Obsessions: Frank Lloyd Wright

By Louis Cheslaw

Todd Levin lives an hour away from New York City, which is just the way he wants it. Of course, there’s still the co-op in midtown Manhattan, but the veteran art advisor now spends as much of his week as possible in his new Frank Lloyd Wright home, The Stuart Richardson House (1941), in the quiet suburb of Glen Ridge, New Jersey. 

If there was ever a resident the conservancy, or Wright himself, could have dreamed of, it would be Levin. Not only is he restoring a number of the property’s forgotten features (did someone say carport?), he’s also creating a new conversation in the space between Wright’s designs and his own personal treasures, including Picasso works on paper, Sam Maloof rocking chairs, and George Daniels and Philippe Dufour watches, soundtracked by the rare jazz records Levin also keeps in the home.

On a snowy Friday afternoon in December, the last day the city was working before Christmas, A Collected Man drove through the Holland Tunnel to visit Levin. Over the course of an hour, Levin walked us through the space, telling us about the discoveries that come with living inside art, the philosophy behind his routines, and the reason he’s so drawn to independent watchmakers. 

 

To begin with, could you tell us what you do for a living?

I'm an art advisor. What that means is very simple. What a curator does for a public museum—build the institutional collection by acquiring the best possible Artwork they can for the permanent collection—I do for individuals of extremely high net worth, who are building museum-quality private collections. 

 

What was your first entry into the art world?

My mother was a collector, so I was exposed to art through her when I was very young and taken on studio, gallery and museum visits. As I grew up, it seemed natural to want to participate with my own peers who were involved in creating culture. In the late 1970s and early 80s, peer contemporary galleries were starting, though interestingly not even in Manhattan, but rather in the South Bronx with a gallery called Fashion Moda which provided a platform for exchange between established downtown/SoHo Manhattan artists, younger graffiti writers, and the emergence of Hip Hop culture. The Fashion Moda space encouraged the production of creative art, unhampered by the contemporary art market and academic art training. Soon after that, the East Village scene started. The entire East Village scene was largely made up of my own college-age peers, all in their twenties, and Warhol’s influence obviously loomed large over our generation’s commodification of culture. I was independently advising, doing my own thing around New York all through the 1980s. 

 

At what point did you go to Sotheby’s, and why?

In the early 1990s, my mother organized a benefit auction for The Smithsonian Institution, the world's largest museum, education and research complex. This was held with a guest auctioneer from Sotheby's by the name of Robert Woolley. Robert was a famous, or rather infamous personality in the art world, and was the public face of Sotheby’s. He flew in the day of the auction, and first wanted to be walked through the auction exhibition, so that when he later did his auctioneering he'd be armed with information. My mother was aware that I knew the artwork as well as anybody, and so I took him around for thirty minutes, and by the end we'd built-up a very nice rapport. Robert asked, “What are you planning on doing when you complete your Doctoral studies?” and I said “I'm moving to New York City.”  He said, “When you move, give me a call, there'll be a position for you at Sotheby's.”

 

"As I grew up, it seemed natural to want to participate with my own peers who were involved in creating culture."

 

How amazing. Did you rush straight there?

Not exactly. I moved to NYC on November 5th, 1990, and I was still doing my own independent advising, but that was right around the collapse of the art market. It was the toughest time I'd ever experienced in the art world, and in ‘92 or ‘93, I called Robert. He invited me to his office, we chatted for a bit, and then he got right up, marched me down to the HR department and said to the woman who was working there at the time, “Give him a job!”

 

[Laughs] Not bad!

And then he turned around and left. At the time Robert was a Senior Vice-President at the company, and people did what he said. So the HR woman looked at me and said, "Well...", and that's how I got a job at Sotheby's. Robert was a very outrageous sort of person, he came out of the womb that way I think.  

 

Todd in his Frank Lloyd Wright home, The Stuart Richardson House (1941)

 

Can you tell us a little more about your travels to New York in the 1980s?

It was a very different time: there was a very cheap airline then called People's Express. I was doing my Master’s studies in Rochester, New York in 1984-86, and could fly forty-five minutes down to the city for, like, $29 roundtrip. It was a budget airline, but it meant that as a student, you could still easily afford it. All the way through the 1980s, I stacked my classes so I’d finish them all on Thursday. I’d fly Thursday night or Friday morning to New York, where I’d stay up for 72 hours straight. You’d land, go to a museum, go to an opening, see friends that night, stay up all night long. Saturday, you'd still be up, hang out, go to some galleries, maybe in the evening another opening or a party, or The Palladium, The Limelight, or CBGBs and stay up all night again. And then Sunday morning you'd eat, wander around the city and at a certain point you'd have to make your way to the airport and fly home. I also cleared my Monday schedule so I could crash and use that day to recover. I was in the city for ten to twelve days a month, all through that time.

