Mark Zeff was born in South Africa but has been based in NYC since the mid-80’s.
An incredibly accomplished architect and designer, Mark’s reputation as a taste maker is rock solid, so why on Earth would he now make a virtual U-turn and open a shop called Blackbarn in Dumbo?
He’s designed private homes for Hollywood Stars, hotels, restaurants, bars, spas and yachts. His furniture designs are coveted by those in the know and there is no question that his taste is as refined and sophisticated as it gets. So why this, now?
Since Mark and I are first cousins (his father and my mother were siblings) I have no compunction about getting nosy with him. I’m four years older and remember him as a baby in his mother’s arms, while she cooled her pretty feet in our swimming pool as he screamed every time I tried to come near him.
“Leave him alone!” I can still hear my mother’s voice. I did but I didn’t want to. It would be years before we really connected.
A summer spent at my uncle’s home in Johannesburg when I was 17 bonded us for life. Mark was visiting from Cape Town or Australia perhaps (where his mother had eventually moved after his parents divorced), and we being older than my uncle’s second batch of kids, found ourselves drawn into an unlikely camaraderie.
Our grandfather who lived with Mark’s father and second wife, would loan us his car (and driver) and slip a few bills into our hands and instruct us to “go and have fun.”
We did. We spent the money like water. Heading directly into Hillbrow (where we were expressly forbidden to go by my uncle), we’d hit the record shop first where I’d deposit my cousin before heading off to Bumble & bumble (the tiny Salon opened by my friends Michael and Mark Gordon) or Garb, my favourite boutique owned by Geoffrey Bradfield (now another world-famous Interior Designer.)
One of those afternoons I turned Mark onto David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. He says it changed his life.
When Mark moved to NY in the 80’s, we spent lots of time together. He helped me decorate my apartments (in one of them hammering away at parts of the walls to chip away the plaster, revealing decades of paint and paper in layers). It was magnificently beautiful.
Yesterday morning I took the Subway to Dumbo. One stop into Brooklyn I got off the train and followed Mark’s directions. Turn right, walk two blocks, make a left, walk one block.
It was pouring – the old cobbled Brooklyn streets ran with rivulets – by the time I reached the Waterfront, my parka was soaked; my umbrella rendered useless. I found the shop (with its discreet signage) easily. It had the requisite quirkiness of Mark’s signature style. The door was locked.
The sign said closed. Had I misunderstood?
Someone appeared – a tall, good-looking young man opened the door and peered down at me through thick – framed Hipster spectacles. “We’re not actually open today.” He informed me with a slight Southern accent.
“I’m Mark’s cousin.” I said.
“Hi,” he introduced himself with a smile, “I’m Kristen’s brother.”
Kristen, Mark’s wife and partner in this enterprise, soon followed accompanied by two tiny terriers, and took me into the inner sanctum, behind the shop where Mark has relocated his eponymous Design firm.
It’s always a delight to see my cousin – we truly adore one another – and except for a brief falling out during the late 80’s, he’s the closest of kin besides my own immediate family. We are, in certain ways, very much alike, Mark and I. Aesthetically and in our personalities as well. Genes are a fascinating thing.
We both had beautiful mothers who had great taste themselves but I believe it is our (shared) grandmother who died when we were children (on my brother’s 4th birthday in fact), who was a divine creature, not only beautiful but gifted with impeccable style, who connects us through Creativity.
Sarah came from a Bohemian family of artists and eccentrics and in our generation, Mark, his youngest half-sibling (Reon, who hand painted the scallop shells in the bottom pic), and myself were the ones lucky enough to inherit those artistic genes.
And fortunately for us, they were recognized and encouraged.
Mark also inherited the ability to make money from both of his grandfathers, something I did not, but I’ve never cared too much about that and it certainly hasn’t gotten in the way of my charmed life!
We hugged and laughed like children as I dropped my wet coat and umbrella and bag all over his office chairs and floor, disregarding any polite protocol, as I insisted he give me the tour of the warehouse sized space I’d just walked through and seen only peripherally.
I was introduced to someone (very dapper) in the neighboring office and then led into what appeared to be a combination conference room/library.
A long table surrounded by baby blue molded Eames chairs set the tone for this space with its vaulted ceilings and industrial vibe.
It adjoined another “library” which contained samples of fabrics and fabrications, textiles, ceramic, steel, disparate bits and pieces collected over time, curated and catalogued like books. And books. Shelves of books.
In yet another adjoining area, a team of Designers worked quietly, as if separated from the fray in a think tank of sorts.
As we headed down the few steps that led from his offices into the Blackbarn shop, I realized that the quirky aesthetic at play, was in fact a form of calculated chaos, forcing one out of their comfort zone or ingrained beliefs regarding “good” taste, style and Design. The jumble of texture and the collision of Cultures Mark and Kristen have assembled in what used to be a loading dock, is in fact a perfect representation of how we live now.
As I looked around, I thought of the homes we grew up in, the homes our grandparents lived in. Homes and hotels we’d visited and stayed in over the years, how our sensibilities were informed by our early environments and youthful travels, not to mention our upbringings in far-flung places.
I’m staying in my brother’s apartment as I write this and am reminded of my uncle looking around at the stark modernity of this space. Clive (Mark’s dad) went through a period of Bauhaus minimalism – perhaps rebelling against the antiques his parents collected. My mother mixed antique with modern with Zen-like severity. Mark and I both like the mashup of total abandon. Precious, not so precious and frankly, pure junk live together happily in the fantasy worlds we both inhabit.
He does this for a living. I do it to live.
To really appreciate Blackbarn one needs time. Time for the eye to take it all in. The quality of being in an Art installation gives way to seeing individual pieces – one of a kind chairs, a rubber topped desk and sleek sofa designed by Mark coexist with Vintage pieces of varied Provenance. Having talked to Mark about where he got all of the pieces in the space, I knew that he had got some from garage sales, others from uk antique silver dealers, and a lot he made himself. He looked everywhere to find items that fascinated him. Bowls, textiles and hammered silver trays from Morocco, painted shells and sharks teeth – oddities and objects d’art sidled up to one another, making Blackbarn the ultimate Cabinet of Curiosities!
And the answer to the question I first posed, why Blackbarn, why now?
“I love collecting (and making) crazy stuff,” Mark laughed. “In a way I’d rather do this than the design business – I think the talent pool is better served making beautiful things.”
“This is very much Kristen’s project too,” he explained. “She found a lot of the art and antiques, she has great taste so it’s an opportunity for us to collaborate.”
This is merely a prototype. There will be more Blackbarn shops, perhaps even in our neck of the woods in the not too distant future.
I left my cousin puttering around, re-folding blankets they’d had made in Morocco, moving a table here, a bowl there, perfecting the studied imperfection. The black walls receded into themselves devoid of any light as the rain continued to fall relentlessly outside, the skies clouded over.
I thought of David Bowie’s Black Star.
Black is the colour.
BLACKBARN the shop, is located at 20 John Street in Brooklyn. Take the F train to York Street and turn right. Walk two blocks to John Street and make a left.
For more information on the shop, the concept and Mark Zeff, please visit the links below this post.
All photos snapped on my iphone