Leading New York-based magazine editor turned basket maker, Deborah Needleman, shares her inspiring career change, life-changing decisions and personal challenges ahead of a very special collaboration with Cabana.



“I just thought, this is it, this is how I want to live”. Watching a basket maker at work in Sussex, England, while researching an article for the New York Times, was to be a life-changing experience for eminent US-based editor, Deborah Needleman.

The then Editor-in-Chief of T Magazine, and former editor of Wall Street Journal Magazine and founder of Domino, was so captivated by the slow, meditative processes of the age-old craft that she had a sudden epiphany. “From planting, to harvesting, to grading the willow, to soaking, to making, I just thought, this is it, this is how I want to live." And live it she did, swapping deadlines and headlines for weaving and willow.

The most memorable trip I’ve taken:

I spent two weeks by myself in Japan researching the state of traditional craft. Thanks to my friends at the travel company PRIOR, I was able to visit about 20 artisans—woodworkers, broom makers, lacquer artisans, potters, natural dyers, tinsmiths, indigo artists, katazome printers, wire weavers. I’ve never learned so much in such a condensed time, or had my mind so blown. The dedication of the craftspeople and the refinement of their work is on a level beyond anything I’ve ever seen.

The quest for perfection and the deep, generational passion that keeps these master craftsmen going, despite the economic and lifestyle hardships that such dedication requires, was so moving, but also disheartening. Most of these artists come from families that have done this work for many generations, but few want their children to follow in their footsteps.

The best party I’ve ever been to:

I tend to look forward more than back, so I hope it will be the two birthday parties I’m going to this month! My adorable friend, David Prior, is celebrating his 40th at Trasierra— the most wonderful hotel, and home of the English decorator Charlotte Scott, in Andalusia, followed by the 60th of the garden writer, Sarah Raven, near Kardamyli in the Peloponnese at a compound amidst olive groves with a garden designed by Tania Compton. But of the parties I’ve been to, Madison Cox’s 55th birthday weekend in Tangier was the most magical and the most perfectly planned.

The main dinner was held in the garden of Villa Mabrouka, YSL and Pierre Berge’s former house in the magnificent garden designed by Madison, with dancing by the pool under a waterfall in the rocks, illuminated by hundreds of lanterns. The whole thing was impeccable but also so warm and convivial. Berge hosted a lunch at his home Villa Leon d’Africain, we had drinks at Madison’s clifftop garden above the sea, a dinner at Roberto Peregalli’s poetic riad (which looks what I imagine Proust’s house might have looked like if he had apprenticed with Mongiardino), a lazy afternoon on the beach and some late night walks in the Medina with friends. That weekend reinforced old friendships and marked the beginning of some dear new ones.

A moment that changed my career:

I was in my office at T Magazine at the New York Times doing research for an upcoming story. Watching a video of the basketmaker, Annemarie O’Sullivan, inspired me to quit my job and become a basketmaker. Seeing Annemarie harvesting in her willow fields, making beautiful things with the materials of nature, and hearing her talk about her life and the way she thinks about her work, made me realize I too wanted to make things from beginning to end on my own - and to live in closer concert with nature; to have my life organized by the actual seasons (rather than fashion seasons or magazine deadlines); and learn how to create beauty from my hands. It was definitely an “aha moment”. I waited a year to think through the ramifications fully, but never wavered. I went to meet Annemarie at her home in Sussex, and she’s been my mentor and friend ever since.

The greatest challenge I’ve overcome:

I could say it's been learning a completely new set of skills in my 50s, which has had real challenges. But the truth is the greatest challenge has been recognizing that I have ADD and trying to compensate for it and work within its parameters. I’ve always been forgetful, totally without any habits or routines, horrible about being on time and about scheduling, planning, prioritizing and following through on tasks. Oddly, it was easier to run a large magazine than to run my own day, because there was so much support for me personally and professionally with so many talented people to turn my ideas and passions into reality.

