Photographer Mark Borthwick and designer Maria Cornejo are international nomads, and two of the most influential creative forces in New York City. Cornejo’s Zero+Maria Cornejo label and studio is based in Manhattan, while the couple live – with their two teenage children Bibi and Joey – in a Brooklyn Brownstone which they extensively remodeled to create a series of entirely open-plan, light-filled spaces. Borthwick shoots many of his commercial assignments at home, and has an office on the top floor – a space that’s hard to navigate, and resembles an art installation, full of Polaroids, feathers, bones, ribbons and musical instruments, with his own song lyrics scrawled on every surface.
Civilian: How did you wind up in Brooklyn?
Mark Borthwick: We were looking for a house and we were walking down this street, the sun was setting, and you could see the water at the end of the block, with lots of reflections. It was beautiful. The house was totally barred up when we found it. And there was something about the number, 168, which looked a little like 1978, and so much happened in 1978.
You were living in Manhattan then? And before that you’d moved from London to Paris, hadn’t you?
MB: Moving from England, you feel like you have to give Manhattan a go. But it’s impossible to bring up kids there – there’s way too much stimulus. And Maria and I would go on dates and couldn’t hear ourselves speak.
Maria Cornejo: We wanted the kids to grow up in a neighbourhood, and there aren’t any in Manhattan. It’s all single career people. I remember one time we lived on 34th Street and were told off because the kids were making noise on Christmas Day, opening presents. I couldn’t believe it. We wanted the kids to be somewhere that they could make a lemonade stall on the street. When we lived in Paris, I always missed London. When we moved to Brooklyn I didn’t miss it anymore.
Was there a “we’re home” moment?
MB: The minute we arrived. We built the place with an idea and a dream. We found a photograph of a beautiful house that had been renovated outside Paris and used that as a starting point. We wanted to build a house that let the light in, and didn’t isolate spaces and create corners.
MC: We didn’t want it super-modern or too clean either. I told the architect that we had been together a long time and had kids and a lot of “stuff”. We didn’t want fancy door knobs. We just wanted it to be open, with a lot of light.
Where is the furniture from?
MB: Most of the wooden furniture comes from the Germany company E15, who I have collaborated on projects with. Their aesthetic is modernist 1950s, with a little touch of Donald Judd thrown in – primal, primitive and modern.
MC: And there are the Hans Wegner chairs, which the architect got for us. The sofa is a George Sherlock, which we have had since Bibi was born in 1991, and we had it re-covered. We haven’t really bought anything. Our outside table was bought in Clignancourt and is from the 1860s.
MB: We realised we didn’t need anything. We had the dream home.
You are both very visually-oriented people. How do you decide what art goes on display?
What you photograph and document is what you love. Every day I walk into the garden and the light reflects off the cranberry leaves in a different way, so I document them in a different way
MC: It keeps changing. Mark’s not into framing things, so for a long time the wall was full of Polaroids and they kept falling down.
MB: I like a sense of decay. I find things get very “important” when you frame them.
MC: We do have one thing framed: a Xerox of a photograph of two of us together.
Maria, you were a huge success at a very early age, with the Richmond Cornejo label in London and in Japan in the 1980s, alongside Bodymap and John Galliano. Are there many design elements of your past in the house?
MC: I have stuff from that era, from Richmond Cornejo, and the cleaning lady asked why I kept it. I explained that it reminds me who I was. It is a visual diary. I hardly ever look at them though. At work we have an archive of everything since 2003. I have about 20 pieces from when John [Richmond] and I worked together.
Mark, you shoot here – are you shooting much digital?
MB: Nothing. Nothing is ever manipulated or changed.
MC: But you did something for Missoni that was digital.
MB: That was the first time ever, but that’s okay, that’s their vision stamped upon it. People think a lot of what I do is digital, but I just let light filter onto the film and make mistakes. I shoot 90% here at the house. And I do try not to control it. I have the luxury of being taken elsewhere – the last two jobs took me away for a month.
Is it disruptive to shoot at home?
MB: It is only obtrusive when other people bring what they think makes a shoot comfortable. When I shoot, I have one camera that Maria bought me – no hair or makeup. No stylist.
