Spending an hour with Stellene Volandes in her sunny, well-appointed, and comfortable office is a bit like spending an hour curled up on a lounge chair on vacation reading Town & Country, the magazine she’s been running as editor in chief since 2016. One comes away relaxed, smiling, and with myriad new interests in things worthy of further exploration.
Like the magazine itself, Volandes is also an all-knowing guide to the best of NYC. She can tell you where to find the tastiest Greek food for your buck and how to bargain-hunt for vintage jewelry (she authored the spectacular book Jeweler: Masters, Mavericks, and Visionaries of Modern Design and was Town & Country‘s executive style director before taking on the coveted EIC role) all in less time than it takes to flip through T&C‘s Contributors page. We sat down with Volandes to get the scoop on an editor’s life in New York.
What Should We Do?!: I read that you went to Vassar College because Meryl Streep graduated from there.
Stellene Volandes: (Laughs) Well, that’s partially true, but not the whole story. I went to Vassar not only because Meryl graduated from there, but because of its strong theater program. I was really intrigued by how immersive the experience was. In our freshman theater class, we built sets, designed costumes—the whole thing. In the end, I decided what I really wanted to do was write. I changed my focus to English, which was the right decision and undoubtedly led me to working at a magazine.
WSWD: You ended up teaching English at LaGuardia High School for three years.
Volandes: When I taught high school, one of my favorite books to teach was Washington Square by Henry James, which is more complicated than people give it credit for. My students didn’t really understand the social structure of New York. So I steered them to that famous New Yorker cover by Saul Steinberg [that depicts a map of New York City and the rest of the world] to illustrate the point, along with James’s description of New York society in the book. Even today, I think there are still neighborhood rivalries, although we pretend there aren’t. There are still tribes of New York City, the way there were in Edith Wharton’s time. Even though [the tribes] might intermingle more than they did back then, there remain rites and rituals. I think when you really understand New York, you can identify them pretty readily.
WSWD: Tell me more about that. As the editor in chief of Town & Country, society, rules, and propriety are a big part of who and what you cover.
Volandes: Real etiquette and elegance come from knowing and understanding what is appropriate for the time. The “rules” were put into place to maintain civility. While adhering too closely to them can be boring, not knowing them can feel like mayhem. I think the trick is to know the rules so you know where you can bend them.
WSWD: Town & Country often returns to cultural icons like Jackie Kennedy and Babe Paley.
Volandes: Babe Paley is a great example. Her image is posted on Instagram at least once a day. That’s what we really strive to examine at Town & Country: What is it about her that people are still intrigued by?
I was just down in Lyford [Cay in the Bahamas]. The people who bought the Paley house have kept it almost exactly as the Paleys did. This was fascinating to me. What was it the Paleys achieved in that house that would make new owners just want to maintain it, exactly as it was? So identifying those things, but thinking about what in the modern and contemporary world stands for those things now, is the trick. We work to stay true to elegance and civility, but not making it feel old-fashioned, dusty, or rigid.
The contemporary world is not rigid; it’s moving at a pace that none of us can keep up with.
WSWD: You’re of Greek descent and spent your childhood vacations in Greece, so one thing that has remained constant is your love of Greek food. Where do you go in NYC for authentic Greek cuisine?
Volandes: The place that I recommend most is Avra, but it must be the original one on 48th Street. It’s my family’s favorite place; it is so warm, has great food, and you feel like a regular immediately.
Milos makes the best Greek dips in New York. For something more casual, Souvlaki GR is great. A place that I went back to recently was Periyali. They really don’t get enough credit for being the first in New York to make real Greek food as more than just a gyro.
WSWD: You also love Greek jewelry.
Volandes: A lot of what I wear has a talismanic story to it. I wear a piece of Greek jewelry every day. Sometimes it’s an evil eye that I wear inside my blouse, or often it’s a piece of Lalaounis as a good luck charm.
WSWD: Do you have a favorite piece?
Volandes: When I got the job at Town & Country, I finally, finally, finally bought a Verdura Maltese cross pendant. It’s all semiprecious stones, citrine, tourmaline, and aquamarine; it’s a constellation of colors that really works beautifully together. And I love that the Maltese crosses are very inspired by the mosaic of the Empress Theodora in Ravenna. I’m saving it for my niece, whom I adore.
WSWD: For those of us not buying Verdura quite yet, where do you recommend going for bargains?
Volandes: Everyone is really shocked to hear this, but great places to learn about jewelry, and to find some great deals, are the vintage jewelry booths on 47th Street. Go to DK Bressler and ask Ronald Kawitsky to talk to you about Georgian jewelry. Go to Gray & Davis and learn about 19th-century cameos. The first thing you need to do before you buy any jewelry is to learn about it.
WSWD: Even if you don’t have a lot to spend?
Volandes: My mission is to help people understand that jewelry is not a secret, precious world. No one wants to keep their jewelry behind a vitrine. If you want to see something, ask! Jewelers are dying to tell you about it. Yes, they want you to buy it, but they want you to love it as much as they love it.
WSWD: Who is your favorite jeweler to visit?
Volandes: I love going to Lee Siegelson‘s. It’s a third-generation business, and Lee is one of the gods of vintage jewelry. He is a big, macho guy, and you expect him to start talking about football, but instead he’s telling you about the latest Suzanne Belperron piece he’s discovered. He buys such important pieces and really knows and appreciates the history of jewelry.
WSWD: What do you most love about jewelry?
Volandes: Jewelry is history; it’s artifact and it’s also craft. It’s designers who work with their hands to make something. Look at David Webb, for example. Who would ever guess that on the second floor of the company’s Madison Avenue showroom is a workshop full of artisans who have worked for David Webb for 40 and 50 years? Their fathers worked for Webb. Once you go in there and see what it takes to make an animal cuff, you do not ask why an animal cuff costs so much—you wonder why it doesn’t cost more! Because you see that a person is carving each eye out of that dragon, placing an emerald in there with their own hands.
Stellene Volandes’s Faves…in a NY Minute
I always say that if I sat at Sant Ambroeus for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I could probably get Town & Country ideas for a year.
The Corner Bookstore.
Madison Avenue, past 86th Street, which is when you get to Carnegie Hill. It’s beautiful; it’s charming…it’s old New York.
The Chrysler Building is like a jewel. I also love River House, mainly because I like looking across and seeing that PepsiCo sign and remembering the story about Joan Crawford. The legend goes that she applied for an apartment [at the River House] and was turned down by the co-op board. So she had the PepsiCo sign installed right across from it so that no one would ever forget her. Just the kind of move I love!
I encourage everyone to go see the Verdura showroom on 57th Street; it’s one of the prettiest spaces in New York. The staff there, Jim and Adele particularly, are the most welcoming people who want to share the story of Verdura and [recently acquired] Suzanne Belperron.