Esther Choi, an architectural historian and Canadian living in New York City, found her current Brooklyn loft by heeding the advice of a woman she met in Marfa, Texas, who'd relocated to the mountains upon the urgings of her subconscious. "In typical woo-woo fashion, she leans over to me, looks me in the eye and says with such conviction, 'Listen to your dreams!'" Choi says, in her best grizzled, psychic voice. "And then I had a dream."
Choi's reverie was somewhat less pastoral; a corner loft, suffused in light, in which she was writing (in her underwear, of course, as dream logic mandates) her PhD dissertation. She went in search of that environment and, remarkably, found it, "painted these heinous Memphis-style colours, turquoise and fuchsia. And it was out of my price range," says Choi. But when the rental market dipped she jumped. "It ended up working out, and the landlord repainted."
The large, open-concept, south-facing space was a challenge to carve up. "I had to figure out a way to demarcate areas, because, given that I work in my apartment, it could very easily become one disastrous situation," she says. Choi uses furniture to create functional zones for living, working and dining, locates plants and paintings on sight lines and tries to keep the bric-a-brac to a minimum.
When making decisions about furnishings, she favours locally sourced and home-made items whenever possible. For the living area, the sofa, from ABC Carpet & Home, is made with eco-friendly, toxic-free materials. The velvet cushion is by a Turkish seller on Etsy, the Eames table was purchased from Design Within Reach and the light fixture is from "Amazon, believe it or not," says Choi. The artworks are her own, photographs of sculptures constructed out of crystals she grew, resembling landforms and architectural structures. "I think every choice you make says something about you and what you privilege," she said. Choi builds her own furniture when she can and considers how pieces can be reused, re- and up-cycled. "We don't think enough about the afterlife of what we have."
While her living situation is purposefully spare, there are definite areas of accretion. "The books are a problem," Choi says, "but it's what I do for a living." Her PhD dissertation looks at collaborations between modern architects and biologists in Great Britain in the interwar period. "I argue that two of the first residents of modern architecture in England were gorillas," she says of her research into the modernist habitats at London's famous – and the world's oldest – scientific zoo. Turns out, the simians did not fare well removed from the lush context of their native Congo. "They died of a broken heart," says Choi. In her own space, she groups her plants so they can grow better. "It brings me such joy. We're not that far off from the gorillas, you know?"
Her next writing project is seemingly lighter fare: a cookbook titled Le Corbuffet (a punny twist on the modern architect's name) inspired by a series of dinner parties she hosted with dishes designed after artists and architects. "We had Lawrence Weiners, which was a plate of boiled wieners, unadorned. And Carolee Schneemann Meat Joy Balls, which was a kind of orgy of meat and couscous and boiled vegetables," she says. The book, due out in 2019 from publisher Prestel, will feature recipes and photography. "Food is a really interesting medium that's inherently political, connected to agriculture, biotechnology, sociability and culture," says Choi, the consummate researcher. "But I also just love to cook. I'm Korean, it's part of our culture. And food is always a celebration. Especially in these turbulent political times, we all just need some dumplings."
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