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Homa Taj In Conversation with Marc Bouwer on Dressing Angelina, Beyonce, Charlize, Halle & Co.

Angelina Jolie in Marc Bouwer @ The Academy Awards, 2004

A typical question for Tinseltown’s favourite Couturier is not whom Marc Bouwer has dressed? It is more like, which superstar female celebrity is queueing to parade on the Red Carpet in her Bouwer. A select list of his close friends and clients include: Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Whitney Houston, Halle Berry, Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Lopez, Sandra Bullock, Lydia Hearst, Paris Hilton, Ivanka Trump, Toni Braxton, Iman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Catrall, Mariah Carey, Nicole Kidman, Emily Blunt, Kim Kardashian, Angie Harmon, Alessandra Ambrosio, Candice Swanepoel, Ciara, Eva Langoria, Heidi Klum, Jennifer Hudson, Jessica Simpson… for starters…

 

Homa Nasab – You were born and raised in South Africa. Who /what were the biggest influences on your choice to become a fashion designer?

Marc Bouwer – As a child I loved the clothes worn by women in all the old Hollywood movies. I was definitely influenced by some of Hollywood’s best designers, like Adrian, Edith Head and Givenchy. Then as I grew older, I became more influenced by more modern designers like Halston and Thierry Mugler. I love the easiness of Halston’s draping and his sexy sporty-ness, but also loved the heroic strong women that Mugler presented. Somewhere between the two, I found myself.

HN – Where do you find inspiration for your designs?

MB – I find inspiration everywhere, it can be the yellow and black taxi cabs whizzing  by me in NYC or the rainbow of lights reflected in a muddy puddle on the streets of Manhattan after a rainstorm. It can come from anywhere and at any time, I’m always on the lookout and know it when I see it!

HN – Do you collect art – what, how, etc…?

MB – I love art and try to collect as much as I can. I collect more obscure and unknown artists, often things you find being sold on the street or at benefit auctions. I am a painter myself and have some paintings of my own hung in my apt.

HN – What is your favourite museum? Do you have a favourite artist(s)?

MB – It’s hard to say that I have a favorite museum, because I’ve been to and seen so many great ones. As a New Yorker, I guess the MOMA and the Whitney come to mind, and I visit them often. I have several favorite artists, in fact 3 of them were the inspiration for this particular collection (Spring 2011):

-Aubrey Beardsley, for his fantastic black and white drawings.
-Alexander Calder for his incredible sculptures and mobiles.
-Wassily Kandinsky for his marvellous use of primary colors in conjunction with black and white.

 

David Bowie, Iman, Marc Bouwer & Petra Nemcova

HN – You are best known for your Red Carpet super glamorous gowns. When was the first time that you dressed an actress at the Academy Awards (The Oscars)? How did that feel to have a billion people (give or take a couple of million) around the globe see your design?

MB – I would say my most memorable dress that I have designed was the one worn by Angelina Jolie, to the 76th Academy Awards, in 2004. This was a turning point, both for Angelina, as well as for me. I suddenly became a household name, after many years as a working designer. Seeing her step out onto the Red Carpet, saying my name, being viewed by millions of people watching around the globe, was a surreal out of body experience for me! Even though I had dressed many famous women before Angelina, this was the one that put me on the map.

HN – One of the primary elements of your design philosophy that I find truly awe-inspiring is your almost militant discipline not to steal the show from your clients. Honestly, if I were dressing someone for an Academy Awards Ceremony, I can’t guarantee that I would not go for that Va Va Voom gown which everyone would talk about the next day. I can totally imagine editors running around, asking, “Wait, does anyone remember WHO wore That Nasab (Bouwer!) Gown, …again?” …

 

MB – I guess my philosophy for designing for glamorous women are clothes that skim the body, enhance the female form with deceptively simple cuts and architecture. Clothes that look effortless, but always sexy, empowering a woman with clean lines and bold shapes. Every celebrity has their own personality and style, and as a designer it is my job to enhance and frame who they are.

HN – When did you introduce GlamIt! and what is your design philosophy behind it?

MB – I introduced  GlamIt! about 5 years ago, and this was to expressly reach a wider audience, by having a similar design philosophy to the couture,  but being more affordable in that it is produced on a larger scale as apposed to the limited editions of the couture.

HN – Re: GlamIt! How do you make money designing such classic shapes? Seriously! Fashion is about change… so, every season, women are made to feel perfectly inadequate until we buy the next hot thing …and, then, we are redeemed. But with a collection like this, a woman buys half a dozen dresses and she is set for the next 5-7 years?

BM – Again it is my design philosophy that takes classic shapes and reinvents them in more modern and edgy incarnations, that has driven the success of GlamIt!