I would describe my childhood as:

Oh dear! Nothing bad happened, but in fact, nothing much happened at all. There were none of the things I have come to love so much - friends around a dinner table, art, literature, gardens, travel, a curiosity and appreciation for other cultures. It was a cloistered suburban upbringing. I knew my world was small and claustrophobic, and I longed for something bigger, but had no idea of the joys and genius the wider world had to offer.

The best gift I’ve ever received:

I think a Ruth Asawa print of a chrysanthemum from my husband. Asawa began her career at Black Mountain College in the mountains of North Carolina, which was a kind of American Bloomsbury – a short period of great creative ferment and collaboration, but it was more international and Utopian. Started after Hitler’s persecution of Jews, artists, and intellectuals, when the Bauhaus was closed, and lasting just over 20 years, it brought together people like Josef and Anni Albers, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Jacob Lawrence, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Cy Twombly, Franz Kline, Dorothea Rockburne, Buckminster Fuller and so many more. Asawa was a student and this drawing has a similar complexity of line to her more famous suspended woven wire sculptures (which are really a novel form of basketry!) I also love a portrait of Vanessa Bell painted by Roger Fry when the two were lovers, also from my husband.

An object I'll never part with:

My husband is a collector, mostly of books, and I am not. I love things, but don’t feel attached to them, but it might be his collection of the 30 or so original Hogarth Press books that were hand-printed and bound by Leonard and Virginia Woolf. The books are fragile, beautiful repositories of the literary and the artistic collaborations of the Bloomsbury group. Many have designs, illustrations or covers by Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister, and woodcuts and artwork by Bell, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, and other figures around the Omega Workshops.

My guiltiest pleasure or greatest extravagance:

I think most people wish they said ‘yes’ to more things in life. I love saying ‘no’. I closely guard my freedom and my pleasure, and at this stage of life, I rarely do things I don’t want to. It’s selfish perhaps, but it allows me more time to be generous to those close to me.

My next weekend-away destination:

I hope to go for a long weekend in Genoa, Italy, next month with [the English decorator], Camilla Guinness to stay with a friend of hers who has taken over the glorious Mannerist palazzo, Palazzo Spinelli, and has set up a foundation to help revitalize the city. I adore Mannerism in all its forms, because it has all the rigor and classicism of the Renaissance, but with such fantastic weirdness of proportion and color.

My favorite flea market:

No great surprise here, but the Paul Bert section of the Paris flea market at Clingancourt. I’ve gotten mostly everyday items like ceramics, textiles, great old French linens, cozy fisherman sweaters and the vintage blue workman’s jackets I wear for gardening.

I feel most confident when wearing:

Well-tailored men’s clothes: I love a YSL-inspired le smoking situation: fitted tuxedo jacket, silk blouse unbuttoned lower than probably advisable, tapered trousers and a high heel. I feel more feminine and sexier in something a bit masculine. I do love a beautifully made dress, but always have to butch things up in one way or another.

My signature scent:

I’m a serial monogamist, rather than someone who mates with a fragrance for life. For the past few years I’ve been wearing a Floris' 'A Rose for', which has a musky base of cedar, sandalwood and amber married to just the right amount [of the] sweet floral aroma of Turkish rose, and the wonderful violet scent of orris.

My go-to recipe:

Meyer lemon pasta. I made it for Amanda Hesser, who was the food writer for the New York Times, the first time I met her, and she included it in one of her cookbooks. Add not-too-well-drained al dente pasta into a bowl containing the zest of two Meyer lemons, the juice of one, some grated parmesan, and baby arugula leaves. Taste and add more lemon juice if you want, and then a good helping of creme fraiche. Top it with flaky Malden salt, some pepper, and maybe some toasted pine nuts.

My favorite fabric:

I’ve always longed to use Madeleine Castaing’s Rayure Fleurie and that old Colefax and Fowler fabric, Bowood rose, but really anything and everything Nathalie Farman-Farma makes in her line, Decors Barbares.

