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Setting up a new business from her Hell’s Kitchen apartment in the middle of a pandemic definitely sent textile and wallpaper designer Alexis Audette on a mazy path. Here’s her West Side Story.
So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
My husband and I moved here in 2004 so that he could attend a doctoral program at NYU and I could begin my career in textile design.
How did you end up in Hell’s Kitchen?
We saw a listing for an apartment on W48th Street that had a view out to a garden behind the building, and we jumped at the chance to live in the heart of the city with a view of a green landscape. We’ve been here ever since.
What’s your favorite thing about Hell’s Kitchen?
Whereas much of Manhattan has towering buildings that block out the sun and transform the streets into wind tunnels, Hell’s Kitchen is built at a human scale. Zoning laws keep our buildings at a low height and maintain a sense of light and open space in the neighborhood. As high rises go up around Hell’s Kitchen’s edges, I’m grateful to live in what feels like a warm and welcoming valley.
And what’s your Hell’s Kitchen pet peeve?
This is more of a heartache/outrage than a peeve. Our Hell’s Kitchen public schools serve many homeless children. These kids, and their families, should have access to affordable housing right here in the neighborhood where they go to school.
Did you stay put when the pandemic hit or did you find an escape for some of the time?
We stayed put until the late summer, when we were able to spend some time out in the country. We were ambivalent about staying in New York. Honestly, we were frightened. But the truth is that we were also scared of unwittingly transmitting the virus to family and/or whatever other community we might have escaped to. So, we stayed here. And, as time went by, New York City seemed to be safer than many other places. For the most part, people here took the virus, and the related public health guidelines, seriously. Plus, either due to their moral fiber or small apartments, Hell’s Kitchen residents didn’t hoard. There was always toilet paper on the shelves at Duane Reade. We also experienced a strong sense of solidarity here, whether from joining the nightly 7pm cheer for essential workers or participating in trivia night fundraisers for various groups in need. Ultimately, New York felt like the best place to be.
What did you do for work pre-COVID? What are you doing now?
Prior to COVID, I was developing Mazy Path, a line of wallpapers based on my own handmade linocut prints. I was supposed to launch the brand at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair, a trade show for interior designers and architects, at the Javits Center in May 2020. Needless to say, by May the Javits was a field hospital, not an event center, and the show was canceled. Ultimately, I launched in the fall with two showrooms. Building a new business during COVID has been a mazy path indeed.
My business plan certainly didn’t include a pandemic scenario. That being said, given how much time people are spending in their homes, there’s a lot of enthusiasm for interior design. In addition, the restorative quality of nature-themed motifs has a particular appeal right now. So, I feel optimistic about the road ahead.
What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve learned during the pandemic?
The pandemic forced me to move more slowly, and I never knew how much I would like that.
Tell us one thing that’s given you hope during the pandemic?
Prior to the pandemic if you had suggested ceding streets for outdoor dining and pedestrian use and transforming midtown office space into affordable housing, people would have laughed at you. Now those ideas have become entirely plausible (and some are already reality). What seemed impossible before the pandemic is now within reach. So, it gives me hope that New York can react to a devastating event with positive and innovative change.
What’s the most serendipitous (random/obscure/ insane) experience that’s happened to you in Hell’s Kitchen?
I tend to be chilly even when most people are warm. So, a few years ago I was walking up Ninth Avenue when a member of a film crew stopped me and asked if I would be an extra in a scene they were shooting. They just needed me to walk by in the background of the shot. I said yes because I had time and, I must say, I was flattered. “What quality, pray tell,” I asked the scout who stopped me, “made you ask me to be an extra?” “Well,” she said “we’re shooting a scene that’s supposed to occur in mid-winter, and I noticed your unseasonably warm garments. It’s May and you’re the only person out here in a puffy coat.”
What’s your closest brush with world fame and celebrity?
Over the years, I’ve seen many celebrities in Hell’s Kitchen. Just last week I saw Woody Harrelson on 58th Street. But the most memorable encounter happened about ten years ago. It was early in the morning and I was rushing to drop my kids off at day care and to get to work on time. I was holding my toddler daughter’s hand, pushing my infant son in his stroller, and juggling their various belongings as well as my own. As I crossed 44th Street, another parent trudging behind a stroller, carrying multiple bags, and emanating similar
waves of exhaustion, approached from the opposite direction. As we passed each other, I realized that it was Andrew McCarthy. And I have to admit, I had a moment of schadenfreude; it occurred to me that Blane might have fancy friends and drive a BMW, but even he was humbled by the demands of parenting young children and punching a clock.
What’s your superpower?
My superpower is also my Kryptonite. I’m constantly coming up with new ideas: for wallpaper patterns, for plastic-free toiletry packaging, for organizing my desk, for accessible polling stations, for dinner… Sometimes my dreamlife is even busier than my waking thoughts. On the one hand, it’s great to never lack for creativity, but on the other hand, it can be a little exhausting (not least for my husband and kids!).
What song do you sing at the top of your voice in the shower?
I love to sing, but the shower is an ideas lab for me. Often, as soon as I’m done, I have to rush to my desk, sopping wet, to write down my thoughts.
Which people inspire you the most?
Creatives of all stripes — designers, chefs, farmers, etc — who are focused on craft and local production to bring about positive social change.
What’s your favorite quote or saying?
As an optimist, Alexander Pope’s dictum “Hope springs eternal” has always appealed to me. However, this past year I’ve found myself saying more often the Sufi adage: “This too shall pass.”
Do you love Times Square (and/or Hudson Yards)? Why, or why not?
