Sheila Hicks: New work @ Restaurant SD26

Sheila Hicks with 5 "Sumo Balls." Photo: Massimo Vignelli office

Twenty years ago,  before I knew the difference between tiramisu and calamari,  I was at an Italian Trade Commission presentation and was served a simple pasta lunch so delicious that it made an impression on even my unrefined taste buds.  Well, no wonder:  the meal had been catered by San Domenico,  one of the finest classical Italian restaurants in NYC.  I never ate there,  but I never forgot the lunch or the name of the restaurant.

Last fall I read in the NY Times that San Domenico had closed,  and that the restaurant’s owners, Tony May and his daughter Marisa,  were opening another New York restaurant, SD26 (link here), with interiors by noted designer Massimo Vignelli (link here) and installations by fiber artist Sheila Hicks.  This was something that I wanted to know more about, because Sheila Hicks is one of the world’s preeminent fiber artists,  so it’s news that her work is a prominent — and permanent — part of the Mays’ new restaurant.

Ms. Hicks studied art with Josef and Anni Albers at Yale,  and she has been creating innovative work ever since.  If you want to know more about Sheila Hicks’s extraordinary career,  see my earlier blog post here and visit her website here.  Her site does not offer a complete catalogue of her work, but the exuberant colors and photographs, and the concise text, show very clearly who she is as an artist.

I also recommend the book Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor,  by Danto, Simon, and Stritzler-Levine,  which was published to accompany Ms.  Hicks’s 2006 exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center, NYC.  Design is central to Ms.  Hicks’s work,  so it’s not at all surprising that the book was brilliantly designed,  too.  At this moment it is going into its third printing,  which will be available in March.

But back to SD26.  The restaurant has been open for a few months and has gotten a lot of positive press attention,  but I wanted information specifically about Sheila Hicks’s installations.  Marisa May,  co-owner of the restaurant,  graciously agreed to a phone interview and provided Beatriz Cifuentes’s  striking photographs of the restaurant’s interior,  for both of which I am grateful.

Sheila Hicks also very kindly agreed to be interviewed (via e-mail) for this article.  My interview with her follows:

Q:  Because I want my article to be fairly short, and to focus on the SD26 commission,  I’m going to limit how much I write about your brilliant and prolific career,  but I can’t pass up the opportunity to ask you how you got into weaving.  I know that you studied art at Yale with both Josef and Anni Albers,  but was there any specific trigger for your interest in fiber arts?

A: When I moved to Mexico in 1959 after finishing two degrees in painting at Yale I applied my design ideas,  and by working with the local weavers,  made all of the textile-based accessories for my house in the countryside near Iguala/Taxco.  In doing so,  I learned about materials,  texture,  color and scale in a trial and error fashion  It was the best way to apply my studies and to actually see the results.

Q:  Marisa said that Massimo Vignelli fell in love with your work.  Was it his idea to commission you to create work for the restaurant?  Had you worked with him before?

A:  Yes.  Actually I have known him and his wife, Lella,  for more than 40 years.  We all worked on the Georg Jensen Center for Design in New York and have shared similar design concerns and projects on many occasions  but the SD26 restaurant was the first time we were able to work hand in hand with concepts,  drawings,  trials and models from the initial planning stages to the finished installation.  Massimo had clear ideas of how he wanted my work to fit into his master plan and he helped me in all phases.  As he was familiar with my work and my respect for architecture he felt our vocabularies coincided in a compatible and reliable manner.

Q:  Your work blends well with the restaurant’s interior.  Did you work from site visits?  Photographs?  Drawings or plans?

A:  I worked from all of the above.

Q:  Since this is the Mays’ third restaurant in New York,  did Tony or Marisa May offer input or make requests?

A:  They relied completely on Massimo’s master plan and concept.

Q:  You have created commissioned work all over the world.  Is this your first piece for a restaurant?  Did the fact that it was a restaurant create any unusual challenges?

A:  No,  I have worked on many restaurants — Paris,  San Francisco,  Tokyo.

Q:  Is this your first public work in New York City?

A:  The Ford Foundation auditorium and board room were my first large permanent New York installations.  Before that I made works for Saarinen’s CBS building on 52/53rd St.  and his TWA terminal at JFK.  Five years ago I was commissioned to make two tapestry bas-reliefs for the Federal Court House in Foley Square, NYC.

Q:  Each installation at SD26 uses one of your signature motifs: the wrapped ropes in the lounge, and the fiber balls that hang from the ceiling above the dining room.  What are the titles of the works?

A:  The sinuous cords on the two entrance wall panels are called: OR, OTHERWISE,  AND THEN AGAIN.  They are linen and cotton.  [See Beatriz Cifuentes’s photo below.]

The large hanging sculptures in the dining room are: EIGHT SUMO BALLS.  Silk,  cotton,  wools,  synthetic and metallic fibers.  [See Beatriz Cifuentes’s photo below,  and for a closer look,  see photo at the top of the post.]

Q:  Were they made in your Paris Studio?

A:  Yes, in the Cour de Rohan.

Q:  Marisa mentioned that you were working on another piece for the restaurant.  What stage is that work in?

A:  It is almost finished and will be installed in February.  it will hang on the far wall of the dining area above the red leather eating booths.

[Update:  Sheila Hicks’s new piece was installed in the restaurant in March.  To see it — and to read about it — click here.]

Q:  She also told me that you are a foodie.  Do you have a favorite dish at SD26?

A:  Seldom,  if ever,  have I seen such an attractive and varied cheese bar.  This combined with excellent wine and expertly prepared pasta are my favorites.  It sounds simple but sometimes that is the hardest thing to find in sophisticated New York eating meccas.

So having begun with and circled back around to the Mays’ pasta,  this seems the perfect place to end,  for the time being — but not before I mention how very grateful I am to Sheila Hicks for generously taking the time to help me with this project,  which started last September and isn’t over yet.

14 Responses

  1. Sorry, something went wrong when I was trying to leave my comment… I think you would love this article about Hicks from HAND/EYE:

    Glad I found your blog & I’ll be adding it to my Google reader subscriptions!


    • Hi, Lyn, I did get both your comments, so thank you for persevering. And thank you for the link to the article. I’m not familiar with HAND/EYE but it looks like something that I’ll enjoy reading.


  2. Thank you so much for doing this interview and for the visuals!
    Carol Westfall

    • So glad you liked the piece, Carol, and thank you for your comment : ) I have some related posts in the works, so I hope that you’ll check back.


  3. Hi, Hill, I totally agree, especially if it’s fiber : ) Thanks for the comment.

  4. This is all so amazing! I wish more restaurants commissioned exciting work for their interiors!

  5. My pleasure, Elizabeth. Sheila Hicks’s work has a lot of fans, including me. Thank you for reading and commenting.


  6. Thanks for the article and the pictures. I so admire Sheila Hick’s work. ES

  7. Thanks very much. I appreciate your comment. Please stop by again.


  8. Thanks doing the interview! It was so interesting!

  9. I like the Eight Summo Balls artwork. It’s very original. Great interview by the way!

    • Thanks very much, Cynthia. Please stop by again.


  10. Thanks, Eva. I respect and admire Sheila’s work also, so writing the article was especially satisfying. Glad you liked the interview.


  11. Great interview, Fern. I have always admired Sheila’s work. Thank you!


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