The year was 1978. A promising HSPVA grad spotted a crumbling, albeit graceful, two-story stucco Montrose residence and knocked, seeking the upstairs rental for the next chapter in his life. Thirty-five years later, Arena Design is celebrating a quarter century, and its eponymous founder, Rusty Arena, now owns the handsome, restored circa-1910 residence that he entered that day long ago. Famed equally as a wizard of wallpaper and maestro of fabric, his work has graced interiors from the Kips Bay Show House to special projects for Bunny Williams, including a lavish current commission for a yacht moored in the Mediterranean. What has been constant throughout has been this house, which has evolved along with Arena yet always remained a showplace for his classic and coveted textile creations and wall coverings.
Tell us the saga of your remarkable residence — and how it came to be your own. My house was built in 1910, according to city records. Audubon Place was not established until 1912, so I think this was one of the first houses in the neighborhood. Due to its boxy, simple construction, I have always felt it was a farmhouse. Shortly after I purchased the house in 1998, I had the garage apartment demolished. I found several horseshoes when the slab was removed. I still have the first one hanging outside.
I was first introduced to the house when it was a duplex. My dear friend Katy Morris, who still lives down the street at 92 years of age, knew I was desperately searching for a place in the neighborhood, and she had heard the girl who had the upstairs apartment was moving to California. The entrance to the apartment was a rickety staircase on the west exterior of the house. I knocked, and to my surprise, she actually answered the door, as Montrose still had that great hippy-ish vibe back then. I introduced myself and asked if she was soon to depart for the West Coast. She admitted she was, in fact, going to move … Kathy was her name, and she invited me in for a cup of tea. I knew the moment I walked in that someday this would be my home.
That was in 1978. The house was white stucco and in bad repair. It had no air conditioners upstairs but really great old school-house ceiling fans. I was young and didn’t care. Tom and Eunice were the owners. They lived downstairs and were quite eccentric. It was a perfect fit. I could truly write a book on the escapades that took place in this quaint little house, but that’s another story.
The challenges that awaited me were far away at that time, and I tend to be a bit nostalgic about those early years. The 20 years that were spent upstairs before I actually purchased the house were full of life and an attitude that is hard to put into words. I had no money, but rent was cheap. I made art, sold art and travelled. I sublet the apartment even when I moved to New York, thinking I could never really leave completely. Fast forward, I became a homeowner for the first time and had no idea what that even meant.
Renovation tale. One memorable task I remember quite clearly was that I was the first to have the house leveled. It’s on pier and beams. I received multiple bids. As there was no Angie’s List at that time, I picked the medium bid. I saw all the huge wooden beams that would be needed to successfully lift the house to its rightful position and felt confident I had chosen wisely. I left the country knowing when I returned all would be straight and ready to begin the restoration. Not.
When I returned, I was delighted. It looked perfectly level; the stucco had cracked a little more than before, and that was a good thing. However, after the first hard rain, I heard the house creaking more than usual. It seems all that heavy timber never really quite made it to the areas under the house where it needed it the most. I had paid the contractor and wasn’t certain why the house had settled back into its comfortable former position. I was able to contact them and expressed my concern, and they were to return to the house as soon as the weather permitted. They never showed up!
I eventually crawled under the house, inching my way on my back, as that was the only way to fit. I had a major panic attack about halfway in, as I’m quite claustrophobic and couldn’t breathe. The flashlight had fallen out of my hand. I eventually found it and determined to find out what they had done for repairs. The main support beam had two-by-fours nailed to it on either side and a few cinder blocks for good measure. Otherwise, it was the same old beam. It had never been replaced. I assume the heavy beams went to the next job site. So much for a good start! I reported them to the Better Business Bureau. They were not even listed as an operating business. Needless to say, the number I had been calling was no longer a working number. Live and learn.
Three reasons to look forward to fall. First, I’m so excited to have a 25th anniversary dinner in my factory. I’ve never had an event in the factory. I’ve always thought it would be a great place for a party, so now is the time to put that theory to the test. The factory will be transformed into a wonderful nightclub and swank dining affair, with the 100-foot-long printing tables set for dinner. Second, I’m delighted to have a new venue with ID Collection showroom in Houston and Dallas. For the first time in five years, my product is available outside of my factory. Third, I’m also having a wonderful event in L.A. to celebrate Arena Design’s 25th anniversary at Caché, located in the heart of the design district on Melrose, with a luncheon followed with a cocktail party.
