From Nightlife to Wildlife with Eric Goode

16 March, 2017

Eric Goode changed NYC nightlife in the ’80s with the nightclub Area, then modernized the hotel experience by opening the Bowery and Jane Hotels. But his real labor of love? Helming the Turtle Conservancy, on a mission to ensure the survival of endangered turtles and tortoises around the globe. We sat with Eric to understand how he made the switch from nightlife to wildlife.

Your club Area was famous for collaborating with artists and its changing themes. Can you tell us a little about the creative process behind it… how those themes would emerge?

We chose the themes based on prior themes. So we tried to do one that might be, say, natural history or suburbia, something more literal. And then we would contrast that with something more abstract, like the color red or sex. We were just trying to mix it up so it wasn't predictable. We tried not to take ourselves too seriously. That’s why we used a nightclub as our forum rather than a gallery. Because at that time, galleries seemed incredibly boring and serious. You drink wine and wander around. And we wanted to have fun, live out our fantasies, but also have fun with the people. To be a bit satirical, and make it, as much as we could, incredibly sensual.

Wasn't it exhausting to build and then tear down?

Yeah. It was very intense, because the lifespan of Area wasn’t very long, but it felt very long. It was never-ending work. We would do these environments in the club, and the second we had one finished we would, the very next day, start the next one, because it would take six weeks to build and order and fabricate everything for the next one. There was never a break.

“At the end of the day [what I've always been doing] has a lot to do with bringing people together who have the same consciousness.”

Was the idea to go bigger every time, or to go crazier?

As we progressed, we had a larger budget, so we tried to out-compete the last theme or installation. So we did try to go bigger. And we thought that the idea of changing the environment inside the club would make the club always new, always different. But eventually the change itself became predictable. So in a way we sabotaged ourselves, because then people expected more and more and more, and unless you could keep elevating the experience, it became very difficult to out-compete yourself every time.

What was it like blending art with life, having the performers among the audience?

Especially in the ’70s and ’80s in NYC, it was a very different experience going to clubs, before social media and cell phones. People had to go out if you wanted to have any kind of social interaction. You had to make an effort. And so obviously nightclubs were the place to meet people. Back in those days, this town wasn't obsessed with money the way it is today, so people made an effort to dress up and exhibit their creative aesthetic by what they wore. They were literally making an effort almost as though they were actors in a play, adding to the themes that we did. There was a lot of collaboration from the audience and guests. I don't see that nearly as much today. And the door policy, the criteria of letting people in, had nothing to do with how wealthy someone was. It had all to do with how much effort someone put into their game. And today, it's really obscene that people are chosen by how much money they'll spend in a club, and will they buy a bottle of alcohol. Bottle service didn't exist back then. Now it's really about how fat your wallet is.

Grace Jones & Dolph Lundgren arriving at Area for the “confinement” party. Photo: Abrams Books
Madonna, a neighbor of Area, and Eric Goode. Photo: Ben Buchanan

After Area you started working in hospitality and designing hotels. How does this work for ephemerality translate into something more permanent?

Good question. Well, Area was very much about being almost inhospitable. It was not about being comfortable. It was about fun, coming up, and expressing our ideas, whatever they may be. And then I did another club called MK, which was sort of a supper club. That was supposed to feel like an eccentric person's home, so that every night, you felt like you were going to someone's private home. It was three floors, in this very beautiful building on 25th St. and 5th Avenue. I guess I sort of morphed into the restaurant business somehow, and then I started doing hotels, which was completely different. The only similarity is about bringing people together.

And décor.

The décor was fixed though, and now I did have to start thinking about what do people want in terms of comfort, a completely different objective in a way, other than bringing people together.

The dance floor at Area for the “Highway” party

Do you think the frenzy of the ’80s will come back? And how do you see the nightclub of the future?

Well, now I'm kind of old, so I'm not really a connoisseur of nightlife or a social anthropologist anymore. I would say that a series of things happened in the ’80s and ’90s that changed our culture. One of them was AIDS. HIV had a lot to do with sort of homogenizing groups. Before AIDS, everyone was together, gay, straight, you know, different ethnicities. It seemed like a tossed salad. And then people in the late ’80s decided that they would go. It wasn't quite as dynamic, as the clubs became much more one thing or another. And then of course with social media and cell phones, the whole way you meet people is different. So you don't need to go and make the effort anymore.

But the encounter, the surprise of meeting somebody, should be evergreen and fresh.

It's a human experience, so it shouldn't disappear. I agree with that. But I don't know if there are clubs that have that diversity anymore, that mixture of cultures and gay, straight, bi whatever. There's a gay club or there's a straight club, or there's a supper club. I don't know if people are as interested anymore in the creative experience as they were back then, in New York City at least.

