“There are memories that run through it all,” says editor and creative director Marcus Teo as he looks around the New York apartment he shares with his boyfriend, Seth Johnson, a farmer for Brooklyn Grange. His eyes dart from an overflowing library of art and design books to treasured pieces of Bauhaus and Wiener Werkstätte furniture, and then over to the gallery wall, where his meticulously assembled collection of photography hangs. “A lot of these things have been with me for many years,” he says. “And they all figure deeply in the story of my design education.”
Born in Malaysia, Teo remembers “always being surrounded by incredible modern tropical architecture and design”: gleaming mirrored buildings, otherworldly fountains, and street-side sculpture. He’d sometimes stand before them, wondering about a world that must exist where creative people made beautiful things, and dreaming about how he might find his way into that world.
He got a step closer at 11 years old, when he attended English boarding school in Singapore. During the summers, he lived in England with a cousin and her boyfriend, a couple of modernist furniture and art object collectors. “They were instrumental in shaping my design eye,” he says. “They had a house in London, where I spent a lot of my childhood, and it was a bit of a Le Corbusier, Eileen Gray, Bauhaus museum.”
Now, many years later, Teo has been living and working among creative people for a good, long time. And he even has his own little museum. A New York University film school graduate, former editor of W magazine, and former global creative director for Danish jewelry and home decor company Georg Jensen, he is currently in the middle of a semisecret project, relaunching “a very old Roman brand,” and also planning on which artifacts he’ll be bringing back for his private collection. “I love seeking out great design everywhere I go, and a lot of it does end up in my apartments,” he says. “That’s how these places are always furnished, in due time.”
I grew up around all of these Le Corbusier and Eileen Gray pieces. And now I’m living with them again.
For the last 31 years, New York has been Teo’s home. He moved to the city in 1987, living in the NYU dorms at E 10th Street and Third Avenue. After graduation, he landed a block away at 11th and Third. Then it was Ninth and Third, and 21st and Third, and now 16th and Third. “So, in that sense, I have not gone far,” he laughs.
The apartment that he currently calls home is one of three units in a Gramercy Park townhouse built in the late 1800s. “I felt it was time to get a slice of old New York,” he explains. “I’ve always wanted to live in a classic townhouse like this one, but I never have; I’ve mostly lived in modern apartments.”
He was drawn to the vintage architectural detail of the apartment: built-in, floor-to-ceiling bookcases; robust, tiered framing around big windows; an entire wall of exposed 130-year-old brickwork. “Also, these high ceilings and wide walls were actually quite important because of the photography collection that I have,” ranging from 1930s-era family photos to prints by icons such as Bruce Weber. And then there is the fireplace, “which does not work,” he chuckles, “but the model detail of it and its age are great.”
Another of his reasons for wanting a home with some history was the need for contrast between his living space and his collections: modernist furniture by the likes of Wiener Werkstätte cofounder Josef Hoffmann, fashion photos from his W days, modern sculptural housewares from his time at Georg Jensen. “It is always about the juxtaposition of the old and the new,” Teo insists. “All of these classical architectural elements look amazing when you pull in something modern. I think that’s important—creating that tension.”
I love the juxtaposition of old and new, and different design schools, too.
The apartment itself even has some of that tension built in, with a whole bank of 13-foot-tall mirrors lining most of a wall in the living room. “I love working with reflections. Hence, why I went to Georg Jensen: all of that amazing silver with its reflective quality and what you can do with it in a home,” he says. “But my use of mirrors in the apartment is the complete opposite of what you typically do with mirrors to expand the sense of space. In fact, having the mirrors on the wall and then the lower mirrored screen, with all of those reflective objects, I think it actually shrinks the apartment, makes it more intimate.”
Looking to add that reflective quality (and that intimacy) to the apartment’s other rooms, Teo even had some custom furniture built. “I commissioned a great cabinet, and then covered it with mirrors, and dropped it in the bedroom. I think it instantly creates an amazing space,” he says. “A mirror is probably the most unnatural creation, and when you throw one in a room, you create an entire other dimension.”
And it’s a dimension that Teo could live within forever. “In this old apartment, with its odd mirrors and a million reflections, all of my favorite pieces and collections come together in an across-the-span-of-time kind of way,” he says. “It makes me feel right at home.”