Marc Balet on Working with Andy Warhol
At 22 years old, Marc Balet had won the Prix de Rome in architecture and was offered a solo show at the Whitney Museum of Art, but he suspected that wasn’t going to land him a real job. After Fran Lebowitz asked him to illustrate her column in Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, he quickly became its Art Director. Five months later (after realizing he was being paid mostly in art not cash), Marc decided to leave, but was persuaded by Warhol to stay, where he remained until Andy’s death. We discovered that Marc’s fabulous loft on Broadway (with a secret house he’d built on the rooftop) are literally across the street from our NYC Penthouse.
How did you become interested in publishing?
When I was in Rome I was introduced to Fran Lebowitz, the writer. She was visiting friends of mine. I had already known a little bit about magazines. The little I knew was being asked to translate for a photographer I’d never heard of named Helmut Newton. I knew an Italian actress he wanted to shoot and she spoke no English and I spoke Italian. When Fran came to Rome in ’75 I met her. She had a column called “I Cover the Waterfront" in Interview at that time. When I returned to NYC I began creating little collages and montages, just to illustrate her column. I was hanging around The Factory and Andy knew me. Then the job for Interview AD came up. I'd never really had a job, but, at Fran’s urging, I asked Andy if I could be the art director. He said yes and that's how I started.
What about The Whitney and the Prix de Rome?
I was never going to be a real architect. My architecture was very conceptual, which is why The Whitney gave me the show. It was called “Dream Housing”. I had lectured about dream housing in Europe. I had tried to get a job showing my conceptual architecture while living in London but no one would hire me. But, at a certain point, I knew I would have to work. My parents weren't gonna pay for me forever.
“I had a ‘no drop off’ policy. If you dropped your book off, I would never look at it. I had to meet the photographer. I wanted to get the vibe off the photographer.”
What happened next?
I was already doing these montages for Fran's column and I guess Andy thought he'd like to have a Prix de Rome winner as his art director. I couldn't get a job anywhere else, I mean nobody really wanted to hire me. I didn't know what I was gonna do and then the Warhol thing came along. Then I quit Interview five months later, because I got what I considered a real job, which was to be the art director of Vogue Patterns. That’s where I started to work with Patrick Demarchelier, Chris von Wangenheim and Alex Chatelain and Arthur Elgort and Albert Watson and Frank Horvat, and a million photographers. Andy was in Iran at the time. I went to The Factory and I said, “Listen, I quit. I got a real job that's gonna pay me money. Thank you very much and I'll see you soon.”
But that wasn’t the end of it, was it?
That night, Andy called from Tehran and said, “No, no, no. You have to stay on and you're gonna freelance Interview. We'll work around you and you'll stay with us.” I never told Vogue Patterns for years that I was doing two jobs at the same time. But I would keep Arthur Elgort on the job, we'd shoot Vogue Patterns, and then the Vogue Patterns people would go away. Then I would bring in Susan Sarandon or somebody to shoot with Arthur, and we would just spend the night shooting and that's how we worked. That's how we did it then.
How long did this last?
I was at Interivew for 10 years, from '76 until Andy died in '87. Andy let me go to art direct a surfing movie called North Shore in Hawaii. I was out there for about three months or so, and the deal was that they would fly me back to New York so that I could do Interview every month and then I'd fly back out again to do the movie. He died while I was shooting there.
What was the creative process behind Interview Covers?
Either I was on set or sometimes it was shot in L.A. with Matthew Rolston or Herb [Ritts]. Then we gave it to Richard Bernstein who was living at the Chelsea Hotel on the ground floor, in the back. He would do his magic to each cover. Very rarely did I have direction on the cover. We gave Richard the picture we wanted. That was the joy of it. You didn't make money, but you got to do what you wanted. We were usually so happy just to get the cover, because it was always so late by the time that Richard would deliver it. He probably did it on purpose, just the day we had to go to press, so there was no time to change anything. We just jumped in a car and drove somewhere and had it printed. We did it like that, but I was in and out all the time because I was freelancing at that point with Armani, St Laurent, Lagerfeld, Barneys, etc.
What else was involved in the job?
I designed the magazine, and went over all the photographs and laid every page out, every spread, every photo, every design. I would come in and I'd sit with a team. It was a great team. I'm still friends with those that are around. I had an open call on one Wednesday a month between 11:00 and 1:00. I would make sure I was at The Factory for that. Everyone took a number. That's how I discovered different talent, like David LaChapelle. I had hundreds of people coming in, not at a time, but there'd be forty people on a regular Wednesday. They took a number. I had a “no drop off” policy. If you dropped your book off, I would never look at it. I had to meet the photographer. I wanted to get the vibe off the photographer, and I thought it was important for the photographer to talk to me. Each one got like six or seven minutes, but I needed those minutes to know if I felt like using that person or not.
Weren’t you selling on the streets sometimes?
Well, Interview was selling okay I guess. It wasn't Vogue, that's for sure. We were just eeking out. I'm sure Andy lost money on it for years. We paid almost nothing; I mean, I got $100 a week to be the art director there, which is why I tried to leave. Andy gave me a lot of art, but he didn't pay me a lot, so most of it was in paintings or in prints. One or more of us would accompany Andy as he strolled around town with copies of the latest issue. He’s give them away signed. Great PR always.
Well, it was very long-term! It's been thirty years. We all knew he was famous, obviously, but when you're working for someone for 10 fucking years, the glamour rolls off a little bit. He’s the boss and you're trying to get a job done, making sure everyone's happy.
