Ornament and Crime on Sunset Boulevard by Steven Thomson

SDC10235Every Monday through Saturday morning at ten o’clock a white Mercedes-Benz pulls in to the same parking spot. Carolyn Brewer unlocks the door and steps inside a thirteen-hundred square-foot space crowded with icons of twentieth-century design: streamlined Barcelona chairs, LeCorbusier couches, organically rendered Noguchi tables, Bertie side chairs, and Eames lounges. Each piece costs a small fortune. Carolyn always greets her store’s visitors with a high and twangy, “Hey y’all.” This is the story of a woman from Texas, a store, and the Houston design community.

I first came in contact with Sunset Settings four years ago. Entering the store for the first time, I was so confused by the crowded and haphazard arrangement that I left under the assumption that I had mistakenly walked into a warehouse. It was not until last spring that my former design history professor, Dr. Luisa Orto, reacquainted me with the place. After the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston declined my summer internship application Dr. Orto suggested I contact Ms. Brewer about summer employment. Apparently, Ms. Brewer employed one graduate architecture student from Rice each summer, but Dr. Orto though she might make an exception and hire an undergraduate art history student from the University of Houston. Luisa had developed a rapport with Ms. Brewer by bringing her students on field trips to view the store’s extraordinary inventory. Luisa wrote an email on my behalf, and I soon found myself on a long distance call from my apartment in Barcelona, where I had been studying, to the small shop in West University Place. Although I grew up in Houston, I had been away for a year and I found Ms. Brewer’s accent jarring. We set up an appointment to “chat” when I returned at the end of May.

Carolyn is about five feet tall. She usually wears a gray Anne Klein skirt suit and clashing orthopedic Merrill shoes. This is her uniform. On occasion, a heavy black turtleneck would make an appearance in the summer heat. Each time she wears it, she discovers a new moth hole, admonishes herself for not realizing, and vows to get rid of the garment. Other than her height and clothing, her black Browline glasses stand out as a distinctive element of her style, an unconscious relic of the days of true midcentury modern. The lenses create an optical illusion. They make her eyes seem rounded and larger. Combined with tightly cropped hair that gives the suggestion of a onetime wavy mane, Carolyn appears catlike. Her eyebrows are clearly groomed, yet, perhaps with age, they naturally curved upwards in the middle. The way they cut at that vertex creates an expression of animosity that belies her innate benevolence.

She looked up at me through those black Browlines when I entered the store. My interview lasted for an hour. She devoted the majority of that time describing the story of her own experience in Seville, Spain – or as she called it, Suvilll. I was once again taken aback and then charmed by her distinct drawl as she described one curiously banal anecdote after another. I remember her telling me that someone had accidentally ordered a pork dish when they really wanted steak. They should have studied Spanish before traveling to Spain she said. The story story seemed to have no significance. Carolyn mentioned it several more times throughout summer at Sunset Settings, as though she had never told it before.

As the summer progressed I learned more about Carolyn. I learned that her family was originally from Fort Worth and that when she decided to study architecture her father told her she could attend Rice University and nowhere else. She told me that she was the only woman in her graduating class in the School of Architecture. She told me that she was never taken seriously in school,. Later she was forced to be content working in interior architecture at her husband’s firm. She raised a son and daughter, moving from one house to another and even trying life in a high rise, but without ever leaving the Southampton neighborhood. A home that she had lived in on Autrey Street on the fringe of Boulevard Oaks had been sold to a developer in the late nineteen seventies. It was demolished, and a series of five townhomes were build on the site, one of which I had moved into earlier that summer.

