A Woman’s Place, Fashion Designer Marta Ferri

In her new book, writer and photographer Robyn Lea takes us into the modern Milanese home of the Italian creative.

Article by Robyn Lea

Marta Ferri’s living room, with a deep-olive Paul sofa suite, designed by Vincent Van Deusen, and tangerine Gio Ponti armchairs. Photography by Robyn Lea.

Milan-based fashion designer Marta Ferri not only embodies modern Milanese style herself but offers her clients made-to-measure dresses, coats, pants and gowns that marry old-world style with a future-forward attitude.

Her creations are known for their unique patterns and colours, though her own childhood wardrobe was surprisingly devoid of both. Her mother, Barbara Frua De Angeli, a respected rug and interior designer who possesses the understated personal style typical of many Milanese women, enforced a preference for monochromatic or muted tones with few patterns.

When Ferri was four, a new annual rhythm was established where she would spend school terms with her mother in Milan and holiday periods with her father, Fabrizio Ferri, a globally renowned photographer who is also a composer, author, set designer and film director, either in New York or roaming the world. When she was with her father, different rules applied: “With him I was free to choose whatever I wanted to wear, so it was like a bomb of colour. I remember going to the mall and choosing brightly coloured towels and bathers, then travelling around the desert with him in a motor home where he was shooting on location, wearing bright colours and sunglasses and drinking Coca-Cola through a straw. I felt like I was in paradise.”

The designer’s office and desk. Photography by Robyn Lea.
Silverware design drawings hang in the games room at her home, not far from the atelier. Photography by Robyn Lea.

After finishing high school, Ferri worked in a Milanese fabric boutique for a year, before relocating to New York where she was offered a job at her father’s business, Industria, a full- service studio facility that attracted photographers such as Annie Leibovitz and Peter Lindbergh, and clients including Gucci and Louis Vuitton.

During her time in the United States, Ferri started dating her future husband, Carlo Borromeo, who was studying in San Francisco at the time. Despite their budding romance, however, Ferri applied for a job at Prada and at the age of 24 began travelling the world as part of its visual merchandising team.

After 18 months on the road, Ferri was ready to explore her long-held dream of working for herself. She planned to become a jewellery designer, and having had some wonderful experiences with Borromeo in Argentina, where his family had a home, they decided to start there, each quitting their jobs. However, it wasn’t to be. With the encouragement of her future mother-in-law, Paola Marzotto, Ferri had been designing her own clothes to wear at events and women had begun inquiring about her designs. Ferri convinced Borromeo they should stay in Milan after all, so she could establish her own fashion label.

In 2009, Ferri opened her first atelier in a small apartment space adjacent to the home she shared with Borromeo in Milan’s historic centre. After painting the interior like a circus tent in pink and grey stripes and installing furniture, including a sewing table, she was soon receiving clients by appointment. She began ordering sumptuous fabrics from around Europe and sourcing historic and vintage textiles that were no longer in production, and a specialist tailor was employed to sew each garment to her specifications.

Marta Ferri in the Palazzo Borromeo courtyard, wearing a dress of her own design. Photography by Robyn Lea.

Ferri brings an instinctive and decisive approach to her bespoke pieces. During the first client meeting, measurements are taken and requisite details are noted, including the format of the event and the client’s favourite colours. Ferri intuitively gleans other information, such as the client’s personal traits. Then she begins with the most vital ingredient — the fabric: “Once a client falls in love with a fabric, the design is born from that material.” Silhouettes are discussed, designs are drawn up and the first fitting takes place within days.

Ferri enjoys creating pieces for women of all shapes and ages, and urges them to forget about what other people think. She says, “While it is important to wear something appropriate for your age and for the event, in the end I encourage them to do whatever they feel like. I ask, ‘Do you feel comfortable in it? Do you feel beautiful in it?’ and if they answer yes, then that’s what is essential.”

Ferri followed the same “Do whatever makes you feel good” philosophy in decorating the three-storey home she shares with Borromeo and their two children. Located a short walk from her atelier, the heritage-listed house features a mix of contemporary and antique objects. Entering at street level, you are greeted by a leafy courtyard. Upstairs, the immense first-floor living room is bathed in natural light thanks to its corner location and large windows. Furnishings include heirloom pieces from her grandmother’s home in Liguria and twin wicker chaises longues from the Borromeo family’s Sardinian estate. Teak boards salvaged from a former school in India line the floor.

Ferri has had several important role models in her life, including her mother and mother-in-law, who both encouraged her early interest in fashion. The breadth of Ferri’s informal training, coupled with an instinct for design and innate personal style, have earned her the title of a world-class designer.

This is an edited excerpt from “A Room of Her Own: Inside the Homes and Lives of Creative Women” by Robyn Lea, (Thames & Hudson, $65; available now).

