NEW YORK - Since starting his business in 1981, New York architect Alan Wanzenberg has been a go-to resource for A-list clients, Mick Jagger and Richard Gere among them. With the late interior designer Jed Johnson, his longtime companion and business partner (and formerly Andy Warhol’s beau), Wanzenberg landed commissions with major collectors such as Beth Rudin DeWoody and Peter Brant.
Wanzenberg’s impressive knowledge of design history, from Arts & Crafts to high modernism, inevitably creeps into conversation. His passion for historical design has also come in handy when acquiring art and objects for clients, including a spectacular Art Deco collection assembled for an Australian collector that sold at Sotheby’s last December. But for all the high-profile projects, many of which are included in his 2013 book Journey: The Life and Times of an American Architect (Pointed Leaf Press), Wanzenberg’s designs – particularly for his own homes – feel refreshingly unpretentious. He was raised on the vernacular architecture of the Midwest, from the rustic 19th-century lakeside cottages he visited as a boy to the Prairie Style homes around Chicago where he grew up. Wanzenberg spoke with Meredith Mendelsohn from his vacation house in Costa Rica, where he has several projects in development.
ONE OF WANZENBERG’S CABINS IN UPSTATE NEW YORK. PHOTOGRAPHS BY WILLIAM ABRANOWICZ.
Many of your interiors exude a strong sense of peacefulness and calm without feeling too minimal. Is that something you strive for?
Many of our clients, because of what they do, live fairly complicated lives. They want their homes to be places of refuge and quiet, but they also have a lot of visual acuity and are interested in all kinds of things. So early on Jed and I began creating environments that convey an underlying calm but are also well informed and confident in terms of architecture, decorating and art.
You have a way of making things look effortless – particularly in your Fire Island beach house and your cabins in upstate New York. There’s a certain modesty, and nothing feels overwrought.
Once, after Jed and I received a pretty significant commission, there was an insistence on the part of the owner of the house to do something that was exceptional but also low-key and unpretentious. Jed turned to me and said, “Well, you know, it takes a lot to make something look like nothing.” I always laugh about that because it’s true. I’m wildly overstimulated, so for my own spaces, it’s important that I have a place to decompress.
How do you achieve that?
Sometimes neutral rooms are the most beloved because they have the most adaptability. In my book I use the analogy of the little black dress. There is a timelessness about something that’s very simple and well-tailored that you can accessorise and add to. People really respond to something that looks effortless.
You are an architect as well as a creator of interiors and you have also helped clients build collections. With a blank slate before you, where do you begin?
I think first and foremost as an architect. I am more interested in things that are fundamentally strong architecturally and then I integrate the decoration into them. But I also have an uncanny ability to imagine myself in a home – and how I would want to live in it.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY WILLIAM ABRANOWICZ.
Right now You are at your house in Costa Rica, where you are also working on various projects. Tell me about those.
I bought a simple home near the beach around eight years ago and restored it very sympathetically and modestly, and I think that appealed to people here who saw it. Now I’m working on a few private residences, an expansion of a hotel and a community of houses in a coastal area.
How does working in the tropics compare with, say, designing in the urban context?
There’s a tendency in such places to do a kind of San Diego style – overdone stucco. My house is in wood, and there’s no air conditioning; it makes use of prevailing winds. I just have screens and shutters. Early on I worked in Mustique, in the Caribbean, and it’s similar. You have to keep things simple. People don’t give enough consideration to how you site a house so you don’t need all this air conditioning and mechanical support. You have to spend time in a place and get a sense for it. It’s easy to get your head turned by things you want to bring down from the States, but we can do a lot with the wood and stone and different materials available
to us here.
Do you have any pet peeves about design today?
There is a purity in modernism that is currently being interpreted as minimal and reductive. But I think modernism is a movement that has huge variations. Things were much more tactile and lush than some people remember. You look at some of the colours Le Corbusier used, or the materials in Russel Wright’s home in Garrison, New York. It’s very sensuous.
Do you have any architectural advice that might surprise people?
With new homes – particularly modern ones – I often caution clients to keep a house as small as possible. I feel that in a smaller volume you do more interesting things. Space is more highly considered and just rendered better on a smaller scale. I say to people, “Show me a really fascinating big modern house,” because usually they look like car dealerships.
Meredith Mendelsohn writes about design and art for The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest and others.