This piece from the New Yorker profiling the work of New York City’s most celebrated carpenter, Mark Ellison is very interesting at many different levels. Just as the kings of Renaissance Italy sponsored the work of legends like Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo, the modern day kings of the free market – many of whom live in New York – are paying for craftsmen like Mark Ellison by asking him to do fitouts of their New York houses or apartments with fitout budgets which begin at $5mn: “Ellison has worked on homes for David Bowie, Woody Allen, Robin Williams, and dozens of others he’s not allowed to name. His least expensive projects cost around five million dollars, but others can swell to fifty million or more.”
Secondly, as high quality gadgets, luxury cars and rare watches have become items that are ubiquitous amongst affluent people, the uber rich are now fitting out extravagant homes to show that they are Pharaohs of the global economy and these are the Pyramids that remain long after they are gone. As Mark Ellison says, ““Nobody ever hires me to do a conventional building,” he said. “Billionaires don’t want the same old thing. They want better than the last. They want something that no one has done before, that’s specific to their apartment, and that might even be ill-advised.” Sometimes this gives rise to wonders; more often it doesn’t. Ellison has worked on homes for David Bowie, Woody Allen, Robin Williams, and dozens of others he’s not allowed to name… “If they want Downton Abbey, I can give them Downton Abbey,” he said. “If they want a Roman bath, I’ll build that. I’ve done some hideous places—I mean, disturbingly hideous. But I don’t have a pony in the race. If they want Studio 54, I’ll build that. But it’ll be the best Studio 54 they’ve ever seen…”
Thirdly, just as Pyramids employed thousands of Egyptians, fit-out crews from disparate nationalities now congregate in New York to build these fantasy homes: “Like many crews in the city, Ellison and Marelli’s were filled with first-generation immigrants: Russian plumbers, Hungarian floorers, Guyanese electricians, Bangladeshi stone carvers. The nationalities and the trades tended to go together. When Ellison first moved to New York, in the seventies, the carpenters all seemed to be Irish. Then they went home in the boom years of the Celtic Tiger and were replaced by waves of Serbs, Albanians, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Colombians, and Ecuadoreans. You could track the world’s conflicts and collapses by the men on New York scaffolds.”
Finally, and most importantly, the sheer depth of expertise that Mark Ellison possesses alongside his range of multi-disciplinary skills & experience collected from over 40 years of doing this sort of work, makes an exemplar of a successful modern day professional who combines hard work with passion and commitment to achieve outsized success – you are paid to excel, you are paid to see the world in a way nobody else can:
“A project scheduled to take a year and cost a thousand dollars per square foot balloons to twice the length and price, and everyone blames everyone else. If it’s off by only a third, they call it a success……some projects are too complex for piecemeal work. They’re more like car engines than like houses: they have to be designed from the inside out, layer by layer, each component fitted exactly to the next. When the final coat of plaster is laid, the warren of ducts and wires beneath it has to sit perfectly flat, plumb to within a sixteenth of an inch over ten feet. Yet every trade works to different tolerances: steelworkers aim to be accurate within half an inch, carpenters a quarter of an inch, Sheetrockers an eighth of an inch, and stoneworkers a sixteenth. It’s Ellison’s job to get them all on the same page.
Dirks remembers walking in on him one day after he’d been brought on to coördinate the project. The apartment had been stripped to the studs and he’d spent a week alone in the gutted space. He’d taken measurements, laid center lines, and visualized every fixture, outlet, and piece of panelling. He’d done hundreds of drawings by hand on graph paper, isolating problem spots and explaining how to fix them. There were minute cross-sections of doorframes and railings, of the structural steel around the stairs, of vents hidden behind crown moldings and motorized shades tucked into window pockets, all gathered into an enormous black ring binder. “This is why everyone wants Mark or a clone of Mark,” Dirks told me. “This is the document that says, ‘I know not only what happens here but in every space, in every discipline.’”

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