A Woman’s Place, Alice Stori Liechtenstein

Writer and photographer Robyn Lea visits an Italian Design Curator living in an Austrian Castle.

Article by Robyn Lea

The west side corridor of Schloss Hollenegg castle, Austria, featuring a carved door from the late Renaissance. Photography by Robyn Lea.

When the topic was first raised in 2004, Italian design curator Alice Stori Liechtenstein dismissed the idea of moving into her husband’s Austrian castle, Schloss Hollenegg. It was an unexpected decision, given the home’s 52 rooms, 16th-century Renaissance courtyards and recorded history dating back to 1163. Not even the grand staterooms with their beautifully preserved frescoes, rare ancient tapestries and gilt-framed royal portraits could tempt Liechtenstein to change her mind. It took 11 years and a thoroughly modern plan for her to reconsider.

Liechtenstein, who grew up in the northern Italian city of Bologna, did a degree in design and interior architecture at the European Institute of Design in Milan. Her graduate thesis was supervised by Alessandro Guerriero, one of the founders of avant-garde design group Studio Alchimia. “From Guerriero, I learned to build a story behind even the most mundane of objects, to search for a philosophy, to look beyond the material,” Liechtenstein says.

After graduating, she worked with Guerriero and other influential designers at Radiosity in Milan and helped to create the online design, art and fashion company Yoox. After completing a master’s degree in the design of public spaces at Elisava in Barcelona, she was ready to launch a career as an independent design curator. But first, she needed a holiday.

Velvet-upholstered Neo-Gothic furniture pairs with 17th- century Brussels tapestries. Photography by Robyn Lea.
The Liechtensteins’ family dining room, complete with a festive accent.Photography by Robyn Lea.

A friend from Milan had invited her to join a two-week sailing trip around the Greek islands. She found herself increasingly drawn to the vessel’s skipper, Alfred, a self-contained man with strawberry blond hair: “I liked the fact that he did not speak much, but when he did, he never said anything stupid. He seemed so grounded, even at sea, and had so much authority without seemingly trying.”

Later, she was surprised to learn that the object of her affections was otherwise known as Prince Alfred Paolo von und zu Liechtenstein. Three years earlier, at age 26, he had inherited Schloss Hollenegg, a castle in the Austrian countryside. Alfred’s ancestor Johann I Joseph, Prince of Liechtenstein, bought the estate in 1821, along with 11 other significant properties in the region, for his son Prince Franz de Paula of Liechtenstein.

Alice and Alfred married in 2005. However, the castle’s isolated rural location, three hours south of Vienna, meant she could not imagine herself making a home there. “I could just never see myself living in that kind of setting, sitting on a velvet sofa or taking long walks in the countryside,” she says. So, they lived instead about an hour away in Graz, which has an international airport, ensuring easy access to her projects in Venice, Milan and Paris.

Liechtenstein threw herself into Austrian life, which included lecturing for the master’s degree program in exhibition design at Graz’s FH Joanneum university, establishing a local design business and writing a design blog. Slowly, things began to change. She added German to her long list of languages, started to feel a part of the local design community, developed a network of local friends and had three children. However, juggling family life with frequent travel for work, lecturing and running her business began to take its toll and she yearned for a simpler life. She came up with a plan: given various practical impediments to moving the family away from Austria to one of the epicentres of the contemporary design world, why not move into the castle and invite the design world there?

The Baroque drawing room, featuring contemporary aluminium chairs by OS & OOS, created for the castle’s 2019 exhibition theme, Ad Mensam (Latin for “at the table”). Photography by Robyn Lea.

In 2014, the family relocated to Schloss Hollenegg. Soon after, Liechtenstein established the non-profit Schloss Hollenegg for Design to support research, development and understanding of design. The concept came from a simple idea: “I suddenly realised that when you mix the old and the new, it’s much more exciting. The aim was to try to get modern elements into each room.” Such unexpected juxtapositions would heighten the impact of both the contemporary works and the ancient settings.

Just as Liechtenstein learned how to interpret design years ago in Milan, she now helps others to do so: “It’s really important to me to teach people how to interpret objects, to understand how things are made and why they’re made in that way — not just how to use them, but to ask ‘What’s the meaning behind them?’ ” Every year, different rooms of the castle are opened for a design exhibition. Annual themes are like chapter headings in Liechtenstein’s own personal story and relate to her experiences living in the castle. For the first year, in 2016, she chose the theme “slow”, reflecting the pace of her new rural life and the challenge of transitioning away from the constant flow of stimuli in her previous one.

Curation is the vehicle by which Liechtenstein has chosen both to learn and to teach: “For me, curation is like writing a book, telling a story or making a film. It’s about the experience. It’s about suspending your disbelief for an hour or two, like when you immerse yourself in a film at the cinema.” She believes that as humans, “we have an inherent urge to create and make, and are continually, and often inadvertently, building a legacy that will outlive our physical existence”.

