Blair and Alistair Clarke are proof that opposites really do attract. A Southern belle from Georgia, she’s an art adviser and gallerist, representing contemporary talents who make bold, splashy works with an edge. He’s a dapper Brit who is a respected expert on 18th-century antiques; the former head of English and European furniture for Sotheby’s, he’s obsessed with Sèvres porcelain, among other covetable collectibles. Their theme music could well be Gershwin’s Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off (“You like tomato and I like tomahto”). Yet for this über-creative New York–based couple, the whole thing works. Their three-bedroom Manhattan apartment, which they share with their daughters, Poppy and Georgina, and a frisky cockapoo, is the perfect expression of their wildly divergent yet thoroughly impeccable tastes.
In the entry, for example, a vivid painting by the young Spanish artist Gemma Gené depicting a laundry detergent container is juxtaposed with a 17th-century Italian marble bust of a Roman emperor, while in the living room a ribbon-like metal sculpture by Jacinto Moros, another Spanish artist, provides a lyrical counterpoint to a carved-giltwood George II mirror above the fireplace.
Nearby, classic Louis XVI armchairs, also crafted in giltwood, flank a conceptual object with a very different interpretation of gilding: Sasha Sykes’s At Last, 2018, an acrylic box filled with gold-leafed hydrangea petals. The Irish sculptor will have her first solo exhibition at Voltz Clarke Gallery, Blair’s three-year-old venture, in early November, coinciding with the Salon Art + Design fair.
“When we first moved into the apartment, we were newly married, and it was a collaborative experience, with Alistair’s having a say on a piece of furniture and my coming up with a work by a new contemporary artist I had just discovered,” Blair recalls. “But it also felt like we were in battle — it was Alistair’s antiques against my artworks. I think we’ve both softened with age.”
To ensure harmonious interiors, the couple abides by a few design rules. “When something new comes in, something has to go,” Alistair explains. (The cupboards, it should be noted, are crammed with his French porcelain, Japanese lacquer and gilt bronzes.) And there can’t be too much furniture. “From a decorative point of view, for contemporary art to be effective, it has to be big,” says Alistair. “If you’re trying to do that, you can’t have too many large pieces of furniture — there just has to be enough to set the mood.”
Fifteen years ago, when the couple bought the apartment — in an elegant 1920s building designed by Dwight P. Robinson — they performed a gut renovation that included restoring the original hardwood floors, hidden beneath linoleum, and removing walls to create an open living-dining area. They skipped a more formal dining room — “waste of space,” says Alistair — in favor of a library packed with his decorative-arts reference books. (“Alistair always jokes, ‘If I ever get hit by a bus, don’t give away my books — they’re worth a fortune,’ ” Blair says with a smile.) The library’s furnishings include a center table that hides a daughter’s American Girl dolls behind its skirted tablecloth and is encircled with a whimsical floor installation, constructed of masking tape, by the Korean-born New York–based artist Sun Kwak.
From an early age, Blair knew she would be involved in the arts. She majored in art history at the University of Georgia and figured she would go on to graduate school or attend one of the New York auction-house art programs. Instead, she took a job at Tew Galleries, in Atlanta. Under the tutelage of dealer Timothy Tew, she recalls, “I learned everything about working in a gallery. The art world is evolving and changing every day, and I don’t think textbooks could do me any better than hands-on experience.”
When she launched Voltz Clarke, her art advisory business, in 2003, Blair introduced her American clientele to a number of young foreign artists. Among these were Natasha Law (actor Jude Law’s sister), whose sparely chic silhouettes have since been featured in Vogue as well as in Max Mara and Tiffany & Co. advertisements, and Moros, whose rhythmic sculptures have been exhibited at the New Museum and the Smithsonian Institute. Blair has also partnered with fashion houses, hotels and design firms to exhibit works by her artists.
“Even though our artists work in so many different mediums, there is a common denominator for me,” Blair says. “I like to be loyal to and challenged by difficult art — works that are more conceptual but also visually appealing. I’m very comfortable with art making you happy.”
Now that she has her own brick-and-mortar gallery space, which she opened on East 62nd Street in 2015, her roster of emerging and mid-career artists keeps growing. “I like to say I take a Southern approach,” Blair says. “It’s all about a very kind, user-friendly relationship. We never had attitude, there was never a dumb question, and the artists felt comfortable with our strategy. They’re like children to me. And along the way, we’ve gained respect from blue-chip collectors for being honest and very approachable.”
That same congeniality characterizes the atmosphere of the Clarkes’ home. The girls spread out their toys on the library floor; a curly black-haired dog leaps on and off the pure-white sofa; and old-world treasures mingle effortlessly with freshly minted cutting-edge art. The couple’s furnishings may be serious, but they don’t take themselves too seriously. When, for instance, Alistair points to a living room wall and suggests, “I would happily hang a great eighteenth-century portrait here,” Blair quips, “I’m getting ruffled feathers over here.”
“We really do like to mix things up, and the art and antiques marinate well with one another,” she adds. “Plus, we like living with these things, so they have to go together.”