New at Arena Design. Several new fabric and paper designs. Pavé, a shimmering, subtle impossibly wacky grid of three-inch squares on paper. I’ve used it on my ceiling for a twist on a mica flake. Discus, a geometric repeating sphere on jute is also being shown in four different colors. Sumba will make its debut, a painterly coarse-grain weave printed on high-gloss paper with a matte-top screen. Tigré, a luscious velvet in various colors as an upholstery fabric. Pená, a delightful large-scale print, also on jute and linen. I’ll keep a few surprises to be revealed at the celebration at the factory.
Classic design volumes in your library. Oscar Niemeyer (by Philip Jodidio, Taschen), Patterns That Connect (by Carl Schuster and Edmund Carpenter, Abrams).
Designers throughout history you adore. Dorothy Draper, Syrie Maugham, John Dickinson and Tony Duquette.
Design object you lust for. Lauren Rottet’s new sofa designs.
First piece of art. A Jim Hatchett wooden piece, Blood Test Altar, 1989.
Next art acquisition. A fabulous Rauschenberg.
Best painter. Rembrandt.
Bar-cart staples. Grey Goose with tart black cherry and club soda.
Entertaining style. Very casual, usually in the kitchen in summer/winter, and in the garden for spring and fall.
On the menu. A crisp crostini followed by a house specialty prepared by my partner, Rudy Martinez: roasted rack of lamb with coarse salt and herbes de Provence, couscous and fresh peas.
Ideal number of guests. Eight.
Go-to sources for feathering your nest? If I told, I would be torched. Sorry!
Last fabulous find. A spectacular pair of French early 18th-century bronze handles incredibly designed and beautifully crafted, purchased at Settlers.
Favorite place to stay in the world. La Réserve, Paris.
Ideal second home. Puerto Vallarta with a spectacular view of the Pacific.
Blogs you trawl. Style Bastard.
Four fave design websites.The Sartorialist, Interior Design, nowness.com, Glasstire.
Design philosophy in a sound bite. A reverence for the past, with an irreverence for the possibilities of the future.
Arena aesthetic. Creating many layers like the peeling of an onion. As each layer is revealed, it becomes more transparent and the content, more exposed. Hopefully the tears will be of joy!
Most over-the-top commission. Painting the nude body of Cloris Leachman for the cover of Alternative Medicine Digest. The location was the L.A. studio of photographer Richard Todd. The year was 1996.
The one thing you regret not buying. A beautiful antique ring in Bangkok. I hesitated, then tried to locate the vendor once I had decided it was for me, andI couldn’t find the shop in the enormous indoor market.
On working with Susan Gutfreund and Bunny Williams. Susan has impeccable taste and often relies on me to interpret her ideas, which are often vague and always interesting. For the Kips Bay Show House, , it was Susan’s idea to use jute as the wall covering. The scale of the cavernous room dictated the need for a heavy texture, and the results were stunning.
Bunny, I had the pleasure of meeting many years ago while she was designing the apartment of a friend in New York. I had just begun my fabric collection, and it was far from fabulous. She went through the samples with me and was very kind. I remember her making suggestions of colors and textures. Many years later, I was so pleased when she ordered Avatrix in one of the standard colors we offered.
Your process to birth a fabric pattern or wallpaper. Do you design at your atelier? It always begins with a flash of inspiration. I usually sketch a rough idea, then mull it over before I go to sleep. I often wake with the detail in my mind and simply make it a reality when I get the time. I rarely have a quiet moment at my atelier. It is much more like a factory with many interruptions. I prefer my home for tranquility and clarity.
Trademark apparel item. My eyeglasses.
Lucky talisman. A wonderful Celtic ring I often wear around my neck on a long leather cord. I purchased it in Nice at an antique shop and was told it was once used for currency.
If you weren’t at the helm of Arena Design. I would spend more time painting, sculpting and still making prints.