In 1997, not having been employed for several years, Carolyn felt the urge to go back to work, but no longer as an architect. For some time, while walking her dog she would pass a vacant space on the 1700 block of Sunset Boulevard. She decided to indulge in her longtime desire to open a design store. Beforehand, Houston had the design atelier Evans Monocle on Kirby, presently taken over by the new West Ave. development. Evans Monocle had been closed for over five years, so for advice, she met with the architect owners, Jack Evans and Bruce Monocle. Her decision to specialize in modern design was well timed. Furniture companies were beginning to realize the potential of selling quality design outside of the corporate realm. Carolyn began her store based around products from Hermann Miller for the Home, Cassina, and Knoll Residential. Initially, she also offered a mix of antiques and antique silver she harvested in Virginia and New York, respectively. Almost none of these antiques found buyers, and the majority are still hidden away like relics in the storeroom. The original building was eventually torn down to be replaced by “those four-story stucco townhomes,” so the store was moved to its present building on the outskirts of West University, only a hundred feet from Kirby Drive. The structure is a nondescript one floor shop-front, like the architecture depicted in an Ed Ruscha photograph of Los Angeles. She gutted the building and painted everything stark white.

Carolyn doesn’t train new employees, so I determined my own morning routine. Before anything else, I would dash to the thermostat and turn it back from “OFF” to Carolyn’s preferred temperature of 80 degrees. Then I would take a petite sign with the store’s name on it and stick its metal prongs into the soil for the passing Navigators and BMW’s to see. After placing some tables and chairs out on the sidewalk between the parking lot and the store I made my rounds, turning on various floor lamps, whose light could barely be seen due to the glaring sunlight coming through the south facing shop windows. I then stationed myself behind the counter at the back of the store. Usually, I wouldn’t move from there for the rest of the day. For company, I had Janice, the 50-year-old shop-girl, and Ace. Ace was a mammoth black lab that she referred to as a puppy. He was obedient and usually content to spend all day in a cage beside the cash register. The few times that he escaped he charged after me to play like the proverbial bull in a china shop.

It was during my hours behind the counter that I would contemplate the contrasting conglomeration of furnishings and the purity of the exposed white insulation coating the ceiling. My eyes would wander between my favorite and most-despised pieces, the sun-baked parking lot, and a Michael Graves clock that I had secretly set a few minutes ahead of the actual time. I usually spent hours shuffling around trying to appear busy. Sometimes I would clean a desk drawer only to find un-cashed checks from years before. If I was particularly hung-over on a Saturday morning, I would pretend to organize the stockroom while taking a nap behind large stacks of crated Knoll furniture.

It was unusual for anyone to enter the store for the first one or two hours, and serious design professional could drop in. A number of days passed with no customers even entering the building. On occasion, there would be a young couple waiting for us to arrive on a Saturday morning, their hands cupped over their eyes against the window as they peered in to get an idea of what was in the store. They would usually leave within ten moments of hearing the astronomical prices. As they left you could usually hear them talking about settling for the sofa at Ethan Allen or West Elm. Tuition at The House at Pooh Corner is on the rise. Who even knows what this year’s bonus will be like at Baker and Botts.

Interior designers, architects and academics were the main clientele. The designers were always women – from the French-born Anne Breaux who only bought LeCorbusier pieces, all the way down to “Debbie Decorators” who possessed no real degree but are the anointed tastemakers in their group of gal pals. Debbies don’t get the 20 percent designers’ discount.

There was never an architect that visited with whom Carolyn was not already a friend. Sometimes they would visit to catch up with Carolyn, but usually they came to snatch up a piece of exquisite design candy. The more effusive architects would let us know that they had been saving up for the piece that they were buying for over a year, although they had been pining for it their entire lifetime. It seemed as though each architect was born to own an identical catalog of designer furniture. The design professors shared similar ambitions if not means; although one University of Houston architectural historian stood out when he ordered custom Eames office paraphernalia to preemptively replace his son’s furniture in his freshman dorm at Rice.

