House contemporary art

NEW YORK – Aakash Nihalani is a 24-year-old New York-based street artist who uses electrical tape to sketch 3-D shapes on public surfaces like sidewalks or brick walls. His work is playful, even joyous, and suggests all sorts of possibilities. Imagine a bright yellow doorway on a pocked concrete wall, or an enormous pink cube careering along the pavement.

Recently, one of his pieces – a cascade of rectangles tumbling down the sky blue walls of a swoopy circular staircase – can be seen in an unlikely place, the rotund front hall of a double-wide town house on East 63rd Street in Manhattan, the site of the Kips Bay Decorator Show House, now in its 39th year. That a young conceptual artist like Nihalani would be on view at this show house, which has traditionally been better known for its designers’ pelmet art or their collections of 19th-century botanical prints, is an acknowledgement that designers are increasingly flexing their curatorial muscles to animate clients’ spaces with contemporary art. It also suggests that Kips Bay organizers are reaching for a younger audience.

“It’s more about curating a room than decorating it” is how Wayne Nathan describes his job. Nathan, who brought in Nihalani, is one of 20 designers participating in this year’s show house. You could call him an art fair veteran (Art Basel Miami Beach and Frieze, in London, are his habitual shopping grounds). Nonetheless, on this room he collaborated with Helen Varola, an art adviser and curator, though the slick pink disk that looks like a giant Skittles at the foot of the stairs here – a Matteo Bonetti coffee table – is his own.

Varola noted a long tradition of artists playing with domestic objects or, as she put it, of “artists exploring how design functions as a subversive tool and expanding their practice into domestic settings.” She ticked off examples, from Surrealists like Meret Oppenheim (who made that furry teacup) and Warhol (who made wallpaper) to, say, contemporary artists like Andrea Zittel (who makes entire rooms). So it seemed intuitive to Varola, who was asked by Kips Bay organizers to lead an art tour of the rooms, that decorators would be overtly acknowledging that tradition with interactive pieces like Nihalani’s or with video art.

“It’s all about reinvigorating space,” she said. “Transforming decor into a matrix of associations.”

On view in Campion Platt’s terse library upstairs was a video piece by Alex Prager, a young self-taught photographer of staged narratives (Cindy Sherman meets Gregory Crewdson) who was included in a show at the Museum of Modern Art last fall. The short film, of spectators at a horse race, was Platt’s nod to John Hay Whitney, the clubby, horsey and progressive philanthropist and newspaper publisher who was once an owner of this house. (The house was lent to Kips Bay by the family of Disque Deane, a real estate developer and financial adviser who died last year.)

Also on view was a painted drama of ‘60s-era womanhood by the time-travelling artists McDermott and McGough, called “You Said Your Lips Were Mine Alone to Kiss.” Tubular wall sconces designed by Platt looked like sex aids; the Venetian plaster walls, done by Ricardo Brizola, looked like ancient porcelain.

In a small study by Aurelien Gallet, a 31-year-old art appraiser, furniture designer and decorator showing at Kips Bay for the first time, a neon-and-mirror wall sculpture by Ivan Navarro, a Chilean artist, invited you to peer into infinity.

As the designer Richard Mishaan put it: “My job is to give context to people’s collections, to find the commonality in disparity.”

Mishaan had drawn the prize, the 12-metre living room once decorated by Sister Parish for Whitney. Or was it a booby prize?

Nodding at the florid gilded mirrors at one end, he said, “At first I thought, ‘Oh, no!’ But you know what? Everyone has stuff’. Everyone I work with has their collections. It doesn’t matter what it is; giving it context is my task.”

Furthermore, he said, pointing out the dark blue Leleu dining table, the vintage Moroccan rug, the mercury glass mushrooms sprouting on a sideboard and the blown-glass tears sliding down grass cloth walls (both pieces by Rob Wynne), “All good things go together.”

Mishaan had done some of his art shopping at Other Criteria, the Gagosian emporium, with a quartet of Damien Hirst butterfly prints. He had also made his own artwork, printing photographs he had taken of significant architectural ceilings – one by Tiepolo, for instance – on canvas and mounting them in ornate gilded frames.

“I call those Guilty Pleasures,” he said.

On another wall were two rather stunning abstract expressionist paintings. It took him two weekends to paint those, he said: “Nobody can understand what they are. They’re like, ‘Clifford Sills? Helen Frankenthaler?’ I’m like, ‘Whatever you want them to be.’ It’s more about the vibe it gives your room.”

Amanda Nisbet, a gregarious Upper East Side decorator with a taste for baroque minimalism, had also made her own artwork, superimposing her face on a copy of a voluptuous nude by Boucher.

“My daughter would just die,” said Nisbet, the mother of two teenagers.

There was a Marilyn Minter photograph over a gold-flecked bed; on the walls, Nisbet’s own fabric, called Pink Lemonade, looked like a child’s finger painting.

The house has a complicated layout and a layered architectural history – style overlaid upon style, like the cities of Troy. Built in brownstone in 1870, it was enlarged into a second lot and re-faced in painted stucco in 1919. In 1955, when Whitney bought the place, the architect Ellery Husted gave it a brick front, and Whitney imported and installed a panelled library from England. He also hired Philip Johnson to design a fourth story. As it happened, however, Johnson’s modern glass room was too stark and modern for the Whitneys, who asked Sister Parish to mediate. Needlepoint pillows and throws were involved, according to a Kips Bay press release.

Recently, the ghost of Philip Johnson would seem to have won out, or so it appeared to a reporter who stumbled up into the sunshine on the fourth floor, after climbing another swirling staircase, this one cocooned in shiny black paint and a giant yellow Ikat-print wallpaper put there by Janet and Carolina Rauber, a designing sister act who had assembled a collection of man-high gold finials at the base of the staircase, reminiscent of “Alice Through the Looking Glass” chess pieces.

David Bowie’s “Young Americans” roiled the fourth-floor room, which had been divided in two by a raw-edged wood bookcase, and decorated by Brad Ford and Robert Stilin. Ford told Kips Bay organizers he would agree to decorate his side of the room only if Stilin took on the other, and indeed the two halves were much of a piece: Amagansett beach house meets Tribeca loft, a nod to the appetites of the young money manager or entertainment lawyer who would appreciate Stilin’s taste in art – Richard Prince, Gregory Crewdson, Alec Soth and Damien Hirst, all plucked from the Gagosian Gallery – and Ford’s deceptively post-collegiate taste in furniture.

After pointing out his Gagosian finds, Stilin wondered aloud about the provenance of Mishaan’s abstract expressionist paintings downstairs. Then, in a bit of art one-upsmanship, he noted proudly that his Damien Hirst butterfly was an original, not a print.