 

Sounds exhausting! Would you bring the latest city fashions back to campus?

It’s funny you should ask. One of the gigs I did back then was to compose music for fashion shows. I wrote runway music for Yojhi Yamamoto, and Matsuda. In exchange, I didn’t get cash, I got clothing. I had these amazing, very expensive designer runway clothes that I couldn't wear back at university in Michigan, but they were great for the New York club scene. A lot of what was happening in New York in the 1980s still wasn't exporting well into the middle of the country. 

 

Fashion fans would be amazed to know those pieces, largely unworn, still exist!

They were fun. The premiere of my first orchestral composition was at Carnegie Hall in 1988. I had this amazing black Jean Paul Gaultier tuxedo with a rolled collar, wide wale pants, and a Yojhi black and white triple collared shirt. It would be fun if I still had those things around, though I certainly could not fit in them now. I wish I'd kept everything. I kept all the art I purchased from that time, but I did not keep the fashion.

 

"I’d fly Thursday night or Friday morning to New York, where I’d stay up for 72 hours straight."

 

The art's not a bad thing to keep either. Of course, we’re in New Jersey today because you now live inside a work of art, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Stuart Richardson House. How did it make its way on to your wishlist?

My mother was a big fan of Wright’s work, and when I was young she took me on a bus tour of his early Chicago-area houses.

 

Is that where the plan to get a set of keys one day was hatched? 

I wouldn't say it was a plan, because who at that age give any credence to the idea that you're going to own a Frank Lloyd Wright house one day? But it was certainly one of the earliest things I admired from an aesthetic standpoint. When this house became available, it was one of those moments where an opportunity drops, and you just have to decide to engage or not to engage. I'm not a terribly improvisatory person by nature, but I'm almost sixty, and I asked myself, am I going to do this now, or never? I decided to take the leap. Plus, it was easier knowing if I felt in a few years time that I had made an error, I could place the home back on the market, sell it, and the worst-case scenario was that I would lose some money. The potential downside risk felt reasonably well managed in this case.

 

Inside The Stuart Richardson House (1941)

Golden hour on the outside of the house

 

I can see you’ve populated each room with stunning objects and designs. What’s something precious I’m not noticing?

A record. (Moves to a nook in the living room where shelves of records rest.) This is ‘The New Tradition’ by Jackie McLean. Probably 300 of these were originally pressed in 1956 on the Ad Lib label with fantastic cover art by Parboo Singh, and there are probably 50 still extant. This one is in mint condition, and it’s a sample copy, which means there’s probably less than ten in this condition left in the entire world. This took a decade of searching to find. It’s a holy grail for serious jazz record collectors. It's so great. Let's put it on! 

 

Wait, are you sure you're happy to play it?

What's the point of having these things if they're not to use? I won't buy a watch and put it in a safety deposit box. If I wouldn't wear a piece of clothing, it's not going in my closet. If I have good scotch, it gets drunk. And if I have good records, they get played (carefully).

 

What features are distinct about this home?

Two come to mind. First, this house is built on a rare hexagonal plan. In fact, there is no 90-degree angle in this entire house. Every angle is either 60 or 120 degrees. Then, there’s the astonishing inverted truss pyramidal ceiling in the main living area, a sculptural feature that I have never seen in any other house Wright designed.

 

" What's the point of having these things if they're not to use? I won't buy a watch and put it in a safety deposit box. If I wouldn't wear a piece of clothing, it's not going in my closet. If I have good scotch, it gets drunk."

 

The low ceilings as we walked in stood out to me.

Wright was obsessed with compression and expansion. In all of his homes, he wants you to feel very compressed initially so that when you walk into the main room, and the ceiling lifts away from you, it feels much larger than it is.

 

The smell of the wood too. It’s almost a fragrance.

That's old growth cypress. But unfortunately, carpenter bees love it too, I'm in a constant fight with them during the summer. 

 

Funny name.

It’s because they chew wood! And lay their eggs in it…

 

The distinctive texture and colour of old growth cypress

‘The New Tradition’ by Jackie McLean - probably 300 of these were originally pressed in 1956

 

You must have East Coast Wright fans who want to come see this house, too.

