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No room for mistakes: Design perfectionists at home
The minimalist spaces where design perfectionists live — some so fastidious that they have no furniture at all.
NEW YORK — 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, 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, 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 Waterbury to arrange his dining chairs not around his dining table like the rest of us, but in neat stacks on either side of Wegner's font painting, to match its stack of words.
"And if you stand right here — " said 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," 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 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 Queens, likes to say — and to design in general.
"I hate design," 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, 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, 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 Biesenbach with the gesture. He did.
Then last summer, 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 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," 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 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 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.)
Biesenbach has not gotten around to actually sitting on this particular story, though he said he occasionally perches on one of the dining chairs.
Another anti-sofa-ite, the English minimalist architect John Pawson, also had a sofa foisted on him not long ago. Pawson has designed thunderously empty spaces for Calvin Klein, Bohemian monks and, most recently, the new Design Museum in London, and is the author of "Minimum," the perfectionist's manifesto (our friend Todd Waterbury has a copy, and owns the three-tined fork found in its pages). He was notably sofa-free for nearly two decades.
In "Minimum," he wrote about the transcendent qualities of an empty room. Photographs of his Notting Hill house showed a living room with a single Danish chair and a stone bench. You worried about his wife and children.
Like many perfectionists, Pawson fell in love with his opposite. Catherine Pawson is an interior designer and a self-defined hoarder and sentimentalist who used to work for Colefax & Fowler, the very English design house famous for its cabbage rose chintzes.
"It was a complete joke of how we could ever live together," she said. "But I don't think two extreme perfectionists could. Someone needs to compromise. For me, it's easy. For John, it's a challenge."
She described life in the Pawson home: "Nothing is ever good enough, so things get frozen and our life is very imperfect." After their house was done, she recalled asking her husband where the bathroom faucets were. "He said, 'I'm designing them.' And your heart sinks because you know it will be another year. He's the same with clothes. Nothing is good enough, so he walks around with coats with holes in them. When we travel, we have to change hotel rooms three times because the angle of the view isn't correct. It even happens on airplanes. I like furniture and I like things in a house, and I finally got my sofa after 20 years."
But their two sons had a wonderful time growing up Pawson, she added. Empty rooms are great for skateboarding.
John Pawson may sweat the details, but he is not without a sense of humor. Years ago, he set up a website for his wife (catherinepawson.com) that shows her whacking him over the head with a copy of "Minimum" and this headline: "Catherine's demands for a sofa become more aggressive."
Steve Jobs, perhaps this country's most notorious perfectionist and furniture aesthete, also disdained the sofa and engaged his wife, Laurene Powell, in years of debate about its purpose, she recalled in a New Yorker article last November.
What is it about a sofa that so aggravates a perfectionist?
"Corbusier said chairs were architecture and sofas were bourgeois," John Pawson said. "I don't see why you need one, anyway. If you need to lie down, then go to bed.
"Of course, I'm very good at using other people's sofas. My mother-in-law has a marvelous one. Now we do, too. It is by Pierre Jeanneret, who was Corbusier's cousin. One day it just appeared. Catherine said, 'Oh, I'm testing it for a client.' But it happened to be in just the right stone-colored fabric. It's OK. If you asked me if I'd rather be happily married or sofa-less, I'd say I'd like to be happily married."
But Pawson may be mellowing. He described his new book, a collection of his own snapshots of things that have inspired him, as a "reflection of what's inside this very messy brain." The book, "Visual Inventory," out in March from Phaidon, doesn't show any sofas, but there is a Dumpster full of garbage bags.
"As the monks explained to me," he said, "only God can be perfect."
In psychotherapeutic terms, perfectionism is a personality trait expressed in a spectrum of behaviors that range from adaptive to maladaptive, appearing as an element of obsessive-compulsive disorder, for example.
Randy O. Frost, a psychology professor at Smith College and an author, with Gail Steketee, of "Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things," links it to hoarding, itself a behavior that combines indecisiveness, perfectionism and "an intensive perceptual sensitivity to visual details."