 

HN – How long ago did you introduce M by Marc Bouwer on QV? Other top designers whose collections are shown alongside include Isaac Mizrahi, Pamela Dennis and Melania Trump. However, let’s be honest, QVC doesn’t exactly have a reputation as the most fashionable of venues…

MB – I introduced M by Marc Bouwer for QVC about 6 years ago. I was one of the first in a group of younger, more modern designers QVC took on. The QVC of today is a very different place than it was years ago. It has a much more modern approach to apparel and host’s some of America’s top designers and celebrities on their roster.

HN – By the way, do you only show on QVC America or their UK, German and Japanese channels too? If all four markets, how do responses to your designs differ from country to country?

MB – As of now, we only sell QVC America, but have been asked by many of the international QVC channels to participate and will probably do so, fairly soon. However for now, my three different collections keep me very busy!

HN – Let’s talk about your models: Candice Swanepoel & JP (Jennifer Pugh) – Aside from the fact that they are both drop dead gorgeous, what qualities about them attracted you the most?

MB – Fall 2010: Candice like myself is a fellow South African, but aside from that, she is one of the most gorgeous woman I’ve ever worked with; she has an incredible trained dancers body and the most beautiful blue eyes.

For Spring 2011, we used IMG supermodel JP. I was attracted to her incredible ability to move and act in front of a camera and transform herself into the essence that embodies my new collection. With her large expressive eyes and her pouty sexiness, she became my muse for the new collection. I, especially, think that she embodies the spirit of an edgy modern day Brigitte Bardot!

HN – You don’t use any material that is derived from animals – fur,leather or wool. I understand that this philosophy encourages you to discover new types of textiles…

MB – Technology today gives us the ability to recreate the look and feel of fur and leather, without the cruelty involved. So for me there is no reason to use the real thing, when there is a cruelty free alternative.

HN – So, have you directly worked with PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals)?

MB – PETA has sponsored 3 of my past collections and actually made history by me being the first designer to be sponsored by PETA.

HN – Are you a feminist?

MB – Am I a Feminist? Yes, definitely!

–All photos courtesy MARC BOUWER


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Homa Taj In Conversation with Oren Safdie on Staging THE BILBAO EFFECT

Guggenheim-Museum-Bilbao-Oren-Safdie--1024x826

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Photo courtesy: David M. Heald SRFG, New York

Canadian-Israeli-American playwright and screenwriter, Oren Safdie, has architectural genomes running through his blood. The son of the internationally acclaimed Israeli-Canadian architect, Moshe Safdie, Oren grew up in one of the greatest architectural heritage sites in the world, Habitat ‘67, in Montreal, Quebec. He attended the Graduate School of Architecture at Columbia University before turning to writing. Oren is a playwright-in-residence at the prestigious NYC theatre, La MaMa E.T.C. and until recently was the Artistic Director of the Malibu Stage Co. in L.A. It was at the Malibu Stage where his now famous Private Jokes, Public Places first debuted before running Off-Broadway. Safdie’s next play, The Last Word, ran off-Broadway in 2007 and starred two-time Emmy Award Winner Daniel J. Travanti (“Hill Street Blues”). His other plays include West Bank, UKJews & JesusFiddler Sub-Terrain, Smothers; and LA Compagnie which Oren developed into a ½-hour pilot for CBS. As a screenwriter, he scripted the film You Can Thank Me Laterstarring Ellen Burstyn and the Israeli film Bittersweet. Oren has written for MetropolisDwellBeyond andThe New Republic. His most recent play, The Bilbao Effect, opened in May 2010 at the AIA (American Institute of Architects) Centre, in New York City.

 

In the ”The Bilbao Effect,” Oren Safdie tackles the architectural myth – or is it reality? – inspired by Frank Gehry’s 1997 masterpiece: one of five branches of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Basque County, Spain. Gehry’s creation transformed the poor industrial port city of Bilbao into a must-see tourist destination. The success of Guggenheim Bilbao spurred other cities into hiring famous architects and giving them carte blanche to design even more spectacular buildings in hopes that the formula could be repeated. In The Bilbao Effect – the second play of a planned trilogy focusing on contemporary architecture — Erhardt Shlaminger is a world famous architect who faces censure by the American Institute of Architects, following accusations that his urban redevelopment project for Staten Island has led to a woman’s suicide. The play confronts controversial urban design issues that New Yorkers have recently encountered in Brooklyn as a result of the hotly-debated plans to redevelop the Atlantic Yards into an architecture-star mega-development. The Bilbao Effect explores whether architecture has become more of an art than a profession, and at what point the ethics of one field violate the principles of the other.

Homa Taj – You were raised with architectural genome running through your veins. When did you decide to deviate from the practice of architecture and become a writer?