After having been at the store for some time, I learned of Carolyn’s marriage to the late Benjamin Brewer. Ben received degrees from Rice and Princeton and left a significant mark on the local skyline. He served as principal at the firm 3DI, riding the wave of oil money in the 1960s and 70s. His influence can be seen in the design of Gerald Hines’ Galleria, Lloyd Jones’ Allen Center, and Kenneth Schnitzer’s Greenway Plaza. In 1989, he served as the president of the American Institute of Architects. Ben swept Carolyn off to exotic destinations such as Cairo, Riyadh, and Tokyo. Sunset Settings’ most loyal customers were originally Ben Brewer’s colleagues.

Unexpected characters would surface as well. There was the woman buying Barcelona chairs for the servants quarters of her Lazy Lane manse, and the young woman who, without making eye contact, instructed me to, “Hold this,” referring to her baby. She wanted to get a better feel for an Alessi cocktail shaker. There was a lawyer turned first grade teacher who told me that she was redecorating her flat at the Huntingdon in the style of “the Seventh,” the regal look of Paris’s Seventh Arrondissement. It was a test. I passed.

These were merely incidents; there were also mainstays. I would say that the most memorable was a woman named Chrysantha. She could be summarized with the word “manic,” but her quirks belie simple description. Chrysantha was neither a designer nor an architect, but the lay-person wife to a Schlumberger magnate. I don’t mean to paint a picture of a gold-digging simpleton. She was no blonde West University mom with “tennis ball arms.” She knew the design canon better than the staff. She had some sort of Ukrainian ancestry and always spoke with a vaguely New York accent. She would arrive every Saturday afternoon at 4:55 p.m., seemingly unaware of the store’s scheduled hours. Her outfits usually involved some sort of unitard, partially covered by a metallic or animal-print skirt, complimented by chunky gold bangles and fried brown hair. She would always reference a new bag or pair of shoes just so she could tell me what a good deal she managed at Marshall’s or Ross. She would explain to me, “Steven, let me tellll you something, and that is that I live verrry frugally.” I agreed and tried not to focus on the neon green piece of gum bouncing around her mouth or the delayed grooming of her underarms that was visible when she would toss her hair. Her conversations had great range, and were always characterized by a deep passion regardless of their topic. There was the saga of her custom running shoes getting lost in the mail. “I promise you I’m not an indulgent person at all, it’s this damn knee!”, tales of her son’s torturous time at medical school in New Haven (subtle!), or the rats in the neighbor’s tool shed, whose scampering keeps her up at night. “They are killing me, they are killing me, they are killing me!” At one point she phoned about an item she wanted to order that she had found in a 1985 Vitra catalog. “I keep everything! You nevvver know, I am telling you because you are young and you don’t know yet.” She had been a loyal customer for so many years but I shivered at the thought of her discordant decorating.

Chrysantha would stay and confide in me until well past the store’s closing, but her husband would appear when she had a big purchase in mind. The “soft-spoken type,” he was not necessarily walked-upon but certainly weathered. Chrysantha would study a particular piece for a few weeks. She would introduce it to her husband as though it was a dog at the kennel in need of a home. They would have a quiet discussion on the side with Carolyn. Sometimes a check would be written, but usually it took lmore than one visit to seal the deal.

Near the end of the summer, Chrysantha decided she had to have Wettstein’s Mir table for Cassina – a solid piece with slick lines, a warm oak stain, and a price well over twenty thousand dollars. For weeks she visited with aims of making that table hers, but negotiations went nowhere. She had already sold her Volvo to support her habit. Now she had to rely on those custom running shoes to get around. When my time ended at Sunset Settings, the table was still on the floor. I returned around Christmas only to learn that a Saudi couple had purchased it. Chrysantha stopped her weekly visits after the sale, viewing it as betrayal. No one at the store has heard from her since.

