Meet Serge Becker, Cultural Engineer
Serge Becker defies categories. More than a nightlife impresario, he excels at creating social environments, from restaurants to nightclubs, redefining how New Yorkers gather, have fun, mingle, and party. You may recognize some of his most high-profile ventures, like Area, M.K., Miss Lily’s, La Esquina, The Box, Café Select, Joe’s Pub, Maison O, among others. We’re also interested in his role as newly-minted creative and art director for the Museum of Sex. We sat down with him recently to better understand how he approaches the art of hospitality and entertainment.
What got you interested in creating social environments?
I started out as a DJ, and supported myself through art school working in clubs in Zürich. Upon graduation, I moved immediately to New York and was applying to be a DJ at the environmental art club Area. I was offered a job as an art director instead. That really was a glorified title for being part of a team of young artists that design and build their installations on a bi-monthly schedule. It was basically bootcamp for environmental design and I just stuck with it.
There are so many components to a "social environment" (music, food, concept, culture, installations, design, architecture, art, crowd, mood, atmosphere...). How did you master all of this?
Master is a big word! You just make choices and express your personal sensibilities and some people will share them with you. Over time, one learns mostly from mistakes and gets a little better at it.
André Balazs said of you, "he’s not a designer, he’s a cultural engineer.” What do you think?
I should hire him as a PR person! Much of that came from our time working together, and always having wide, meandering conversations about a million seemingly unrelated topics before we actually got down to creating a space. André is incredibly influential because he truly manifests many peoples’ dreams and ambitions in such a stylish and elegant way. He creates fully realized worlds of glamour and mischief. I learned a lot from him.
Was Area your first gig as an art director? What did you love about it the most?
Yes, it was my first gig as art director. I loved the camaraderie of the group and the freewheeling, anything-is-possible spirit of the times. It was a time before neighborhood busybodies began to shut down nightlife. Night culture was central to the identity of the city. It actually mattered. The police would voluntarily direct traffic in front of the club, because the crowds would spill into the street. It was all naive and innocent.
Tell us about your magazine, List. Our friend Jim Walrod says it's the best magazine ever.
I started it with Lisa Ano and Derek Sanders. I noticed that there wasn't a list I wouldn't read, and that I wasn't alone. So I suggested we start a magazine that published lists only. It's actually not so restricting a format. We had a great time doing it, but the magazine fell victim to the dot com bubble bursting and 9/11 was the final nail. It's hard to come by. Some copies are on some rare book sites.
“The perfect place doesn't exist and I wouldn't want to go there anyway. I like the imperfect, the human.” – Serge Becker.
Can you speak a little bit about your club M.K., and why it might have dissolved?
M.K. was beautiful and intriguing upon entering, but had some basic structural flaws. The club was in an old bank and spread over four floors. The entrance lounge was on the ground floor, and the restaurant on the mezzanine. After dinner, guests would disperse either into the basement to a dark dance floor, or to the top-floor library lounge with pool table. So the two late-night spaces were basically separated by three floors of stairs, and we couldn't keep the energy together. It's now the home of Pentagram design.
What keeps you interested in pulling from so many different influences and juggling multiple projects?
I've always had a pretty restless, wandering mind. I like to read broadly, but not too much in depth. So when I take on projects I like to keep it moving. Repetition and perfection was never my bag. I study academic design, but also like vernacular styles and love playing with those forms. Taking existing tropes and shaping and enhancing them is fun.
Have you created “a perfect place”?
Everything is always in flux and I think there have been some perfect moments, maybe quite a few. The perfect place doesn't exist and I wouldn't want to go there anyway. I like the imperfect, the human.
“A certain level of exclusivity helps to create a special place.” – Serge Becker.
Do you think exclusivity is one of the secret ingredients necessary for a great club, venue, or restaurant?
A certain level of exclusivity helps to create a special place. The people are the most important ingredient to any place, and to exert some control over the make-up of the mix is simply indispensable. It's not fun telling people no, but sometimes it's part of the job.
What's your favorite restaurant (not yours) in the city?
I go to the same handful of spots and they're nice as they are, so I don't want to publicize them and they don't need it. I basically go to neighborhood staples and enjoy the routine. The opposite of what I like in my work.
Which NYC place inspires you the most, and why?
The place that inspires me most is the streets of New York! I love to walk or ride a bike and watch people and places and absorb the energy. I wonder who they are and where they're going, what's being built or torn down. I imagine stories and daydream.
What do you have in mind for New York's Museum of Sex? Why did you take on this project?
A museum is an entertainment venue, so I felt it was a pretty natural fit. Sex is a universal topic and had always informed many of my personal and professional decisions, so I felt doubly invested. In many ways, it's a return to my Area days. I get to work with a group of talented and dedicated people, and learn something new everyday. It's a blessing.
What's a project you dream of doing that you've never had time to do?
I never dreamt of the Museum of Sex, but now I think it's quite the dream job. I also always wanted to rethink wellness and entertainment. Life in the city is so fast and stressful. Reimagining a spa would be a dream project.
Words by Serge Becker and The Editors.