I was in my last year at Columbia, and the University encouraged graduate students to take a course outside their discipline. For some reason, I took a playwriting course and won a competition for a short scene I wrote. But, perhaps, the seeds were planted in the summer in my second year: I had to write a paper for an architecture history class about the father/son Saarinan’s. For some reason, I flipped to the back of my notepad and started writing a train-of-thought rough novel about my childhood. I found power in the written word as a way of expressing what I wanted to say – more than design – and once I saw the words up on stage read by actors, I was won over.

HT – Academically speaking, you were trained both as an architect and a playwright. When visualizing your plays, do you envision them primarily in textual or spatial form?

It’s important to be able to use all the senses in theatre – to know when to call up those tools in order to give the play what it needs – but my plays do tend to be heavy on dialogue, which, hopefully, makes the physical moments all that more special and important.  But I would say that playwriting is more like writing music to me.  Words are notes, there are rhythms to spoken word and the back and forth banter, and if your ear is in tune, there are things that just don’t sound right.  In fact, when I attend my own plays in previews, I sit behind the wall and listen to the words rather than watch. I can identify problems in the text or the acting a lot better that way. I think it’s what separates a playwright from a screenwriter or even a novelist. It’s different muscles.

HT – As with an architect, a playwright constructs a world which his or her characters occupy. Though architecture is, often, the manifestation of an ideal world… the space of a play is designed to accommodate the narrative, conflict and resolution of a story. Where do you begin?

I begin with characters, usually based on people I know.  It’s then important to identify what it is each character needs. The needs from opposing characters should conflict. InPrivate Jokes Public Places it was a young student needing to convince the jury that she should be taken seriously. For the jurors, their needs became evident when the proposed design threatened to undercut their prestige, and so they became defensive and tried to take her down in order to maintain their status.  Once I set up strong dynamics and interesting characters, I try and get out of the way and let the story tell itself. That said, unlike architecture, which has to deal with a specific site, I have endless possibilities, and I sometimes find myself imposing certain constraints to generate imaginative solutions – even if I end up breaking them. It also doesn’t hurt to choose a topic that you feel you desperately need to address. For me, hypocrisy is my target of choice.

HT – Many people that are raised under the shadows of powerful parents are often overwhelmed by their identities. So, they either run away from their influence or totally rebel against. You, however, seem to have taken inspiration from your father’s work …

It’s true that Private Jokes, Public Places owed some of its philosophy to my father’s writings, but the essence of the play was from my own experiences in architecture school and, I suppose, from growing up surrounded by architects and architecture where it’s in your face morning, noon and night. (We even lived in his building.) But if one looks at my next play The Bilbao Effect, or the third play in my architecture trilogy, which I’m presently writing, I think I approach the profession as both admirer and critic – some of which is agreeable with my father and some that conflicts with his beliefs. Now, if I write something that my father finds disturbing, does that mean I’m being rebellious? I would hope to think – and maybe I’m wrong – that I’m past the point where I am trying to do something other than express my feelings about something that moves me. But did it move me to see my father moved when he saw Private Jokes, Public Places? Of course. Likewise, I probably got a bit of a charge out of his negative reaction to The Bilbao Effect. I’m only human.

HT – What was it like to grow up in a contemporary heritage site – Habitat 67 (Montreal, Quebec)? And, what are your fondest (or remarkable) memories growing up there?

Growing up in Habitat ’67 was in many ways like living in a regular house – that is the feeling you got when actually in you’re apartment. We had three terraces, views of the city, St. Lawrence River and the old Expo ’67 site. These abandoned buildings served as our playgrounds. We’d bike over the bridge and scavenger through the old pavilions of the various countries. (The buildings weren’t torn down for some time as Montreal looked for ways to revive the Expo site.) Other than that, living in Habitat had mixed appeal. There was no other infrastructure in our area (shops, restaurants, schools, etc) as Habitat had to be scaled back from its original plan that envisioned it ten times the size. But the isolation also created a very strongly knit community. As the building’s paperboy – and the unofficial tour guide when my father was out of town -, I got to know every inch and everyone one in the building.

HT – It’s interesting that the title of Expo ’67 was based on Antoine de Saint Exupery’s autobiographical Terre des homes or “Man and his World” (1939). So, would you say that in some ways, the building embodies a double literary significance; that it is (i) the (auto)biography of (ii) a writer/philosopher. When growing up, were you aware of this literary (non-tangible) heritage – in addition to the monumental (tangible) heritage – of your ‘home’?

To be honest, I never heard of this inspiration for Habitat before. I always heard – and it is not hard to see – that Habitat was my father’s way of recreating his childhood home (Haifa, Israel) as he was torn away at a young age, after my grandfather decided his business prospects were better in Canada.  The terracing, gardens – even being on the water – call to mind a Mediterranean city. Take an Israeli kid of 15 years old at the height of Nationalism, and tear him away from his friends and plop him down in snowy Canada, and something’s bound to happen. Longing for home is a powerful motivator.

