Jan 02, 2012 12:00AM

Oyster #96: Mercura

Grace Jones was coming through and bought our butterfly glasses.

For Oyster #96, we interviewed the quirky ladies behind Mercura, the brand that's been a fixture at the Chelsea Hotel for the past 25 years and a favourite of Grace Jones and Richard Bernstein:

New York's Chelsea Hotel has seen a lot of action in its day. It was here that Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe fell in love; that Dylan Thomas drank himself to death. Sisters Merrilee Lichtenstein Cohen and Rachel Cohen-Lunning have lived in the Chelsea since 1976, and have shown their eccentric accessories brand, Mercura, from their hotel room for the past 25 years. Timothy Chernyaev spoke with Merrilee about their experiences there, and why they never sold out.

The first time I stepped into the Mercura studio at the Chelsea, I was on the hunt for boudoir masks to use in a photoshoot. A quick Google search had led me to this particular room, which had a tiny entranceway overflowing with sculpted and bejewelled eyewear. Once inside, I was overwhelmed by trays and trays filled with cat-eyes appliqued with crystal hearts, or featuring spikes or elaborate curlicues. Although the glasses weren't really what I was looking for I was certainly tempted, and that day Merrilee Lichtenstein Cohen told me a story about every item. The daisy-shaped lilac pair well, those were Drew Barrymore's favourite; the golden crown they had designed for Kanye West; and a certain headpiece dating back 25 years, that was custom-made for Grace Jones, or some other seminal artist who's been a fan since the brand started.

Raised in California, the sisters first started experimenting with jewellery to sell in their mother's antique shop. "She would sit us down at the dinner table and have us do things like beading, or putting decals on saucers, and then sell them in her boutique," says Merrilee. Their father was a tailor and made suits for celebrities like Cary Grant, but beyond working in fashion he also passed on an appreciation for art. "He never wanted to be a 'fashion person'. He would make suits for people in exchange for artwork. He travelled across America with the Shakespeare Theatre Company, hanging out with artists like Chagall."

It wasn't until after graduation, however, when they moved to New York, that they started their own project. Upon their arrival, artist Richard Rappaport - a friend, recommended they try the Chelsea Hotel, and the hotel's manager Stanley Bard gave them a single room for just eleven dollars a night. "There was a sink in the corner and one bed, so my sister was sleeping with her feet in my face because we had totally run out of money." Their first night, they packed up their collection of jewellery and glasses, headed to the steps of the Metropolitan Opera and laid down a blanket. Jacqueline Bisset was there that night. I wonder what she thought of the two girls with frizzy red hair, wearing tattered bell-bottoms, selling jewellery on the street?

Rachel and Merrilee have been in the Chelsea Hotel ever since. When they arrived, the hotel was a long-established haven for artists, and Andy Warhol had already shot Chelsea Girls there, once he found out about Mercura, he immediately wanted to take their small works and have them made into massive structures. Stanley Bard famously supported artists by letting them trade their work in exchange for rent, and consequently the hotel's torches, mottled colour scheme and art-strewn walls look like a psychedelic paradise. The walls of Mercura's other workplace, a loft in Manhattan's Flatiron District, tell a similar story. The wide space lends itself to canvases and portraits, but nothing is presented pretentiously, an Avedon casually hangs above a table littered with sunglasses.

The Mercura creations are works of art in their own right and it is easy to see that Baroque and Rococo styles influence their work, as do psychedelic art, and punk. "We totally demolish each other. We take something the other has started and then we finish it, we reconstruct it." It's this unique approach that has prevented them from expanding, and while their niche appeal is a positive thing, they do feel disheartened when seeing their work copied. "We think of it as making art, so we would rather people take them and make something of their own, instead of just copying." Their designs are often replicated; take, for example, the sunglasses with chains that hang across the temple, a look that was heavily embraced by the hip-hop community and has since been imitated by a few too many designers.

Yet the culture of the Chelsea Hotel gave them a unique opportunity to cultivate their creativity. Mercura was born in the lobby of the Hotel, where Rachel and Merrilee would sit and conduct showings. Artists and musicians would pass by and became enamoured with their unique pieces. "Grace Jones was coming through and bought our butterfly glasses." Richard Bernstein was also a fan, and he regularly traded jewellery in exchange for producing portraits of the sisters. After speaking with Merrilee, one realises that she's learned to take inspiration from anywhere, whether it's a work by Erte, Frank Gehry, or the lyrics to Elton John's 'Candle in the Wind'. But, more often than not, their neighbours at the hotel served as their muses. "Our neighbours were just so unafraid to be themselves, leaving this legacy to the world. People at the Chelsea Hotel were about incorporating new things into your life. The fellow that lived on the top floor, he had written Tubby the Tuba. He had a monkey, and instead of having a carpet on the floor he planted grass. He would shadow-dance when you came in the room."

Words: Timothy Chernyaev

Photography: Stef Mitchell