10 Unforgettable Surface Moments

Our outgoing editor-in-chief, Spencer Bailey, fondly recalls some of his most life-changing memories from eight years at the company.

What a ride! As I type this, it’s my final week at Surface after nearly eight years, five of them as editor-in-chief of the magazine. While at the company, I’ve gotten to experience many things that were not only unexpected but also beyond my wildest imagination (chief among them becoming editor of this incredible publication at age 27, thanks to our CEO, Marc Lotenberg, who put his faith and trust in me to run the company with him). Not to get all nostalgic—okay, okay, actually, to get all nostalgic—I’ve compiled a list of 10 memories from my time here that will remain with me for the rest of my life. (To avoid the obvious, I intentionally left out The Diner by David Rockwell with Surface + 2×4 project we just did a few weeks ago in Milan.) These are some of the people, places, and things I’ve come across during my heady time here that have altered my outlook and, in certain instances, my way of being. I cannot overstate how profound this experience has been for me, and it’s with a mix of wistfulness and enthusiasm that I share some of the most magical moments of my tenure at what I feel has become the best, most thoughtfully produced design magazine in America today.


(Photo: Leon Chew for Surface)

My first Surface cover story: Zaha Hadid.

People often ask me what’s been my most memorable interview, and this one with Zaha Hadid may be it. (To be honest, it’s impossible to pick just one.) When I arrived to interview Zaha in the lobby of The Mercer hotel, she was wearing light blue driving gloves and sitting with two assistants who were furiously typing on their laptops as she dictated to them while eating a salad. (She was also sizing me up; I had been seated in a corner booth and was told to wait for her.) After about 10 minutes, she came over to me and, without glancing up from her phone, sat down across from me and proceeded to send a couple of text messages and listen to a voicemail. Then she put her phone facedown on the table, looked me in the eyes, and said, “I’m ready.” Thankfully, her face brightened at my first question, about her Vitra Fire Station, and we spoke for nearly an hour and a half. After the interview, she removed her right glove to shake my hand. For the next week, the joke around the office was that I’d gotten Zaha to take her gloves off.


Spencer Bailey, left, with Glenn Pushelberg and George Yabu of Yabu Pushelberg and, at right, Ian Schrager for Design Dialogues No. 2 at Neuehouse.

Relaunching the magazine.

The July/Aug. 2013 issue, put together in a pinch—from start to finish, our team had about four and a half weeks to produce it—was a momentous, pivotal moment, for me and for the company. (The redesign itself, done in collaboration with Noë & Associates, took place over a period of around eight months.) Unexpectedly thrown into the hot seat, my first order of business as editor was to fill out the issue with inspiring, informative, and entertaining content—in fact, “inform, inspire, entertain” became a sort of mantra that first year of overseeing the magazine—and to find a cover subject who would serve as a metaphor for the world we were building with the refreshed publication and brand. There was no one better, I realized, than the developer and hotelier Ian Schrager, who was then about to launch the London Edition hotel. Ian connects to so many worlds—architecture, interior design, hospitality, art, food, fashion, nightlife, culture—and, like Surface 2.0, he brings a high level of taste and sophistication to all that he does (and he doesn’t take himself too seriously, either!).

Though I’d only been working at Surface for two and a half years, I had built a strong relationship with Ian in that time. So I made the call, he said yes, and, luckily, we were able to make the interview and shoot all happen within a couple of weeks. So many of the designers that we featured in that issue—David Rockwell, Roman & Williams, Gabellini Sheppard, and Yabu Pushelberg among them—have become Surface staples in the years since. The issue also marked my inaugural Design Dialogues talk, with Ian Schrager and George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg of Yabu Pushelberg; to date, the conversation series has had 46 editions with speakers ranging from Daniel Boulud and Thom Browne to Paula Scher and Annabelle Selldorf.


Hans Ulrich Obrist, left, with Jacques Herzog and Kanye West at the Moore Building in Miami’s Design District for Design Dialogues No. 6 in December 2013.

The Hans Ulrich Obrist effect.

