Curtains Up for the One Percent
While many Americans were stockpiling toilet paper and Clorox, the rich bought houses, sparking a gold rush in the decorating trades.,
Rob Satran thinks of it as the Hoshizaki syndrome.
Beginning last March, when the world went into lockdown and it became clear that, as Mr. Satran said, “people were not going to be spending their disposable income on normal things,” the trade in high-end appliances abruptly took off.
Mr. Satran is a part owner of Royal Green Appliances, a boutique dealership in New York that may be to refrigerators what a Rolls-Royce showroom is to automobiles. “Covid instantly domesticated people,” he said. “They were looking around and thinking about where to invest in their homes.”
If, as the adage has it, old appliances are like old friendships — barely functional but too heavy to dispose of — this was the year when homeowners got around to casting a fresh eye on tired refrigerators, balky dishwashers, ranges with pilot lights that stubbornly refuse to ignite.
It was the year in which some near the apex of the income pyramid concluded there was no reason to settle for an ordinary ice tray, or even cubes produced by some humdrum domestic appliance, when they could upgrade to a commercial machine capable of cranking out transparent crescents or lucid spheres or gelid top hats like the ones you used to see clinking in glasses at upscale bars. Why not buy a Hoshizaki?
“Traditionally, the high-end appliance business is tied to the stock market,” Mr. Satran said, adding that when, by the third quarter of last year, it became clear that the markets weren’t likely to crash, the demand for Wolf ranges, Sub-Zero refrigerators and $4,000 ice machines took off. What followed was a combination of increased demand and supply-chain bottlenecks that produced a backlog felt most acutely by one population of professionals, and that was interior designers.
Despite its dire human consequences, the pandemic had the effect in the design trades of sparking a gold rush, a development perhaps more surprising when you consider the fact that in the internet age everyone is a D.I.Y. expert in decor. “Insane is the word,” David Netto, an interior designer in Los Angeles, said of a surge in business noted in interviews with more than a dozen decorators and designers.
If at the start of lockdown, Mr. Netto had assumed “brace position,” anticipating a career crash, he now finds himself in the midst of an extraordinary speedup, with far more offers for work than his firm can realistically take on.
“I’m a boutique shop, and we never had more than four jobs at a time before,” he said. “Now we have 12.”
For Brad Dunning, a designer in West Hollywood who emerged decades ago from the city’s punk rock scene and went on to establish a top-tier practice restoring houses by Modernist heroes like John Lautner and Richard Neutra, fears that a contracted global economy would spell doom for his business turned out to be unfounded.
“I was, and still am, completely shocked that people were buying so much real estate and remodeling their houses,” Mr. Dunning wrote in an email.
“I get it that since people were stuck at home, they were focusing on their immediate surroundings,” he continued. “But I still found it odd that when we were all supposed to be wiping down our groceries with disinfecting sprays to avoid death, people were willing to spend gobs of money. Wouldn’t you be saving every penny?”
‘I’ve Never Been Busier’
The answer to his question was anything but rhetorical for those Americans to whom a $1,400 government stimulus check was a fiscal lifeline. Yet for the wealthiest, those whom the design elite have traditionally served, the last year produced a home improvement stampede as people transformed their work-life safety bubbles with layers of comfort and convenience increasingly essential to those for whom wine cellars with computerized inventory systems are baseline amenities. Not only were the rich repainting, reupholstering and refreshing their curtains, experts said, they were snapping up houses as casually as ordinary mortals were binge-buying Crocs.
“It’s bananas,” Mr. Dunning said. “As long as I’ve been doing this — over 25 years — I’ve never been busier or heard contractors or real estate agents I work with say the same.”
When Todd A. Romano, a decorator whose interiors are regularly featured in shelter magazines, left New York in 2016 to return to his hometown, San Antonio, it was to ease the demands of a practice that once required him to commute to Paris from Manhattan on monthly shopping trips and to juggle a roster of clients around the country.
“I wanted a more low-key quality of life,” Mr. Romano said. Steadily employed before the pandemic began, Mr. Romano has interior design projects booked through the end of 2022, he said.
“It’s not just about rich people feathering their nests,” he said. “I mean, Home Depot is out of building supplies.”
Yet while hoi polloi are shopping for the do-it-yourself flooring and bathroom vanity units that helped drive sales for the home improvement giant to $32.3 billion in the last quarter of 2020 — a 25.1 percent increase over the same period in 2019 — Mr. Romano’s clients are snapping up houses in places like Montecito, Palm Beach and Telluride.
“We work for the one-half of the one-half of the one percent,” he said.
“Sure, every so often I stop myself in my tracks and say, ‘Sheesh, this is a lot of money,'” he said, referring to things like a $31,000 sectional sofa recently commissioned from a Long Island City workroom for a West Texas ranch or a pair of $8,200 club chairs covered in hand-blocked linen from the fifth-generation French fabric house, Prelle — at a cost of roughly $396 a yard.
“But it is also what it costs to do things at this level,” he said of the Olympian expectations of the ultrarich.
When the decorator Elaine Griffin, who cut her teeth at firms like that of the architect Peter Marino in Manhattan, returned home to Georgia before the pandemic to establish Elaine Griffin Interior Design while caring for her ailing mother, it was with a modest set of expectations.
