When Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn and her husband, Nicolas, a financier, were newlyweds in New York, they knew they wanted to live with art. She’d grown up that way in St. Louis, the daughter of noted art dealer Ronald Greenberg, and she’d already begun to amass her own collection, which required substantial space. But, alas, even financiers have budgets. “We couldn’t afford a bigger apartment, so we needed to find a wreck,” Greenberg Rohatyn recalls. “My husband started jogging around neighborhoods looking for one.”
Nicolas soon found a double-wide townhouse with soaring ceilings on East 94th Street. They snapped it up in a silent auction and, Greenberg Rohatyn says, then spent just as much on the renovation, by architect Rafael Viñoly, as on the purchase, despite being “scrappy” in their choices. The grand manse has since become her command center: home to the couple and their three children; flagship of Greenberg Rohatyn’s contemporary art-and-design gallery, Salon 94, on the first floor; headquarters of her art-advisory business; and a living laboratory for her art-and-design aesthetic.
She has built a big name for herself by helping resurrect the careers of such undervalued artists as Laurie Simmons, Marilyn Minter and Terry Adkins, while also representing artists of a younger generation, including Katy Grannan, Sylvie Fleury and Huma Bhabha. In the past few years, her reach has stretched from her Upper East Side perch to the Lower East Side, where she now has two satellite galleries (Salon 94 Bowery and Salon 94 Freemans), and from the art world that is her sweet spot to television and hip hop. She was one of the stars of Bravo’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, and last summer she produced the performance art–inflected “Picasso Baby” video for her client Jay-Z. Meanwhile, she has been steadily building the design segment of her gallery business with intriguing works by such established figures as architect David Adjaye; ceramicist Betty Woodman, who used to show with Greenberg père; and the late Italian architect, designer and photographer Carlo Mollino, as well as rising stars Sebastian Errazuriz and Martino Gamper.
On a warm summer day, Greenberg Rohatyn — dressed in head-to-toe black, her hair pulled back severely from her delicate face with a wide head-wrap — glides into her second-floor living room and slides the door shut. Workers are above, reconfiguring the layout for her children’s rooms, she explains, before beginning to talk about how she inherited from her father not only his instincts for art but also his understanding of the porous divide between family and business.
“I come from a very old-fashioned gallery business, so it seemed perfectly natural for me to do that — the idea of a merchant living upstairs from his or her work,” Greenberg Rohatyn says. “I grew up in a very large, art-filled house that was used very much as a space to look at and discuss the art. It was very community-oriented.” Artists such as Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, Roy Lichtenstein and Richard Serra frequently came to St. Louis for shows at her father’s gallery in those days, and they stayed with the Greenbergs, who typically entertained at home, not at restaurants.
Today, Greenberg Rohatyn’s New York town house has become much more than a salon: It’s a full-fledged character in her story. “The house is what led me to start looking more carefully at design,” she says, seated in front of a Takeshi Miyakawa geometric Plexiglas table and beneath an enormous Pae White chandelier of cascading chromed ceramic discs. Before, Greenberg Rohatyn says, she lived with perfectly nice upholstered furniture.
One day her friend and fellow art dealer Daniel Wolf stopped by and said, “Jeanne, when are you going to upgrade your furniture?,” Greenberg Rohatyn recalls. “I looked around and thought, ‘I didn’t know there was anything wrong with my furniture.’ He said, ‘Your art is always on the edge and future-looking and challenging. Why isn’t your furniture?’ ”
Not that her house was anything to be embarrassed by; she’d decorated it with Diana Viñoly, the architect’s wife, who is known for her modern elegance. And Greenberg Rohatyn wasn’t exactly ignorant of design, having been a regular visitor to design museums as well as such cutting-edge shops as Galerie Kreo whenever she was in Paris. “I grew up with Giacometti furniture,” she adds. But “hearing it out loud from a good friend” resonated, and she decided to pump up her domicile one piece at a time. “I’d always been curious about it,” says Greenberg Rohatyn, who found she had enough familiarity to initially just jump in to the design market. But pretty soon, she says, “I reached a moment when I felt I couldn’t find a lot I liked.” For someone very accustomed to working with artists, that void triggered a business idea: She could discover and nurture talent herself.