This first annual Art Issue (Dec. 2013/Jan. 2014), largely orchestrated by special projects editor Bettina Korek, brought together the vast world of HUO (as his friends often call him). It also opened up many doors for Surface, and forged a rather smooth path for us into the rarefied, hard-to-break-into world of art. An essay by Karen Marta, a conversation between Hans and the Live From the NYPL interviewer Paul Holdengräber, a visual feature on HUO’s then-burgeoning Post-it project, a profile of the Swiss Institute’s Simon Castets, an interview with the former Serpentine Gallery director Julia Peyton-Jones, a previously unpublished conversation between Hans Ulrich and Ettore Sottsass—all of this was in the issue. Our editors also interviewed a huge swath of HUO’s friends—including Paul McCarthy, David Chipperfield, Klaus Biesenbach, Stefano Tonchi, and Maja Hoffmann—talking about, what else but Hans Ulrich himself. The issue came to life in a splashy, fun way in Miami when, for Design Dialogues No. 6, Hans Ulrich interviewed Kanye West and Jacques Herzog in the Design District. Since then, Bettina has helped turn the Art Issue into a Surface totem, with covers featuring the likes of Michael Chow, Alex Israel, and Kanye West.


Paola Navone with Gennaro Nobile at Design Dialogues No. 10 at the Soho Grand hotel in New York City.

Meeting Paola Navone.

I never anticipated how fortuitous interviewing Paola would be. Though she is well known, particularly in Europe, I felt that none of the coverage of her had really captured her true personality and depth. (Most of it, I found, was of the “What’s your favorite color?” variety.) I sought to change that through this Surface cover story. At the time, Paola was in the midst of bringing intricate, beautiful craftsmanship to the mass market in America through a three-part Crate & Barrel collaboration (a very rare, though not necessarily unprecedented, thing for a big brand like that to do). I soon realized that, more than just a commercial exercize, what Paola was doing with Crate & Barrel was educating the U.S. on good, thoughtful design. For the launch of the issue, we organized Design Dialogues No. 10 in New York between Paola and Marta Calle, then the president of Crate & Barrel. Afterward, over dinner, Paola invited me to visit her at her summer house on an island in Greece, an offer which I of course took her up on. We’ve since become close friends, and in 2016 Pointed Leaf Press published a book of her interiors projects that I edited and wrote.


(Photo: Grant Cornett for Surface)

Grant Cornett’s portrait of Lou Reed wearing Illesteva sunglasses and, yes, vampire teeth.

Many of Grant’s portraits for SurfaceJulian Schnabel, Peter Marino, and Stephen Shore among them—stand out in my mind. But Grant’s shoot with Lou Reed was particularly special. When Lou showed up for the shoot, he immediately asked for vampire teeth, telling us that he wouldn’t do the shoot without them. We quickly dispatched an intern to the nearest Ricky’s, which was thankfully only a couple of blocks away. The resulting picture embodies the rebellious, fighting spirit of Lou, who passed away just a few weeks later. It was among the last images captured of him in his lifetime, and for me it remains an incredible, indelible experience in my mind.


The cover portrait of the Japanese architect Tadao Ando for the Feb. 2015 issue. (Photo: Ogata)

Touring Tadao Ando’s newest museum building with the architect himself.

The Feb. 2015 Tadao Ando cover, captured by our contributing photographer Ogata, was a National Magazine Award finalist, and is among my favorite portraits (along with those of Paola Navone, Peter Marino, and Rossana Orlandi; curiously, or not, all of these covers feature the subjects’ hands). For the interview, I met Ando in the Berkshires during the opening day of the Clark Art Institute. What was supposed to be a 30-minute dialogue (through a translator) became an hour-and-a-half one. We started the conversation about the intersection of boxing and architecture (prior to becoming an architect, Ando was a boxer), and the rest flowed from there. At the end of it, Ando asked me if I’d been in to see the new museum yet. I told him that I had tried, but that the staff said I couldn’t get in until the opening that night. He smiled, stood up, and waved me forward. “Come with me,” he said, and then took me on a private tour, just him, the translator, and me, a small entourage from his Osaka office in tow. At the end of it, we stopped in the bookstore, where he signed a copy of his Taschen monograph for me. After that, I watched him as he signed every other copy of the book in the shop (there were probably around 150). The experience still feels like a dream.


