Gotta love a woman who whips up a few baubles to wear on her opening night from the discards of“yesterday’s soup.” And so it is that interior designer Courtney Sloane adores such a woman, her wife, Cheryl R. Riley. Cheryl, one of the artists included in the massive Global Africa Project now on view at the Museum of Art and Design, gilded three neck bones, suspended them from black cord and wore them–like funkified Olympic gold– to the exhibition opening on November 16.
Just a few weeks ago, in a similar burst of spontaneous creation, Cheryl, bearing a glue gun and materials found around the house, crafted five crowns for "Cheryl and Courtney’s Artful Halloween Dinner Party" should extras be needed. Guests had been asked to create a crown, in lieu of full costume, to don during the Basquiat-inspired festivities in their art-filled home. Upon entering the spacious loft in my coronet of autumn leaves, I missed the fluffy presence of Pia Zadora, the beloved Chow-Chow who held court in Courtney’s life from 1992 to her passing in 2009. And I smiled as I perused the space, an eclectic mix of personal treasures including Cheryl’s own beautifully imposing, “shamanistic” mirror, a piece I’ve always loved. Courtney speaks of design as conversation, a vehicle for telling stories. The story their home reveals is one of travel and exploration, honoring family and the passionate creation and collecting of art.
Visiting from San Francisco, fantastic chef and dear friend Cassandra Miles was putting the finishing touches on the delectable feast (including a tender pot roast and Cornish game hen with garlic orange-chili butter) as the hosts readied themselves to receive guests. Courtney selected one of the Cheryl-crafted crowns: a corrugated band decoupaged with Mbuti-patterned paper and topped with glorious blue and green tail feathers molted by a friend’s Macaw. Cheryl chose for herself the “Lady Gaga-inspired” clear acrylic spire she’d painted silver and accented with corkscrew willow.
As the guests arrived, Courtney mixed pre-dinner cocktails with the refreshing, lightly grassy Żubrówka, or bison grass vodka she prefers. Its single blade of buffalo grass, she explained, is akin to the worm found in bottles of mezcal. Soon delighted dining and lively conversation commenced. Desserts of apple spice cake and sweet potato chocolate-pecan pie followed. We rounded out the evening continuing the vodka theme appropriately with the ambrosial, chocolate-infused vodka from the renowned chocolatier, Godiva. The C’s really know how to host a salon: mixing it up with fascinating people (including established artist Ben Jones and emerging artists Nina Chanel Abney and Hiroshi Kumagai) fabulous food and relaxed fun.
Strongly influenced by their fierce and fashionable mothers, both Cheryl and Courtney give props to Mom for inspiring them to become the highly accomplished women they are today. “When I was a child,” Cheryl says, “my mother was called the most beautiful colored woman in Houston. She was intelligent, talented and adventurous.” Cheryl’s earliest memories are of her art student mother’s supplies: “clay, oil paints, turpentine… She allowed me to paint and draw on a wall in my room and taught me to read before I started kindergarten.” Aesthetics were paramount in the Sloane household as well. “My mom always had a great sense of style–both fashion and interior, ” Courtney says, “ In fact while I was growing up she actually worked with a decorator on our house. I would get to tag along and be a part of those conversations. Those experiences lead me to consider interior design as a career path.”
Gladys Mae DuBois surrounded her daughter with beauty, ignited a creative spark and sense of boundless possibility, Bennie Riley hoped to instill in her a sense of bootstrap pragmatism. Embracing a bit of both, Cheryl attended a private community college in Missouri, Columbia College but left after receiving her Associate’s Degree to pursue life “on her own terms in a new city.” She chose San Francisco “because I am good at making lists. I wanted a multi-cultural, cosmopolitan city with a strong city center, on a coast, no snow but a maximum three-hour drive from it, nature nearby and a public transportation system. I was right because the minute I saw that fog-framed city as I entered via the Bay Bridge, I was head over hills in love.” She launched an executive career that would take her from positions with luxury retailer I. Magnin to advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi and Levi Strauss. Directing her creative energy toward her own home, she began designing furniture for her apartment. Her professional peers took notice and became her first customers. In less than a decade she went from corporate exec to fulfilling her artistic passions in 1986 with the launch of Right Angle Designs.
In 1999, with a dream collector’s list (Danny Glover, Terry McMillan, Denzel Washington, Robin Williams, et. al.) several awards and exhibitions under her belt, inclusion in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Art and the Cooper-Hewitt, Oakland and Mint Museums, multiple public and corporate commissions (including Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport) she moved to New York. “After living 22 years in San Francisco, I wanted to experience another city while my career was still in full swing. Having served on several arts-related boards, she most recently was a board member of the Museum of Art and Design — formerly the American Craft Museum– where she was instrumental in re-imagining the scope and re-imaging the brand. Her power to connect to an audience with her genial manner and engage them with her expertise has made her a highly regarded lecturer and panelist, speaking across the country from Stanford and Lehigh Universities to the Bellevue Art Museum. As a teacher, she’s conducted classes in respected craft schools such as Penland and Haystack Mountain.