Design has helped Liechtenstein immerse herself in the rooms and history of the castle. It has also been the catalyst for opening the castle to the general public for the first time since the Middle Ages, when villagers lived inside its fortified walls. She has achieved her goals by trusting her professional and personal instincts and by honouring her needs as a creative thinker.

This is an edited excerpt from “A Room of Her Own: Inside the Homes and Lives of Creative Women” by Robyn Lea (Thames & Hudson, $65).

T SERIES: Friends Who Inspire Each Other

Two artists who bonded over a shared passion for both Dutch masters and contemporary queer portraiture.

Article by Coco Romack

From left: Salman Toor, artist, 37, and Doron Langberg, artist, 35, with their respective portraits — “Salman” and “Doron” (both 2021) — that they painted of each other for T. Photographed at Langberg’s studio in Ridgewood, Queens, on March 3, 2021. Photography by Jason Schmidt.

Doron Langberg

To see Salman’s paintings is to know him. I was blown away by his 2018 show at Aicon Gallery in NoHo, Manhattan, and immediately messaged him on Instagram. As we became friends — we bonded over how much we could nerd out about this or that Dutch master — the interest in queer figurative painting was growing; we were being put in the same shows, being written about in context with each other. The art world conversation converged with our friendship, expanding what we had in common. When I first visited his studio in Bushwick in 2019, I suggested we trade paintings. He gave me what I would come to see as a self-portrait: a naked man looking in the mirror, examining himself with his pants pulled down to his feet. His work deals with the everyday representation of queer life — whether it’s issues of politics, immigration, family and religion or going out to a bar or hanging out in your apartment dancing to Whitney Houston — allowing the viewer access to a more layered, complex idea of what it means to be queer. That’s his work’s real strength: how true it is to our experience. And from my studio, he chose a dick portrait I made.

Salman Toor

The penis portrait, there’s so much tenderness in it. Doron’s work is about putting love into the sex act and bringing what was once considered dangerous or sordid into the language of high culture. It’s brave and direct, and I like the sense of energy. One of the things that attracted me to him was his flamboyant manner, which is much like mine. He’s warm, but very sassy. Usually my paintings don’t have a source, but in making his portrait I had a nice hard look at Doron reclining on my sofa and made two quick ink drawings of his face. The pose I decided to paint from memory, thinking of how his hand was resting on his cheek, his knuckles, the distance between his eyes.Doron is from Israel and I’m from Pakistan. I want to convey the shared experience of growing up as a queer boy in a community that may not welcome it. That’s an experience shared by so many people across so many cultures, and I hope that is somehow visible to anyone who looks.

A version of this article appears in print in our third edition, Page 123 of T Australia with the headline:
‘Friends Who Inspire Each Other’
Order a copy | Subscribe

A Woman’s Place, Fashion Designer and Artist Heidi Middleton

Writer and photographer Robyn Lea takes us into the home of one of Australia’s most respected visionaries.

Article by Robyn Lea

Heidi MiddletonHeidi Middleton, photographed at her Palm Beach home. Photography by Robyn Lea.

In 2003 when the cult clothing label Sass & Bide was in full flight, fashion designer and artist Heidi Middleton began house-hunting, focusing on the Palm Beach peninsula of Sydney’s Northern Beaches. The sunny 1940s home she found provided Middleton with a vital counterpoint to the increasing demands of the business, which felt “like a friendly, hungry monster that needed constant feeding”.

With three fashion lines under the one label and up to four ranges presented each year, long holidays were rare. She and the label’s co-founder, Sarah-Jane Clarke, covered for each other when their children were born, but in 2007, when Middleton took time off for the birth of her second daughter, Elke, she was forced on an extended break when, 12 hours after the birth, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After treatment, she made a full recovery.By 2011, Middleton and Clarke were ready for a change. They sold the controlling share of their company and, in 2014, stepped out of it altogether. Now free to travel, Middleton and her family moved to Paris for a 12-month sabbatical. They settled into a light-filled Parisian apartment in the eighth arrondissement and Middleton reignited her love of painting, drawing, collage and ceramics.

The master bedroom in Middleton's home. Photography by Robyn Lea.
A gateway to the garden at Middleton’s Sydney home. Photography by Robyn Lea.

During a weekend in the Médoc region of south-western France, they went house-hunting. “It’s wild and rugged, but there is a poetry and romance to the landscape and the old villages,” she says. They went to see an 1830s manor house, Les Tourelles, in Saint-Christoly-Médoc.

