“People might think some of it is real hideola,” the interior designer Chessy Rayner said one morning recently at her office on the Upper East Side. The tall, slender tastemaster settled herself on a gentle chair by a window with a view of life on East 81st Street: babbling workmen, the small heirs to large houses with their nannies, the last rusty leaves on spare city trees. The hideola to which Mrs. Rayner referred was whatever readers might dislike about New York: Trends and Traditions , a beautiful new book she has produced with photographer Roberto Schezen.
The handsome volume of 27 Manhattan residences was published this fall by the Monacelli Press. Here are Oscar and Annette de la Renta, Bill Blass, Mica and Ahmet Ertegun, Jane Wenner, Richard Hampton Jenrette, Niall Smith, Marion McEvoy, Jane Holzer, Peter and Brooke Duchin, Fred Hughes and Beatriz Patiño, among others. “We tried to show what makes New York unique,” Mrs. Rayner said, not so much turning the heavy pages as plucking them. “We wanted to show how people live in town,” her voice tipped whimsically, like Audrey Hepburn in old New York.
With all the richness oozing from Wall Street like so much gravy these days, decorating, or “the silent art,” as Elsie de Wolfe, the mother of American interior design, called her trade, is a fevered topic in Gotham again. Fascination fastens upon the interior lives of such not-your-average folks as David and Julia Koch, and how they will settle into their renovated Fifth Avenue apartment that once belonged to Jacqueline Onassis. There’s great curiosity about Peter Marino’s work for Anne Bass in northwestern Connecticut, post-minimalist designer Claudio Silvestrin’s doings on Calvin Klein’s double apartment on Central Park West, and Rose Tarlow’s creative output for David Geffen on the East Side. Interior designer Thomas O’Brien is moving to the West 50’s. Fashion designer John Bartlett and Mark Welsh recently invited guests to inspect their airy new penthouse in the East 20’s, decorated by Alan Tanksley. Manolo Blahnik is redoing an entire brownstone for a new shoe salon and offices on West 54th Street. Lulu de Kwiatkowski, an artist, is painting trompe l’oeil at the downtown duplex of the young newlyweds Adam and Samantha Kluge Cahan. Designer Greg Jordan is firing up the color scheme in Blaine and Robert Trump’s parlor with East River views.
Space is luxury, especially in lieu of an abundance of places with architectural significance. The measure of status in New York is how much space you take up, rather than what you do with it. What one notices most about New York: Trends and Traditions is how influential the idea of the loft space has become on decorating all over town, regardless of the social politics of the homeowners. Until Andy Warhol introduced uptown people to downtown in the 1960’s, lofts were a novelty, urban shacks for unmoneyed people on the edge. No longer. From the fine Park Avenue collections of the de la Rentas and the modern art of Jane Holzer to Zoran’s denuded 4,000-square-foot loft, walls are gone, rooms reconfigured. The book opens with photographs of the building of the late minimalist artist Donald Judd on Spring Street, equal parts lonely and intimate.
“Most people look at this space and see ‘reduction,’ but this is a mistake,” Flavin Judd, the artist’s son, says in the text. “It is not a reduction for the sake of reduction, but rather five floors having nothing in them except what is necessary for them to serve their separate functions. When one designs one’s life from the ground up, things tend to be simple, clear, and consistent.”
“Personality is very important to New York houses,” Mrs. Rayner said, looking at the pictures of Bill Blass’ lofty apartment on Sutton Place filled with antiquities. “New Yorkers make a space they can come to at night after a long day. One that makes them relax. Because they go so hard, they need a place that is theirs. To adore. To be in, to calm down. Of course, calming down means a lot of different things to many bodies,” Mrs. Rayner laughed. Upon completing the book, she has concluded that New Yorkers fall into two categories: “The type to keep their shoes on, or the type to take them off when you collapse at the end of the day to read the newspaper.”
Mrs. Rayner made her foray into decorating professionally in 1969, when she was an editor at Vogue . The financier Julio Mario Santo Domingo had asked Mica Ertegun, wife of Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun and Mrs. Rayner’s new best friend, to help him decorate an apartment at the Ritz Tower. In turn, Mrs. Ertegun asked Mrs. Rayner if she wanted to go into the decorating business; Mac II, the name of their firm, was formed. Their first year was the height of the “rich hippie” look, a style that recently has threatened a comeback. Mrs. Rayner isn’t inclined toward nostalgia, particularly her own. “I’m not very sure about it. Rich hippie.” She shook her head. “I’ve done it. I’ve lived through it. I don’t want to do it again.” Nor is Mrs. Rayner about to welcome another “hot new thing.” “To not mix is sad,” she said. “I find that putting Louis the Hooey with, say, abstract art usually works. They do fine together. They soften each other.”
Mr. Schezen contacted Mrs. Rayner last year about doing the book. She didn’t know him well, but she did know the books he’d published on such subjects as Miami, Shaker architecture, Roman gardens and a house designed by Robert A.M. Stern. “[They] are primers for decorators,” she said. As special projects editor for Elle Décor , Mrs. Rayner writes a regular column and was keen to work on a book.
“Good design is good design,” Mrs. Rayner said. “It’s whatever makes you happiest and most comfortable. But if you live, as so many do, surrounded by a whole bunch of things you really don’t get, or aren’t fond of, you stiffen up. When you’re comfortable with it, then it’s an easy go for you when you have your friends in.”
For their first scouting around town, Mrs. Rayner took Mr. Schezen “to Blass, to John Richardson’s loft but it wasn’t finished, to Oscar and Annette, and to the Duchins,” another loft. “But we needed things like Donald Judd and Zoran that were sparer. Absolutely cold,” said Mrs. Rayner, who lives in a series of perfect rooms on Park Avenue. “A loft where you begin with a lot of white epoxy on the floor so you don’t have anything to do but mop. But where do the galoshes go? Which we all own in some form.” Then there is Mrs. Patiño’s Fifth Avenue apartment, where two 18th-century bookcases flank nothing less than Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Lady .
New York: Trends and Traditions doesn’t come with instructions or lists of sources. “No, no, my dear, this is a picture book. You don’t even have much text,” Mrs. Rayner said, closing the book, “but it gives you the news. You just have to use your eyes and, if you don’t like what you see, you just keep moving on.”