HT – The first play in this trilogy is a comedy of academae – a favorite subject of mine! Private Jokes, Public Places premiered nearly a decade ago… Can you say a few words about it?

This play grew out of a ten-minute play I wrote while I was in architecture school. The architecture review at Columbia’s school of Architecture in the early 1990’s was particularly daunting as it was not unlikely to have Steven Holl, Kenneth Frampton, Robert Stern and/or Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas or a number of other titans sitting on your jury. It was a spectacle, and I always felt it lent itself to drama – especially when a student didn’t go quietly and roll over. (That was me!) But it was also interesting in that the jury became less about the project, and more about the famous architects doing battle amongst each other, and strutting their stuff to a public that was invited to come and watch. Another element that prompted me to pick up my 10-minute scene many years later and extend it into a full length play had to do with my own negative reviews I received for a spoof I wrote on Fiddler On The Roof called Fiddler Sub-Terrain, set in contemporary Montreal in the backdrop of Quebec politics. It brought back the feeling of putting something out there and being judged. (Also around the time, I received an alumni newsletter from the GSAPP and couldn’t understand any of the archi-babble language.) So, all these elements coming together at a specific time made me write Private Jokes, Public Places in 10 days. (I barely remember writing it – it was pure emotion.)

HT – Academic/institutional reform has been one of the main themes in your plays – at least the first two of this trilogy …

I see my three plays on architecture touching on different aspects of the field. Yes, Private Jokes, Public Places was about academia, and the notion that despite being an entity that should be open for learning and debate, it’s often very rigid and uncompromising. But, for me, The Bilbao Effect is about the professional practice of architecture and its moral and ethical responsibilities to the public. My next play, A False Solution, will tackle the creative side of architecture, exploring what influences an architect to design a building as they choose, including the politics, sex, ego and all those fun things that, hopefully, make a drama. With all these plays, architecture merely plays the background in dealing with societal issues. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be very exciting to watch. The Bilbao Effect was criticized by some for being a little to architecture-centric, and I’ve taken that criticism to heart in writing my new play. (I can’t ever forget that I’m a playwright first.)

HT – The Bilbao Effect, too, deals with issues that relate to the institution(s) of architecture. As a matter of fact, it literally takes place at the American Institute of Architects. Which came first, your desire to critique the institution (not the Institute) of architecture or was staging the play at the AIA an after thought?

The Bilbao Effect started with my series of satirical interviews I wrote for Metropolis Magazine, but also came about with my on-going question of whether architecture is following the right path – has it become too much of an art form without the art growing out from the design, much in the way a spider’s web is built for function, but is unequivocally beautiful in its structure and technology. (I suppose, I’m at heart a Frank Lloyd Wrightian.) So, how to deal with all these issues and bring in some of the characters I was working with in the magazine?  A court trial seemed perfect. As Private Jokes, Public Places had moved off-Broadway and ran at the AIA Center in New York, I thought of the AIA New York site because I was familiar with the space, but it also represented an institution of authority and power. (I couldn’t really justify a court trial like this as a legal hearing, so it’s an internal hearing that’s been opened up to the public. ) I also went to their web site and looked up their code of ethics, and what is the procedure when one wants to file a complaint against an AIA member architect. From there, the imagination had to work out a way to make it a court trial open to the public – much in the same way the public was invited to be part of the proceeding in Private Jokes, Public Places, so I surmised that due to public pressure, the AIA has had to change their closed door policy and open the hearings to the public.  Once the rules started getting stretched, it became part of the play where the structure and formality disintegrate until the proceedings resemble the Deconstructivist building that’s actually on trial.  As the proceeding unravel and become more absurd, hopefully the audience begins to understand that the same level of absurdity in the architecture is being passed off as genius.

HT –At the heart of The Bilbao Effect lies the importance of challenging tradition – that is, not accepting it at face value but to examine it critically before accepting or rejecting it…

I’ve always been skeptical—hopefully in a positive way – that makes me research all sides and come up with my own conclusions rather than relying on “experts” or what is reported in the news from one side or the other. In any university, there is an overriding philosophy, whether you know it or not, and it just so happens that when I came into Columbia’s School of Architecture, there was a changing of the guard from one dean to the next. I didn’t exactly fit in with the new philosophy, and found that my approach was not celebrated because I was not creating structures and drawings that were as “fantastic” and acrobatic as some of my classmates. When you’re in the milieu of a trend and everyone else is going the other direction, it’s difficult to stick to your guns, especially when you’ve come to school to learn from experienced professors. But perhaps that was my real education in architecture school.