That was really your thing, right, to bring art in to a social experiment?

”Art” makes it sound so precious. Everything we did at Area was ephemeral. What we were doing was make-believe, and it was conceptual, and it was never thought to last. We had high art and low art and bad art. We would have contemporary art, the usual suspects, you know, Jean-Michel Basquiat, or Keith Haring, or David Hockney. But then we would have artists who were really bad, like Peter Max, and we kinda made fun of the whole thing. And then at the end of the show we destroyed everything. We had a Keith Haring painting that was probably 40 feet and 10 feet high, beautiful, but we would just throw it in the dumpster. And we would throw the Jean-Michel Basquiats away. Because we didn't, in those days, we didn't really think of it the way you think of art today. Today it's like the stock market, right? Everything is this precious; we put this value on it. So anyway, it was very ephemeral.

The lobby of the Bowery hotel
Inside MK. Photo: Eric Goode

What about the identity of the “owner,” do you think about that? Was your club MK about trying to create an environment that would give hints about the identity of the owner?

Yeah, that's exactly right. Because after doing Area, I didn't want to copy that again. I wanted to do something that was completely the opposite. MK was supposed to be the initials of some person, and the place was supposed to never change, and it was supposed to feel like you were going into an idiosyncratic kind of exotic home. We had a lot of taxidermy at this time. It felt like someone had collected things over many, many years. We had a big Basquiat in that club, that Jean-Michel gave me. And then we would have stuffed Doberman Pincers, and the bones of people in cabinets. It was like a mixture of objects and things that felt like this person had lived there and collected them over a long period of time, through their travels.

What would the ingredients for mood design today be?

Well, lighting. Lighting obviously is incredibly important. And sound is important. So this lobby that we're in, we never play music, and it's because I think people really do want to talk sometimes, and you want to have different generations. Think of it as a great party. A great party always needs to have the right mixture of interesting people.

“Be like a tortoise. Slow down.”

Let’s talk a little bit about your turtle conservancy. Do you see it as a completely different effort from what you've done in hospitality and nightclubs, or another way to engage the ephemeral?

As humans, sometimes we think we're the most important species on the planet, that what we do is so important, right? I tend to disagree with that and so I'm perfectly okay with having human creativity be ephemeral, but I don't want species to be ephemeral. I never thought there was a similarity. I was closeted with my interest in turtles. I didn't share that with people openly.

There's photos of you at 18 with turtles.

There are, but I kept that very compartmentalized from this world, but it was only in the last nine or ten years that I started becoming more open about it. But as time went on I began to realize that running an organization like I do for the conservation of turtles, of wild lands, in a funny way is similar to this, because at the end of the day it has a lot to do with bringing people together who have the same consciousness. So for example, last night we did a benefit to raise money for conservation efforts, to protect wild lands that have rare tortoises…

Drew Barrymore at the Turtle Ball. Courtesy:
Edward Norton at the Turtle Ball. Courtesy:

It was a party.

It was a party, and it was trying to bring people together who care, and that will also attract other people. We honored Mark Ruffalo, and Bobby Kennedy spoke, and the actor Edward Norton spoke.

So it was all PR?

It was PR, but it's also trying to get people in the arts, whether it's visual or theatrical arts, to use their voice and their platform. We honored Mark Ruffalo because he uses his voice, and he's not just an actor. He's really an advocate in a time in our history where things are really surreal. And we have to be creative and get together, fight the crazy administration that we have right now.

What advice would you give to anyone who wants to open a nightclub?

I would say, know that, at least in New York City, they really are only good for a short time. They're kind of like magic in a bottle, sort of the emperor's new clothing. Do it, and love it, and enjoy it, but when it starts to become redundant and predictable, get out of it. Opening a nightclub is like opening a Broadway show. It has a life span. Run it until it's no longer fun. Recognize that you're gonna do it for two or three years. It's fireworks. And there's something great in that, something beautiful about that, but don't think it's gonna last forever, or you're gonna kill yourself.

And for someone who wants to open a hotel?

I'd say there's a scale. They should never be too big, otherwise they turn into airports, which is hideous. There's nothing personal about them. They're completely cheesy and formulaic. When I say small, I mean not more than 100 rooms. And try to have human fingerprints on it. Try not to make it feel too corporate. Because I think people like to feel like they're kinda in someone's old living room sometimes. There's a comfort in that. I'm not saying not to have fun with it, but a hotel is the complete opposite of a nightclub.

Any other advice about life in general?

Do what you like to do, and when it's no longer fun, don't do it. Never do anything just for money. Be like a tortoise. Slow down.

Words by The Editors and Eric Goode. Illustrations: courtesy of Turtle Conservancy.

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