In Manhattan, and across the world’s fashion capitals, Chris Mitchell has long been known as the charismatic business face of two of the world’s finest magazines, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. He’s currently Chief Business Officer of Condé Nast's Culture Division, overseeing those and five other titles, including Wired and Pitchfork. But Mitchell's closest friends know that under the custom P. Johnson suits is a quiet craftsman, who’s been obsessed with Danish furniture and interiors for decades. Over martinis in his Brooklyn Brownstone, we sat down with Chris to discuss how his tastes were formed, his personal collecting philosophy, as well as the furniture – and of course, watches – he’s proudest to come home to each night.
Let’s start with a rumour. I heard that you occasionally redesign the hotel rooms you stay in…
[Laughs] I would say it’s a likelihood that I will rearrange the furniture in a hotel room. It’s not some great love of extra work, it’s just about making the room function better. A room is like a tablescape, you want to be able to take an aerial view and see that all the pieces are related to each other. If a chair is in front of the couch, instead of perpendicular to it, it’s encroaching on the couch’s space! It’s not just in hotels – I move stuff around my home all of the time.
And when did this all begin for you?
I was a suburban Chicago kid, but my father worked in advertising, so we had all these magazines in the house. Esquire used to have a column in the eighties about New York apartments, and there was one loft that was hugely aspirational for me to look at and think “How do I live like that one day?”
Aspiration can often be the gateway…
Also, the Art Institute in the Chicago had a basement full of dioramas of apartments throughout history, from Louis 14th to the present day. I’d say that’s where my design bug started.
"A room is like a tablescape, you want to be able to take an aerial view and see that all the pieces are related to each other."
When you got your first apartment, did you lean right in?
Totally. My wife, Pilar (a publishing giant herself, who was most recently the Editor-in-Chief of Condé Nast Traveler) jokes that most 23 year olds live like slobs in their first apartment, but when we met I’d managed to fully decorate it even though I didn’t have a pot to piss in. It looked like a grown-up’s apartment: I had this great sofa, and I cut up a poster and framed the fragments.
Chris enjoying a martini in his Brooklyn home
And at what point did you shift from admiring to truly collecting?
In the 90s, a Swedish friend had an excellent collection of Danish furniture. Once he told me what to look for – the provenance, the variations – it became a total wormhole for me. It was the exact same cost of what you’d buy at Crate and Barrel, but that was all glued together and mass-produced. These Danish pieces were made with a love of craftsmanship that would never happen today. That generation of cabinet maker just doesn’t exist anymore.
Tell me more…
Danish is the last era of furniture that was made in a guild. You had academies, which taught students how to pull off this incredibly fine joinery. Once you notice those details – dovetail joints, etc. – you can’t unsee it.
Do you have an example?
Take this chair here [points to the chair in the corner]. This was Johannes Hansen, so truly made in Denmark, but those two [points to two seemingly identical chairs in the other room] were made in America when they came to market here in the 1960s. We’re about to get nerdy, but the seam on the Danish one is higher on the arm, which makes for a much better construction, but it’s both more expensive and complex to achieve.
Chris pointing to the superior seam on the Danish version of the Finn Juhl 45 Chair
The lower, and therefore lesser, seam on the American version of the same chair
As you collected more, what else did you discover you loved about Danish?
The patina. A lot of Danish furniture is made with a natural vegetable leather, which has no colour to it, and stains over time. It turns a lot of Americans off because they think you’ll spill on it, or darken it with your fingers, but that’s what I love.
It grows and evolves, in a way…
Over the years, as you live with them, the leather just gets these layers and layers of history. I even love it in the wood Danish designers use – it’s a lot of teak, rosewood and oak, which gets such a perfect patina. Once you embrace it, things only get better with age.
"You had academies, which taught students how to pull off this incredibly fine joinery. Once you notice those details – dovetail joints, etc. – you can’t unsee it."
When I consider your taste, utility seems to be a huge part of the conversation…
Totally. To me, none of this is precious. It’s all meant to be lived with and sat on. Take our kitchen: we loved this single, beautiful tufted leather Kaare Klint chair, and so we commissioned a furniture maker to take its exact proportions and extend it into a banquette. We've raised our children on it. Of course you’re still devastated when you break something.
I hope that hasn’t happened…
Thankfully, furniture is hard to break. I’ve had pieces where, say, the stuffing fades and can’t be fixed – like the leather upholstery on an Arne Jacobsen Swan chair – but then it’s like an old relative. You say, “Let’s enjoy it while it’s here, because I can’t fix this!”
Like a fine wine…
Right, you appreciate it more – but you still drink it.
A stool with the natural, patina’d leather Chris enjoys. In the background, his custom-made banquette, based on a Kaare Klint chair
An “old relative” - Chris’ Arne Jacobsen Swan Chair
Which items are you currently most into?
