My first encounter with a black building was in the late 1980s in the unlikeliest of places, that paean to pastel in the panhandle of Florida: Seaside.
Many of the homes there have towers from which one can survey the Jordan Almonds-colored landscape of pale pinks, blues, greens, yellows and white. Whilst sipping my coffee one morning and drinking in the sun, a number of blocks away I saw a standout in this carefully controlled environment: a black house.
What clever architect had found a loophole in the entrenched design restrictions of Seaside, Florida, and slipped this color scheme through? And yes, after decades of use, I refer to black as a color.
I jumped on the house bike and proceeded to peddle through the labyrinth of streets, suddenly turning a corner, and there before me was the object of my obsession. It should not have been a surprise to discover that the black structure seen from that tower was actually a house under construction and wrapped in black tar paper awaiting its pastel-colored siding.
But it was. And I have never forgotten that image. It has provided inspiration for numerous design decisions in the decades that followed.
Outside of film sets, there were few historical precedents for a black building or interior. The kitchen in “The Women” comes to mind with its high-gloss black cabinetry, as do the reflective black floors across which Fred and Ginger danced.
But an all-black building escaped my roaming eye.
Eero Saarinen’s headquarters for CBS built in 1965, also known as “Black Rock,” is a close call. It is possibly the most elegant building in New York. Other examples were truly hard to find: Studio 54 and The Saint, the noted members-only gay disco notwithstanding.
I have used black accents in my work from the earliest days of the mid 1970s. In 1982, I was commissioned by artist Lowell Nesbitt to create a black pyramid for his country estate, Stoneleigh, in Carmel, New York. It contained a lap pool, painting studio and space for his Mercedes wagon, and was an adjunct to the solar-heated main house I designed for him years earlier. Nestled among the boulders and towering trees of his property it was an arresting, unexpected and mesmerizing sight.
In 1984, I designed a very small (350-square-foot) studio apartment and used planes of black, including ceiling scrims with lighting concealed above to dramatic and expansive effect. I learned that even in a small, tight space, black becomes a void—thus expanding the volume of the space and allowing the eye, and one’s perception of the space, to continue. To be honest, some credit is due to an avant-garde performance by The Paris Opera Ballet, which provided clear insight into this effect.
In 1988, in my own Bridgehampton home the primary wall upon entering was painted a high-gloss black. It forms the terminus of a space some 30 feet away as seen from my all-glass—with black frames, of course—sky room, upon which I hung a life-size portrait of Roy Lichtenstein. When seen from the sky room, particularly at night, it looked for all the world that Roy was walking into the room to join us for dinner.
Over the years I have expanded the use of black in my residence to encapsulate the entire south-facing façade and a few key exterior geometric elements. I have not taken the plunge into the all-black house, but Calvin Klein did not hesitate at his new Meadow Lane manse in Southampton, designed by Stelle Lomont Rouhani Architects of Bridgehampton.
Sited on the old DuPont property (I may be one of the only people who remembers that modest white painted brick-and-slate-roofed home), Calvin’s new horizontal composition hovers above the dunes effortlessly, with vast glazed sections bookended by solid black masses. One friend of his remarked recently upon visiting, “Who knew there were so many shades of black to choose from?”
How many indeed! From my own personal resource library, there are dozens. Not to mention the finish options.
And it hardly stops there.
Giorgio Armani’s Milan residence is a tour de force in black, as is his 213-foot deep-black-green-hulled yacht, Main. And clearly, Tom Ford gets it, as evidenced by his store design leitmotif of black upon black upon black, as well as at his vintage Richard Neutra-designed home in Los Angeles.
Recently the New York Times devoted two pages to the black-lacquered 3,800-square-foot loft of Cindy Gallop. The recent Fire Island renovation of a Horace Gifford classic by designer Rob Southern is a triumph with its soft graphite-toned exterior stain.
Closer to home, the new Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill incorporates black, or its nearest cousin—charcoal—as the stain color on its exterior and interior wood elements. This design element is a perfect foil to the building’s textured cast-concrete walls.
Drive past at night and try to pinpoint where the building ends and the surrounding landscape begins. It is a seamless transition with the building melding, or better, disappearing, into the surrounding void.
Similarly on Noyac Road in Sag Harbor, there is a simple modernist box from the mid ’70s that is all black. Blink and you will miss it.
And who can miss the preponderance of black in almost every home furnishing, appliance, plumbing, hardware or lighting advertisement ad infinitum? Black is everywhere, and suddenly all at once. The more one looks, the more one sees. It’s as if a memo went out to the advertising universe and immediately went viral.
Where black is concerned, I have not seen that much happening outside of the key urban, and yes, urbane, areas of the United States, Europe and Asia. But it won’t take long for the idea to find roots elsewhere and to flourish.
Possibly everywhere. Except Seaside, Florida.