The five-bedroom home was set on three hectares and included an orchard, a small vineyard, a dairy and a barn. Despite having been uninhabited for several years and feeling somewhat derelict, its foundations were strong and it had elegant proportions, with turrets framing the facade and interiors with four-metre ceilings. For Middleton, the potential for transformation was intoxicating. They made an offer and three days later owned the home. “The idea was for my husband to host meditation retreats in Bordeaux and for me to start a new fashion and art business called ArtClub,” she says. “This was going to be chapter two of living in France.”

The main bedroom features a bath with views of Sydney’s Pittwater. Photography by Robyn Lea.

Middleton began renovating the house and her two daughters started at the school in the local village. While rebuilding the home’s interiors, she also began reimagining her vision for the future. “I remember thinking I needed to surround myself with great people, good food and flowers. I decided that every mealtime I’d light candles, have music playing and cook for the girls.” She began to view her experiences through a new lens. “By the time we left France in 2018, I was happy and the house was finished — there had been so much growth and self-reflection.”

Back in Sydney, ArtClub was born. The online-only atelier offers rare vintage garments along with Middleton’s paintings and original clothing designs. The antithesis of fast fashion, each new piece is created from remnant fabric that she saves from landfill, and is designed to be handed down through generations. They are sewn in Middleton’s atelier by local collaborators, each of whom signs and numbers the garments like limited-edition artworks before they are mailed to customers.

Middleton has set up her business in Surry Hills, in the heart of the city, and the company has a wonderful buzz and energy. She continues to adjust her life to find the right rhythm and flow, and by living with an open heart and expressing her inner world through art, fashion, poetry and interiors, she has become an inspiring example to like-minded women around the world.

This is an edited excerpt from “A Room of Her Own: Inside the Homes and Lives of Creative Women” by Robyn Lea (Thames & Hudson, $65).

T SERIES: Long Distance Friends

A look back at one of those relationships where, despite changes in circumstance and place, two people are able to pick up where they left off.

Article by Cathy Park Hong

“In Memory of a Sure Thing” (2021), made exclusively for T by the New York-based artist Alanna Fields, who said: “Since the onset of the pandemic, a lot of my friends have moved out of the city, and the dynamics of our relationships have changed. With this piece, I used an archival image of three male friends. I brought in the borders to signify isolation, and the red to signify loss — what does it mean when you lose physical nearness, when you can’t access a person in the same way?” Photography by Joshua Scott

I met Rei at an artists’ residency in the late 2000s, when the New England landscape was at its greenest and most vertiginous. At dusk, wood thrushes chimed their watery, ethereal songs, which I now associate with freedom and creative ferment. I recall Rei entering the screened-in porch where a few residents were smoking and introducing himself as a composer from Japan. He was 32, about the same age I was at the time, and wore a baggy black hoodie, trousers and thick, white-framed glasses. He kept his hair longer in the front so that a thicket of bangs swept just past his left eyebrow. He was tall, and if you looked closely, he was attractive. But it was hard to notice that because he was quiet and looked as if he wanted to shrink into himself, like a teenage boy who’d shot up over the span of the summer.

Also in residence was a petite and impish artist from Korea whose sense of humor turned aggressive when she drank and Rei happened to be within her vicinity. At parties or when we gathered in the common room late at night, she hunted him down to antagonise him with her daily recriminations, which I presume was her way of flirting.

“If it’s not the imperialist,” she would say.

“Hello, Bangul,” Rei would say.

“Your people tortured us, taking away our language, our names, even.”

“Yes, I know.”

“And to this day, you still refuse to apologize.”

“But I did, just yesterday.”

“Is your father rich? How else could you be here in America, studying to be a composer? What does he do?”

“He’s the CEO of Sony.”

“Are you telling the truth?” Bangul shouted excitedly. “You’re lying!”

Rei accepted her nightly censures with equanimity, but when he grew tired of them, he nudged her away with ironic deflections that only inflamed her further. Since I’m Korean, too, I was amused by her antics but watched without joining in. I didn’t pay much attention to Rei at first because of his laconic nature. But he had a depth of character that kept uncupping itself like nesting dolls the more I talked to him. He was wry, analytical, but also affectionate and without judgment. We ended up becoming close rather quickly, which is not unusual in residencies, where friendships are fast-tracked.

Rei, whom I’ve identified by his middle name, was not the scion of Sony but the son of flower farmers in a rural working-class town north of Tokyo. His hometown was stifling and homogeneous, and as soon as he was able — once he turned 19 — he escaped. After the tsunami hit Japan in 2011 and led to the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, I emailed him to ask about his family. He responded, saying that his parents lived 100 miles from the nuclear plant, a safe enough distance away.

Since then, I’d lost contact with Rei, but thought of him recently while reading “Ghosts of the Tsunami” by Richard Lloyd Parry, which is about the grieving parents of children who were swept away by the wave while they were at school. Unyielding fealty to bureaucracy killed these students as much as the tsunami itself, because their teachers, adhering to instructions in a poorly worded emergency manual, neglected to evacuate them to higher ground despite frantic warnings from others that a flood was coming. After I read the book, I searched for our last correspondence and found, to my dismay, that I had misread Rei’s email all those years ago. He’d written, “My parents live 100 miles away from the power plant, not far enough away to be optimistic. We’ll see how it develops.”

