“Hello, this is Robert Rauschenberg’s personal secretary. Mr. Rauschenberg wants to know if you would like to swap art for a pair of speakers?”
In 1981 I opened a factory at number 22 Bond St. in Manhattan. It was called Isobarik Corporation and was a subsidiary of Linn Products, in Glasgow, Scotland.
Ivor Tiefenbrun, the owner and I grew up together in Glasgow and we celebrated all of youth’s virtues together. (i.e. we drank and screwed as much as we could). In 1975 after spending four years in Israel, I passed through Glasgow on my way to the US. My wife Rita had been accepted by Parsons School of Design to study graphic art. While in Scotland, Ivor told me that he had always wanted to have a factory in the US and would I be willing to set up a company etc. I told him I loved him, that he was my best friend, I would do anything but work for him as he was the world’s biggest pain in the ass. Fast-forward six years.
After working for large retail organizations, corporate America and I decided that this wasn’t going to work out and the sooner we separated, the better it would be for all of us; to wit Bloomindales fired me, Macy’s fired me, Abraham and Straus were about to fire me but I hurriedly left for Bambergers who didn’t fire me but made my life so miserable I was ready to do anything, even work for Ivor.
A few months at the Linn Factory in Castlemilk educated me in speaker manufacturing. On my last night, Ivor visited me and wondered if I realized what a really hard job I had ahead of me. Premises had to be found and outfitted. I also had to find suppliers, purchase materials and hire staff. I never thought of this as difficult. I had gone through both Macy’s and Bambergers’ training programs. They taught me how to prioritize and execute decisions. Within six weeks I opened in the east Village and began producing Linn Kans, their smallest speaker. At one time I had two employees, a Jamaican bodybuilder named Duane and an openly gay woman called Wendy. Duane was extremely religious and even though he was fond of Wendy, he was horrified by her lifestyle. This made for some fabulous arguments that were much more fun than building speakers!
Bond Street was interesting in the early eighties. It was dirty, unkempt and slightly dangerous. Most of the business properties were industrial. In the immediate vicinity there was a plumbing supply shop, a marble contractor and an industrial screw supplier. There I found dual spiral screws that really held the speakers together. Down the road, on the Bowery, was CBGBs. Diagonally across the street was a home for battered women and often I would hear men (I presume the batterers) yelling in the street. This was the time when there were thousands of people living in the streets. One evening, when locking up I saw a woman standing in the middle of busy Lafayette Street yelling at the traffic. She reached down, removed her sanitary napkin, waved it over her head and threw it at a car.
The back of my factory abutted a building that was leased by Rauschenberg as a warehouse, thus the request. I called Rita. “Have you ever heard of a guy called Rauschenberg?” (What do I know? I’m from Glasgow). Rita, the artist said, “What about him? He’s famous.” I told her about the phone call and the request and she immediately said, “Let’s do it.”
The next day we visited Rauschenberg’s house and studio. It was a 5-story town house at 381 Lafayette Street. Originally a mission that operated an orphanage, a fading mural with images of poor children advertising the orphanage was still visible on the side of the building. We entered the hallway, which was covered in wood paneling that had been recently cleaned and renovated. “Another barter” we were told.
We were led up to the third floor and entered a room that was filled with people and lots of flat files. I established the value of a pair of Sara speakers and we were shown some books with copies of artwork of comparable worth. Rita narrowed the selection down to five pieces and we went over to the flat files to see the originals. Rita settled on a print. It was an artist’s proof, #7 of 8, countersigned by Rauschenberg. His assistant recorded the transaction and we noticed that Jane Fonda had purchased the same print. Even though he lived upstairs we never did meet the artist.
It turned out to be a great deal. A pair of Linn Saras is practically worth nothing these days, but the value of the Rauschenberg has shot up since his death. It still hangs in our living room.