Ideal interiors in three words:

Idiosyncratically personal, intelligent, inviting. (Cheating the word requirement with an adjective!)

Distasteful interiors in three words:

Trends, status-driven, bad lighting.

The person I call for good advice:

Answering this makes me realize I don’t ask for advice as much as I ought to. I seek out my daughter for unusual quandaries that only she would understand, but my husband gives the most solidly wise counsel. He’s by nature fair, decent, smart, level-headed, and kind. Often though, he has to see me suffering (or behaving badly) and draw out the need I have for advice. And then when he gives it, I realize how much time and anguish I would have saved if only I’d gone to him right away.

The person I call for a good time:

My hilarious friend, Ariel Levy, a writer at The New Yorker, who is a younger, hotter, louder, funnier, and braver version of myself.

My dream dinner party would include:

I think I may have had my dream dinner. The last thing I did before leaving the world of magazines was to host a dinner at the Carlyle for Michele Obama, Kerry James Marshall, Zadie Smith, William Eggleston, Lady Gaga and Massimo Bottura. Obama was a no-show, but Zadie sang jazz tunes accompanied by the pianist at Bemelman’s bar during cocktails; Massimo cooked the dinner; Kerry James Marshall gave a talk about his art practice (which was about practice, doing the work, and showing up every day like it’s a normal job); Lady Gaga debuted her song for Trayvon Martin, alone at the piano, after dinner; and Eggleston flirted with me. I was surrounded by friends and people I admire.

An exhibition that took my breath away:

At the strange Museum of Criminal Anthropology in Turin, I saw a concise wardrobe of clothing I’ve never forgotten. It was woven by an institutionalized mental patient, known as Versino G. His task was to clean the rooms, and each day after work, he saved and washed that day’s rag and unravelled it to make thread and then cordage. He somehow wove those threads it into a long vestment-looking tunic, pants and a pair of boots! The get-up resembled an old regional Italian festival costume, more than anything people wore at the time. It weighed over 90 pounds, but he wore it every day regardless of the weather. It is a highly original and personal work, possessing great dignity and talismanic power. It is ingenious, beautiful, deeply human, and tragic.

A new artist or designer whose work excites me:

Not so new, but these artists are fairly new to me, and both are fine artists whose work utilizes the aesthetics and techniques of craft. Luam Melake’s consists of handwoven sculpture and functional furniture that refer to the history and methods of art, design, craft, architecture and industrial manufacturing. She borrows from these fields and makes work that collapses the distinctions between them. Francesca DiMatteo, who works mostly in ceramics, also makes sculpture, furniture and tableware that brings the history and artistry of craft to wildly unpredictable places. She riffs on classical history and design, like Sevres china or Iznik pottery, as well as pop culture, and joyously fucks with it in the most exciting, lovely, and personal way—and her technical skills are immense.

Just One More Thing... 

One master: Federico Fourquet, for whom the garden is as masterful and as essential as the interior.

One muse: Nature

One city: Istanbul

One artwork: Any and all of Sheila Hick’s woven panels, especially those made early in her career in Mexico - for her ability to take an ancient practice to a completely modern place.

One book: Jane Eyre (for Jane’s uncanny wit, worldliness, humor, the depth of her love, the genius of her conversation, the strength of her sense of self, and her guileless, independent mind.)

One museum: All the small, obsessive house museums: Kawai Kanjiro, Kyoto; Mario Praz, Rome; Sir John Soane, London; Musee Jacquemart Andre, Paris.
One shop: Robert Kime; no one had a better eye.

One song: Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen’s version after Jeff Buckley interpreted it.

One color: Green? Dusty, silvery lilac? Can people really answer this question?!

One flower: Fritillaries as individual specimens, but foxgloves en masse.

One word to describe my style: I can’t say, maybe wannabe deranged English aristocrat.

One word to describe Cabana: Poetic.

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