Fields’s “When Will I See You Again” (2021), by Alanna Fields. Photography by Joshua Scott.

To write about friendship is an exercise in nostalgia, one that more often draws a portrait of your former self than a portrait of the friend, especially during a pandemic, when I’m prone to dwelling on what is absent from my life. Without the varying textures of experience, days are deleted from my life. I age meaninglessly. My interest in writing about Rei might therefore be suspect: Is it our friendship I’m interested in? Or is he a portal to those years when I felt the least burdened by responsibilities, when I could roam as I pleased and see whom I wanted?

After the residency, we met intermittently, since we lived on separate coasts, and then, later, in separate countries. I was in New York, while he resided in Los Angeles, getting his Ph.D. in computer music. He rented an apartment in Koreatown, chosen for its central location, since he was the only person I knew in L.A. who didn’t own a car. He took the bus, or odder still, he walked.

When I visited my family in LA, which is where I grew up, I saw him, too. I picked him up and took him for a drink at a landmark restaurant that once appeared in the film “Chinatown,” and which, with its red leather banquettes and ruby crushed-velvet lamps, had the trappings of Old Hollywood, except it was now owned by Koreans who, alongside martinis, served plates of spicy octopus and kimchi fried rice. We always met as visitors from elsewhere, in settings that held no connection to our past. Even the bar, despite being in my hometown, was like a midcentury film set that had nothing to do with my youth.

Of course, our respective histories remained in the background like a mountain of ash. Sometimes I reached back to grab a handful to throw at him. Like Bangul, I couldn’t help it. I joked that he owed me a lifetime of cocktails for the 35 years during which Korea had been a Japanese colony. But except for my occasional quips, we were free of rivalry, or pettiness, or nascent sexual desires. And perhaps this is why I return to Rei, because I felt in our companionship a rare harmony.

We talked about love, mostly. As a teenager, I used to promise my father, almost on a weekly basis, that I would marry a Korean man, while inwardly knowing that no man of my tribe would want me. I wasn’t feminine enough; I was too odd. With each promise I made, a suffocating, palpitating panic spread from my heart to my throat to my eyes, until I saw only the burning, spidery spots that you see after looking directly at the sun. Bound to break this promise, I felt I would always live alone, a fate that seemed all the more imminent throughout my 20s, when I actually did fall in love with several Asian men, all of whom broke my heart.

Rei had similar pressures from his parents, who expected him to take over the family farm, marry and have children. But by the age of 10, he already knew he wanted nothing to do with flowers or his hometown. He’d level out at just over six feet by adulthood, but as a boy, he stood out for his extraordinary height. He was the tallest boy in class, but he didn’t know how to wield his height to his advantage, as if it were a sword too heavy to lift. Sensing his defenselessness, the boys bullied him, especially since he refused to play his part in the pecking order, where the oldest and strongest hazed the youngest without mercy. Eventually, Rei left, moving first to Tokyo for college, and then to Chicago, Rotterdam, Los Angeles and finally to Berlin, where he settled. He took shelter in graduate programs that subsidised his music, which was alchemised from computer algorithms, music that was so shatteringly dissonant, it seemed almost a revolt against his agrarian origins.

Both of us were certain that we’d always be alone, but it turned out for nought. By the time I met Rei, I was dating someone who would become my husband. Rei would eventually meet someone, too, but at the time, he was single. He seemed self-sufficient in his solitary life, as if a partner would interfere with his studies, so I was surprised to learn that he’d once been engaged to a Japanese woman who lived with him when he was in the Netherlands. It was out of obligation to her father, who demanded they marry if they lived together abroad but, inevitably, it didn’t work out. He left, drifting away to California.

He told me about his hapless dates that he didn’t know were dates until afterward. “I don’t have any luck with women,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, appearing not entirely anguished by his bad luck. He had a subtle Japanese accent and laughed easily at my jokes, which flattered me because he didn’t laugh easily at anyone else’s. When we met up, the boundaries between our selves dissolved, while our individualities were at their most articulated — and maybe, too, there was a buried chord of desire that made it especially pleasurable to see him. I introduced him to my sister, hoping they would hit it off. How perfect would that be: two people for whom I had a deep, abiding affection, together. Instead, having been awarded a yearlong fellowship, he left for Berlin.