Another customer of note was Robert Durst. The man comes with some baggage: son of New York real estate mogul Seymour Durst, witness to his mother’s suicide jump from the family’s Scarsdale mansion when he was seven years old, and a diagnosis of schizophrenia. His past is also marred with vagaries: the disappearance of wife Katherine McCormack in 1982 and the murder of close friend and mafia daughter Susan Berman in 2000 – both of which Durst was questioned about but never charged for. An arrest did occur in Galveston after body parts of his elderly neighbor, Morris Black, were found floating in the bay, but he was released on bail. After missing his court hearing, he became the nation’s first billionaire fugitive. He was eventually caught in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania after trying to steal a chicken sandwich and a Band-Aid , even though he had five hundred dollars in his pocket. Defense attorney Dick DeGuerin made sure that Durst was acquitted of murder in 2003. After that he moved in to the Robinhood residential tower just down Kirby Drive from Sunset Settings.

It was a regular day when an unremarkable 60-something man entered the store, quietly perusing the furniture like any other customer. He eventually ordered a set of Philipe Starck’s “Ghost Chairs,” iconic for its polycarbonate reinterpretation of a Baroque archetype. He wanted the chairs for his balcony in the Robinhood tower, which happened to be a few units away from where my sister lived. It wasn’t until his American Express card was scanned that we knew who he was. None of the employees wanted to have anything to do with him so when the chairs arrived Carolyn had to deliver them. Durst refused the chairs, insisted that he had never made a purchase, and asked for Carolyn to leave. She left the chairs,. He later faxed the store requesting his money back. In its twelve years of existence, this was the only instance of Carolyn allowing a full refund. Later on, she relayed the news coverage of Durst’s arrest in Galveston to Janice and me, and how he was found in his home dressed in woman’s clothing. Then she stopped herself, snapped her head in my direction and said, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

carolyn2

Customers such as these and the tedium of six-day work weeks could very well take its toll on a business owner, but Carolyn is fortunate enough to own a vacation retreat. In the late 1980s, Ben was on vacation at a colleague’s home in the Thousand Islands, when he woke up one morning and spotted a “for sale” sign on a neighboring island. He promptly bought the place It came with a complimentary riverside boulder. Carolyn, her granddaughters, and Ace, and times her suitemates from college, will fly up to Syracuse and make the trek to the tiny Sears kit home on the island. There, she spends her days picking berries and lounging with a Johnny Walker, “neat”, but she’s is always close to her cell phone so she can confirm that yes Knoll will use a customer’s own hypoallergenic microsuede, or, no Chrysantha cannot have a further discount on the Gaetano Pesce buffet. I applaud her for so fully enjoying her husband’s bequest in his absence.

Mortality remained a common theme throughout my summer. My coworker Janice told about her deceased family members, all of whom are buried on the Jersey Shore and we whispered about Carolyn’s late husband in hushed voices. All the while looming above us was the specter of being found murdered in the stockroom, slumped in a returned Ghost Chair. My term at the store ended a day earlier than scheduled when I received a phone call informing me of my own grandfather’s death. I explained the circumstances to Carolyn as she ate her lunch of five in-the-shell peanuts, and asked to leave early. She told me that she had seen many people she cared for pass away and that all one could do was grieve. She then hugged me – the only instance I can recall of her even accidentally touching anyone.

The visits I have made since the end of my internship at Sunset Settings have offered few surprises. There has been almost no variation in inventory over the years. Other design outlets have appeared since Carolyn began; Kuhl-Linscomb and Design Within Reach feature many of the same iconic pieces. Moreover, the arrival of edgy European boutiques like Roche Bobois and Ligne Roset may pose a threat. Nevertheless, business at Sunset Settings remains stable, which Carolyn attributes to the store’s connections within the design community and the personalized service. Carolyn met with a developer about opening a second space on Washington Avenue. She decided against it, not wanting to “change the nature of a business.” Despite the once-revolutionary designs she features, Carolyn sells the sort of products that defined a period of cultural conservatism in America. “I would never say never,” says Carolyn in her Texas twang regarding a potential expansion, “but I have never been one for fundamental changes to begin with.”

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