Norm Pearlstine Networks With Bonnie Fuller

We’re going to file this week’s lunch in under ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same.’ Aside from a dining room full of the usual Wednesdays at Michael’s suspects, comprised of moguls (Barry Diller), media mavens (Bonnie Fuller, Connie Anne Phillips) and money men who keep the lights on all over town (Alan Patricof), I had an illuminating chat with Donald Albrecht, curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York and the editor/contributor of the new book, Gilded New York Design, Fashion and Society (The Monacelli Press). We were introduced by Dan Scheffey, who, in his past life, has handled public relations for Disney, Miramax and most recently toiled at Conde Nast. Dan is currently working on Monacelli’s fall book list and is gearing up to launch the Spring 2014 list with Ellen Rubin. When he mentioned Gilded New York to me some months ago, I immediately wanted to know more. Donald, an independent curator specializing in the decorative arts and architecture, joined us to talk about his work on both the exhibition and the book on New York’s Gilded Age of the late 19th century.

From left: Dan Scheffey, Diane Clehane and Donald Albrecht

By way of introduction to the period he explained, “The city’s old and new money used architecture, interior design, fashion and events — even lunch and dinners — as markers of status.” See where I’m going with this?  I thought you might.

Donald, who traded his career as an architect to focus on curating exhibitions and writing (“I found working solely in architecture really boring”), explained his love of curating exhibitions as a way of producing “visual culture.” His current exhibition (which shares the same name of the companion book) “Gilded New York” runs through the end of next year and features a stunning collection of objects that lend a window into the fascinating lives of the early swells of New York City whose great fortunes built the vast Fifth Avenue mansions during what was arguably city’s most glamorous era. Among the relics of this bygone age visitors to the museum can see: an “Electric Light” dress by couturier Charles Frederick Worth dress once worn by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt. The gown (which didn’t really light up) earned its name from the glittering crystals that illuminated the bodice (a newspaper at the time breathlessly reported it had been trimmed in diamonds), Tiffany & Co.’s Bon Bonniere, a miniature purse designed to hold bon bons or small pieces of candy to be discreetly carried so it could be enjoyed while dancing, and a swan-billed flask crafted from engraved glass and silver. The funny thing is I have no doubt any one of the artifacts would be right at home worn by Sarah Jessica Parker or carried by — dare we say it — Kanye West — at the Met Ball, no?

The illustrated book, which was sponsored by the Tiffany & Co. Foundation (the company is also the major underwriter of the exhibition and provided funding for the room which bears the Tiffany & Co. Foundation moniker) is a treasure trove of  information with stunning photograph (both historic and staged) showcasing jewelry and other designs from the period. The engaging text examines the social and cultural history of these years in essays by Donald, his co-editor Jeannine Falino, Susan Gail Johnson, Phyllis Magidson and Thomas Mellins.  Donald wrote extensively about “New Media in the Gilded Age” and the effects of the emerging technological changes in photography for the book, which I found quite interesting indeed.

“This is the age where the social mix of old and new money, the modern concept of celebrity and the creation of very large corporations as well as the creation of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and many other landmarks put New York on par with London and Paris,” explained Donald. “The collision of the old and the new changed everything. These modern manifestations of wealth, like the skyscrapers, have obvious parallels. During the Gilded Age the giant culture of philanthropy also emerged with institutions like the Metropolitan Museum.” We all agreed that these days a great deal of Manhattan philanthropy seems to serve more as a backdrop to over-the-top parties than as pure altruism but then again, that’s probably what plenty of folks thought way back when.