Multifaceted and creative artist, designer and curator, Elfi von Kantzow Alvin has been a true New Yorker for 60 years. As a young ballerina she danced in Stockholm, Vienna and Budapest, but when she couldn’t get her eyes off the stage decorations while dancing she decided to change paths and study stage and costume design. Soon she became the first female theater stage designer in Sweden. This later brought her to America and New York.…
When did you arrive in New York? I came here for the first time in 1948, in my twenties, traveling with my dad, who was Plant manager at Bulten Steel and Metal Works and went to the U.S. to sell his Kanthal invention. My dad and I were in New York only for a short while, but I contacted a broadway producer who liked my previous job samples. He advised me to be a member of The Union (The Scenic Designers Union, a United States labor union). One year later, after I passed a very tough exam, I was the second woman ever to be admitted by the Union and had my Broadway debut in New York with “Edwina Black,” which starred Swedish actress Signe Hasso.
Why New York? First of all, for me, right now New York is the best city for retired people because it keeps you going. You won't find this stimulation and energy elsewhere. Of course it was another New York when I first arrived, but "anything is possible here" was as true then as it is today. I also learned after some time that this city requires you to know how to say "no" and know what is good for you. There's too much going on and too many opportunities here. As I say to my grandchildren: You always have to open new doors and be open-minded, peek inside and look around you, and then decide whether to close it or not.
You mention retirement—you indeed seem busy. What does a typical day look like? You are absolutely right. My calendar is full. I do yoga a few times a week, go to exhibitions in Chelsea, watch ballet, go to the opera and the theater. I paint, see friends for lunch, listen to seminars and I am active on different boards. But recently I limited my days to just two appointments a day, including a 15-minute catnap. And right after this interview I will meet up with a friend and take the subway to an artist's studio in Brooklyn.
You have been a curator for over 30 years. How do you pick new artists? What I pick is very personal, and my own taste decides. My real passion is finding and following new and young Scandinavian artists. I get so enthusiastic when I find someone I believe in, who knows the stroke of the brush and brings something unique you have never seen before. I just feel it—can't explain exactly what it is. If you just take a look at the art hanging in my apartment, you see art from early 11th and 12th century and from the Renaissance, but also new artist as Mikko Kallio, the Finish artist I most recently curated.
Text & photo: Hanna Aqvilin
Fairy Godmother of Scandinavian Art in NYC, Elfi von Kantzow Alvin at home in New York. Photographed by Hanna Aqvilin.