Photo-Illustration: Lined; Photo: Dario Studio
New York’s “21 Questions” is back with an eye on New York creatives. Dario Calmese is the To display director for the fashion brand Pyer Moss, a professor at Parsons, and a Loeb Fellow 2023. In 2020, he becomes the first black photographer to shooting a Vanity Fair cover. Calmese founded the black imagination institutea platform on the black design, which includes a podcast and a library opening in the Oculus this fall.
Last name: Dario Calmese
Occupation: Artist, urban planner, director and brand consultant
What’s hanging above your couch?
Nothing. I painted a grid on the wall to keep me from over-decorating. I was like, If I decorate the wall itself, I won’t put a pile of shit on it out of boredom. As humans, we get bored very easily and we try to solve this problem by changing our environment slightly. Or just the accumulation of things. It’s really great to work with limits and establish rules.
What was the first job you had in New York?
I worked at Starbucks on 98th and on Broadway. It was in 2004, when I had just moved to town. It was a hard job to get. I worked there because I couldn’t find a job at Macy’s, and I was like, Are you kidding me?! This was my introduction to New York’s competitiveness.
What color are you always drawn to?
Wardrobe side? Black, out of sheer efficiency. I also like gray, maybe because of its neutrality and freshness. When I think of the house I would design for myself, concrete is the material I would use.
What work of art or artefact are you most surprised to own?
I own a sketch by South African artist Nelson Makamo. I did his portrait out of pure love and desire, but it was not an official exchange. The sketch isn’t something I would have picked up at an art fair – not to say that’s bad or good – but there is an intimate story behind it versus a purely visual aesthetic desire.
Which New Yorker would you like to date?
Fran Lebowitz. She’s an accomplished New Yorker, super hilarious, extremely outspoken and extremely cultured. She really reminds me of why I moved to New York, which is to find really strong individuals and characters. When I was a performer [Editor’s note: Calmese is trained in dance, acting, and singing], we were bringing New Yorkers to choreography shows, and they weren’t easy people to work with. But in the end, you always loved them the most. There was a certain standard and rigor in their craft and in their lives that I feel like New York has lost. When I find myself in spaces that have old school New Yorkers, those spaces that I love. These are people who are fully themselves. And Fran embodies that.
What’s the last thing you did with your hands?
Would taking a photo count? This would then be Alvin Ailey’s most recent campaign. I’m not really a handyman. My fine art photography is about the body, surrealism and abstraction. My way of photographing was very sculptural. It was as if the next step was sculpture, in fact, to go more into Rodin than deeper into photography. I wanted to take my gaze to another dimension, so I started doing body casting, which I considered to be a three-dimensional negative. Then, I launched into the sculpture itself. The last thing I did with my hands hands was an alabaster sculpture from a stone carving course I took in 2018. It is unfinished.
Is there something you have multiple versions of?
Books. I keep a copy as the beautiful blank version and another that I mark. And sometimes another in studio copy. I have several copies of Virgil Abloh Figures of speech and Roy DeCarava The sound that I saw.
Which museum in New York do you always go to?
Cooper Hewitt. It is one of the few museums that examines fashion through the prism of design. It offers multiple entry points into design and the design conversation: redefining what design is and how it affects our lives. A few years ago I was into this funk that I couldn’t get out of. Cooper Hewitt had a beauty show, and when I walked out of the show, my mood just lifted. As André Leon Talley said, “I starved for beauty.”
What do you always have next to your computer?
A cup of coffee. I drink coffee all day. I could have a cup and then go to bed.
Where is the best view in town?
The best view is from Long Island City, near the Pepsi sign. But the sight that makes me feel like in the city is when I cross the bridge from Williamsburg to Manhattan. Every time I cross that bridge I feel like, Oh bitch, I live in New York.
What building or object do you want to redraw each time you see it?
Trying to pick one that hurts my mind every time I see it? Harlem Tavern on 116th and Frederick Douglass. It was one of the first big developments as everything was happening in Harlem and a new restaurant opened every week. They have a really good turkey burger, but it might as well be in a midwestern mall. It doesn’t fit the neighborhood at all and it looks like a ton of bricks have just been thrown in the middle of Harlem. It was clear that it was not for the residents. It wasn’t for Harlem. It was for Columbia students to feel like they had a beer garden experience. I’m totally cool with people coming to neighborhoods and opening restaurants, but you have to consider the space you’re in.
What is one thing you would change in your field?
If we were talking about photography, I would say, “Slow down, damn it. Digital has created this ridiculous amount of production required for a photo shoot. You do three times as much in half the time. There is a level of production required that will never be as powerful as you wanted because you don’t have time for it.
If you could live anywhere in New York, where would it be?
I love Harlem a lot, but if I didn’t live here it would be Chinatown or East Village because I feel like those are the last bastions of authentic New York.
What would you do in reserve if it ceased to be produced?
Copal incense, which smells slightly of eucalyptus and woodiness with a little musk. It makes me feel like I’m plugged into something ancient and sacred. It’s actually hard to find now, so I usually buy a lot because I never know if I’ll find it again.
What do you do to get out of a creative rut?
I go to an exhibition or a gallery.
Where was your first apartment in New York and how much was the rent?
It was in Inwood, at 204th and Cooper Street, and my rent was $600. It was a two bedroom apartment and a friend of mine owned the apartment. He was never there because he lived in Aspen and only came twice a year to see his daughter for a weekend. I have been very lucky. Then he lost it in a divorce settlement, but that’s another story.
Where in the city do you go to be alone?
I am alone most of the time at home or in my studio. Alone is my fault. So I go places to see people. Me being outdoors and social is a rare occurrence. If I want to be in town to think, I’ll take a walk on Morningside Avenue.
What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever received?
“You should always look like your photo.” Professionally, that was good advice. For the development of myself as a person, it was bad advice because it kept me locked in a frame. It kept me prisoner to this representation of myself on a specific day. Much of my life and career has been spent removing those expectations and constraints. My job is to “become Dario”.
What have you given someone that you wish you could get back?
I’ll let him live, but I had a Jean Paul Gaultier leather corset that I gave to one of my assistants. I wish I had it back because it was really amazing. He gives it a completely different life, carries it as if it were his own.
What is your favorite restaurant in NYC and do you order regularly?
House Harlem because it’s so close. It’s literally around the corner and has an amazing mix of old and new Harlem. If it’s brunch, I’ll have French toast, home fries with regular fries. For dinner, I’ll have the chicken paillard sandwich.
What descriptive phrase do you want on your obituary?
“Dario and disappeared”, which means in French “Dario has disappeared”. It is my goal in life to exhaust myself completely. I want to die like a raisin – like, Bitch, that’s all I got.