It’s one of the strangest footnotes of the entire Bernard Madoff scandal: Newspaper accounts of the episode noted his obsessive insistence on furnishing both his triplex headquarters in the midtown Lipstick Building and his London office in a matching palette of black and gray. He was notorious for demanding a monochrome décor consisting of furniture made from black ash, gray walls with black detailing and black mouse pads. He even had a black refrigerator for the trading floor, and according to New York,
“he drank out of square drinking glasses, kept his pencils in square
holders, and had only square trash cans in his office. He couldn’t
stand curves, which must have presented an obvious problem for a man
who works in an oval building.”
His focus on minimalism and order traveled with him. His jet, of course, was a uniform gray. “On the occasions he visited London, we’d spend days before his arrival leveling the blinds, making sure the computer screens were an identical height, lining every picture up straight,” an employee told the London Daily Mail. “No paper was allowed on the desks. We’d use black marker pens to touch up the skirting boards and the doors. Anything that looked as if it had a mark or scratch on it, we’d have to retouch.”
Madoff’s lair is one example of a certain kind of monochrome minimalism that may be remembered as the house style of “irrational exuberance,” to borrow a coinage from former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan. When Oliver Stone makes the inevitable movie about derivative traders, you can be sure the set designers will surround the actors with spotless swaths of black and gray.
Madoff was not alone in embracing this pre-crash power palette: In House of Cards, an account of the Bear Stearns collapse published this month, William D. Cohan describes CEO Jimmy Cayne presiding over the firm’s unraveling from a Madison Avenue office equipped with black furniture and ebony walls.
The same use of basic black was popular with the media titans in those overheated years. When IAC, Barry Diller’s Internet outfit, moved two years ago into a new New York City headquarters on West 18th Street designed by Frank Gehry with ship-like contours and a sweeping minimalist lobby, journalist John Hockenberry noticed an oddly Madoffian detail: a wealth of symmetrical black pencils neatly stacked in rooms throughout the building. “Standing in cups, ready for action, extra-thick and irresistible, is an abundance of No. 2 soft lead pencils with the IAC logo on them in white,” Hockenberry wrote in Metropolis magazine. “An employee who would not allow her name to be used volunteered that they were ‘someone’s obsession,’ you can guess whose.”
It’s often said that design acts as a responsive gauge of the moment. If so, then what does the preponderance of black say about the halls of power and the people who inhabited them? For one thing, it suggests a monolithic façade that discouraged questioning.