I don’t like Times Square or Hudson Yards for the same reason; neither one was built for New Yorkers. Times Square is a giant, glowing hive of multinational corporations. Hudson Yards is a place for overseas investors to park their money (and luxury brands to lose their shirts). Yes, I hear the arguments that these places are tourist venues and New York needs tourist dollars. But tourists are coming from across the country and around the world to have unique New York experiences: Broadway shows, strolls along the High Line… The dining and shopping experiences they have should be equally distinctive to New York. And wouldn’t it be nice if those tourist dollars went into the pockets of people who live and work here? What if our tourist economy was driven by local and independently owned businesses? What if New York public works projects (both Times Square and Hudson Yards have consumed vast amounts of tax dollars) were centered around local business promotion, affordable housing, good public schools and green space? Such an approach would pump money into our economy and ensure that revenue went to many local hands (not just a small group of real estate developers and investors).
If you could bring one thing (person/place/event) back to HK that is no longer around, what would it be?
I miss Empire Cleaning, the dry cleaning shop that used to be on Ninth Avenue between 47th and 48th. The family that ran the business was lovely; they always had a kind word (and treats!) for the kids, and their cleaning and tailoring were impeccable. When the landlord raised their rent to 30K per month, they had to leave the neighborhood. Now that space, like many other storefronts on Ninth Avenue, sits abandoned and empty. I miss the warmth and kindness of Empire’s owners, I miss having a dry cleaner so close by, and I miss the bustling and healthy street life that existed in Hell’s Kitchen before it fell victim to the greed of New York’s real estate industry.
Add your shameless plug or personal profile?
Mazy Path is my new line of colorful, botanical wallpapers. The designs explore plants through the lenses of environmental journalism and art history. I’m Mazy Path’s owner and designer, as well as a Rhode Island School of Design graduate and veteran of the textile industry, and the designs are based on linocuts that I make at my kitchen table here in Hell’s Kitchen. The wallpapers are manufactured in Connecticut and produced on a made-to-order basis, and they can be printed on grounds that are suitable for residential or commercial (restaurant!) use. Mazy Path is represented by Temple Studio and The Design Social Studio. Come visit at mazypath.com and @mazy_path
HELL’S KITCHEN HAPPY PLACES
The Clinton Community Garden (W48th St between 9/10th Ave). I adore the Community Garden. Spending time in the presence of so many beautiful trees and plants, not to mention birds and bees, is good for my soul. Even when the garden was locked during the pandemic, I would go and gaze at it through the fence, and those moments of just resting my eyes on plant life were good for my mental health. Having this green sanctuary just down the block is an incredible gift.
Midtown West, PS 212 (W48th St between 8/9th Ave). The school is a neighborhood gem. We sent both our children there and were always grateful for how the school fostered a sense of community both within its own walls and around the neighborhood. As first graders, our kids learned about the restaurant business in the kitchen at Amarone and the theater industry backstage at the Gershwin Theater. Midtown West played a wonderful and formative role in our kids’ very special Hell’s Kitchen childhood.
Columbus Library NYPL (10th Ave between W50/51st St). The library is small, but the book selection is beautifully edited. I can’t wander through the shelves without finding multiple books that I’d like to take home. This is especially true of the children’s section. And the librarians are kind and helpful. On those rare occasions when the library doesn’t have a book, the librarians can procure it within days.
Ponche Taqueria (W49th St between 9/10th Ave). No Friday night is complete without chips and guac, fish tacos, a Tamarind Jarritos, and a book recommendation from André at El Ponche.
Poseidon Bakery (9th Ave between W44/45th St). The Poseidon Bakery is a neighborhood institution. Generations of Hell’s Kitchen residents have grown up eating the Greek specialties (savory spanakopita, heavenly baklava!) that come from Paul and Lili Fable’s kitchen. Our neighborhood has been through a lot, but I find comfort knowing that Poseidon will continue to fill our bellies.
Amy’s Bread (9th Ave between W46/47th St). If I could, I would eat the cherry cream scones for breakfast, the carrot cake for lunch, and the cinnamon challah knots for dinner. Oh, and don’t let me forget the chocoholic twists at cocktail hour!
Bar 9 (9th Ave between W53/54th St). Bar 9 is best known for its dueling pianos and live music scene. But thanks to the generosity of its owner, Steve Padernacht, Bar 9 has also served as a venue for fundraisers that help the community. In 2018, Bar 9 hosted an Indivisible fundraiser that I helped organize for Robert Jackson, who went on to win his race for state senate. Jackson’s victory helped dismantle the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of turncoat Democratic senators who caucused with Republicans to prevent the passage of Democratic legislation in Albany. Thanks to the civic participation of community members like Padernacht, New York (and by extension Hell’s Kitchen) is a more progressive place today.
The Waylon (10th Ave between W50/51st St). The Waylon is a great place to see musicians who have a country/folk/blues bent. As pandemic restrictions ease, we’re excited to start seeing one of our favorite artists again, the fabulous Butch Phelps, who performs at the Waylon frequently.
Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries (W40th St between 9/10th Ave). Few institutions in our neighborhood do more to help Hell’s Kitchen’s most vulnerable individuals and families than Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries. Rauschenbusch supports members of our community through a range of direct services, including a food pantry, and educational programs. Especially during the COVID crisis, Rauschenbusch has provided shelter in the storm.
Manhattan Plaza Health Club (W43rd St between 9/10th Ave). I love MPHC for several reasons. First, the pool is a beautiful oasis. Second, taking exercise and dance classes with people of all ages inspires me and gives me a roadmap for how to age well. Third, I love how the staff — Deborah, in particular — always greets me by name. It makes me feel special and keeps me showing up. Due to the pandemic, I haven’t been to MPHC in a long time, but I look forward to going back.