Hoarders see patterns in objects, and are both delighted by those patterns and trapped in them. Maladaptive or unsuccessful perfectionists can also build traps for themselves. Fearful of making a mistake, they may repeat actions over and over, trying to get something just right, or they may take no action at all.
In clinical settings, "perfectionism has always been presented as a negative," said Jeff Szymanski, executive director of the International OCD Foundation in Boston, and the author of "The Perfectionist's Handbook: Take Risks, Invite Criticism, and Make the Most of Your Mistakes." "But my stance in the book is that there are negative and positive aspects to any behavior, and there are some definitions of perfectionism — 'setting and achieving your own personal standards' is an example — that might be beneficial."
His goal, he said, is to make the reader a "better perfectionist," all the while teasing out the many strands in a behavior he finds complex and interesting.
Szymanski has used his own perfectionism wisely. He does have 23 clean white canvas binders in his office that are arrayed like soldiers on a shelf, but he can see beyond them (and tell you what is in every single one). He does well in his career, has accrued multiple degrees and impressive positions, and as a bonus, has an awfully tidy house filled with a few choice midcentury items he has picked for their purity of line and arranged in symmetrical patterns.
But his friends still tease him.
"If you come to my house, everything is always in the same place," he said. "And I have a friend who used to play a game when I'd have dinner parties. When I walked out of the room, he would move something, and the idea was everyone would wait to see how long it took me to move it back. When I caught on, he got more and more outrageous, until one morning I went to take a shower and found my bathtub full of pots and pans."
In the end, for some at least, perfectionism may be developmental, a stage that one passes through. David Mann, a gentle Manhattan architect who once referred to radiators as "wall acne," is one such example: a lapsed or reformed perfectionist.
In his work, Mann creates the sort of luxurious minimalism that means sourcing an outlet that is nearly invisible (flush-mounted to a wall, you can barely see the three holes) and that is priced in inverse proportion to its visual impact. He lives in a 450-square-foot studio apartment on the roof of a building on East 10th Street, a room that once sported Mylar-padded walls, Lucite shelves and a staggering array of knickknacks, the effluvia of the previous tenant.
"I spent a lot of money making it look like I had done nothing," Mann said. He removed the Mylar and the radiators, and installed a bed, a television (but no cable, because that would involve unsightly wires), a minuscule Swiss tray table and two chairs.
Five years after he moved in more than two decades ago, he met Fritz Karch, a maximalist of stunning dimensions. Karch, an antiques dealer who was until recently the editorial director of collecting at Martha Stewart Living, wears his beard chest-length, and divided into two horns. He favors loud tartan suits and collects, well, almost everything: chairs of all periods, antique scissors, carved peach pits, breadboards and collapsible hangers. The two met when Karch accompanied a friend on a blind date. Mann was the blind date.
Opposites do attract, Karch said: "I'd be Citizen Kane without David."
But Karch's stuff lives in his house in New Jersey, about which Mann said, "A friend said that Fritz is not afraid of fire, because there's no oxygen there."
"I'm not afraid of the material world," Karch retorted.
"Of course," he added, "the downside of perfectionism is we still have light bulb," he glared up at the offending object, "and not light fixture, because David can't find the perfect one."
The two live in the studio during the week, but separate on weekends: Karch goes to his house in New Jersey, and Mann to his in Hudson, N.Y.
Still, Mann noted, pointing to two pairs of antique scissors on the table, "there's a layer of Fritz here now." Behind a painting, he found three more, along with a roll of tape. "He keeps bringing things in," Mann said. "And I've let it go a lot."
Years ago, when Mann took Karch to meet his parents, his mother presented Karch with a collection of coin silver teaspoons. When Mann asked his mother why she had never offered him the family heirlooms, he recalled, she gave her son a long look before replying.
"You never liked anything," she said finally.
Information in this article, originally published Jan. 26, 2012, was corrected Feb 1, 2012. A previous version of this story misstated part of the name of a Museum of Modern Art exhibition organized by Klaus Biesenbach, who lives in an all-white apartment. It was "Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present," not "The Artist Speaks."