A young couple, newly rich, poor in furniture, hire interior designer Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz to furnish their brand-new, $2.5 million downtown loft. But as early adopters loaded with dot-com lucre, they don’t want their designer pounding the pavement on their behalf – so twentieth-century. Equipped only with a PowerBook G3, Noriega-Ortiz accepts this mission: He will furnish the couple’s apartment, a pine-planked, DSL-wired, 3,500-square-foot space in The Loft, at 30 Crosby Street, where he’s already – in real life, that is – signed off on the lobby, kitchens, and half the bathrooms. And he will do it in three hours or less.
He arrives, black-clad, sleeves rolled up, ready to type. “Let’s look for one-of-a-kind pieces first,” he says, seizing the PowerBook’s petite mouse. “I’m going with ebay.com. And let’s go into the GALLERY first, because you can see all the pictures.” He heads straight for post-1900 FURNITURE. Some truly dreadful things pop up in the scroll-down: a tiger-oak chest, a Tiffany (yeah, right) torchère, and an ungainly Lucite magazine rack. “I don’t think they’d like that,” Noriega-Ortiz remarks, before the cursor alights on a Herman Miller Chadwick three-piece sectional in cranberry wool, now selling for the exorbitant price of $25.
“Six days to go; that will probably go for $300, maybe $500,” Noriega-Ortiz estimates like a pro. “Still, that’s a deal. We’ll take it. Just keep a tally.”
One item down. Noriega-Ortiz returns to the GALLERY, scanning for a sofa he saw a few days ago. He pauses on a leather Eames lounge – “a classic” – in a barbaric shade of tan. Still, he keeps scrolling, scrolling, until he nets his prize: a ten-foot velour sofa with built-in side tables and a fifties feel. “It’s big and extremely stylish. Can’t you just see Lucy and Ricky sitting on this?” Plus, it’s just $20 now, with ten days to go.
EBay’s lamp aisle is filled with historical reproductions bought, Noriega-Ortiz surmises, at Jacques Penet (a.k.a. J.C. Penney): “Very scary. Not hip at all. Let’s try typing in Eames.” This proves the fastest detour to all of eBay’s mid-century stuff – Nelson, Noguchi, Saarinen, Knoll. Suddenly, Noriega-Ortiz hits pay dirt – a Saarinen tulip table, in a rare aluminum finish. “We are bidding on this table! We are totally getting that, in seven hours and fifteen minutes. The bid is $150, and it started at $1. Isn’t it fabulous? I should have bought that for my own apartment. This is the breakfast table.” He settles down and waxes practical: “It’s coming from Georgia, so the shipping won’t be that much.”
In rapid succession, Noriega-Ortiz picks out the Yanagi rosewood butterfly stool featured in MOMA’s collection ($405 with four hours to go), a Venini egg-shaped handblown lamp ($159.50 now, probably $300 by the end of the auction, and $2,100 in SoHo), and a Danish pastel-striped ceramic lamp base, perfect for one of the sofa’s broad arms. After twenty minutes of shopping, he’s selected six impeccable mid-century items.
Next, he heads to Belgian auction site fiftie-fiftie.be; the home page features a George Nelson marshmallow sofa. Clicking on one of its fluorescent cushions brings up images of furniture from the forties to the sixties. Noriega-Ortiz zeroes in on some Nelson bentwood “Pretzel” chairs. “This chair would be fabulous with that table because it’s wood. I wouldn’t do an Saarinen chair with an Saarinen table, because that’s just too normal.” He’s distracted from the breakfast suite by a pair of low-slung Dutch chairs from the unknown Van Os Meubelfabriek furniture factory, wood with cream fabric seats, and a matching tea table. The price tag: 445 euros. “We’ll reupholster the sofa and make it beige again,” he says. “Then we can do an arrangement, the two chairs opposite the sofa, with the small table between them. It’s a big living room, so the cranberry sectional can go elsewhere.”
For beds, Noriega-Ortiz turns to goodhome.com, a favorite for its decorating vignettes; white sample rooms can be colored and rearranged onscreen to your specifications. “We could do Country Romance,” he says, clicking on a violently patterned calico swatch in this zone, “but we’re not doing that.” A cradle bed, in dark-stained wood, queen-size, for $1,595, catches his eye. “The family is hip, but they want me to mix in a little bit of traditional.” Just so the master bedroom doesn’t get stodgy, Noriega-Ortiz drops into andbobsyouruncle.com for a brace of white turkey-feather lamps.
So far, so good. But he’s not even close to melting his clients’ new AmEx Blue cards. He tries newel.com, the Website of a local antiques store whose six stories of inventory are all online. He selects art moderne as his period, then clicks on chairs.
“There’s nice quality,” he says, gazing admiringly at a leather club chair. “Now we’re talking!” His arrow skids to a stop on a French forties chair, fresh from Claridge’s in London, with an intricate geometric cutout arm. There are twelve of them. “It’s rare to find twelve dining-room chairs, but this loft can handle it. Of course, they’re $3,500 each, list. But this couple can afford that.”
Now that he’s got the dining chairs, he’s puzzled about the table. He could go either way, traditional or modern. For encyclopedic listings, homeportfolio.com is an option. He picks modern for the style, and immediately jumps on a six-foot stainless-steel-and-lacquered-wood Cappellini table (only $4,699). But this impressive piece is too small for all those chairs. “We can use it as a desk with two chairs in the living room,” he decides, unable to say no. “Then we have ten for the table, and we can do a round table.”
