Inside an Art-and-Design Power Couple’s Live-Work Studio

Ruben and Isabel Toledo have lived and worked in this magical loft since 1995.

Photo: Wendy Goodman
Photo: Wendy Goodman

The inseparable artist-and-designer, husband-and-wife collaborators Ruben and Isabel Toledo met in high school in New Jersey, both their families having fled Cuba during the revolution. Isabel went on to design Michelle Obama’s coat and dress for the first inauguration, earn a Tony nomination for her costumes for the Broadway musical After Midnight, and pen an autobiography, Roots of Style. Ruben collaborates on each and every project.

The Toledos, pictured here in their live-work studio, have just launched their new fragrance, Pink Putti, the third in their Hot House Beauties collection for Lane Bryant. The black-and-white tiles on the wall here are Ruben’s designs for Ceramica Bardelli in Milan.
Since 1995, the Toledos have lived and worked in this magical loft within a temple atop an 1895-era building. This is where they start to dream up and work out their projects. “We usually create a whole universe,” Ruben says. “Whatever we are doing, whether it is a Broadway show, a collection, or a perfume, we make a whole world out of it.” Ruben’s designs include a line of furniture shown at Ralph Pucci International, and he recently collaborated with Louis Vuitton on a limited-edition monograph of his illustrations.
The shape of this skylight is what inspired Ruben’s design for the perfume bottle.
When scaffolding went up around the building a year ago, Ruben took advantage of it, exploring the sculptures on the front facade facing the street, only to discover a world of angel putti, at work and play, representing perhaps the various artisans who worked on the building’s beautiful design. “There is a whole universe of artists,” Ruben says of the frieze he was able to study up close. Isabel adds, “There are compasses, there are brushes. It is really what this building is being used for.”
“We had been aware of the architectural putti high above on our building and they had always intrigued us,” Isabel says, “and as we were developing the fragrance notes for ‘Pink Putti,’ it became clear that this perfume had to be about the birth of creation itself, the innocence of the new.”
Isabel on the balcony under the building’s frieze that depicts Mercury, a goddess, and industrious putti at work.
The development of Pink Putti began with lots and lots of paintings and drawings by Ruben, a fraction of which are pictured here. “If you would have walked into this place when we were creating Pink Putti, you would have walked into a pink world,” Isabel says. Adds Ruben, “It was drawings of Versailles, drawings of Venice, sunsets, watercolors, and beaches.”
Pink Putti, which the Toledos developed with the perfume house Givaudan, has notes of the national flower of Cuba, white mariposa. The other two fragrances, Kuba Rose and Crystal Honey, have their own intimate alchemy. “The idea of the packaging was to develop from the inside out,” Ruben explains. “The outside is rather classic and iconic, and the inside is baroque and full of energy. The perfume boxes are made from one continuous piece of paper that wraps itself into this kind of rosebud that holds the bottle.”
Isabel’s workout Hula-Hoops adorn a column off the mezzanine of the loft. “It’s about art, period.” Isabel says of their daily lives here. “We are constantly working, and that is the art. It’s not the concept of being an artist; it’s working, that is what develops the art.”
Ruben works in many different areas of the loft, including here, upstairs, in a room with the original magnificent windows and terrazzo floor intact. What began as a small potted Christmas tree has grown into a huge Dr. Seuss–like character.
The lower floor has been cleared so that Ruben can start work on their next project, a show of new art and designs called “Bodies at Work,” opening October 7, at the Columbus Museum of Art, in Ohio.
Even the giant, custom-designed table on the upper level has been cleared to make way for a new chapter to begin.
Inside an Art-and-Design Power Couple’s Studio