Michael Reynolds is a true original. At a time when every teenage YouTube phenom is described as a “visionary” or an “icon,” he is one of the few people who can legitimately make a claim to those lofty designations. Trying to put a label on his wide-ranging talents and body of work is not easy. He’s been described as a design editor, creative director, stylist, producer, artist and innovator. But regardless of the nomenclature, one thing is certain: Whatever it is he does, no one else does it quite like him.
“There are so many titles out there,” says the native New Yorker. “Someone once described what I do as a ‘visual narrative director.’ I think that’s quite a good one.” Whether he’s styling a fantastical interiors shoot, art directing a fashion campaign that merges couture and objets d’art or turning everyday kitchen utensils into reflective works of art, Reynolds always brings a feast to the table.
“I think of Michael as the Oracle of Delphi of the style world,” says Mayer Rus, West Coast editor of Architectural Digest, where Reynolds is a contributing editor and for which he has styled many memorable spreads, including, most recently, one of fashion designer Marc Jacobs’s New York City townhouse. “Michael sees beauty in places no one even thinks to look.”
A pioneer in interdisciplinary fusion, Reynolds blithely hops over the artificial borders that once separated the arenas of design, art, fashion and pop culture. He famously styled the groundbreaking first cover of Wallpaper* — which debuted 20 years ago this October and featured a pair of fetching, skin-baring models in a sumptuous all-white interior — and as U.S. editor he has been a driving creative force at the magazine ever since.
“Michael is the king of Wallpaper*,” says editor in chief Tony Chambers. “He never compromises, never plays safe, never gives less than one hundred percent. He’ll always push the people he works with to produce better and better work. He has the most exquisite taste but always challenges the boundaries of what is good or bad taste.”
Collaborating closely on his myriad projects with contemporary artists, photographers, designers and craftspeople, Reynolds cross-pollinates ideas and inspiration from one demimonde to another. Projects include profiles and collaborations with such artists as Paul McCarthy, William Wegman, Marina Abramović, Jack Pierson and Bjarne Melgaard. “It always begins with the conceptual phase,” Reynolds says of his process. “Then pulling together the team, establishing a feel, the lighting, look, composition.”
One of the most sought-after creative forces of his generation, Reynolds is also a contributing editor at Cultured and a frequent contributor to T, the New York Times style magazine, as well as an array of high-profile international publications. In the world of advertising, he has made compelling images for such formidable clients as Calvin Klein Home and Herman Miller, often creating sets in architecturally historic locations, like the Eames House in Los Angeles and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe buildings in Chicago.
He has designed exhibitions for such museums as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, in Buffalo, and curated shows at major design galleries, including Maison Gerard and R & Company, in New York. And he recently conceived, art directed and edited his first book, Tom House (Rizzoli), a meditation on the idiosyncratic Los Angeles home of the late legendary homoerotic artist Tom of Finland.
“Michael has impeccable taste, as well as an encyclopedic knowledge of design and art,” says Sarah Harrelson, founder and editor in chief of Cultured. “He also has a particular kind of genius for knowing when to insert himself and when to hold back.” Describing a recent cover shoot in the Brooklyn studio of artist Rashid Johnson, Harrelson explains that Reynolds set the perfect stage “and then had the confidence to let the subject shine.”
“He never compromises, never plays safe, never gives less than one hundred percent,” Wallpaper* editor in chief Tony Chambers says of Reynolds.
Reynolds’s eye for discovering talent is legendary — as is his generosity in making introductions. Indeed, his skill for matchmaking has changed the trajectory of many budding careers. ”Michael is one of the most supportive and tenacious individuals I have ever met,” says Niki Haas, one half of the Haas Brothers design duo. “Without his vision, I’m not certain the Haas Brothers Studio would even exist. I love the guy, and I owe him the world.”
Reynolds’s provocative sensibility can be traced to his childhood. “Ethnically, my makeup is entirely East Village — Sicilian, Ukrainian and Irish,” says the Manhattan-born tastemaker. “My grandparents were put together by a matchmaker in Sicily who misled my grandmother into thinking my grandfather had money.” That not being the case, they immigrated to America in search of some.
Reynolds’s grandmother was a seamstress who worked for Bergdorf Goodman and Henri Bendel. With her savings, she bought a building in the East Village. Today, Reynolds and his partner of 17 years, Eric Hoffman, founder of the New York–based branding agency Hoffman Creative, reside in the apartment where his grandparents once lived.
“My earliest memories are of sitting next to my grandmother at her sewing machine in the living room or cooking in the kitchen,” Reynolds recalls. “We always knew when we were having pasta for dinner because she would hang it on the back of the dining room chairs to dry.”
Reynolds’s parents lived in the East Village when they were first married but moved to Scarsdale to raise their five children. His father, a lawyer and an intellectual, was the executive officer of New York State’s Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. An article in the Village Voice in the late 1960s featured his pro bono work helping runaways reconnect with their families. “They called him the ‘hippie lawyer,’ ” Reynolds says.
As a kid growing up in the suburbs, Reynolds remembers rolling up his sleeves and moving furniture with his mother. “Whenever we needed a change, we’d move everything around,” he says. “It was fun and creative, and to this day we always joke about my career. Little did we know back then!” In high school, Reynolds took advantage of his proximity to New York City. “I was hanging out at CBGB, art galleries, Keith Haring openings, Andy Warhol parties, Danceteria,” he says. “I had a taste of that whole world.”
He studied anthropology and art history at New York University, remaining close to the action. After graduation, he says, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but he loved photography. He heard that Condé Nast was interviewing and landed a job as assistant to Vogue’s art director at the time, Raul Martinez. After a few years, Reynolds became an associate style editor, producing design and style pages with Hamish Bowles.
“Michael and I met back in the day at Vogue, when we were both kids,” says Amy Astley, editor in chief of Architectural Digest, who was an associate beauty editor at the time. “He was a total joy to work with — funny, fun and passionate about style.” Today, Reynolds “is able to bring visual clarity to anything from a house to a collection of objects,” Astley adds. “He is the secret sauce in many a successful shoot.”
After nearly seven years at Vogue, Reynolds embarked on a freelance career. The rest, as they say, is history. “In the work that I do, everything is about composition and placement,” Reynolds explains, referring to what is now nearly 30 years of experience. “It’s very intuitive. I know how to move energy by moving objects.”
“Michael brings a very rare and advanced combination of personal aesthetics, sophistication, deep knowledge and affection to his work,” says ceramist Adam Silverman, whom Reynolds has profiled and whose work he has celebrated in the pages of Wallpaper*, Architectural Digest and T. “He makes whatever he is featuring look better than it ever has.”
Reynolds claims that what he likes most about his work is collaborating with other talents. “I don’t take full credit for anything,” he explains. “At the end of the day, I believe the ‘ours’ conversation always trumps the ‘me’ conversation. If everybody can get on the same page, leave their egos behind and bring all their gifts to the table, you have a gourmet meal. And it’s amazing.”