She’s enjoyed the embrace of the East Coast on many fronts with plum commissions for the Walgreens Corporation (wall murals) and furnishings for dance legend Judith Jamison’s office at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. She's exhibited in group shows at the Newark Museum, Pittsburgh’s Society of Contemporary Art, the Tampa Museum of Art and a solo show at Peg Alston Fine Art in NYC. She's flexed her curatorial muscle with the private art collections of BET's Washington, DC offices and Harlem’s luxury condominium, Kalahari. Her art commentary is featured in several publications, including the current issue of Jersey City Magazine and in February 2007, marriage.
In Jersey City (where she and Cheryl ave resided in the Powerhouse Arts District since 2005) Courtney was born to and raised by John and Ruth Sloane. She donned the maroon and gold of St. Anthony High School, playing point guard on the girls’ varsity basketball team. Initially, she majored in marketing at Rutgers University but a job at Formica was a turning point for her and she convinced her employer to subsidize her further studies in interior design at FIT and Pratt. She covered the academics in class and got the immersive knowledge of the business at work, all-the-while rocking a side hustle with friends–catering and events in a small Jersey City loft. They outfitted the space with furniture she’d designed and hosted art shows. If Formica was the turning point, then Ms. Dana Owens was the tipping point. When Dana a.k.a. Queen Latifah, full of confidence about her own trajectory, rolled through the impressive space she told Courtney “when I really blow up, you’re going to do my place.” Three years later, Courtney did, in fact, hail the Queen, creating the executive offices of her Flavor Unit in Jersey City, which led to commissions on the other side of the Hudson.
The house music fan and her company Alternative Design (AD) became the go-to designer for the hip-hop élite: Vibe Magazine, Sean Combs (through various name changes), Jay-Z, and more recently, the executive suite of Damon Dash. As word of Courtney’s gift for spatial storytelling spread, so did the interest of major corporations. Sony Music, Disney and Viacom, to name a few, came calling, commissioning AD to create their environs. She designed the flagship of natural body-care emporium, Carol’s Daughter, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Roots, Rhymes and Rage exhibition and the living quarters for the first two seasons of America’s Next Top Model. With such an illustrious client roster, it’s no surprise that she’s become a design pundit: contributing to Essence Magazine, appearing on several design shows from CNN to BET to HGTV to a starring role on TLC’s Material World and speaking around the country (notably giving the esteemed Hiller lecture by the Design & Environmental Analysis Department at Cornell University.) She is now part of a collective working with AF Supply to develop the Signature line of plumbing fixtures and bathroom accessories–“a huge project” to be launched in 2012, mining the “New York design talent of both architects and interior designers. Since most of the plumbing design innovation comes from Italy, this project specifically will bring focus on the talent pool that exists here in NYC.” Grateful for her success in both residential and commercial design in the States and abroad, she is an ardent advocate of mentoring and honoring her obligation to give back.
Together, Cheryl and Courtney are launching a new venture, Riley Sloane, a socially responsible design and production studio specializing in licensing, private label and production in the Home and Lifestyle categories. Their first line, launching in 2011, is the Pura Vida collection of decorative wall panels made from FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified solid indigenous woods of Costa Rica.
Cheryl on Courtney:
“About a year before I met Courtney, I made a list–again with the lists–of the qualities I wanted in my lifetime partner.” Living on separate coasts for “the first two years of our relationship, we had a lot of time to have in-depth conversation and get to know each other on the phone. Otherwise, we saw each other every 4-6 weeks in our respective homes, traveled together elsewhere and even worked on a project together for Disney. I had 45 attributes on the list and Courtney scored 37.5!” And as any self-respecting Southern esoteric would do, she sought a reading from a cousin with “the gift.” The reading suggested that though they are not soul mates (sometimes that is one’s best friend, business partner, etc.) they are as “highly compatible as she had ever seen–and it proved true.”
Courtney on Cheryl:
“Well, I knew that there was something extraordinary about her the first time we met. I was absolutely thrilled to meet the sister that I had read about who was doing all this badass furniture on the West Coast, I mean really making noise! Once we began to speak over the phone I think it was inside of about 3 or 4 weeks that I knew she was the one I wanted to spend my life with.” And on her wife’s inclusion in the GAP show, “I’m so excited and proud of Cheryl for this major accomplishment! It’s great for her to be a part of the new history of the Museum and [exhibiting] again since showing her Bakuba Griffin Dining Table in 1994 when it was the American Craft Museum.”
Born ten years apart, Cheryl’s an analog girl whose tech comfort level ends somewhere around email and Courtney’s a “gadget geek” prone to early adoption of the latest technology. They are alike in the ways that matter and different enough to keep things interesting, a great couple. Though it was difficult for them to pinpoint only five things each, here’s a smattering of the things besides each other that they love…
Cheryl’s Fave Five:
1. Travel. She especially enjoys exploring Costa Rica, where she and Courtney married and her beloved Italy. “The food, the fashion, the furniture design…If there are past lives, Italy is where I [once] lived,” she believes, having felt “totally at home my first time in Rome. I took Italian lessons before I ever went there because I loved the musical sound of the language and my favorite Italian operas… I would live in Venice now if given the opportunity.”
