TEXT BY ALEXANDRA LANGE
You can take the editor of Nest out of the city, but you can’t expect—or want—him to start acting like the editor of Country Home.
“My first idea was we weren’t going to do anything,” says Joseph Holtzman, who’s both editor-in-chief and art director of the cult décor magazine. In his meticulously hyperdecorated Manhattan apartment, Holtzman “fine-tunes the juxtaposition” of every object. So when he bought a house in Ghent, New York, in 2001, its pickled pine paneling, which covered every surface, seemed at first a welcome rustic contrast, an unspoiled paradise of echt fifties taste.
But had he, in fact, done nothing, his friends might have died from irony. Holtzman doesn’t eat meat or wear leather, yet the house was built by an avid hunter who equipped it with a gun room and a walk-in freezer. And so, once Holtzman’s decorating drive got the better of him, the paneling began to seem less like a kitsch artifact and more like a blank slate—one on which to hang things like “vegetarian taxidermy.”
“It was apparent that not doing anything wasn’t really going to happen,” recalls Holtzman’s partner and Nest staff writer Carl Skoggard. “I enjoyed the bliss of our first tranquil summer up there before marshaling our forces.” The following summer, Holtzman recruited the interns—art-school students who have since resurfaced almost every floor and ceiling. Several, including Dennis Palazzolo—a Cooper Union art major who fetches guests at the station in a customized gray Cadillac with rooftop fin and front-end shark’s teeth—have stayed on, fixing pipes and installing a sauna. Walls have been given over to Holtzman’s friend Pat O’Brien, who has done most of the painting—and paintings.
“I wanted it to be almost like an eighteenth-century English version of a country house,” says Holtzman. “A place where you can lie around on the furniture with dogs shaking themselves onto you. I wanted the rooms to acquire the patina of perpetual accidents.” It’s the living room that seems closest to this vision—with dog-friendly sofas and chairs, antimacassars perpetually sliding to the floor, a fireplace ready to roar, and a piano ready to be gathered round.
But look closer, and you see the winks in the fantasy. The piano wears a French maid’s ruffle. And Holtzman’s furniture is slipcovered in fabric of his own design called Herb—a cannabis-leaf chintz. “There’s a whole history of chintz being figured with entertainment foliage: poppies, and tobacco-leaf chintz from the late eighteenth century,” he observes. Upstairs, a bedroom papered in what looks like an eighteenth-century engraving of bricks turns out to feature the Rabelaisian adventures of various genitalia. Such visual tricks are all in a day’s work for Holtzman, whose last issue of Nest was titled “Uncut,” its flesh-pink cover decorated with cheery cherries and bananas (the next issue will include a feature on the Ghent house).
Holtzman changed little of the main house’s architecture, finding the hunter’s cubbylike bedrooms ideal for housing his own weekend guests. “I like to have guests, but I’m also rather antisocial,” he says, “so I like the whole idea that I can retire to my bedroom. People don’t know how to have guests for the weekend—rather than have it be orchestrated, we might just have communal meals.”
All meals are taken in the guesthouse, which is equipped with a full kitchen and a veddy British banquet table for twenty. The main house’s kitchen is used only for making coffee and feeding the couple’s two dogs. “I don’t like cooking smells,” says Holtzman. “I didn’t even used to like eating in front of people. I particularly hide my animal side.” The walk-in freezer now houses not food but decorating supplies—hundreds of cans of paint, seven toilets, and a Marcel Breuer table in boxes.
Many of the house’s mid-century treasures are leftovers from Holtzman’s mother’s high-modern Baltimore apartment, the spare décor against which his plaids, chintzes, stripes, and love of all things eighteenth-century protests. It’s not everyone, after all, who would be so bold as to cover Mies van der Rohe chairs and ottomans in a red-and-gold rugby stripe. “Barcelona chairs are something I’ve known all my life,” says Holtzman, “so I wanted to see them differently.”
“Things in a country house are things that don’t make the city house,” he adds. “They are less precious—that’s the criterion. There’s nothing intimidating here.” Nothing’s intimidating, perhaps, but it’s all still brilliantly—and endlessly—arranged. Holtzman isn’t one to leave rooms he’s declared “finished” alone. “One of my pleasures is to move things around,” he says. “I even imagine the rooms in my mind when I’m away, thinking the first thing I will do when I come home is move that table.”
To this habit, Palazzolo can attest: “Joe sneaks lamps around. At 4 a.m., he’ll be like, ‘Help me move this an inch!’ He just loves decorating. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Nor, one imagines, have the neighbors.