Greenberg Rohatyn started quietly, commissioning designers to make her desks and chairs for art fairs, like Frieze and Art Basel Miami Beach. “It was a way for me to experiment,” she says. With each fair, she called on someone new. The practical concerns of working all day in a fair booth made her as critical of the pieces’ functionality — Was the chair too low? Did the desk need a drawer? Was the surface sticky? — as their visual appeal. Kueng Caputo, Gamper and Miyakawa each took a turn and have since joined the Salon 94 stable. In a nice bit of synergy, Greenberg Rohatyn gave Gamper some old red Mollino chairs to play with, and the London-based Italian designer, who studied with Ron Arad, reconfigured them in all manner of quirky ways. Mollino furniture is quite rare, making Greenberg Rohatyn’s move somewhat risky, but she points out that she was not reckless: The chairs had been rescued from the roof of the Lutrario Ball Room in Turin, where the elements had taken a toll; Gamper not only reimagined them, he also carefully restored them. Two now reside in her living room, opposite a giant Nate Lowman canvas of yellow smiley faces.
Greenberg Rohatyn was also a client first to Rick Owens before becoming his dealer. She’d long bought his avant-garde clothes — “I wore Rick as a uniform” — and then came across some of his furniture designs in Paris, not even realizing they were his. “It was at a fair, around Prouvé furniture and other things,” she recalls. “I liked the modest materials. The aesthetic suited what I was looking for.” Owens’s long, dramatic, backless sofa in distressed gray suede with curved, or “bubble” ends, vaguely resembling a gondola, now commands the eastern wall of her living room, just below a powerful abstract painting by Julie Mehretu. “It’s comfortable and it’s unpretentious. It almost looks like it isn’t designed, and yet it’s perfectly designed.”
Now that she’s caught the design bug, Greenberg Rohatyn says she is constantly on the lookout for ideas, designers and objects — whatever their source. “I go into a studio and I’m looking at things other than the art,” she says. “A lot of artists are spending their time doing other things as well. You go into Tom Sachs’s studio and he serves you tea in a tea bowl that he has very carefully made.”
At the wedding of artists Francesca DiMattio, whom she represents, and Garth Weiser, Greenberg Rohatyn was struck by the centerpieces, which the couple had made together and Greenberg Rohatyn describes as “ikebana flower arrangements with trashy materials—sticks, plastic bottles, very casual.” DiMattio, who is known for her paintings and murals, was interested in ceramics, and since her father-in-law, Kurt Weiser, is a noted ceramicist who invited her into his studio, Greenberg Rohatyn suggested she give the medium a try for her next show. Some of the wondrously weird results were seen in “Housewares,” a solo show this summer at the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston. “She’s having a blast making these incredible ceramics.” And she’s not alone. “When you speak to artists right now, they talk about ceramics in a very kind of primal way,” Greenberg Rohatyn says. “Theaster Gates, who is a great builder, will talk about ceramics as the most essential building block — he’ll talk about the brick. You talk to Sterling Ruby, and he talks about the pinch pot. In his first ceramics class, they told him no pinch pots. So he started making pinch pots, and look what they’ve turned into.”
That said, Greenberg Rohatyn’s business model is not to persuade all of her artists to try their hands at vases or desks. Furniture, whether a chair or a table, remains a specialized field. “People don’t realize that the engineering and the money that go into some of the most classic chairs that have been put into production by Knoll are enormous,” she says. “The new David Adjaye chair that Knoll just released — one million dollars of research went into making that chair perfect.”
“We don’t have a Kueng Caputo chair,” she continues, referring to the Swiss team of Sarah Kueng and Lovis Caputo, who primarily make colorful stools and benches. “There’s a reason: They’re young artists; they’re working up to it.” The challenge is definitely not all about the look. The primary difference between furniture and art, Greenberg Rohatyn insists, is that furniture has to be functional. A chair that is painful to sit in “has no interest for me because that takes up space I might put art in.” She offers an image of Miyakawa’s sleek white Mobius chair. “This chair is ten years in the making.” Finding the perfect depth, height and a material that would resist cracking all take time, she explains, as another of her designers, Sebastian Errazuriz, enters the living room through the sliding door.