2. Custom cowboy boots. “I was born in Houston in the days of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and there is a picture of me at 4 years old on Christmas day and I am wearing full cow girl regalia and my rifle and first cowboy boots. I danced through the kid leather gun-metal gray and camel Italian cowboy boots that Wilkes Bashford, the luxury retailer of San Francisco gave me when I was his house model in the late 70′s. My favorite and oldest pair of cowboy boots were made by Austin-based Tony Lama. The more rows of stitches, the better the quality of the boot,” and I love that the more worn they are, the better to mold to my feet.” Rocking the Tony Lamas in a 1990 profile in San Francisco Magazine featuring her “Talking Head” media cabinet and “Zulu” tables.
3. Paloma Picasso perfume. Melding perfectly with her body chemistry, it’s been her fragrance signature since its eighties debut. “Everyone loves the way it smells on me,” she says. “I love its rich, exotic, incense-like scent and that it holds its ‘color’ all day. Its namesake, daughter of Pablo Picasso and writer Francoise Gilot, is an artist ( jewelry design) in her own right, a fact not lost on Cheryl. She enjoys the aesthetic connection. She chuckles at the long-ago memory of being followed by La Paloma, “her entourage a few paces behind” around the jewelry department of I.Magnin in San Francisco. “When I looked at her directly once, she clearly did not want to communicate, just smell–probably did not want to break her spell.”
4. Turquoise and pearls. Others may crave bling, but Cheryl enjoys a little opacity in her gems. Her birthstone, turquoise, with its spectral range of blue to green reminds her “of vacations in a tropical paradise or the native American jewelry in the Southwest. And pearls “are so classic, sexy, warm and modern,” complementing everything and available “in endless variety. I love abundant strands à la Chanel or a Wilma Flintstone choker. I am designing pearl charm bracelets, pins and necklaces with a friend in Shanghai so I can have even more!” Detail from a charm bracelet she had made by a Native American artist in Santa Fé. She wore a single strand of black pearls on her wedding day.
5. Contemporary art of the African Diaspora. No surprise here. It is evident in her own work, in her home, in her enthusiastic writing, in her exhaustive knowledge of the canon. Given the breadth of the genre she’d be hard pressed to single out a favorite among the multitudes of diasporic artists, many of whom she feels “lucky” to count among her friends. She does share, however, a few artist friends with whom she’s had recent — and inspiring contact. Carrie Mae Weems is a “fount of inspiration, constantly expanding beyond our concept of photography, her predominant medium.” Cheryl, in awe, viewed the October rehearsal of“The Venus Project,” Weems’ collaboration with composer Phillip Miller and director Talvin Wilks. Shinique Smith’s first solo museum exhibit just closed at MOCA in Miami. “It was fantastic to see so much of her work together…My favorites are her site-specific wall murals. They dance with the calligraphic graffiti swirls that she paints with brushes and her body (the piece, Red Rose, is in Cheryl’s collection.) Celebrated artists, the Bronx-born Fred Wilson and Whitfield Lovell, “are the only couple in the world to have received the highly prestigious MacArthur “Genius” grant [Wilson in 1999, Lovell in 2007] Their styles of making art are completely different–Fred is an intellectually-challenging conceptualist while Whitfield’s drawings and sculptures are grounded in our authentic collective history.” She is particularly proud of Fred, who represented the US at the 2003 Venice Biennale, and has been a friend “since his 1993 Artist In Residency at Capp Street Project in San Francisco where I was on the board.”
Courtney’s Fave Five:
1. Geodesic domes. The tessellated structure created by Walther Bauersfeld and later tweaked and popularized by Buckminster Fuller holds a place in her heart. There’s one she and Cheryl enjoy time and again near their summer home in East Hampton, frequently taking friends like artist Nanette Carter to share in the experience. The Fuller piece Fly’s Eye Dome, is on the grounds of LongHouse, founded by Jack Lenor Larsen, one of Courtney’s “all-time favorite textile designers,” and is part of their permanent collection. “It is just awesome,” she exclaims. “I love the volume, air and light. There is a sensational feeling when you are in a space that wraps around. I find it super liberating!”
2. Paul Smith London. She loves the quirky spin on classic English tailoring. Looks from Paul Smith Spring/Summer 2011.
3. Chris Craft Boats. ”Absolutely gorgeous!” She prefers the wooden-hulled vintage models from the late 1940′s through the 1970′s. Here, a 1954 20-foot Riviera. From ClassicBoat.com.
4. Dahon Bikes. Her Speed D7 is “great for cruisin’ around the ‘hood or in the city.” The quick-folding bike makes for “easy in-and-out of cafes, restaurants etc.”
5. Vibram FiveFingers. She rocked a Mary Jane version of the barefoot shoes all summer, but now she’s fiending for the camouflage soles.