An Oral History of Suzanne Demisch’s New York City Apartment

The cofounder of French design gallery Demisch Danant invites artist and longtime friend Sheila Hicks to help peel back the layers of her home in New York City.

Living room. Works by Carl Auböck, Magdalena Suarez Frimkess, Joan Mitchell, Sheila Hicks, Joseph Beuys, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Joseph-André Motte.

Suzanne Demisch never trained as a detective, but given the laser-sharp focus of Demisch Danant, her New York City gallery that focuses exclusively on postwar French design from the 1950s through ’70s, she’s more than qualified. To wit: Demisch and her business partner, Stephane Danant, tracked down designer Maria Pergay (and subsequently signed her to their roster) by combing through the phone book in Morocco.

Her gallery, which also represents Pierre Paulin, Jos Devriendt, and Joseph-André Motte is evidence of her passion for this overlooked sliver of design history and her insatiable drive to unearth its gems. Demisch herself leads an intensely private life. Few have ventured inside her East Village apartment, an airy, plant-filled oasis in a 19th-century red-brick co-op that she’s called home for nearly 20 years. On a balmy October afternoon, Demisch invited her longtime friend, fiber artist Sheila Hicks, for a first-time tour of the apartment, which teems with treasures from the gallery and personal objects Demisch has collected from her travels.

Suzanne Demisch in her dining room.

This feels like a painter’s house. Did a painter live here?

I bought this apartment in 2000 and renovated it when I was pregnant with my son, Marlowe, in 2006. The neighboring unit belonged to the artist, photographer, and painter, Saul Leiter, who lived here for nearly 60 years. Francois Halard had actually shot it for a book, and when Saul died in 2013, I bought his apartment two years later. I wanted to preserve his spirit—the quirky elements like the paint, the layers, and the history.

You can see the original plaster on the door.

The color is the same as Saul’s original. In the 1940s, the building owners added enormous windows to bring more light into the artist lofts. Back then, the East Village was a happening place! Louise Bourgeois, Robert Rauschenberg—they were here.

So the original paint isn’t poisonous?

It was leaded at first, but we removed it. The walls were crumbling, so I hired a plasterer to restore the original look. The black plaster is actually inspired by a trip to Pompeii—I was mesmerized by how it gives an old-world touch.

Who built the original structure?

We think a Civil War general. Some years later, it was converted into an orphanage. This is one of the only blocks in the East Village that has honored its history and hasn’t gone commercial. Marilyn Appleberg, the co-op’s president, has lived here for 60 years. She’s responsible for the trees, lampposts, stone paving, and the original development’s integrity.

Living room. Maria Pergay’s Drape Cabinet under Self Portrait, 1929, by Mercedes Matter; other works by Sheila Hicks and Francois & Claude Lalanne.

We’re in such an oasis here! Nothing competes with nature.

The block is special. My apartment faces the co-op’s large backyard garden. Many of us have been living here for decades.

With this heat, I feel like we’re in Louisiana! Except the air conditioner is too new. Can’t you get an ancient unit?

[Laughs] I’m replacing it next summer.

The heater in your laundry room looks like a real sculpture. Does it still work?

Absolutely. It must be from the 1940s or ’50s. I restored it because I like the dated, cracked appearance, like the plaster on my bedroom walls. Just yesterday, I put out a ceramic piece on the mantel in there.

It’s by Yasuhisa Kohyama! Look up his film but don’t listen to the soundtrack. The images are enough to put you in the right spirit. Anyway, the dated look of the walls in here must have taken a while!

When we restored the apartment, I was adamant about preserving the paint. The contractors didn’t listen when doing my bedroom—I was mad for six months.

Who made your kitchen table? It’s not dissimilar from the ones Luis Barragán made.

A Belgian company. It’s solid oak. I wanted it to be peaceful, along with the 19th-century wide plank flooring. I ripped out newer parquet because I wanted original floors. I have a lot of vintage chairs, maybe too many, which I bought upstate. I don’t want my apartment to look like an installation. I have what I have, and it’ll never be done.

Maria Pergay’s Pouf Colonne in the living room.

Has the sprinkler system gone off? How fun—I’m sure your plants will love it.

I was never a plant person, but the apartment’s light- ing is so ideal. Now I have around 20 plants in my office. I can’t get rid of them!

When I see plants growing, it makes me feel like everything is OK. That if plants are surviving in our shared atmosphere, I can too. Do the fireplaces work?

I have four fireplaces, but they’re all decorative. I collect different things, like baskets, rocks, and Japanese textiles, and I play around with their arrangements. They usually end up on the mantel or windowsill. I don’t have many surfaces or tables.

Your kitchen table has more surface than any apartment on Park Avenue! To have such a clean space of almost three square meters doesn’t exist within overly decorated apartments. Do you keep it like this all the time?

Yes, it’s very communal, almost like a Shaker space. My son will spread out here and do his homework after school. I don’t have much clutter. I’ve made functional choices, and the apartment is magical for that reason. Things come and go depending on what’s needed. Sometimes I experiment with furniture from the gallery, but most of what you see is sentimental or from my travels. The Maria Pergay cabinet, for example, is a one-of-a-kind prototype, and it lets me live with her in a way. I bought the Lalanne egg with Stephane 20 years ago.

I think of household objects like a dinner party. The question is, how does a new addition walk into the door and make friends with all these treasures you’ve accumulated? Have you bought things at the flea market?

Yes, I bought the triangular Frank Lloyd Wright table 15 years ago. Its height doesn’t quite work, but I just like it as an object. I’ll live with things because I like them. The sofa, for example, was from a client commission. I became obsessed with the pink color from an interior in Beirut. I spent months and months color-matching the right pink fabric. I’ve had it for three years and I’m not sure if I like it, but I challenged myself to not have a cream-colored sofa. I sit on it every day—the vintage Indonesian ikat pillows really make it.

Works by Sheila Hicks, Claude de Muzac, Charles Burchfield, and Peter Montagnon in the living room.

Is this the front or back of your rug? It goes well with the fireplace.

Front, though it looks worn like a rug’s underside. I’m not sure it’s the right rug, but I don’t think too much about decoration. I care more about how the environment makes you feel. For example, Saul Leiter’s original lampshade is resting on the mantel. I like layering objects!

I like how you’ve paired my sculpture with Joan Mitchell’s drawing and Saul’s lamp. The drawing looks like the sketch for my sculpture. Should we put one of my corn husk sculptures by the window? It’s a real corn husk from Guatemala!

Sure! It needs to hang somewhere. Why not?

Do you have a list of future home improvements?

Yes, I finished the kitchen cabinets six months ago. I still have to replace the countertop and renovate the master bathroom.

It’s so quiet and peaceful here.

I don’t live with many rules. When you walk into a room, you want to know who has lived there and that person’s story. This room isn’t particularly beautiful, but it’s personal—not right or wrong. This lamp on the Pergay unit, for example, is something I picked up for ten dollars at a yard sale because I liked the butterfly patterns. I kept Saul Leiter’s original palette. But I also have a Pergay stool and Motte chairs from the gallery.

Again, it’s that dinner party of contemporary and vintage.

Yes. It’s important to embrace history!

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