David Adjaye’s Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture next to the National Monument on the Washington Mall. (Photo: Nathan Perkel)

Walking through David Adjaye’s Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) a year before its completion.

David and I first met in 2011, upon the completion of his Moscow School of Management Skolkovo project in Russia. In the years since, I’ve interviewed him at the Armory Show (with Isaac Julien) and later at the 92Y. The conversation that I will particularly cherish is the one he and I did in a trailer on the site of his NMAAHC building while it was in the midst of construction. I can’t think of many buildings that carry such profound meaning, and to be there with the architect—its facade nearly finished and the insides still raw—was incredible. (That Surface was the first platform in the world given access to the building was even more extraordinary.) The look on David’s face that day was a mix of strength and humility. It was clear that he deeply understood the power of the project and the significance of the commission. Nathan Perkel’s cover portrait captures this perfectly. To get the angle he did, Nathan had David stand on a big concrete block and look down at him, the aluminum panels of the NMAAHC glistening behind him. This wasn’t necessarily a conscious move at the time, but I later realized that David’s head is tilted down, staring intently and with great focus, just like how the building itself gazes on the Washington Mall.


The late Azzedine Alaïa with Kourney Kardashian, left, and Kim Kardashian at a Surface dinner in 2016. (Photo: Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images)

Hosting an intimate dinner in the late Azzedine Alaïa’s kitchen in Paris.

When we decided to put the late Azzedine on the Sept. 2016 Fall Fashion issue cover, part of our strategy was to plan an event around it. During Paris Fashion Week that year, we invited a wide swath of designers and others, including Ronan Bouroullec, Pierre Hardy, Vanessa Friedman, Kim and Kourtney Kardashian (Alaïa favorites), Mathieu Lehanneur, Peter Marino, and Inga Sempé, to a private dinner in Azzedine’s infamous kitchen. It was the pages of Surface in real life, a combination of high and low, with art, fashion, and design all interacting in an intimate setting.


A Jenny Holzer text work using words from a Surface-conducted interview with New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman. (Photo: Dani Vernon)

Collaborating with Jenny Holzer on an AIDS-awareness art project.

In conjunction with our Nov. 2016 American Influence issue cover story on Jenny Holzer, who was creating a permanent installation for the New York City AIDS Memorial that opened that month, we worked with the subject herself on an art project riffing on the theme. Over the course of a couple of months, our editors interviewed 10 cultural figures intimately impacted by AIDS, the majority of whom were living in New York in the ’80s (Kenneth Cole, Stephen Fry, Michael Kimmelman, and Amy Sadao were among them). We provided these interviews to Holzer, who then chose her favorite lines from them and turned them into text-based artworks that were projected onto various Manhattan buildings and photographed. It was a challenging and potent project that still sits with me.


The dining room at the newly relocated and reopened Noma in Copenhagen. (Photo: Jason Loucas)

Having lunch at Noma in Copenhagen with the designer Johannes Torpe.

Meals aren’t usually as memorable as the three-and-a-half-hour lunch I had this past February with Johannes Torpe at Noma while reporting Surface’s May/June 2018 cover story on Bjarke Ingels. Johannes and I has never met, but I immediately felt a bond with him. In our conversation, which was mostly off the record, we went from our respective personal histories to our mutual passion for drumming to Bjarke’s Hollywood good looks (Johannes described Bjarke, hilariously, as half Jack Black, half Ricky Martin). After lunch, we drove to his firm’s design studio, where he has a soundproof room with two drum kits set up. We ended up drumming together for about an hour. It was fascinating to connect with him through a different language and to continue our conversation beyond words. (Coincidently, just two months before, I had had a similar experience with another designer-drummer, Michel Rojkind, in Mexico City.) There’s no doubt about it, rhythm has been ingrained in my work at Surface, and this was a literal manifestation of that.

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