Los Angeles: High Tea With Susan Hancock

Culver City conceptual space Royal/T is a million things at once; surely a reflection of the dynamism & extravagance of its founder, Susan Hancock. Merging contemporary pop art gallery, cafe and shop, it features a luxurious canopy tea pot bed in its bay window and an iPod Porta-Party in the back entrance. You can rent the 10,000 square foot space for anything from a birthday party to a public piano recital, and if you haven’t fell in love with Japanese anime yet, promise you’ll do it there. It’s just a really cool venue, and so are the people who gravitate towards it. I’ve had a chance to sip on high tea and talk about life, work and collecting art with Susan, and here’s what she had to say:

LF: Tell us about how your inspiration of making a New York place in a California space.

SH: I was living in NYC when I came up with the idea of Royal/T… I briefly considered doing it in NYC but it seemed a bit redundant there. I wanted to share art with people who were intimidated to go to galleries or museums and in NYC, with all the public art and all the opportunities given to the schools to go to the museums, it seemed I wouldn’t be helping as much as if I moved to a new place. And I just got divorced and wanted to move and start fresh… where to go??? Culver City reminded me so much of Chelsea with all the galleries moving together and taking over old warehouse spaces, and I found a space that was so open and big and beautiful. It seemed perfect. Many people have told us it feels like NYC when they come in – so we’ve said we’re a New York place in a California space, and the expression has caught on.

LF: What’s your background? On collecting art, traveling, etc.

SH: I’ve started collecting art seriously in 1999 when I joined the Acquisition Trust for the Orlando Museum and we went on a trip to NYC to buy art for the museum and I bought some art for my home, hung it in the hallway going up my stairs and ever after was hooked (as many collectors become “hooked” on buying art) and I have traveled and joined the acquisition groups with art museums like the New Museum, MOCA, the Whitney, LACMA and the Hammer ever since. I love to go to the Art Fairs like Art Basel in both Switzerland and Miami and the Armory in New York every year to buy and then, of course, I buy from all the dealers locally and in the countries I visit.

I’ve been lucky in that I’ve gotten to travel quite a bit to places like Egypt, Australia, Indonesia, China, Korea, many countries in South America, Canada and of course Japan and most of Europe. I’ve not been to India or Vietnam yet and a few other places on my list are New Zealand, Singapore and the Philippines. My favorite places to travel are Italy, Scotland and British Columbia. I love biking into different countries because that’s how you really get to see the countryside and meet people that way.

LF: When did you fall down the rabbit hole? Where does your fascination with Japanese contemporary art & Pop come from?

SH: In 1985 I started a business and my now X husband came in to join me after a while. We grew it into a successful company of 350 employees, which we eventually sold to a division of Barry Diller’s co., 17 years later. As it became more and more successful, I started buying my five nieces toys for their rooms (as I didn’t have time to have my own children) and my sisters were like “no more toys – we can’t get into their rooms;” so I started buying them art when I became an art collector. I thought the Japanese Anime was perfect for cute little girls rooms.

Well, as I bought more and more Japanese Anime I fell in love and as I developed a sensibility for it, some of it became more and more valuable. I traveled to Japan with a curator from one of the museums I supported and we were treated like rock stars as not many American Collectors were collecting Japanese art at the time. One of my favorite Japanese artists was having a show and he had a big gallery show, a café and a gift shop at the same time and I thought- I want to do that. So when I came back from Japan and back to NYC I hired a design group that helped me develop Royal/T. They were Japanese and they came up with the idea to make it a Maid Cafe.

They wanted to call it “Royal Milk” but I had some of my artist friends come to a brainstorming session at my NYC apt with beer and Chinese food and that’s when we renamed it “Royal/T.” The design company from NYC that I had hired knew of a great Culver City Architecture firm called wHY Architecture, who had worked with a famous Japanese architect called Tando Ando and that was perfect.

LF: How did the teapot bed concept come about?

SH: As far as the Tea pot bed concept… I have dreams every other night where I am flying all over on a Magic Carpet so I came up with a coloring book about a Magic Maid who lives at Royal/T. So many people said they wanted to live at Royal/T…

In the story, she lives upstairs in our loft (we really do have a loft) and she’d fly away every night on her magic carpet and deliver her Magic tea and make people fall in love – don’t we all want a love potion?

And so all the little kids I’d give the coloring book to always wanted to go upstairs and see the tea pot bed, so I had to have it made and put it in the front window so they could actually see it. And when we did, people who had never been to Royal/T would stop to see how much it was because their little girls wanted it for their rooms – so sweet…

LF: What’s the difference between Royal/T and the original Maids café in Japan.

