What makes an interior queer?
This is a question that has come to fascinate me in the past few years, and even prompted me to put on an exhibition exploring the subject. Recently I was confronted by the topic once again while flicking through a vintage retail trade magazine.
The title was the first thing that caught my eye: The View from Within…an INTERVIEW with BOB BENZIO by Pamela Gramke. A photograph of the article’s subject, a handsome man wearing a grey T-shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots, sprawled across a bamboo chair identical to one of my own, further fueled my curiosity.
The June 1980 issue of Visual Merchandising: The Magazine of Store Planning and Merchandise Presentation profiles Benzio, and includes a brief description of his New York apartment as well as a summary of his professional accomplishments as Vice President and Director of Visual Merchandising for Saks Fifth Avenue, the famous New York department store.
“I feel I am a very determined person who loves a challenge, is overly sensitive at times, is somewhat shy because of my physical appearance, loves people, but is a very, very private person.”
While reading I instantly felt a profound connection with Benzio, almost as if I was looking back at myself through a portal of time. The similarities were rather remarkable; Benzio’s visual merchandising career brought him to Manhattan, mine brought me to Mayfair. Benzio was the youngest of three siblings, as am I, our zodiac signs are highly compatible (Scorpio and Pisces make great couples apparently) and I too am as Benzio describes himself “a stickler for detail, absolutely fanatical about professionalism in the workplace.” Besides our shared predilection for bamboo furniture, I also spotted a similar taste in art and collectibles, and a passion for theatrical display and presentation in interiors.
There may be over 40 years worth of cultural and aesthetic shifts separating me from Benzio but our interests, identity and environment firmly influenced us both in our choices about how to live in and decorate spaces. With so many similarities between us it’s rather tempting to assume Benzio’s queerness, based on the fact that many other aspects of his life and aesthetic choices mirror my own queer identity.
One of my vintage bamboo chairs, nearly identical to the set owned by Benzio.
There’s no reference to Benzio’s romantic interests in Gramke’s article, her description of him as “a very private person” and “always true to himself first and foremost whatever the cost in loneliness” paints the picture of someone entirely lacking in intimate relationships. She goes so far as to include the following quote next to an image of Benzio’s sleeping quarters: “The bedroom was designed for total comfort and involvement. It is where I spend most of my time alone and was designed totally by me for me”, perhaps in an attempt to ward off any questions about Benzio's sexuality.
Considering the time and place in which the article was written, not to mention Benzio’s high-profile corporate career, I can understand the cautiousness surrounding his personal life, however I also can’t help but notice Benzio’s precise and deliberate communication through his interiors. A subtle display of queer codes, obscured enough for the general audience of a retail trade magazine but loud and clear for anyone whose radar is switched to a certain frequency.
A David Hockney drawing of Joe McDonald stands out as particularly significant. Delicately lit and highlighted on a dark wall overlooking the dining table, amidst what Benzio describes as “50 shades of vanilla”, it holds an almost sacred aura. The significance of McDonald, one of the first male supermodels who was often featured in the pages of GQ in the mid-’70s, is poignant too. Close friends with Hockney, McDonald was regularly photographed by Andy Warhol, and was sadly one of the first figures in the fashion world to die of AIDS, in 1983.
Finally, given the professional circles Benzio is likely to have been moving in, I can't help but indulge in speculation that his home contains a few Roy Halston references. The Zebra hide rug and bamboo furniture set against the neutral tones of the walls, furnishings and bleached wood floors strongly resemble Halston’s first penthouse. The bijou “English garden” in an unsuspecting corner of Benzio’s apartment, could be read as a subtle homage to the fashion designer’s insatiable appetite for clay pots brimming with Phalaenopsis.
Now, do these aesthetic clues in Benzio’s interior confirm him as undoubtedly queer? Without a first-hand account I will never know, but at the final stages of my research I did stumble upon a 1987 New York Times obituary confirming Benzio had died of AIDS at his Manhattan home, aged 50. This tragic and weighty part of the puzzle sadly leaves little to the imagination.
