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David and Sybil Yurman: Out of Africa…and the Subconscious

When the SoHo jewelry-design power couple David and Sybil Yurman bought the adjacent penthouse in their building two years ago, converting much of it into studio space, it gave them the opportunity to stretch out stylishly in their original loft just across the hall. Since then they have been rearranging and adding to their collections of furniture and art.

The masks are mostly African in origin or inspiration. Other objects have an Asian aesthetic. A few of Mr. Yurman’s jewelry pieces and small sculptures — he began his career as an apprentice to Jacques Lipchitz — and Ms. Yurman’s paintings are included too.

Their favorite pieces enjoy places of honor on a living room cabinet, but arrangements are not firmly fixed. “It’s constantly evolving depending on where David and I have been and the mood of the day,” Ms. Yurman said. “I’ll just wake up from a dream about being in Morocco. Then I’ll want something that came from the windows of a harem.” She pointed to a marble sculpture from Morocco adorning a wall. “My tastes are like a consistent river that runs through me,” she continued. “I don’t think of myself as a collector. I don’t even use the word ‘collect.’”

Mr. Yurman piped up: “Actually, we collect a lot. Constantly.”

His wife just smiled.

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Masks from the Fang, a Central African people from Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.


How do you decide what you display?

SYBIL YURMAN What attracts me are things that have memories attached from my own life. I often paint at night and they influence me. One of David’s sculptures, for example, which I absolutely love, is the story of Icarus, which always inspires me.

DAVID YURMAN The piece was interesting to do, but it wasn’t a self-portrait. Although maybe that’s what I’ll look like when I get really old.

When it comes to furniture and design, you clearly appreciate midcentury modern. Where does your furniture come from?

MS. YURMAN About 15 years ago we went to Denmark and bought beautiful Danish pieces and shipped them back to America. The container included two Ole Wanscher tambour cabinets and a dining room table that belonged to the writer Isak Dinesen. My father, Murray, was a furniture designer and poet. He loved Danish design and joinery. He used to pull me out of school to go on scavenger hunts for furniture and treasures.

You mentioned you care a great deal about things Japanese.

MS. YURMAN It goes back to my father and the year he spent with the Navy in Japan. He was on one of the first ships into Japan after the armistice. He would send home pictures of himself surrounded by little Japanese schoolchildren. He brought just one thing back, this carving of Fukurokuju, the Japanese deity of prosperity. My father thought this piece was exquisite and whoever created it was a true artist. Years later he gave me the ceramic piece we have on the cabinet now. This piece is totally different. It has a rough glaze finish. I’ve made raku pieces that have the same roughness and crudeness. It’s the aesthetic of the wabi-sabi school of pottery. It’s about accepting imperfection and accident.

What’s up with these pictures of mounds?

MS. YURMAN Well, I painted them. I truly don’t know if they’re mounds or houses. They come out of my subconscious. The pictures here are actually prints. I sold the originals years ago, which helped finance the business for quite a while.

The picture of a mermaid riding a whale’s tail — surely there’s a backstory.

MS. YURMAN It’s by Jeannie Weissglass, a local artist. I grew up involved in the story of “Moby-Dick.” My father would tell it to me often, about what happens when you’re involved in pride and spend your life involved with an adversary. When I saw the mermaid riding on the whale’s tail, I was touched by it.

You have quite a few masks and totems. Where do they come from?

MR. YURMAN From all over. One on the table my grandchildren love. Unfortunately, they tend to take them apart. One is pre-Columbian. We bought it at the Park Avenue Armory. It’s a burial piece.

MS. YURMAN It might have been used to club somebody.

Does it have a ceremonial use?

MR. YURMAN Not for us, hopefully.


Article Provided By: The New York Times