Cool Yule: The Pressmans Entertain for the Holidays

Photography by Jerry Rabinowitz

A home should tell a story—of where you’ve been and where you’re going, who you are and whom you hold most dear. Gene and Christine Pressman’s West Palm Beach condominium illuminates a life well-curated, both in terms of belongings and experiences. At no time is that history more prevalent than when this chic couple invites friends over to celebrate the holidays.

The Pressmans’ fashionable legacy began in 1923, when Gene’s grandfather foundedBarneys New York, a discount clothing store on Seventh Avenue that would eventually morph into a mecca for all things luxe and earn the sobriquet “the coolest store in the world.” Gene joined the family business in the 1970s and spent almost 30 years designing luxury retail and restaurants while working as creative director and co-CEO, often alongside such architects and designers as Peter Marino and Andrée Putman.

“I translated what I learned during my work at Barneys to design our apartment,” says Gene. “Barneys was all about the Pressman family, and that is why people came in. My mom is creative, and my dad had an extraordinary eye. I learned from my parents, then developed my own style.” Though he’s no longer involved with Barneys, Gene has tapped his design sense to enhance projects like The James Chicago, where he curated the art program and designed the interiors. Now he’s venturing, selectively, into home design and art curation.

Gene’s point of view is practical, utilizing good design without clutter and a modern look with vintage charm augmented by a sense of humor. Well-traveled and savvy, he loves to scour European auctions and flea markets for one-of-a-kind pieces, like his Austrian turn-of-the-century Karl Hagenauer brass candlesticks and whimsical sports figures, a Josef Hoffmann cut-glass bowl in fluted form, a Marcel Breuer bent plywood side table, and a striking Murano vase he found in Venice.

Gene, who, quite literally, wrote a book on being cool (a 2007 release about the intersection of business and culture entitled Chasing Cool), isn’t afraid to be different, often opting to mix things up instead of being monolithic. “I don’t like the room to look like a decorator did it,” he says. “Something timeless and well-designed will work with other pieces. I mix and match seventeenth century with 1950s and ’60s French deco, Italian modern, etc. I can do this because I have confidence in myself.”

Christine, a former model and actress who holds a degree in psychology and is a real estate agent for Douglas Elliman in New York, shares her husband’s passion for aesthetics and style. Together, the Pressmans are energetic alchemists who host magical dinner parties. For their latest holiday soiree, they invited a diverse group of friends into their couture condo overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway to enjoy small bites by chef Clay Conley (owner of Buccan, Imoto, and Grato), delicious desserts baked by Christine, and Gene’s nuanced approach to holiday decor.

“I love Christmas, and really like hosting, baking, and helping people meet each other at our parties,” says Christine. “While [it’s] a team sport, I leave the decoration and design to Gene. He loves it enough for both of us.” In the living room, Gene perched a pair of glowing palms—his answer to the traditional tree—into circular majolica jardinieres he purchased at a Paris flea market. Hand-painted 1940s Christmas ornaments, gifts from New York art dealer Anthony DeLorenzo, graced the centerpiece on the dining table. White roses and calla lilies were scattered throughout, many displayed in clean-lined Swedish shot glasses because, as Christine puts it, “Gene loves them.”

Everyone in attendance was ready for a festive evening, including Mookie, the Pressmans’ 14-year-old Schnauzer, who donned a spiffy Santa ensemble for the occasion. Guests milled around the living room, sipping cocktails and remarking on their hosts’ impeccable taste. “Gene is the maestro of fashion and design,” said David McClymont, Gene’s golfing buddy and the executive director of the Palm Beach Symphony. “He is also intellectual and humorous, kind and thoughtful.”

Dan Standen, a private equity investor from Miami Beach and Gene’s partner in some design projects, agreed. “Gene has tremendous taste for unusual pieces that are found off the beaten path,” he said. “Their apartment is a great eclectic mix.”

As timeless music played in the background, attendees splintered off into smaller conversations, occupying Wiener Werkstätte barrel-back armchairs, Austrian Art Deco club chairs, and a 1960s Ueli Berger sectional sofa the Pressmans had covered in a Moroccan kilim by designer Peter Marino, a longtime friend. The sofa and a coffee table made of birdseye maple veneer sat atop a geometric rug and beneath a 1969 oil on canvas by American painter Robert Zakanitch.

“Gene has wonderful furnishings and an eye for great color, which I love,” remarked Wyatt Koch, a Palm Beach–based designer of bold men’s shirts. “As a couple, Gene and Christine are creative, artistic, and filled with energy.”

As dinnertime approached, Conley displayed his culinary creations on an assortment of vintage French deco platters. Beautiful plates—from various decades and each with its own backstory—were stacked elegantly on the counter, alongside classic white Barneys New York plates, a nod to Gene’s family history.

Guests gathered at the resin Eero Saarinen for Knoll dinner table perched beneath a metal-and-fiber-optic chandelier that looked like it was floating, supported only by the room’s effervescent holiday spirit. A wine and fruit scene painted by a Japanese artist was an apropos complement to Gene’s festive tablescape. He mixed and matched French china with hand-painted Creil M&C Montereau and Susie Cooper English deco plates as well as Georg Jensen Parallel patterned silver flatware and goblets from Gene’s own glass and crystal collection. English ceramic artist Clarice Cliff’s vintage porcelain Ravel Bizarre demitasse cups and saucers for Royal Staffordshire made an appearance for coffee and dessert.

For the buffet meal, Conley crafted an Asianinspired menu with a touch of comfort food. The spread included edamame, Peking duck tacos, tuna tataki, Japanese snapper, a generous assortment of sashimi and nigiri, mushrooms and squash, grilled strip steak, pizza slices, and the ever-popular hot dog panini. Christine’s desserts didn’t disappoint, either. Guests gushed over her cheesecake, pecan pie, and extra special “West Tenth Street Brownies,” a treat she’s been perfecting for the last decade.

“I took a brownie-baking class in 2007, the year I married Gene,” explains Christine. “My teacher found the recipe lying on Tenth Street in New York’s Greenwich Village. Written on the recipe were the words, ‘Best brownies in the world!’ I have been baking them ever since.”

After dinner, sated guests walked around the apartment admiring signed works of art from Gene’s famous friends, such as Peter Max and David Hockney. There was even a personal Christmas card from Andy Warhol. As a serious collector, Gene has catalogued and preserved all of the important memorabilia from his heady days in New York City’s fascinating world of fashion, art, society, and design.

Heading down the hallway to depart for his drive back to Miami Beach, Dan Standen gave high praise to the hosts for a wonderful holiday party filled with new friends, laughter, great design, culture, and conversation. As he reflected upon an Alexander Calder sketch, a famous Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph, and a romantic Brassai (Gyula Halasz) image of Paris at night, Standen shared a secret: “The reason this collection is so unique and unusual is because if someone else has it, Gene doesn’t want it.”

It seems Gene applies this one-of-a-kind axiom to many facets of his life. Whether he’s running a legendary department store, accumulating pieces for his private home, or curating a haute holiday experience, he believes opting for the unique will always yield memorable results.

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