Everyone seems to want to volunteer to visit. Which is very nice. I guess. Sort of…

 

Have your routines, your mornings and evenings, changed by being in the space?

Well, I don't have a car, which is unusual for living in a suburb. I walk everywhere. Going to the gym becomes a two and a half-mile round-trip walk. 

 

Do the natural elements of the home inspire you to take walks?

I walk all over New York City, too. I rarely take taxis anymore, preferring the subway if walking is not sensible. In fact, I have a huge walk coming up in about ten days. On the first day of every new year, I get up at 4:30 AM and subway to the most northern point possible of Manhattan at 225th Street (Marble Hill), and then I walk the entire length of Manhattan, from the most northern point at 225th Street to the most southern point at the South Street Seaport. 

 

Why 4:30?

So I can subway all the way up to 225th Street to begin the walk at 5:45. I do that because 7:20 is sunrise on New Year’s Day. I'm standing exactly at the intersection of 155th St and St. Nicholas Avenue at that precise time, and from that intersection, I have an unobstructed view to the east, and can witness the first sunrise of the new year in NYC. I was in Paris one recent year, but I still did an equivalent walk, ending at the Jardins du Trocadéro at 8:44 facing the sun rising over the Tour Eiffel.

 

How did this tradition start?

20 years ago, I was looking at a map of NYC and noticed that Broadway literally runs from the very top to the very bottom of Manhattan. It seemed interesting to try and walk it, which I did, but I did so in the summer when it was too crowded and hectic. So I tried early one Christmas morning, thinking the streets would be empty and quieter, but I learned that kids get up super early on Christmas morning and that the streets still didn't feel quiet. Early on New Years’ morning, however, nobody’s up at 5:45 AM when I begin my walk. I love that feeling, not of being lonely, but aloneness. It’s something I prize as an only child. The entire 15 mile (24 km) walk is rather meditative, and gives me time to reflect on the year that’s just passed, and think about what might come in the year ahead.

 

I hope you also wrap up warm.

These last years have been unseasonably warm. 

 

Todd in his living room

 

At this point, we enter the study. A 1986 Sam Maloof rocking chair sculpted out of fiddleback maple and ebony sits in the middle, with a Picasso drawing on the wall behind it, and the entire catalogue of McSweeney’s Publishing lining the shelves. 

This is an emotional space.

I appreciate it. One works hard so one can surround oneself with people and things that matter. What else is there? Yesterday, I got a note from my cousin who was working in a university library, going through old books and cleaning things out, and this seventy-year-old photograph of Frank Lloyd Wright with two acolytes was tucked into one of these books and fell out after all this time - such a sweet thing. It's a truly candid, unseen photo that I need to get framed.

 

Speaking of frames, I’m seeing a Joe Beef and other restaurant menus in frames hanging in the kitchen. What’s the story there?

The best food city in North America is Montreal. From Au Pied du Cochon to Joe Beef and Foxy, when I go to Montreal, I always stop in for a meal. 

 

"One works hard so one can surround oneself with people and things that matter. What else is there?"

 

And framing the menus?

When it's a lovely evening with friends, I'll ask to take a menu home. I also have some in my New York co-op kitchen. They remind me of places I've been, and wonderful evenings I’ve shared. At Joe Beef one night we were telling our waitperson how great the potatoes were cooked in duck fat with garlic, and so the chef himself wrote out the recipe for me in longhand. I thought that was so nice, so I framed it along with the menu. 

 

"There is no 90-degree angle in this entire house. Every angle is either 60 or 120 degrees."

The study, where sits a 1986 Sam Maloof rocking chair sculpted out of fiddleback maple and ebony, with a Picasso drawing on the wall behind it

 

Beyond restaurant menus, we know you collect watches. Specifically, the independents. Why?

The story goes like this. My father died in 2011. He was a very simple man. Not simplistic, but simple. An old school, small town gentleman, who came from a very modest background, and was a travelling salesman. He lived with his second wife in their home that they rented for $400 a month in Bay City, Michigan for decades. Near the end of his life, after my stepmother had passed, I came to visit him one day, and there was a copy of Watch Time, which was like Playboy magazine, but for watches. The only thing Watch Time didn't have was the centerfold with the staple in it, which I think watch magazines should really do. You could unfold it and go, “…oooh, a third series 2499 retailed by Tiffany & Co., and it's in pink gold!…”

 

I’ll pass that on.

