A Baltimore native, Deborah Buck wandered to NY as a painter, after it became clear that there was only one town big enough for her. Buck as an abstract expressionist and surrealist had her work widely touted in the go-go 80’s art market frenzy.
Buck House, her dream of a tiny jewel-box of a store, opened right after 9/11, not exactly a propitious moment. She thought, “if I don’t open it they will win”. This was her battle cry, as she eschewed the advice of the naysayers, who advised postponing. But the store was tiny and she felt that by Thanksgiving she could fill it to the brim with her own idiosyncratic and vivid treasures - jewels as she thinks of them. Her curiosity cabinet was filled to the delight of The New York Times and Elle Decor with Buck’s feverish feminine aesthetic.
As evidenced by her most recent show - GEM, which opened on March 7th to celebrate Buck’s new collection of Estate Jewelry at Buck House. Buck is a meticulous curator and her passions are unleashed for her shows at the new gallery at Buck House on 94th Street, a mere hop skip and jump from her store the gallery has become de trop for the design world. Next up ? Wild Flowers, an exhibit of furniture, art and jewelery, which promises to be the much needed bloom for the Fall season.
Indeed, her exhibits are the new jumping-off point for the Upper Eastside’s seasonal social swirl as she unwittingly created the perfect soignée setting for New York’s café society. Like Christain Berard, Vionet and Dior after the War in France, she sets tongues a wagging. Buck starts with and then marries all the components - carpet, furniture, objets, chandeliers, right down to the tassels on the cabinets. The flowers are the gilding on Buck’s lily. For GEM she used all American Beauty red Roses. As usual she takes icons and turns them on their heads.
Her ambitious new venture, The Gallery at Buck House, opened a year ago in response to the clamor for MORE, MORE, MORE from clients wanting a bigger opportunity for shopping Buck’s aesthetic which was limited by the 450 sq ft at her “jewel-box” boutique. And as for moving to a new bigger location, Buck just couldn’t close her precious darling. Buck House is indeed magical and it retains a feeling lost in the hurly burly of Madison Avenue shopping; it feels like a women’s clubhouse. But Buck had learned a thing or two in Europe, where many of the dealers had their shops on the fancy boulevards of Hausmann’s Paris but when pressed would take Buck to their cavernous warehouses. Buck asked “why not here?” She quickly snapped up the space on 94th street, despite its harrowing condition she describes as Early Dungeon. Today, Buck, the artist, has transformed the space with her wizardry into a combo of industrial chic and museum grandeur much like the Chelsea Galleries that were home to her paintings. And what better for this unstoppable design maven - every time it reopens she gets to reinvent her own space over and over again! Consequently, she resembles a one-woman Decorator Showhouse. As for her husband and son? Her Buck boys? They are beaming!
What was your first career?
DB - I was a painter. Abstract Expressionism and Surrealist and I had studied at Trinity and then Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine and then I spent 10 years in Baltimore and then I moved to Boston and I knew as soon as I moved to New York - the truth be told - that I was in the right place - at the right time with my work in studios in Tribeca and shows at the Blum and Dorn Gallery and works at The Boston Museum of Fine Art, Baltimore Museum of Art and the C. Grimaldis Gallery in Baltimore and The Bronx Museum and collectors worldwide... But the truth is my first job was working for an animated display division at Walt Disney productions - drawing Mickey in Santa hats to pay my bills as an artist.
After I had my son Sam I was frustrated with the isolation of painting and I missed collaborating with other artists as I had done at my Disney Job. I did NOT want to paint. My own head was not interesting to me – interested in the rest of the world – I needed to feed my head. I’d spent 20 years dumping my head and I wanted to fill it back up again. Remember what the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland said? “Feed your head!”
Who got you into this business?
DB - My mother was a junkaholic and she and my father renovated a pre-civil war farmhouse and filled it with amazing finds and as a kid I loved nothing more than if I could come along and comb the barns, even if I had to hide in the backseat. We went everywhere- there were mirrors for 25cents. I’m talking full-length mirrors! This is an inherited disease. I come from an box of assorted characters all of whom are eccentric and smart. And I wanted to work collaboratively. (Buck is a one-woman Bloomsbury).
What is your deepest regret?
DB - I don’t regret being a painter. I’m still a painter and all of that time spent painting was informing my intellect but I regret that I didn’t understand earlier that I wasn’t just a painter - that I was an artist.
What are you lusting for?
DB - There are a pair of Carole Stumpel lamps in the exhibit that I want to put in my living room. But I’m a rug maven and I was so thrilled when Hakimian decided to work with me and I covet a monster rug for my living room - its like buying art-you just fall in love but I know its going to be an expensive affair when I find my dream rug! Reconnecting to a part of the paint box. So the rug is the tube of paint and the furniture are the brushes and the artwork is the canvas!
What is your personal motto?
DB - Feed your head!
Have you ever traveled very far from your roots?
DB - NO. I still think of this as painting moving colours and form in space. It presses the same buttons in my head.
What's your favorite find?
DB - A Phillip and Kelvin Laverne table off the back of a truck for 100 bucks!
What are your travel tips?
DB - Fly private! I’ve been known to send my bags ahead to the hotel (her personal choice… the Plaza Athenee) and go straight to the flea-market in the clothes I flew in... And Ziploc bags for the receipts, especially in France the paperwork is mind-numbing. The other tip is to never anticipate what you are looking for. Keep your head open to what you are going to see. For instance, in Rome last time I came home with nothing but Scandinavian ceramics - who would have thought?
What is your secret collection?
DB - The secret is out because it was estate jewelry but I get restless and sell everything and start to collect something new. I don’t have any secrets.
How has 1stdibs changed your business?
DB - That’s easy… 1stdibs.com brought an audience that’s not in New York to Buck House faster than I could with my website and advertising. It’s lovely that it is so validating to be amongst a community with integrity that first dibs has. We are doing this by Braille in cyber-space, there are no books on how to do this but to be able to evolve together I think we’ve created a pretty interesting community. We just sent etageres to Dubai and something to New Zealand. We’re global!
What's your favorite color?
DB - I have a thing for turquoise. I'm wild about it. It's so much a part of who I am, I think I must have swallowed a piece of turquoise as a child. When I got my first set of paints, it was the most satisfying color to mix. Later, as a professional artist, if I wanted to give myself a treat or solve a problematic canvas, I'd always turn to turquoise.
What's your perfect day?
DB - If it doesn’t involve an airplane because I love airplanes (everybody knows I started Buck House to get my own Jet with BH on the tail) then it involves driving and treasure hunting. Rolling up my sleeves (even if they are Yves St Laurent - her favorite) to dig for treasure.
Who are the creators your admire?
DB - Gio Ponti is a fave. And more importantly da Vinci! But my mentor was the painter Clifford Still and I was lucky to know him as a young person and that’s was empowering. And I admire any woman who ever painted. When I graduated from college there were no women in my art history textbooks and I was told that I painted like a man and that was supposed to be a compliment.
What are you reading now?
DB - “Disgrace” which took place in South Africa - about post-apartheid South Africa. Amazing!
What is your greastest ambition?
DB - It’s bigger than selling antiques… its philanthropic.
What is your business credo?
DB - It’s all a process - whatever it is. The most exciting thing is the process itself. Just like in painting, it’s not about the finished painting but about creating the painting that’s where the learning takes place. I don't take NO for an answer. When I first opened I had furniture that wouldn't fit in my tiny store, so I stored a pair of chairs in my car. I just shoehorn it in!
Will you ever retire?
DB - Hell no! I may morph but I’ll never stop to lunch and shop for shoes - not unless I’m building a show empire. I’m a shark.