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Obsessions and Idiosyncrasies Feather This Nest

May 06, 1999|LINDA HALES | WASHINGTON POST

Joseph Holtzman, the Baltimore designer, drilled 4,810 holes in the ceiling of his bedroom, then painted the inside of each hole black. Such near-obsession with visual effect--colander or pegged game board, take your pick--explains why Holtzman took five years to finish decorating his apartment in the city's elegant Warrington building.

Now in New York, Holtzman the design editor has been bringing this intensity to bear on the pages of Nest, a quarterly shelter magazine he started in November 1997.

Caveat emptor: It's not your usual house and garden book.

Nest looks into dwellings that traditional shelter magazines ignore: prison cells as habitat, the Unabomber's cabin as modern-day Thoreau's cabin, and Lucy Ricardo's television living rooms as a study in '50s home-furnishing trends.

The cover story now on newsstands features an Annandale, Va., cat house. It's the real-life home of Kristin Kierig and her 114 feline companions. Nest's glossy cover photo shows a row of blue litter boxes arranged around a four-poster bed covered with blue plastic and unfinished lattice. Holtzman added a touch of orange glitter where the cat litter would be. (You can scratch, but there's nothing to sniff.)

"I'm interested in the whole idea of occupied space and domestic interiors," said Holtzman by phone from the eclectic Upper East Side apartment that serves as home and office. "We're different, we're smarter, we have a lower circulation and a higher IQ" than mainstream magazines, he said.

At 42, Holtzman may be the mad scientist of design books. Nest is "performance art in print," suggests an admiring fellow publisher, Horace Havemeyer III of the respected design magazine Metropolis.

Holtzman is self-taught both in design and magazines. He grew up in suburban Baltimore, the son of a successful businessman. He read shelter magazines avidly, learning to obsess over lamp shades and value the 18th century quirks of English style over French.

On this day at his home-office, he lounged on a red mohair velvet sofa of his own Edwardian design and described by phone the furnishings around him: a table by minimalist Donald Judd, an 18th century gilt gesso table "just back" from a loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a Giacometti bronze, a Dubuffet and a Picasso on whose frame he had placed a plastic dragon.

The Baltimore apartment, which he sold, and Nest, which he set up partly with proceeds of the sale, are Holtzman's "lab" for personal vision. He claims to have spent less than $1 million on the magazine so far. Havemeyer admires Holtzman's pluck but adds, "I don't think Architectural Digest needs to get worried and move over."

Holtzman imparts the vision and plots the look, which has been compared to Flair, a lavish, short-lived magazine of the '50s, which is prized by a cult of collectors. Like Flair, Nest doesn't stop at words and photographs. The holiday issue offered a fold-out of wrapping paper commissioned from fashion designer Todd Oldham.

The often-oblique texts are the task of literary editor Matthew Stadler, author of "Allan Stein," a novel just published by Grove Press. A contributing editor is John Waters, the Baltimore cult-film director. The glossiest of Nest's photos often come from high-profile London editor and photographer Derry Moore, who provides entree into the salons of Britain, where more than a third of Nest's 67,000 readers live.

Holtzman likes to say that Nest simply turns the tables on traditional interiors, treating the highly styled Fifth Avenue apartment of a tycoon as an anthropological story, while an igloo becomes a subject of decoration. But Holtzman says he doesn't want to be seen as a repository for the weird and wacky.

"It's about obsessiveness and idiosyncrasies, and that's fine," he says. "But at the bottom it has to be about beauty."

Which brings us back to the ceiling. Bland, undecorated surfaces were Topic A in a recent letter to readers: "I'm planning a protest. . . . Face up to the Other Surface, I say, and don't act like it isn't there."

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