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Colin Cowie Gives Whitney "Cha-Cha-Cha"

At the Whitney Museum of American Art's red-themed benefit, Colin Cowie covered custom-shaped tables with red patent leather, red carnations and votive candles.

Why red? “Because it's sexy. And it reeks of cha-cha-cha,” said Colin Cowie, the über-designer behind the decor at the Whitney Museum of American Art's annual benefit. Cowie, who masterminded the stylish black-and-white look of last year's benefit, designed a chic red decor scheme for this year's event, which honored artist Ellsworth Kelly's 80th birthday. The event brought out a black-tie crowd of established philanthropists for cocktails and dinner, and hundreds of young supporters—a.k.a. the Whitney Contemporaries—at a lively after-party. The event was produced by the Kim Goldsteen, director of special events at the Whitney, and Harriet Weintraub at WSC PR.

Inside the museum's entrance, red, square-shaped spotlights illuminated cubes covered with red carnations placed on rectangular red Plexiglas columns. Behind the cubes was the word “RED” spelled out in giant letters covered with red carnations. For the cocktail reception, tall tables covered with white stretch fabric and underlit with fluorescent lights dotted the basement-level indoor space usually occupied by the Sarabeth's cafe and the museum store. Cowie created a tented lounge in the outdoor garden area with red bed seats topped with giant pillows and low, round stools paired with underlit tables. Bentley Meeker washed both spaces with red, blue and gold lights.

Guests who opted out of the packed cocktail areas could visit the museum's galleries during the pre-dinner hour. “It's great! There's nobody up here!” one guest said as she stepped into an elevator on the way to the fourth floor gallery, where dinner was served.

“It's the best space in the world to work with,” Cowie said of the gallery. “You've got four blank walls and you can create your own sense of art inside. It's not a room where you stick in a bunch of tables and serve a chicken.” Cowie created a mostly gray room accented by a striking red streak. (”Christian Dior said if you ever want to make a beautiful color show, put it against gray,“ Cowie said.) In the gray area, two elevated platforms on opposite sides of the room gave guests on the outer edges a good view of the stage. To maintain clean lines and the grid formation of the tables, Cowie used lacquered gray tables without tablecloths and centerpieces of gray Lucite troughs filled with white carnations and a grid of white votive candles. Instead of slip covered banquet chairs, Cowie used molded gray chairs (“I looked at 45 different chairs before we found that one,” he said). Light gray paint on the surrounding walls and silver charger plates and dark gray drinking glasses on the tables completed the monochromatic look on both sides of the room.

The curving red streak snaked through the middle of the room, beginning inside the elevator and ending at the stage. This section featured curvy, pedestaled tables covered with red patent leather atop red shag carpeting. Rows of votive candles topped a second layer on top of the tables, and a third layer displayed beds of red carnations.

Town executive chef Geoffrey Zakarian designed this year's menu, and caterer Robbins Wolfe executed it. The meal began with foie gras and artichoke terrine appetizers, followed by a braised boneless lamb shank with orange-scented eggplant entree, and caramel tarts and chocolate tarts for dessert. Following dinner and a performance by Dionne Warwick, guests could opt to stay for the after-party with music by DJ Kemedji.

––Suzanne Ito

Read about last year's benefit...


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