Noriega-Ortiz gets a faraway look in his eye. The question of the round dining table is clearly engaging his imagination. “We don’t want to match the chairs, but we want to have a style that goes with it. It could be a stone table, like garden furniture?” At dir-dd.com, the Directory of Design and Decoration (his business is listed here), he searches for GARDEN FURNITURE: The ELIZABETH STREET LINK, with 93 items photographed, looks promising. He scrolls rapidly past Cupid fountains and moldering fragments of Southampton estates, stopping on a wrought-iron table base with curlicued ends.
“This is what we can do. Look how cheap it is – $1,050. We can make a six-foot table that will fit all those chairs with a big, clear, one-inch acrylic tabletop. The acrylic goes with the forties and fifties look that we’re going for.” Big sheets of acrylic can be obtained from several sources, including clearcutacrylics.com and customacrylic.com.
Noriega-Ortiz is really clicking now, braking at sisalrugs.com, where he scissors out a square to demarcate the second seating area. At guild.com, he’s not loving the eighties abstract designs until he spots a brown-and-white geometric leather rug, $1,932, very thin and vaguely African. “Hand-woven, which is excellent – 84 by 54, and perfect for the big grouping.”
It’s been an hour and a half. He pauses to assess the damages – and the gaps. The breakfast area requires only a hanging light fixture. Lampa.com is known for its Wonderland-inspired straw-hat chandeliers, but it also has some more grown-up wood-veneer options. On the remarkably pretty site, he finds a star-shaped chandelier with five small wood-grain shades ($560). The lamp’s steel and wood will pick up on the materials of the table and chairs.
A done deal, and it’s back to the master bedroom. Something modern will take the edge off that heavy cradle bed. At retromodern.com, he spots a brown leather Saarinen “Womb” chair ($2,990) to accompany the Herman Miller sectional, now arranged on the sisal rug. Two round white plastic Kartell cabinets ($142 each), designed by Anna Castelli Ferrieri, will play well with the feathery lamps in the bedroom. And the white marble base of Achille Castiglioni’s “Arco” lamp happily matches the stone he’s selected for the loft’s kitchen and second bathroom.
“There’s columns in the apartment, so we’ll put the marble base next to a column and cantilever the light over the dining table. You’ll walk underneath. That way we don’t have to hang anything,” he says.
Noriega-Ortiz turns to the second bedroom – since the couple has no kids, it’s obviously an office. And a pair of Oxo chrome-and-plastic computer carts (one blue, one black, $842 each) from dwr.com can hold the couple’s his-and-hers iMacs. “We’ll give them two chairs from the closeout section, Tivoli bentwood chairs with rush webbing $275 each, so it doesn’t all look too industrial.”
Also for the home office: a billiard table. “I have a client now who uses his pool table as a conference table,” Noriega-Ortiz says. Diamondbilliard.com has some that are plain enough to suit, starting at $4,000.
Modernauction.com yields a listing of smaller dealers, including Lin/Weinberg, from whom Noriega-Ortiz has bought before. He’s now trying to find bureaus for the master bedroom but gets distracted by a 27-piece set of George Nelson china ($130). Sold. He’s got a lot of furniture, and most of the accessories, but nothing big and bold to tie the place together.
Like capital-A art. “How about a Rauschenberg?” Pacewildenstein.com yields a series of large vegetable-dye-transfer prints. Noriega-Ortiz likes one with a reddish cast, Street Cave, from 1995, for over the granite fireplace. And artnet.com has works by another favorite of his, Louise Nevelson. A boxlike wood piece, 32 by 83 inches, appeals to him for the second bathroom, with its nickel counter: “This would look fantastic.” Never mind the humidity.
Thinking about walls puts him in the mood to buy a flat-screen TV. These clients clearly need a 40-inch model for the fun area over by the billiard table, and perhaps a pair of twelve-inchers for each side of the bed. Jandr.com has a big Samsung, but it’s sadly unpictured. Twelve-inch Sharps (suggested retail $1,499), like the ones Noriega-Ortiz has at home, can be previewed (though not purchased) at sharp-usa.com.
He tries circline.com, a search site that he’s used when, for example, he needs an eight-by-eight glass-front Regency vitrine by yesterday. Today he’s looking for a mirror to complete the ensemble in the master bedroom. A Charles X Eglomise square catches his eye; its beveled frame is painted on the back with a red vine pattern. And it’s only $7,800. If the computer hadn’t crashed just then, Noriega-Ortiz would have bought it on the spot.
Time’s up. In the rush to decorate, some essentials have fallen by the curb – but now is no time for major purchases. In three hours, Noriega-Ortiz has almost fully furnished two seating areas, two dining areas, and a bedroom. He never did find a suitable bureau. The Rauschenberg alone may not be enough to anchor the loft’s vast living space. And linens are lacking. He does, however, have an epiphany in the car and calls with a helpful message: “There’s an excellent site, windowwear.com! Get two-inch wooden blinds for all the rooms for an old-fashioned look, and maybe some gauzy curtains for the living room.” The Internet does do windows.