MC: It can be ridiculous. You get a stylist with three assistants.
It must be reassuring to have the familiarity with the light in the house.
MB: Yes. I never use artificial lighting. I did some of a Margiela perfume ad from our bedroom window, some in the garden and the rest in Upstate NYC. I have been living a formidable lifestyle.
When you look into the garden, you could be in the country. Do you feel connected to NYC?
MB: Not at all, I don’t feel it exists. We wouldn’t be here otherwise.
MC: A lot of fashion people live here now in this area, it’s become a bit too groovy. I go to the city every day. I walk across the bridge and to the office and it takes an hour, and it’s really nice – you walk through Brooklyn and the city opens up in front of you. You see the sea and water and skyline, and you go, “Wow – this is why I live in New York.” But I wouldn’t live in midtown.
MB: The city is too much. It has a certain… vibration. It’s overwhelming to me. I reflect on the time we lived in Paris; the romantic side of getting lost in a city, walking into a spell. I would rather spend a day where there is no agenda or plan. At that point, you open up your horizons to anything happening. I live on that vibration.
Maria, do you see yourself as New York designer now?
MC: I don’t think the work is American. Everything is influenced by growing up in London, living in Paris, working in Japan. New York has given me independence. In Europe the history is stifling, and sometimes so is the negativity and sarcasm.
Maria, you use your own photographs in your print work. What motivates each of you to take a photograph?
MC: I look at things as patterns. The images are not great as images, but I know it will make a great print.
MB: Everything you see is a reflection of yourself. There is a sense of wonder. What you photograph and document is what you love. Every day I walk into the garden and the light reflects off the cranberry leaves in a different way, so I document them in a different way. Recently I have closed my eyes to take the picture and not looked directly at what I am taking a picture of.
MC: I found something on Facebook – a photographer who is blind and takes incredible pictures. She taught herself photography.
MB: Beautiful! You can feel an image – you don’t necessarily have to see it. It’s like meditation, or when you wake up after sleeping on the beach, in the middle of the afternoon, and through the haze the light blasts that sense of an awakening. I find a sense of joy there, in my pictures.
MC: When I use something for a print, it’s because it gives a certain amount of joy. It is not about being groovy or edgy.
Mark travels with work an awful lot. Do you often go as a couple?
MC: Just on holiday, to Tulum in Mexico. And whenever we go, I buy lots of the little coloured felt toys that the Mexican ladies make. When Mark travels for work, he has to feed his energy as a photographer, and feel comfortable. There is a certain intimacy… As the wife, I don’t feel comfortable when he’s doing that with other people. It’s flirtatious in a way.
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When you travel to Mexico, do you feel American?
MC: I am Chilean, and Chileans are not very Latin, but it is nice to reconnect and speak Spanish and for the kids to hear Spanish. I grew up in England from the age of 11, and I hear more English than anything else. In Mexico we feel like we could belong there. We are foreigners in New York. We don’t fit.
MB: When I am in Paris, I love to see my French friends. And I love to see friends in Berlin. But I’m not anything. It is just “us”. We are a contradiction in terms – very different backgrounds in the family. A taxi driver recently asked me where I was from – he was intrigued by the way I spoke – and I said I had no idea. My great-grandparents fell in love on the potato boats fleeing the famine in Ireland and Scotland. They went to Australia and then New Zealand, and then back to England. My mother is French-Polish. I play music with some friends in Spain, and one time in Seville this very striking gypsy fella in his early sixties put his hand firmly on my shoulder and stared into my eyes. One of my friends, Josephine, said: “See – you’ve always been a gypsy.”
MC: My whole education was in England. It was going to art school, and clubbing in the 1980s and going to Taboo. It was London and Manchester and The Haçienda. Growing up in England, anything was possible. They were crazy days. That energy is important for me. Joey and I still watch The Young Ones, which I love.
Do you spend a lot of social time here at home?
MC: Mark is the chef. When he is away and I am working on a collection, I live on take out.
MB: My favourite thing in the world is to be seduced by the pleasures of food.
MC: He will ask what I feel like eating, and I’ll say chicken and potato, but then he’ll make something with ten different kinds of roasted vegetable. It’s never minimal cooking. Always maximal. C