Turning back to the magazine feature of seven years prior however, it strikes me as fascinating that Benzio deliberately chose to put his living space on display. An extensive browse through other issues of the publication yielded plenty of features on other retail professionals, but none of these profiles included any depictions of the subject’s living spaces. Considering the LGBTQ communities of the 50s and 60s often viewed the home as a highly private safeguard against intrusion by the state, I admire Benzio’s bravery and consider him part of the ’70s and 80’s queer revolution, firmly signaling his identity by putting his version of home on display for those that would both see and understand.
I see you Bob, proud and queer. Thank you.
Read part of Pamela Gramke’s introduction to her interview with Bob Benzio below:
The View From Within...an INTERVIEW with BOB BENZIO
by Pamela Gramke
“The first statement I wanted it to make was a very pure, unadulterated use of space so that when I came home at night, my eyes would be surrounded by a very comfortable, very soft environment,” says Bob Benzio of his newly self-remodeled apartment, overlooking the East River and United Nations, Bob Benzio’s apartment is not as many would suspect - refulgent in opulence within a posh, soaring glass tower - but rather, is a sophisticated understatement in its simplicity, soothing in its neutrality and nestled in a modest building away from the glitz and glitter of surrounding skyscrapers.
A David Hockney drawing of Model Joe McDonald in a white suit, sitting in a wicker chair is a highlight in the brass, glass and taupe dining room.
Although it is contemporary in the design of its furnishings (many designed by Bob Benzio), the apartment’s “50 shades of vanilla”, taupe, polished brass accents and bleached white, wood floor emote a warmth and soothing softness. Likewise, sparse but select furnishings and collectibles create comfort through their simplicity, and provide relief from “the color, design, patterns and textures I work with all day,” remarks Bob.
As you might suspect, his apartment features theatrics of presentation, i.e. fully controlled accent lighting and the highlighted presentation of serendipitous collectibles throughout; but it is much more than that. It is very personably Bob Benzio. “It is totally my personality. I only did that with which I alone could be happy. I know exactly how I put clothes on my back. And I feel after working 23 years in the visual merchandising business, that I know who I am and what I want to live in. And I am absolutely ecstatic about this apartment.”
“My English garden provides a wonderful blaze of color in an unsuspecting corner.” - Bob Benzio
But who is Bob Benzio, really? As corporate vice president and director of visual merchandise presentation for Saks Fifth Avenue, it is easy to guess that he is a man admired and envied for his position and the talents that have advanced him there. Likewise, he is often, because of his position, an enigma interpreted by others as being more, or less, than he truly is.
Factually however, Bob Benzio is a 43-year old, highly successful, visual merchandiser, born and reared in the Bronx of second-generation, middle-class, Italian-American parents. He is the youngest of three (one older brother who lives in the Bronx and heads their father’s trucking business, and one older sister who lives in upstate New York); has had no formal design education, but rather has worked diligently to layer 23 years in the profession of fashion, culture and the arts into his current persona; and like every mother’s son, speaks frequently with his mother (who still lives in the Bronx) to assure her that he is fine and eating properly.
Above, the interior of Benzio’s apartment showing a sculpted fan wall graphic to match the neutral tones of the walls, sofa and bleached wood floor, which allow bright sunshine to filter in unobstructedly.
Astrologically, Bob is true to his Scorpio profile - he feels things deep inside he never displays outwardly because he is a very private person; he is very self-assured, believes in recognizing and accepting faults as well as his virtues, and consequently tries very hard to understand why many people don't understand him; and he is always true to himself first and foremost whatever the cost of in loneliness, considered poise and assurance to be great assets, and though has very few real friends, gives to and demands of them a very deep loyalty and affection...
“The bedroom was designed for total comfort and involvement. It is where I spend most of my time alone and was designed totally by me for me.” - Bob Benzio
The View from Within...and INTERVIEW with BOB BENZIO was written by Pamela Gramke (Editor) and appeared in the June 1980 edition of trade magazine Visual Merchandising, published by ST Publications in Ohio, USA.