I was so happy that my Dad finally had something he was interested in. He went to work in his travelling salesman suit, came home, changed into his sneakers, sat in his La-Z-Boy chair, and watched TV. Didn't have many close friends. Went to the barber once every other week, did his laundry, that was his life. He was happy with that. It was the way he was. But then suddenly one day he had this new interest, and I thought, “Isn't this great?”. I bought every big coffee table watch book at the time that I could, and sent them to him as a gift, because I thought he would enjoy it. Because of his eyesight, he was reading Watch Time with a magnifying glass, but these were big books with big pictures. 

 

How did that evolve?

I spoke to him 18 months before he died, and he said, “I'm thinking about buying a watch”. It was a Citizen Campanola 114 minute repeater.  He had done his homework: we're talking like a $2,000 watch, but for him, this was huge money. An astronomical purchase. I was like, “You gotta do this, you have to do this.” Then I came over one day, and there it was on his wrist, and he was just so proud of this watch. He passed away not long after. About two years ago, I was going through my off-site art storage, where I had some extra boxes, and I was like, “What are those boxes?” I opened them up, and it was all those coffee table watch books I had bought for my Dad. And I opened the books up, and saw that my father had written post-it notes to himself on multiple pages: ‘Love this design’, ‘This one's beautiful’, ‘Look at the technical features of this one’. It was like I was having a conversation with him. One last go-round.

 

And you caught the bug.

It interested me to find out why he was interested. I began doing research myself for fun and somehow, the more I studied, the more the independents attracted me. I think to a large degree because these watches are made by either a single individual or a small group of craftspeople, as opposed to a large manufacturer. I felt there was a concept manifest behind the design of those sorts of watches that were less group think. 

 

"And I opened the books up, and saw that my father had written post-it notes to himself on multiple pages (...) It was like I was having a conversation with him. One last go-round."

 

How did your collecting begin?

I began with this Dufour (points at his Philippe Dufour Simplicity) because it came up first. I was already more interested in Daniels, but I had studied every variant of Dufour that was made and I knew that if I was going to get one, it would only be platinum, silver dial, with guilloché. I didn't want a dark grey dial, but you have to wait for a 37mm platinum with guillocheé to come up.

 

 Prized possessions: Todd's George Daniels Millenium and Philippe Dufour Simplicity 

 

Certainly one to wait for...

Well, one day I got the call from Silas, who knew that I was interested in acquiring one. I felt comfortable and ready at that point; I'd already spent a few years studying and knew what I wanted to do. Soon after that, the Daniels Millenium came up, and the reason I specifically wanted that is because it was owned by Tina Millar who established Sotheby's London Watch department and, in an inspired move, hired George Daniels as a consultant before he became the most important watchmaker of the 20th century. Tina and I were working at Sotheby’s at the same time, so I would have had the opportunity to meet George had I only known!

 

Funny to think that...

This Daniels came directly from Tina, and along with the watch came letters from George and a little more correspondence than a Millenium would normally come with because he cared for her a great deal. Finally, this came up (points at his Daniels Anniversary on his wrist), and I suddenly was presented with the opportunity to own the only two wrist watches one can realistically afford by Daniels. It felt like a now or never moment. I was right because the next Anniversary that came up at auction with Phillips in Geneva sold for a significantly higher amount - which I would not have paid for the watch. As my grandfather used to say to me: “Shit'll do for brains if you have luck.”

 

 Todd's George Daniels Anniversary watch

 

How many times have you been stopped by people admiring your wrist?

Nobody knows. That's why I like the independents so much. Of course, I'd love to own a Rolex 6200 first series Explorer “Big Crown” or 6538 Submariner James Bond. I'd love to own a Patek 2499 or 1518. But the problem is when one wears watches like those it's like saying “Look at me”, and my natural personality is the exact opposite. The Dufour and Daniels are stealth watches: only one person ever stopped me, one time, and it happened to be a guy who worked at Richard Mille.

 

"I felt there was a concept manifest behind the design of those sorts of watches that were less group think."

 

That must’ve been unexpected!

It was in line at Frieze Art Fair in New York waiting to get in, and a guy turned around and just pointed at my watch and said: "What's on your wrist?" But I like that nobody else knows. It's a private thing that I love wearing on my wrist and I like that nobody annoys me about it. I'd feel a lot less comfortable wearing almost any Patek Philippe. It doesn't matter if it’s a 5970 or Nautilus, people look at it and sort of know. That’s not the kind of experience I’m interested in - unlike this interview, where it’s a pleasure to exchange ideas and enthusiasms in a more low key, one-on-one way…

 

Thanks to Todd for taking the time to speak with us.

Find more about Todd Levin here.



Older Post Newer Post