HT – It’s hard to read about architecture without thinking of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (pub. 1946). Have you read the book, and if so, is there any correlation between Howard Roark and Erhardt Shlaminger?

Yes, I read the book quite a while ago, and also saw the movie. I think the two protagonists are quite the opposite though. Roark was loosely based on FLW, and he was an architect obsessed with design as a social statement. I don’t think today’s architects possess the same motivations, nor do I feel they would go the distance to protect the integrity of their design. It’s a sign of our times. But it’s also a comment on society. People have become too comfortable. I blame TV.
HT – Did you go to Bilbao to visit the Museum? (Whether yes or no:) How else did you study this ‘Effect’? In other words, what inspired you to write a play about this particular phenomenon?

I have not been to the museum, but I have been to various other new Deconstructivist museums, opera houses and concert halls. (I know Mr. Gehry doesn’t like being labelled as a Deconstructivist, but I’m not sure what else you’d call it.) But I suppose the Bilbao Effect became very evident to me when I was living in Toronto – a city desperately trying to find an architectural identity, and so insecure about being a world class city, that they totally fell into the trap, trying to lure name architects with splashy buildings in order to highlight the city. They’ve ended up with Libeskind’d ROM – one of the ugliest buildings I’ve ever seen.  But another thing tipped my off while I was in London. It was reading a review in the Guardian of a new addition to the Denver Art Museum, also by Libeskind, and was struck by the praise for the building even though the architecture critic admitted that the building was probably terrible for housing any art. Then, of course, one only has to be in touch with the public and feel their resentment to all the new buildings coming up. They’re powerless to do anything about it.

HT – Have you ever met Frank Gehry? Also, do you know if Gehry or anyone from The Guggenheim has seen the play? If so, what are their responses?

I’ve met Mr. Gehry briefly. No, I don’t think he saw the play. But I also think it’s important for me to correct a misconception. Although The Bilbao Effect had many similarities with his Atlantic Shipyards project, and take the title from his building, it is much more critical of architects who have tried to imitate what he did. One of my favourite buildings is his Fred and Ginger building in Prague. But I do think when you blow up the scale of what he’s doing – such as the Atlantic Yards, or even M.I.T., it becomes irrational slice and dice for the mere pleasure of being different without philosophically justifying itself. When I was in architecture school, I also attended a lecture of Frank Gehry, before he got really really famous. He showed a highrise building that he was designing, and on the top was something that looked like a fold out newspaper. Asked how he came up with it, he explained that during the creative process someone put a folded up newspaper on the top and it looked interesting. I was a little struck by that – and not in a good way.

HT – What do you think of Gehry’s 2008 statement in which he declared that the notion that a single building can alter the fate of an entire region is… “B.S.”?

I tend to agree. I think the problem arises when a city or an architect sets out to transform an entire city with one building. That said, buildings are tourist attractions, and I’m not sure as many people would go to Pisa if the leaning tower wasn’t leaning.

HT – What did your father think of The Bilbao Effect? Moreover, what does he (&you) think of today’s Starchitects?

You’d have to ask my father, now that he’s seen the play. After he read it, he wasn’t very pleased. He was disturbed. In terms of today’ starchitects, hopefully that definition will change as more firms are becoming a collection of young architects. What came out of the field before the recession had a lot to do with our economic times, and the field’s need to put out recognizable figures to augment their profession. But hopefully, that has changed and we will not have the “signature” architecture where a city wants to get a “Gehry” or a “Hadid” as if they’re collecting art. Still, I do worry that as we go forward, and architects feel they have to stand out from the pack, we will continue to see projects that make a mockery of their surrounding and place importance on themselves. Instead of fitting in, recent architecture has been about standing out.

HT – What’s next in store for The Bilbao Effect? A Screenplay?

I don’t think this play would make a good film. But maybe a television series where architects have a secret plot to control the world. You’d need a super hero to counter them though, and I’m not sure that exists.


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Homa Taj In Conversation with PLAYBOY’s Artist in Residence – Olivia De Berardinis

Olivia De Berardinis, Dita von Teese, Courtesy Olivia De Berardinis

A friend recently asked me, “How do you segue from writing about a Byzantine scholar to Playboy bunnies?” He was referring to my last interview with Professor James R. Russell,The Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at the Department of Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University.

My response? I had two words for him: Empress Theodora (c. A.D. 500-548). My fascination with the powerful wife of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I began nearly two decades ago. Theodora was the most influential woman in the Eastern Roman Empire. She was one of the first women’s rights activists whose influence on her husband’s polity substantially improved the position of women in that society. According to Procopius’ titillating account of Theodora in The Secret History (c. 550), Her Highness was, also, particularly fond of staging notoriously scandalous performances of erotic nature… in public.