Fields’s “Been Too Long” (2021), by Alanna Fields. Photography by Joshua Scott

While reading “Ghosts of the Tsunami,” I searched online for footage of the disaster, expecting it to sound like the hurricanes I’d watched on CNN, with howling winds and lashing water, or the oceanic roar of pounding waves. But it wasn’t what I expected at all. It was a malevolent thing, a black, flat, fast-moving amoebal mass, efficiently swallowing acres of gray paddy fields, office buildings, tile-roofed homes and highways full of cars. But what I heard was even eerier because the tsunami sounded so animal-like, like it was digesting all of human civilization, with its peristaltic, grinding crunch of steel and concrete and whole forests being ripped from their roots.

Thinking back, it was that sound, rather than the book, that first reminded me of Rei after all these years. It recalled for me his music, which I first encountered at the residency. We’d gathered at a library that was once a stone chapel and sat on foldout chairs. He turned off the lights and began his composition. A wind rose to a high jet whine that amplified to an annihilating engine roar. With no visuals or lyrics to help guide me, my imagination ran through a gauntlet of disasters. An artist from New Orleans cried afterward, saying she’d pictured a hurricane. Later, Rei told me he wanted to create a shelter of sound with his compositions. But at the time, I felt the opposite, as if his music had simulated a great suctioning cavity where there was once shelter, as if the chapel had been ripped from its foundations and we were exposed to the fury of a godless earth for the wounds we inflicted upon it.

In the midst of writing this piece, I reconnected with Rei over Zoom to ask about his parents. He lives in Berlin with two kids and his partner. He told me that his parents were doing fine, although some still believe that the poisons that had seeped into the earth might resurface later in the genes of plants, or animals, or children. When I told him that I was writing an essay about him, he was amused but also puzzled. But what could I possibly say?

The last time I saw Rei was in 2010, when my husband and I spent the summer in Berlin, a city that, with its graffiti and D.I.Y. gardens, still looked as though it had been rebuilt by artists. Rei and I hung out quite often that summer, meeting up for drinks at beer gardens or dinner along the green canal in Kreuzberg. I felt so weightless then.

Maybe I’m craving a similar sense of peace during these isolating, anxious days, not unlike the relieved peace of seeing a friend in a foreign country and being able to speak fluently to them. I want to say that the levity with Rei felt hard won, a light cast against what came before us generations ago, when Japan first imposed upon Korea a brutal police state. But I wonder if such a connection can even be made between then and our friendship now, or if I’m contriving it to appease in me some compulsion for closure.

Toward the end of my stay, Rei told me he’d met a German woman, who would later become his partner.

“We are moving in together,” he said.


“My lease is up, and she offered her flat,” he said, looking embarrassed. “She even put down her cat because I’m allergic.”

“Wow — that is love.”

“I told her it wasn’t necessary.”

“Also very German.”

“She’s actually nice. Do you want to meet her?”

I couldn’t resist some other crack about the Axis powers reuniting. I felt protective, like a sister, even a little jealous. But he looked happy, so I reassured him that I was happy for him. It was mid-August, and already there was a chill to the breeze, which tinged me with anxiety about returning home and a future that felt uncertain. He said he’d miss me and wondered when we’d see each other again. “I’ll visit next summer,” I said. “As soon as I’m free.”

A version of this article appears in print in our third edition, Page 127 of T Australia with the headline:
‘The Composer of Noise’
Order a copy | Subscribe

T SERIES: Friends who Grew Apart

As kids, they played together. But, as they got older, divisions only faintly perceptible at the time would come between them.

Article by Jesse Green

“Grand Rising” (2021), made exclusively for T by the Los Angeles-based artist Clifford Prince King, who said: “With the pandemic, a lot of my friendships have intensified and fast- forwarded. There’s more checking in, and you can’t go out in groups, so you’re usually meeting one on one. AJ, the boy in the mirror, and I are friends, but recently became intimate. Another aspect of this time is that I’ve had really candid conversations about how to create closeness while deciding which boundaries to keep.”

Little Dickie Powers died, and what could I do? We were both 8 — or rather, I was; Dickie was now of no age, zeroed out by what my parents told me, without further explanation, was a burst appendix. I pictured him blown apart in his bedroom. That seemed like a poor choice of imagery for the sympathy card I was making, but was I even sympathetic? I hadn’t liked Dickie much: He once called me a name that was shorthand for “dirty Jew.” His family, then? My mother had hinted, perhaps for my sake because I was a junior hypochondriac, that the Powerses lacked access to adequate medical care: Dickie died because he was poor. My mother, too, had grown up poor; she’d lived above a dime store, dying to get out. I wondered if that was why, aside from it being November, my parents sent his parents a turkey. On my card I finally drew a turkey, too, but with its fancy jewell-tone feathers, mine looked more like a peacock.

