White Box, Blank Slate

As a child, I liked to draw and was moody, so I was deemed an artistic type and a free spirit. Once you are labeled as a type of any sort, other people project onto you various qualities. Growing up, people made many assumptions about what I would or would not like based on this label. Most of the time, they were right. When you’re young, and don’t yet know much of the world, you accept these assumptions, at least as a starting point.

By the late seventies, there had been something of a reaction against modernism. The sixties and the counter culture’s love of ornament and romanticization of pre-modern societies set the tone. An artist, in popular imagination, would live in a Victorian era house with macrame around the doorways, ferns in the windows and lots of tchotchkes and trinkets. The second town my family lived in embraced this style. Mostly, however, they weren’t artists; they were bobos avant la lettre.

So, when I grew up and moved to New York, it seemed a natural fit to move into a floor-through in Brooklyn with tin ceilings, foot-wide woodwork, and french doors. I lived in two consecutive apartments of this sort in the neighborhood of Carrol Gardens, both built around 1870.

A real estate boom, followed by a real estate bust, suddenly made my rent stabilized apartment in Brooklyn overpriced. Meanwhile, I started working as a decorative painter and was starting, for the first time in my life, to do well. I gave notice and moved… to Manhattan. Cue the theme song to The Jefferson’s

We’re moving on up. To the… the.. west.. uh… to Chelsea. To a dee-lux apartment on the second floor.

Built in 1960, my new apartment was what was often derisively called a “white box.” It was no great example of architecture by anyone’s standards. It was one of hundreds of similar buildings, frequently made of yellow brick, that went up around New York City in the post-war era. It was exactly what I had told all my life I would most hate. It was boring – and I loved it.

The nineteenth century brownstones were drafty in the winter and brutal brick ovens in the summer. In order to not die in a heat wave in the summer, you had to block up your windows with air conditioners which cost a small fortune to run. Of course, now that your windows were blocked up you had no choice but to run them even in the mild weather. Furthermore, they blocked the light and made a long, narrow, dark apartment even darker. My new apartment was easily heated and cooled. Despite the fact that the last apartment had been significantly larger in terms of square feet, the new apartment had more usable space due to the rational layout. Best of all, I could clean the apartment in a couple of hours on a Saturday morning. What a chore cleaning both of those other places had been. Somehow, they always looked dingy.

Did I mention that bit about being a decorative painter? I rag rolled the walls, a white glaze over yellow. I put a Greek key stencil around the ceiling. I got some very nice ivory colored silk and made drapes with a Kingston valance. I thought it looked pretty sharp for a twenty-three year old, if I don’t say so myself. What I realized is that a white box is a blank slate and it’s only as boring as its inhabitant is willing to let it be.

The interior of the living room of an apartment.

Now that I’m older, it looks a bit fussy to me and I guess it’s a little dated, but I think you can see my overall point about a white box being the equivalent to a blank canvas. The drapes are not done yet in this photo. All the furnishings are either hand-me-downs or picked off of the garbage. (Note the kitties!)

So many people, when they saw my apartment, would be surprised. Time and time again, people would say to me, wouldn’t you rather live in a funky place somewhere like Park Slope. Actually, no.

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