“Andy loved to gossip, and he loved gossip, and it was just a way to hear gossip and then print it.”
You work very intuitively, don’t you? Rather than trying to pin down a particular concept?
Somebody would come up, and say, “We're doing Goldie Hawn,” and I'd say, “Okay, I see a Harley-Davidson. I want to do everything about Harley-Davidson with her,” and then we would just do it. Or for Diana Ross, I'd set up a studio and I would have five sets going, and I would just drag her from one set to the next, and then she was out. Don't waste anyone's time. So now that I'm using that attitude for OuiHours, a shoppable, online, sexy, lingerie magazine. We shoot only at night, in the wee hours. I use that same work ethic as from the Interview days. Do it inexpensively but make it look like a million.
One of the great things about Interview is the way it blended art and advertising. How did Warhol deal with that? Was it easy for him?
There were ad people selling ads all the time. We had a lot of shoe ads, so I would have, I don't know, Keith Haring or Judy Pfaff and many other artists create artistic shoe boxes for different shoe companies. They could do whatever they want, any kind of sculpture and any size. I wanted to show that the “shoebox” could be as intriguing as the shoe. Then I would put that series into Interview as a special art section and then that section would become an art show. The shoe boxes were amazing. Andy loved that, because it was a way to combine art and commerce. The vendors were very happy, because they were getting these big pages of editorial showing their glam shoes next to glam boxes, and the artists were happy because I was asking them to do something no one asked them to do: a shoe box. I did it with masks as well. I did it with jewelry. I just made it up as I went along.
Was the magazine called Interview for the love of the conversation?
We called the magazine Invitation. I think Andy loved to gossip, and he loved gossip, and it was just a way to hear gossip, go out with a reason and then print it. But, quite honestly, I rarely ever read the magazine. I mean, I was there, cutting the text, making sure that the type was cut to the length I wanted it so that the pictures were big. It looked beautiful so that was my main concern. I don't remember reading it all that much. Somebody did, though.
Tell us about your current project, OuiHours?
OuiHours is a site I created, an online magazine that you can shop from. It's all about lingerie, with very beautiful women in it. It's photographed by everyone from Bruce Weber, who launched men's for me, to Albert Watson. I'm still using that sensibility that Andy had me work with; that's what I'm bringing to this now. We don't have a lot of money. I'm doing this on a strict budget, getting it together, but it works. Photographers want to see their work beautifully portrayed and in good company. There's David LaChapelle and George Holz in there, as well as a group of talented new folk - Emily Soto, Ondine Vinao, Conor Dougherty, Justice Apple, to name a few.
How did you get into lingerie?
I had been working for La Perla and Warnaco. I helped launch Nike Goddess, which became Nike Women. I helped Nancy Ganz when she was launching her Body Slimmers. She kind of invented that whole category. So I had been working in lingerie and underwear for a while and I noticed that no one was paying any attention to lingerie in any kind of editorial way. I thought I'd start a sexy lingerie magazine that did not denigrate women. The lingerie business is represented by, mostly, uninteresting photography. You'd think that they would do beautiful stuff but they don't.
What are you trying to do that’s different?
I'm exploring lingerie as fashion. We have fantastic brands from all over the world. It took over a year for us to get vendors onboard. We got a few then we got a few more. Now we have around 100. We don't have our own brand yet, but, in the meantime, we're doing a great service to brands around the world who would never be able to have the caliber of photography and illustration (Blue Logan) that we offer. Artists like Gianluca Fellini (from that Fellini family) shoot sexy, lingerie videos for me all over the world.
Back to Italy!
Yeah, exactly. I have amazing people all over the world photographing in Tokyo and Australia. What Andy taught me to be creative on a shoe string.
What else did he teach you?
He taught me never to shoot up a woman's nose in photography. They look piggish, he said. Don't ever do it. I did it once. I never did it again.
Tell me about your obsession with dream houses. You have one here, right?
This triplex is my Dreamhouse. I'm thinking of getting another one. Everyone wants to find their own Dreamhouse. For example: What you wear is your Dreamhouse. You dress yourself up in a certain way. Your clothes, your image, is all part of your Dreamhouse. The cool or the elegant or the businesslike. Each image of yourself depicts another room in your Dreamhouse. It’s a narrative which which I transformed into architecture.
It's amazing that you were able to build your Dreamhouse and to put it right here, on…
On the corner of Broadway and Houston, probably the nosiest intersection in New York. But for you it's countryside up there. It's quiet.
It's very quiet actually. You'd be surprised. The house is set back. It's a very rustic old house. When I moved in, there were very few around. I love my house. It's my little cabin in the sky. During the spring and the summer, there are blooming plants everywhere. Fran Lebowitz calls it my ‘Back 40,’ with me planting my tomatoes, my cucumbers, my herbs. I even had an inflatable pool up there this past summer. We did some lingerie shots in it. Nothing goes to waste. On some weekends, I would just float on a small plastic inflatable bed high above Broadway and Houston. Reading, listening to music. It's genius up there. I'm not a big one for going out to the Hamptons. I had a house in Nantucket that I used to go to many years ago. I just couldn't bear it there anymore. I'm happy to be here. I built an outdoor shower up there so I get up in the morning, shower outside with the birds flying and the bees buzzing. It's very Heidi. Start my day, have coffee up there and then come down to the office floor and do whatever the hell I have to do.
Words by The Editors.