I didn’t and still don’t know whether Dickie was actually poor, and whether, if so, that would amount to an excuse for anti-Semitism. But I did know that his house, like most of those in Belmont Hills, was small and old and awfully close to someone else’s. Mine, in a neighborhood called Penn Valley, whose border with Belmont Hills was marked by the smokestack of an incinerator I feverishly connected with Auschwitz, had been completed just 12 years earlier, in 1954, on a generous half acre. My parents were its first owners, and though we didn’t have a pool, our next-door neighbours did. If you look at satellite imagery of that corner of Pennsylvania even today, you can see that on the sliver-size lots of Belmont Hills there’s sometimes barely room for trees, let alone pools, but the lush green cover of Penn Valley is dappled with light blue polka dots, rectangles, kidneys.

Though Dickie was just one of several Hill boys who called me names in those years, I was only vaguely aware that there was a larger enmity between the two neighbourhoods. Less still did I understand what the enmity might be about. Phrases my parents mentioned — “income inequality,” “social immobility,” “dead-end jobs” — made no sense to me. I didn’t care about income unless it involved pennies for my coin collection. Nor did I care that the fathers on my street fixed teeth, arranged divorces and drove to offices in Philadelphia, while the fathers on the other side of the incinerator fixed boilers, built houses and worked in something we hazily called factories. Those jobs seemed more interesting anyway, certainly more than my father’s at a bank. Still, I did know one thing that made Belmont Hills different: Nearly everyone was Roman Catholic. They got smutched on Ash Wednesday. The girls wore crosses. Many of the families had beautiful Italian surnames: DiGiovanni, Fulginitti.

Linus Borgo’s “Kiss at the Inferno Party” (2019).

It was possible to see them as exotic. Their houses, built decades before neat suburban planning took hold, clung haphazardly to a series of bluffs above the Schuylkill River in a way that struck me as romantic if not Roman. Many years later, I would recognise the hills, and even some homes, in the work of the artist Francis Speight, who had trained in Philadelphia in the 1920s and often painted en plein air nearby. For one 1930 oil, he evidently set his easel at the vertiginous top of Jefferson Street, a spot I knew well. Though the neighborhood, once known familiarly as Goat Hill, was by then called West Manayunk, Speight titled his painting “Little Italy.” Some twenty years later, around the same time my corner of Penn Valley was developed, West Manayunk wishfully and redundantly rechristened itself Belmont Hills.

Whatever its name, I cringed when we drove through it. Jefferson Street as Speight depicted it — a dirt road devoid of cars and lined with terraces carved into the slope — was by my childhood a heavily trafficked feeder to the expressway into town. Neither the 90-degree turn at the peak of its rise nor the 45-degree pitch down to the river had been the least bit mitigated in the intervening decades. A ball dropped in one yard might roll through many others and bounce over retaining walls before coming to rest several blocks below. Often, I feared our car might do the same; I was a fearful, dramatic child, for whom topography was not just a matter of hills and valleys but a physical mapping of internal anxiety. I was, that is, a Jew, as Dickie Powers somehow understood, in the same way I somehow understood he wasn’t. Had there been any Black kids in either neighborhood, I’m sure they, too, would have wound up, as I did, barricaded in closets and pummeled down hallways and banged on the head with strange pieces of metal.

When any of those things happened — usually at school, often at recess — I at least had my tree. Belmont Hills Elementary, which opened in 1919, was built on another of the neighborhood’s bluffs; children in the playground were kept from tumbling into the abandoned quarry below by a chain-link fence guarding the perimeter. Mature trees stood in a staunch queue every 20 feet or so along the inside of that fence. One of them, an ancient maple with surface roots that snaked out from the trunk in thick esses, was where I showed up most fair days, without appointment, to play with my friend David.

Like half the school in those years, David was from “the Hill.” His round face and olive complexion and bowl-cut straight hair somehow struck me as true Italian, circa Vesuvius. He was small and quiet in class, neither of which I was. Still, we were compatible and, on the playground, so in tune with each other that we did not need to decide what our game was. In any case, it was always the same, called Neighbourhoods, at least by me. Among the roots of the maple tree we built houses and stores with twigs and leaves, occasionally accoutered with treasure from home. A Monopoly token. A Matchbox car — one of the roots reminded me of Jefferson Street.

I don’t remember the stories we devised to accompany our city-planning efforts. I do know that mine would have involved ordinary life, quietly lived. There would, surely, have been a school, with two little boys building a school outside it. No cops and robbers, though: My neighbourhood would have police but no crime. Even so, there was decay and calamity, for they were ordinary, too; every day, at the bell signifying the end of recess, we had to abandon what we’d built, leaving it to be rained away overnight or swirled into angry little eddies by the wind.

No angry little eddy ever disrupted me and David. Close play among children is a kind of love, and we were close, at least at school. Our homes were a different story. Though less than two kilometres apart, his and mine were sufficiently distant psychologically, with the incinerator in between, that we rarely saw each other after 3pm. on weekdays or on weekends anytime. If he came to my birthday parties, it was likely because my birthday was in June and the parties thus took place at my neighbor’s pool. My parents, who thought a pool was a frivolous expense for Jews, apparently thought it was a fine one for Armenians, especially if they lived next door.

