best people in the field and the best equipment available anywhere. He says he hardly has time to miss the desert and the Pacific.
Top people from around the world have been converging on New York's design scene since World War II, not only to work in studios and start their own firms, but to be at the corporate-headquarters level, at the vortex of entertainment, publishing, finance, consulting, fashion. All the city's power towers contain one or more "art departments," in-house boutiques where products and campaigns spawned in endless meetings and nurtured by generous budgets -- and by the insatiable need to be the biggest-newest-hottest-coolest-most profitable -- determine what the would will buy, eat, wear, listen to, read, and think.
The advantages offered by big New York corporations come as no surprise: good pay, benefits packages that can't be matched by small firms, better hours (sometimes), job security (supposedly), lots of smart people around. Sara Giovanitti, and art director and design educator who's redesigned newspapers around the world, claims that the smartest people work at New York's newspapers. Other designers point to smart people at magazines and in the music business and television. "I love working with editors and writers, being on the editorial team," says Gail Anderson, deputy art director at Rolling Stone magazine. "I feel like a journalist, part of the story." It doesn't hurt that Rolling Stone's editors trust the art directors to take creative risks few typical clients dare and consistently do great work.
In the Time-Life Building at 1271 Avenue of the Americas, Louisville-born and trained designer Michael Ian Kaye manages Little, Brown & Co.'s five-person art department. "It's a thrill to work on books," he asserts. "I love books. It's special to be in the world of literature." He says that for him working for large organizations (Little, Brown is a subsidiary of $24.6-billion Time Warner Inc.) hasn't been a hindrance to creative work. "They've provided environments that encouraged my success creatively and financially." "We are our own client," adds Nickelodeon associate creative director Linda Walsh, who came to the company from Ammirati Puris Lintas. "Decisions are made here faster here than at an agency and it's easier to stay on the cutting edge because there's no conflict of goals and everyone's heading in the same direction with the best interest of the brand in mind."
Steve Heller, who's been with The New York Times for 24 years, mentions a another, more surprising, benefit: "It feels like family." His experience, not unique, is that in large organizations you can make lifelong, close friends. And that within a cast of thousands, you can also have a great deal of autonomy. "You get to run your own little place without overhead or worries. Someone else deals with the landlord and pays the bills. It's stimulating, you deal with culture and have some sense of high purpose. You can be as collegial as you want and then retreat to you own cubby to get back to work."
And cubbies they often are. Forget fantasies about executive suites with Herman Miller furniture and 360-degree views of Manhattan's twinkling skyline -- if you're applying to the art department. "We're in a windowless internal room with books and papers scattered all over the place," says Gail Anderson, who hesitated to have her department's corner of Wenner Media photographed for this article.
And social life? "What's that?" asks Michael Ian Kaye. Don't envision yourself as an Armani-suited Michael Douglas or Demi Moore type photographed at toney insider parties for the pages of Vanity Fair. Maybe your boss's boss will get invited. New York designers report they most appreciate quiet times with significant others and getting away to rented weekend houses near the beach or woods.
With advancement in the big-business world, though, often comes -- in addition to the bucks you'll need for that weekend house -- lots of meetings and consensus-building and greater distance from the actual design work. Peter Levine, executive creative director/principal at Desgrippes, Gobe & Associates, the retail-fashion brand-identity firm, says, "There's much more to what we do than personal expression." A Cal Arts graduate with a masters in design from Yale, Levine helped build a 70-person powerhouse that answers such questions for clients as, "What does the consumer want today?" He states, "Now I'm dealing with big problems, using design to influence strategy, showing clients how to give a fresh voice to their businesses." Every time he does a freelance design job, he admits, and the client tells him what color to use, he vows to himself, "I'm glad I'm not doing this any more."
Thus, the downside of working for large organizations (bureaucracy) can be seen as less onerous than the downside of working for design firms or on your own (clients they like to tell you what to do). Corporate bureaucracy can be stunning. To speak with the creative director of a large cosmetics corporation, for example, one must first fax a list of questions to the company's public relations office. In addition to official protocols, there are performance evaluations, training programs, policy manuals, organizational charts, re-orgs, mergers, hostile takeovers, downsizings, and lots of office politics.
Even though their jobs may not be perfect -- even through it's noisy, chaotic, overcrowded, claustrophobic, expensive -- people come to New York and stay. Travel writer Kate Simon attributes this to "New York's variety of riches that creates a paralysis of choices." Every block is an architectural feast that could combine elements of Philip Johnson, Beaux Arts, cast iron, Gothic revival, brownstone, Stanford White, institutional ugly, and construction barricade. "You're continually bombarded by the visual. It's history, it's current," says Michael Ian Kaye. With the AIA Guide to New York City in hand, you could spend weeks exploring neighborhoods, stopping to shop, visit museums, eat, drink, people-watch.
But in a certain sense you'd still be a greenhorn. To be a real New Yorker, you have to be too busy to notice the tourist attractions. You have to be obsessed with -- in addition to Seinfeld-like issues related to your apartment, your friends, your job, your love life -- insider concerns that only New Yorkers care about, and that make them feel so special and superior to everyone else in the world. Such as, but not limited to, whether Mayor Giuliani will really enforce no-jaywalking ordinances, what days alternate-side-of-the-street parking regulations are in effect, whether the doormen will go on strike again, at what times Zabar's is least crowded, the best corners to get a cab at 6:00 p.m. in the rain, who will be the sixteenth general manager of the Yankees in 25 years, and whether turning up your air conditioner on that 98-degree August night will be the singular act that overloads ConEdison and throws the whole city into a blackout. For some people, the list can be extended to include such matters as the whereabouts of the colorist that does such-and-such a celebrity's hair, how to get reservations at a certain new restaurant, where to find the most spiritual yoga classes.
Once you've been here long enough to feel comfortable in your job and master all of that stuff, unfortunately or not, Oahu, Tucson, San Diego, or Louisville could feel very far away and only significant enough to warrant an annual visit to the folks back home.
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