So, here, Christopher. Here is your answer. Now, on with the Bunnies!

As a traditionally trained art historian and scholar I take my work very seriously. I allocate equal amounts of time researching pre-medieval Empresses as I do contemporary Pin Up artists, burlesque performers and fetish models (notice the teasers for forthcoming articles!). Needless to say, I spent many laborious hours studying my latest subject, the most famous living female Pin Up artist, Olivia de Berardinis. Olivia – as she is simply known to her fans – whom I met earlier this year in Las Vegas, has also been Playboy’s Artist in Residence, since 2002.

My investigation into her body of work, which spans nearly four decades, led me to peruse through numerous books and articles on aspects of erotica (a favourite subject of mine) as well as visits to a healthy number of websites which celebrate men and women’s sexuality – popularly known as porno.

 

HN – How did the daughter of an aeronautical engineer who was trained as a painter on New York City end up illustrating Pin Ups for men’s magazines?

ODB – As an only child, I was raised mainly by my mother, a working woman, since my father was mostly away travelling for work; so I was often alone – a latch-key child. I would be given stacks of papers and boxes of pencils to amuse myself. Both my parents are real characters, my mother imprinting me the most, being my first muse. She was a disgruntled tomboy glamourpuss and would entertain me with terrible imitations of Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn and Zsa Zsa Gabor.

In art school, I barely showed up for classes. I moved to Soho in the early 70’s where I lived with artists, and doing minimal paintings. NYC was a very exciting place to live as a young artist, in late the 1960’s and early 1970’s. I was waiting tables in the downtown art bars. In those days, Soho came alive after the factory workers left and the streets became territory to do all things, and call them art. There were days I walked the neighborhood and people were performing in the middle of the streets and on fire escapes. You would occasionally run into John and Yoko yelling up at buildings for entrance, (common in those days). Andy and his entourage arriving at many Leo Castelli shows. It was an exciting, drunk, drugged time of my life where everything and nothing seemed possible.  Soho was filled with young artists and everyone was bursting at the seams with creativity. It was very much a boys’ club in the “fine art” galleries. I did not see many women getting into shows. That is why I started painting erotica for sex magazines; it was fun to paint every day and I would work fanatically. It became a real high, and paid my bills. There was a real thrill about seeing my work in a magazine, unlike my brief stint in the fine art world, I could actually get somewhere and see my art in print. I thought it would be temporary, that I would go back to that world, but instead I have put that energy into what I have become: a Pin Up artist.

HN – You worked with Nancy Friday! How do you describe the nature of your relationship working with a writer? Where you ‘illustrating’ her stories or erotic visions…?

ODB – Wow, that sounds great! No, I cannot remember the details and don’t have the magazines anymore, but it was for female sex fantasies in Swank magazine, around 1975-76. The art director handed me a script and I would take off to my apartment. The column was hers, at first, then I think it became derivative. These paintings were fun to do, and a lot of work, since I had to make things up. Unable to afford models, I would improvise concepts. I would have adult magazines, books on Félicien Rops, Franz Von Bayros and everything else from Frank Frazetta to Norman Rockwell strewn all over the floor. I worked around the clock barely leaving my west village aptartment: I loved the “so wrong it seemed right” feeling of it all.

HN – What other artists had the greatest influence on your work as a painter?

ODB – I love a lot of different schools of art, but in erotica, too many to list; Gustav Klimt, Katsushika Hokusai, Egon Schiele, Aubrey Beardlsy, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Alphonse Mucha, Alberto Vargas, Enoch Bolles, George Petty, Gil Elvgren, John Singer Sargent, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Bob Fosse.

Olivia De Berardinis, Dita von Teese, Courtesy Olivia De Berardinis

HN – More specifically, there is a long tradition of female Pin Up artists, from at least, the late 19th century onward such as: Mabel Rollins Harris, Laurette and Irene Patten, Joyce Ballantyne, Pearl Frush and Ruth Deckard. Where you aware of any of them? If so,… can you elaborate.

ODB – I had to Google quite a few of these names, some of them were forced so underground that they had to change their names. I admire the tenacity of these women; they didn’t have a chance in the traditional art world. They were not my influence. Their work was too sentimental for me, but that was the era they came from, though, I can appreciate the scandalous thrill it gave them. When I started illustrating, I decided that I would paint a very direct, sexually knowledgeable woman. When I began in the mid 70’s, the 50’s Pin Ups from the time that I was growing up were everywhere: cloyingly sweet and politically incorrect, just as I was. The feminist movement was in full roar, & sweetness was not in vogue. A sexually aggressive and curious woman had emerged and that was who I wanted to paint. Barbarella, who unashamedly broke the orgasmitron, was one example… and finally, my favorite fantasy woman of all times, Sigourney Weaver’s character Ellen Ripley in the Aliens film series.