“Before the pandemic, at client interviews, I was like, ‘Pick me! Pick me! Pick me!'” Ms. Griffin said, speaking from Sea Island, Ga., where she is designing three homes for as many clients new to the coastal barrier islands that rank among the top 10 most prosperous ZIP codes in the United States. “Now I’m like, ‘We have tons of wonderful New Yorkers moving down here, and if I don’t like you …’ Well, I’ll just leave it at that.”
It remains unclear whether the pandemic flight from major cities will reverse itself as more Americans are vaccinated. For now, said Victor Long of Banker Real Estate on Saint Simons Island, Ga., the pandemic, a robust stock market, the flight from urban centers to tax-friendly states and what he termed “a major lifestyle reset,” have combined to produce an “a perfect storm” in real estate.
“I went from doing $30 million in sales in 2019 to $53 million in 2020,” said Mr. Long, who added that he had already booked $36 million in sales by the beginning of March, 2021.
“You always have those people who are struggling to get by on a million a year in New York,” Ms. Griffin said. “South of the Mason-Dixon line, the money goes a whole lot further.”
She noted that a living room designed by her in 2021 may include a $21,000 sectional sofa, a $12,000 rug, a $6,000 coffee table and a pair of armchairs for $14,000 and change. “My sweet spot as a Georgia designer,” she said, “is being able to cater to those New York clients because, guess what? New Yorkers are moving down to Sea Island in droves and droves.”
It is not just Georgia, of course. “We have tons of people coming down here and buying horse farms, these houses that used to stay in the families of affluent Kentuckians,” said Lee Robinson of the Lee W. Robinson Company, a decorating firm in Louisville. “A lot of the old guard is having to sell, and the new guard represents a new level of wealth because, in my opinion, there has become a greater distance between the haves and the have-nots.”
By Mr. Robinson’s calculations, to be a have-not in the current landscape of wealth creation is to eke by with a net worth of a mere $10 million. Few, if any, of the 34 clients for whom Mr. Robinson is currently designing houses, fit that description, he said. “The ‘haves’ nowadays are people with a net worth of $100 million plus,” he said. “If you want to see what that looks like, go down to Palm Beach.”
In the Palm Beach of today, Maseratis and Lamborghinis are a dime a dozen, according to the designer and writer Steven Stolman. a longtime resident of the 16-mile barrier island. “A convertible Bentley is an entry-level car.”
If Palm Beach was once a sleepy winter resort of the moneyed Eastern elite, it is now a kind of “zillionaire bedlam,” Mr. Stolman said. “Beverly Hills by the sea.”
One bellwether is the unexpected arrival of a cluster of blue chip New York galleries: Pace, Paula Cooper, Acquavella, Lehmann Maupin, among them. They have established pop-ups and, in some cases, more permanent beachheads that cater to the same deep-pocketed buyers packing restaurants like Le Bilboquet, La Goulue and Sant Ambroeus or cleaning out the shelves at luxury goods purveyors like Brunello Cucinelli, Saint Laurent and Hermes.
Real estate agents in Palm Beach have found themselves complaining about the paucity of inventory, with bidding wars now common and many homes being brokered and sold off-market before they can even be listed.
“We have absolutely nothing,” said Liza Pulitzer, a realtor with Brown Harris Stevens. In over a quarter-century of selling property in Palm Beach, Ms. Pulitzer, a third-generation resident (her mother was the beloved socialite and designer Lilly Pulitzer), said she had never encountered anything resembling the frenzied market of the last 12 months.
“Typically, we would see 180 or 190 houses,” for sale at any given time, Ms. Pulitzer said. “Right now on the entire island there are 42 houses.” Of those, 24 are “modestly” priced below $20 million; the other 20 range as high as $120 million. “Everything revolves around the real-estate boom,” she said. “Gallerists are insanely busy. Contractors are insanely busy. There isn’t a decorator I know that isn’t maxed out.”
So, too, are appliances dealers hawking luxurious necessities like this year’s must-have range, the La Grande Cuisine 2000 from L’Atelier Paris. With six brass gas burners, a grooved electric griddle, two ovens and a central storage cabinet encased in a matte blue frame ornamented with copper trim, it comes with trademark fleur-de-lis appliques on the doors and a price tag of almost $40,000.
“I hear the lead time is a year,” Mr. Stolman said of the coveted ranges. (Contacted by a reporter, a representative from L’Atelier Paris placed the wait at closer to three months.)
“If there are two things the rich hate, it’s to wait or to be told no,” Mr. Stolman said.
Yet wait they must. “I used to tell people that on the back of my card it says, in very fine print, “It gets here when it gets here,”‘ said Paul Vincent Wiseman, doyen of designers to the California Bay Area elite. “I’ve dealt with the very, very rich all my career,” said Mr. Wiseman, whose company recently added four new hires to its 40-person work force and, he said, recorded its most profitable month in 41 years in October when there was still no end to the lockdown in sight.
“It’s obvious that people are a lot wealthier than they were even two years ago, but they’re also focusing inward a little more,” he said. “We all looked around and suddenly realized our homes needed help. It’s what I call the ‘What a dump’ syndrome.”