SF: In Japan they are very male-centric – meaning the maids bow to men, get down on their knees to take their orders, say “welcome home master,” stir their coffee, blow on their coffee or tea to make it cool, play games with the guys. We are a family-friendly and female-owned and American, so none of that would work here. Therefore, the differences are big. As you can imagine, we are a Maid café in that our maids dress up and use the “cosplay costumes” that the girls wear in Japan. They are cute, friendly and say welcome, but it stops there.

LF: Favorite things on the Royal/T maid café menu?

SH: My favorite appetizer is our Spicy Tuna. Our cupcakes are great! I had to go all over town to find the best and sample everyone’s to pick, and our chef’s chicken Katshu Curry. Best pick for Sunday brunch is French toast. If I’m being good, I’ll have the Tuna Tataki Salad or a Salmon salad.

LF: You have some epic stories about your art collection. Tell me your best one.

SH: My X didn’t like me buying art. I had to use my whole art budget plus my niece’s trust fund for the year to buy the 60k Yoshitomo Nara  “Your Dog”.  Even my interior designer thought I was crazy. But then when it was in our backyard and every day you looked out at it when you were out in the backyard swimming, drinking at sunset, or jet-skiing near it, you couldn’t help but fall in love with it. And all the neighbors did too.

We lived on a chain of lakes and in the middle of the chain of lakes was a little island where the kids would go get high, drink, loose their virginity, camp out… you know, when you were young… well, one Sunday morning we were coming home from brunch and two policeman were at our front door to greet us. “Did you loose a puppy?” – they asked. We opened our front door and our two little dogs were barking, so we said “no” and they replied “well, look out back…”

Sure enough, there was the big Nara Dog being towed back across the lake from the island – which was called “Dog Island.” One of our neighbors woke up after a long night of partying, and as she was washing her wine glasses and looked out she saw the water lapping onto the Nara Dog on the island. She called the Water Police and they towed him back. He was stained with blue paint from our boat house where the kids put him before dragging him on the pontoon.Anyway, we called the dealer because we had to make an insurance claim and sent him back to have him “touched up.” She told us he was now (a year later) worth 250K. One of our friends thought we should donate the “Nara Dog to Dog Island,” and I told him when he donated his Chiluly chandelier to Dog Island, then I’d donate the dog too.

Suddenly it didn’t seem like a good idea to have him outside in Florida’s hail storms and when we moved to Miami Beach he greeted people in our Formal Living Room (who needs a Formal Living Room in a beach house anyway). When my X and I broke up and split our art collection he was the #1 thing we both wanted (although not the most valuable piece of art) he made us both smile and so since I got to select first – that was my first choice because I knew if I didn’t pick that first, he would.

LF: You started renting Rachel Zoe’s apartment right after she moved out… What are you keeping in these enormous closets?

SH: I’m watching the Rachel Zoe Project rerun’s as I type this because I never used to watch it, but the reruns have her apt in them (which I now live in). I’m loving the show. When I came in and first looked at the apt she still lived here – and was here that day, so I got to see the closets filled with her things. It’s amazing how soon I could fill up those amazing closets, and in fact I looked at quite a few apartments in this building but they didn’t have the amazing closet space. I knew I wanted to live in Sierra Towers with its great history, great views, and great location. This  particular apt used to be a three-bedroom and is now a big one bedroom with a small den. It has lots of storage space. I had lived in a space two times as large in NYC in the Time Warner Building before I moved here to L.A., and it was a brand new apt versus this one that was built in 1965 – they weren’t always so generous with storage space at that time. So it was no problem with lots of shoes, suitcases, winter and summer wardrobes (don’t forget the ski clothes) to fill all the space. But I did leave the two small ones she had given to her husband Roger for the times I have guests.

LF: Tell me about your memories of both the East Village and California during the period covered by “East Village West,” your exhibit as part of The Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA 1945-1980.

SH: I love the fact that Ann Magnuson and Kenny Scharf have just brought the late 1970’s alive at Royal/T. I would have loved to have lived in NYC during that time period, and hung out with them and Keith Haring and Jean Michael Basquiat and Andy Warhol… but unfortunately I was just getting my MBA from Indiana University in Marketing at the time and then starting my first job. I was in the Midwest and not thinking about New York or L.A. Now I so wish I could live my life over again and be at Studio 54  and Club 57, but I wasn’t that “hip.” So it’s fun to be a voyeur and see what the hipsters of the time were doing.

Unfortunately, a lot of them were also taken early by aids, drugs and hard living so I don’t know if I would be alive to tell this story or even afford to put up the show and host “East Village West” if I hadn’t gone down the path I went down. So I guess some of us were meant to live it hard, some of us were meant to live it and to survive it – like Ann Magnuson and Kenny Scharf, to re-tell it – and some of us were meant to be in business and then to have the means to host the artists to retell it. We all have a purpose in life.


Well said, lady!

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