The Chilean-born Errazuriz (whose current show is on view on 94th Street until October 10) compares the process of conceiving and developing a piece to the work of a painter or sculptor, depending first on inspiration. “It comes from a gut feeling,” he says. “You’re sort of searching in the dark.” After the idea comes the hard part: tests and technical studies. “The audience at the end of the day never sees the process. It seems so simple.” Says Greenberg Rohatyn, “You should see the blueprints they produce in the studio just to make a cabinet. It’s not an overnight process.”
For Errazuriz, whose design practice teeters between technically challenging engineering (an intriguing Baltic birch cabinet that stretches like an accordion on steroids) and art-historical references (in possible homage to Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, a chicken with a working lightbulb where its head ought to be), Greenberg Rohatyn is a keen critic. “Jeanne has an amazing eye, and it’s great for me to arrive with maquettes or drawings and get feedback,” he says.
Greenberg Rohatyn has taken a hands-on role with several of her designers, looking at plans and materials and partnering in the production. She has a particular weakness for artisanal methods at risk of dying out, such as the leather painted with animal dyes used for Kueng Caputo’s vividly splattered stools. “They could only find one man who still practiced the craft” she says. “I thought, let’s do that, but let’s press it into a form that’s never been done.”
Salon 94’s design exhibition program has spanned from Alexander Calder’s inventive jewelry to a show of 60 ceramicists. “More Material,” a group show this summer at Salon 94 Bowery, featured everything from antique costumes worn by the Yoruba tribe of West Africa to Nick Cave’s whimsical “Soundsuits.” “We’re kind of dipping into all of it and combining it with the art,” Greenberg Rohatyn says of the gallery’s design offerings. Salon 94’s fall agenda includes not only the Errazuriz exhibition uptown but also a downtown show entitled “Satan Ceramics,” featuring the work of a quartet of artists who include Tom Sachs.
Greenberg Rohatyn notes that, even for art collectors, design connoisseurship is not some sort of requirement. “One could have a perfectly fine couch under a Mehretu, and the Mehretu’s still fabulous,” she says. “But these textures are built up by adding in ceramics and furniture.”
To be sure, it can be a “slow conversion” for art collectors. In June, when serious collectors make their annual pilgrimage to Art Basel, Design Miami/Basel sets up nearby in hopes of catching some of the crowd. The furniture-centric fair broke its attendance record this year but, with 26,600 visitors, drew about a third of the art fair’s 92,000-strong audience. “We’re still very far away from the same interest level,” says Greenberg Rohatyn, who showed at Design Miami/Basel and did both fairs last December in Miami. “The first wave is art dealers and very high-end collectors.” The first three commissions for Paula Hayes’s sculptural terrariums, for example, were all from dealers.
While Minimalism is Greenberg Rohatyn’s natural habitat — “I’m really comfortable in an all-white room with a box in the middle of it” — her taste has grown more eclectic. “I tend not to like things that are over-designed or gimmicky,” she says. “I tend to be into classic. When I look at a piece, I say, how will this look in ten years? If it looks vintage 2010, does it look frozen in that time? Or does it carry the zeitgeist of that moment and still can be empowered ten years later?” The trick, she says, is insisting on the finest examples of a particular period or movement. “I remember going into apartments in the eighties that were Memphis and hating them,” she recalls. “I thought it was the tackiest thing. Yet, the best of Memphis looks great today.”
Greenberg Rohatyn is constantly reinstalling her town house. “It’s a great space to throw things up and see what sticks,” she says, looking around. Next she’s planning to pair a Konstantin Grcic pedestal with a David Hammons sculpture. “One of the luxuries of having this house is you can experience art in a more domestic setting. Certainly it’s an elevated domestic setting, but it shows how art interacts with furniture, with us, sitting, standing, enjoying a coffee.”
Still, Greenberg Rohatyn says, in the scheme of things she’s only just begun to explore design. “I honestly think that I’m still new to it. I have a lot of work to do.”