Other Hill boys sometimes came to those parties, too. One, named Tony, may have been designed by God to show just how dissimilar people from similar backgrounds can be. Like David, he was Italian, but big and outgoing, unafraid of a belly-flop, with ringleted hair and a Michelangelean nose. Perhaps as a result of working with his father, whose landscaping outfit cut our lawn and trimmed our trees, already by junior high he had muscles.

But also by junior high, Tony and I were no longer friends.

Nor to my knowledge, after sixth grade, did I ever speak to David again.

Clifford Price King’s “Saturn, Ruby and Malcolm” (2021)
Clifford Price King’s “test I (J)” (2021).

It was as if a law had been passed. For the rest of my childhood, even on birthdays, no Hill boy visited my house unless in the company of his workman father. We came apart, spun out, demulsified. Were it not for ironic gym teachers and the accident of alphabetisation, I would never again have played a game with Tony or David. Though our last names were contiguous, we were as dead to each other as Dickie Powers was to everyone else. But what had burst?

I suppose I must say, for the sake of symmetry, that a year after Dickie died, I almost did, too. Playing soccer one day during recess, having not, for some reason, met David at our tree, I tripped on the ball; I was not good at sports. Upon trying to get up, I realised that the pencil I had left in my front-right pants pocket had pierced my abdomen where it folded into my leg. Unable to uncurl from my kneeling position, I stayed there, as if at prayer. A surgeon told my parents a few hours later, after opening me up and digging around, that the pencil had come within millimetres of — yes — my appendix, which, had it perforated, might have quickly led to a fatal case of peritonitis.

We shall leave aside the multiple symbolic interpretations of the pencil, which was kindly returned to me, snapped in the middle and stained with Betadine. As I recovered, first in the hospital and then at home, I passed my time assembling a 4,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, watching “Jeopardy!” and reading the dozens of cards that my schoolmates, even the Hill kids, had sent me. (No turkey, but admittedly it was spring.) The bigger puzzle remained unsolved: Did I survive because I had “access to adequate medical care” — because I was not poor? Or just by luck? Either way, I was, for a shining moment, not just blameless but pitiable and pitied.

Bullying has an insistent evolutionary logic, though. When the only objectionable thing boys could identify about me was that I was Jewish, that’s what they fed on. When I became notably bookish as well, they could attack me from behind and send my books spraying. Worse was still to come when, in the years after my accident, I gave up my failed attempts at sports, which made me a faggot before I was even gay. Any two of these defects were apparently tolerable, but the trifecta produced a jackpot of rage.

At least the rage no longer came from the Hill. Though we didn’t speak, David would never hurt me, of course. Tony, who in high school captained the wrestling squad, and could have squashed me if he wanted, silently protected me instead, or so I came to believe. The other Hill boys left me alone, my familiarity having worn down their hostility, as theirs had worn down my interest. We “kept our distance.”

Instead, by a principle you might call the perseveration of enmity, a new population stepped in to take up the slack: mostly middle-class Protestants from other suburbs now mixing with ours at a new school. It was easy to assume from the words they used, and sometimes from the particular details of their violence, that their beef with me was a bizarre transformation of sexual dominance: Dickie Powers indeed. How else to explain that the girls, who could be quite vicious among themselves, left me alone, or even befriended me?

But it wasn’t as simple as what I would later call homophobia. When I found myself unable to smile at David as we passed in the halls, or thought I’d seen Tony, king of the hill, almost imperceptibly nodding hello from the middle of a ring of jocks, I knew there was a more powerful force than prejudice or even income inequality keeping us apart. That force felt geological to me, impervious to human intervention, as though something antimagnetic in the earth’s core wouldn’t let our types mix once the loving fog of childhood burned off. To go against that, from either side, would be, it seemed, to go against nature.

A nice theory, anyway. But now I think it was merely cowardice. I can’t speak for the Hill kids, but I see why it might have been reasonable for them to shut down contact, even hostile contact, with someone like me. The world gradually encroaching on us offered them less than it offered a boy from Penn Valley; they could not waste their social capital the way I might have afforded to. Instead, I was stingy, more afraid of their poverty, if that’s what it was, than they were of my privilege. I didn’t want to get mixed up in anyone else’s troubles, not because they were troubles but because they weren’t mine.

And perhaps those troubles weren’t so bad: Though many of the Hill boys still live in the neighborhood, they appear to have done just fine. I was, as I said, a fearful, dramatic child. Later, as an adult, when I would drive down Jefferson Street in the years before my parents left Penn Valley forever, I found to my surprise — and, to be honest, disappointment — that the hill wasn’t even so steep.