For my work in Playboy I go back and study old copies of Esquire magazine with George Petty; Playboy with Vargas; Film Fun with Enoch Bolles; and Gil Elvgren who was the Norman Rockwell of Pin Up. Each of these artists created a character very much like Marilyn Monroe did with her personae. That’s magic, and that’s what I’m after. It’s not as simple as rendering a woman. There are so many elements that I have to juggle, it really keeps me interested because it is a challenge to capture the joy, the flirtatiousness, the sensuality without bringing in too much reality.

HEF (Hugh Hefner) is my muse, now; he’s the icon-maker who has created some of the biggest sex icons of the past half century. I have to keep him interested, work in his arena. He is the legend who started his career with the love of Pin Up.

HN – When did you start to work with Playboy? How would you describe your relationship with them?

ODB – I illustrated a few editorials on and off, since the mid 1980’s. in 1985, the West Coast Photo Editor Marylyn Grabowski came to New York and asked me to work with her on a 15-page pictorial and cover for Playboy, in which Lillian Müller dressed and imitated my artwork. My husband, Joel & I flew out and were brought up to The Mansion and met Hef.  His then girlfriend Carrie Leigh commissioned a Valentine’s Day portrait of herself. When she talked to us about the commission, we sat in the back yard of The Mansion. There was a five-tiered table filled with lobsters, oysters and topped off with a dish of caviar while a large Emu was pecking at it. Flamingos and cranes and peacocks were walking around us…, it was memorable. Two years later, we moved to Malibu in ‘87, and became regulars at The Mansion. My work was used for many of the party invites, but I was not in the magazine very often back then. By 1995, Hef started using my Bettie Page paintings with his captions in the magazine. He was testing me out and eventually moved me to the Vargas spot. Now, every month I do an illustration and he does the captions. My work has been used for about 25 of Hef’s private parties dating back to ‘85. That was pretty awesome because Hef has a pretty impressive guest-list which he would send invitations to, and on the nights of the party a blow-up of the invite would greet everyone in the grand hall entrance.

Olivia De Berardinis, Mamie Van Doren, Courtesy Olivia De Berardinis

“I have posed for Olivia and Alberto Vargas, and both have created profoundly beautiful works of art. Olivia is a remarkably talented artist who has deservedly inherited the mantel of Vargas.” Mamie Van Doren (private correspondence with Homa Nasab)

HN – Tell me a little more about what is it like to work with Hugh Hefner? In addition to the private events, does he commission you with specific images… etc?

ODB – Working with the icon whose entire career is based on Pin Up, whose empire was started on that aesthetic was a pretty intimidating job. Hef has been very generous to Joel and I, opening his home to us for over 25 years. He is a good friend and we love him. However, it can be a bit nerve-wracking when I submit scans of art pieces that I have done to him. Sometimes I get a call from him complaining that I am going in the wrong direction, and others he writes a caption for right away. Yes, the captions are all Hef’s!

He has old school ideas about what Pin Up should look like: no tattoos, no flat shoes, etc. Sometimes I have submitted pieces that push his boundaries, which he has rejected. Also I know this may be surprising but he has a great fondness for well-endowed blondes. I have a different viewpoint and have painted many models with them in my books, the newest one of which is coming out soon. Malibu Cheesecake [see accompanying image] has a large number of Playboy pieces. There is also a lot of work that was not done for Playboy, including some Dita Von Teese paintings and the commissions I have executed for Margaret Cho as well as adult film actresses, Nina Hartley and Taylor Wane.

HN – You have managed, single-handedly, to revive interest in all things Bettie Page. How did your interest in Page arise…?

ODB – I knew the man who was the first person to publish retro Bettie Page books in the mid 70’s. He managed me very briefly and let me use some of his pictures of Bettie for my work. Along with Robert Blue, I painted her early on. But around the early 90’s, Dave Stevens really brought the spotlight on to her with The Rocketeer (1991). Her fame was based on this counterculture phenomenon that influenced fashion and sexual tastes.

HN – Did you ever meet Bettie Page? What were her responses to your work…?

ODB – At a big party in the 90’s, Hef told Joel & I that Bettie was at The Mansion, incognito. He was very pleased that she had come for a visit. That’s when I met her which was pretty amazing since, by that time, I had been painting her for 20 years. Bettie, who was in her 70’s, was dressed in a red plaid flannel shirt, and she had the famous BP hairdo. We did know her, all the way to the end. She’s buried 20 high-heeled steps from Monroe. There’s a recording of her saying how much she loved my work on an NPR’s Studio 360 piece and it will be transcribed in my forthcoming book. Bettie had a tough last few years.