Three things come to mind. Right now, I love this Swedish company called Skultuna. In the 1970s, their designer Pierre Forssel created these beautiful, brass, rocking decanters. The warmth in brass is just – forget it.
Also, these glass carafes by Carl Auböck are so hard to find to but so beautiful – they make the perfect cocktail pour. And then, I found this pair of Paul Kjaerholm Day Beds, called the PK80. They look like the Mies Van Der Rohe day beds, but even finer.
Have you ever had a bad collecting experience?
We went to Sicily and found these two terrific old bikes – these cruisers from the 1970s – being sold by the shadiest guy ever. This wasn’t just Sicily, it was Palermo.
We didn’t buy them on the spot, but I later got in touch with the guy via WhatsApp, and he said just wire me the money and I’ll send them. It felt super dodgy, but what the hell. Needless to say, they never arrived.
I wonder if they sent them at all…
Of course not!
"Once you embrace it, things only get better with age."
Is there a grail piece for you?
I’m on something of a collecting hiatus, but I do have my eye on some amazing Pierre Chapo bookcases. I remain an enormous fan of George Nakashiam, which also go for a princely sum. Then there have been cases where things become so photographed, so hot – Pierre Jeanneret's Chandigarh collection, or the Arctander Claim Chair – that they’re less interesting to you personally.
The hunt is over.
Chris, just outside his home
Do you have any advice to new collectors?
The first thing I’d say to people is: It’s not that hard! Shipping is less expensive than you think, and nothing’s ever arrived completely shattered. I find a ton of stuff on eBay, even still. It’s funny, when I finally went to Stockholm and Copenhagen, I didn’t buy a thing.
Odd how that can happen…
Once you know how to spot whether it’s the real deal or not – noticing the joints, for example – there’s a safety in it. Often times, finding a dealer on eBay becomes an opening to a private conversation once they can tell you care, and then you hear about things before they go online. And while dealers know exactly what to charge, on eBay you might find someone who’s lived with it forever and just wants to get rid of it.
You must be well trained at uncovering gems by now…
You’re always looking for things that are ill-described, so that you know what it is, but the person selling might not. If you misspell the name in a common phonetic way, you’ll also find things. And if you search the cabinet maker not the designer, but you know who the designer that made it is, that’s another great way.
That's a great one...
It’s really all in the hunt: let your searches take you to weird interesting places, ask questions, take chances, and buy what you love. Have faith that you will find a place for it. It will go together somehow.
An example of Chris’ fascination with patina: glass carafes by Carl Auböck
While I still have you, let’s talk watches.
Is there any alignment in your timepiece and furniture taste?
I’m much less of an expert with watches. For me, it started with thinking it would be fun to have a watch to pass on to my son. Then that it would be fun to have a watch to pass onto my other son [Laughs].
[Laughs] Seems like a natural place to start…
That evolved to, "What’s the perfect tight little collection?". Of Rolexes, in my case. I first wanted a Submariner – I love the crisp line of text on the Red Submariner. Then I bought a Gold Submariner with a nipple dial – it felt super flashy, which was a nice counter to my quieter personality. For a while after that my grail was a specific 1803, with a white face, and little quarter markers in red, on a gold oyster bracelet – a combination I loved.
"It’s really all in the hunt: let your searches take you to weird interesting places, ask questions, take chances, and buy what you love."
The most recent ones were the two Daytonas.
Not the Paul Newman’s, but the 6263 which has the black bezel I found in steel, and the 6265 that I found in gold. I think those are the most beautiful watch designs out there. The Newman’s may be more valuable, but for me, the 6263 is perfect watch. If the rarest piece of furniture I own is the Finn Juhl 45 chair, I would argue the Rolex 6263 is the Finn Juhl 45 of watches – in both form and function, it just has the perfect dimensions and scaling.
Chris’ yellow-gold Rolex Daytona ref. 6265
Chris reflecting on the intersection between furniture and watches
It must be hard to switch your design brain off…
Always. When I’m traveling, I’ve noticed that Swiss Air and Scandinavian Airlines have the best design. In the hotel space, I think Edition have a really defined aesthetic – which is no surprise, because they’re Schrager [Ian, the co-founder of Studio 54 who now owns Edition as well as the Public Hotel group].
"If the rarest piece of furniture I own is the Finn Juhl 45 chair, I would argue the Rolex 6263 is the Finn Juhl 45 of watches – in both form and function, it just has the perfect dimensions and scaling."
In another life, would you have been a designer?
To that, I say: this one’s not over. Right now, it’s a really fun pastime and passion. But there is a scenario where at some point when I retire from what I do for a living and give more time to it. We’ve had a lot of fun with the house projects we do, and I get so much pleasure out of collecting, arranging and placing. I just bought at auction this great brutalist oak table that I have no idea what to do with, but I know I’ll use it in my next project. I don’t think I’d ever want to do it for work, but I can certainly see myself spending more time doing it for pleasure.
Thanks to Chris for sharing his passion