Olivia De Berardinis, Blue Violet Bettie Page, Courtesy Olivia De Berardinis

HN – Do you consider your work pornographic? Why yes or no? (FYI, I don’t. I think that the playfully Pin Up nature of your work for Playboy often renders your paintings more sensual than sexual…)

ODB – I have no problems with pornography. My work is in men’s magazines because women don’t own sex magazines. Fashion and celebrity magazines fill the female porn arena. Everybody is going to have to draw their own limits, mine has always been: no harm to anyone and leave the pets alone.

HN – Who are the most famous models (including actresses) with whom you have worked?

ODB – Many of the models whom I portrayed weren’t famous when I first painted them; it was fascinating to watch Pam Anderson and Dita Von Teese become famous. Margaret Cho, Courtney Love, Masuimi Max, it’s great fun to have them as muses. Margaret Cho, the sweetest, funniest person, showed up at our shoot with her own full sized China-town dragon. Courtney showed up with attitude, which is what you want from your Courtney Love, I wasn’t disappointed.

HN – To what do you credit the rise in popularity of burlesque and Pin Up art and fashion, over the past several years?

ODB – My book American Geisha is inspired by the artist in my models. It references some of the first known Pin Ups that were the Japanese Geishas. Their pictures and prints were among the first mass-produced images that were collected and “pinned up.” The Geishas were admired for the influence they had on women and fashion, very much like the beauty icons of today. They were also “pinned up” by many of the later 19th century European artists and had great influence on the Impressionist and modern art movements. I think many of my models have been created by and have become the muses of the fashion world. Today, my greatest audience is comprised of women; so this time, I think that it’s the women who are fuelling the fire for Pin Up and burlesque. They not only perform in it, they own it.

I define some of my models as walking works of art. Many of them are performance artists like Dita who is a burlesque superstar. She single-handedly revived elaborate Swarovski-studded burlesque. This and her 1940’s pinup style, has influenced a number of top international designers. Also the revival of Bettie’s uniform of bullet bra, 7″ heels, black bangs and a whip has been a mainstay in the fashion world …ever since Madonna came out with her Jean Paul Gautier bra. Masuimi Max is another of my favourites; she is my anime Pin Up. Masuimi does burlesque with fire. My newest model, Claire Sinclair (The Playboy Playmate Miss October 2010), will be performing at The Crazy Horse Paris.

HN – What is the ideal characteristic of a Pin Up model? Be it a (set of) personality trait(s) or physical quality(ies).

ODB – As Margart Cho said, it’s like doing drag. Some models are easier than others to render. For me it’s all in the face which is the soul, it’s in the eyes, everything else follows. Some models get the connection to this history in what I do, others sadly are either too young or uneducated about the aesthetics of old screen and stage sirens. Even if they are a mix of Marilyn Monroe and Betty Boop, these influences have shaped the models’ personas and what I’m seeing when Joel shoots them is those influences reinterpreted in their sexuality. Every woman is gloriously unique, but in modelling, it comes down to possessing the talent to show this inner spark.

HN – Your husband Joel Beren is a collector of erotic art. How much of his taste in erotica and collecting influences your production?

ODB – Joel and I have been married for 31 years; we have been partners and collaborate in many aspects of my work. His influence on me is invaluable. Even our battles over paintings shape their direction… and, whether I like it or not, they are integral part of the art. I get the glory he gets all the other stuff. Joel creates and publishes the books, grumbles, manages, and does the photography. He has an incredible eye and has been collecting many forms of vintage erotica: everything from Weimar images to 50’s fetish photos, and fetish shoes. He also has an extensive collection of 1920’s French postcards from which I love to paint. And he has been collecting stereographic photos on all sorts of subjects dealing with the nude, from artist-models to street prostitutes that date from the late 19th century through the 1930’s. Some of these are very beautiful, & the women are all varied and different. Joel will be publishing a stereographic book of many of these pictures from his collection, sometime next year.

So, yes, all of these do influence me. I think that we are both very lucky.

HN – How would you describe your collectors? Do they commission you to paint …?

ODB- Commissioned paintings are quite personal and often have no commercial value, so they are very expensive. Margaret Cho and Courtney Love, each of whom has a very different personality type, commissioned their portraits. I loved painting both of them whose images will be in my new book. I have had many different clients; my favorites are women who purchase the art for themselves. Recently, we had the CEO of a company fly over in her private jet to pose for her commission. In her corporate world, the only thing that gives a hint at her racy side is her red lipstick.  Many powerful women have come to me for private commissions.

HN – I think that (American) Playboy is quite conservative, designed to appeal to Middle America’s apple pie aesthetics of … well, the-girls-next-door. Do you see them changing their direction anytime soon?

ODB – Yes, Hugh Hefner likes the girls next door, but he lives in a very different neighborhood.

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In memoriam Empress Theodora


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