After a breast cancer diagnosis at the early age of forty, artist and interior designer Iris Dankner began devoting her life to combining her two passions—design and putting an end to breast cancer. Dankner’s most successful charity event, Holiday House NYC, now in its ninth year, has brought together some of the world’s most famous designers, as well as newcomers, to raise awareness and help eradicate the disease.
Some people are born artists. They sing, or dance, or paint, and yearn to make the beautiful images in their minds come to life. Not all of us have this gift, but for those who do, it seems that even from an early age there is no choice but to pursue the path of invention and creativity that they are called to. Iris Dankner is an artist—in mind, body, and spirit. As the middle child of three, raised in a household she describes as the spitting image of the world of Betty and Don Draper, Dankner’s free-spirited nature was always encouraged, even if it was a rebellion against the midcentury suburban life in which she was brought up on Long Island, New York.
In fact, when other girls her age were required to take typing classes in preparation for secretarial careers, Dankner protested. “I was adamant that I was not going to be a secretary. I didn’t need to learn how to type,” Dankner remembers. “I even took Spanish to anger my mother, who was a French professor. And I regret that, but those are the things I did then. I was the creative little quirky child.”
Dankner continued her artistic pursuits at Carnegie Mellon University, where she earned a fine arts degree, followed by a position as a freelance designer with the department store Lord & Taylor. Before the age of computerization, Dankner was responsible for making sure that every ad leaving the store for publication had the Lord & Taylor signature on it—the same signature that has since made its way onto every product and storefront of the company. “I worked there before there were computers, and we had forty-seven stores,” Dankner discloses. “Every single night, every single ad needed a logo on it, so I worked with the artists to put the Lord & Taylor logo—my signature—on those ads.”
Dankner continued to work for the company for another thirteen years before becoming a stay-at-home mother to care for her two young girls, and it was during this time that she began to take an active interest in decorating her family’s New York City home. She found a passion for figuring out the color palette to use in each room and the style of furniture that best matched her personality—and friends and family began to take notice. Dankner had discovered a true calling and a second career opportunity in interior design, and she even chose to return to school at the New York School of Interior Design, though she ultimately did not complete her degree.
Just as everything was going well in Dankner’s career and family life, a mass was discovered at her first routine mammogram; she would later be told the mass was cancerous. “It was early detection that saved my life,” Dankner urges. “Through that whole period of time, through my treatments and my surgeries, my inspiration and my strength came from looking at my two little girls.”
Though the doctors had managed to help her physically—what she refers to as “the new and improved Iris”—Dankner knew in order to return to full mental health, she needed to use her newfound knowledge of the disease to help others. “My normal had to be redefined,” Dankner says. “I wanted to raise awareness and help other women so they didn’t have to experience what I experienced, and I wanted to save lives. That was how my journey started.”
The journey Dankner has been on since her diagnosis began with her forming a team for the Race for the Cure. The team, aptly named Iris’ Bosom Buddies, managed to grow tremendously in just a few short years—from four team members to more than one hundred members in 2001. Her efforts for the race became a springboard for founding her own event with her daughters called Tickled Pink. The fashion show, backed by designer Diane von Furstenberg, became a huge success for survivors and their children, who finally had an outlet to come together.
“It was one of the most meaningful things, because we were helping women and children who felt like they were alone and powerless,” Dankner says. “We were helping them to see that they weren’t alone, and that they had other people to talk to—especially the children. Because a lot of times, if a parent is going through cancer and she is losing her hair or things like that, there is a lot she wants to talk about. And at the same time, the moms would get together and talk about their scars and their bras, and it just opened up a vocabulary between moms and their kids.”
When Tickled Pink came to an end after eight years, Dankner began to notice a glaring lack of breast-cancer-related charity events in her own industry—and decided that there was something she could do to combine her passions. Dankner’s largest (and certainly most successful) event was born: Holiday House NYC, which has been going strong since its founding in 2008. The event, which is now sponsored by the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, became the first designer show house in New York to benefit breast cancer research, and, although Dankner admits to having a rocky start, Holiday House has grown more than she could have ever imagined.
Holiday House kicked off during difficult economic times. The recession of 2008 was in full swing and undeniably put a less-than-ideal number on the amount of money raised. “I was happy to say that we didn’t lose money,” Dankner confesses. “But we didn’t raise as much as I had hoped. And the next two years were going to be crucial because everybody was saying that they didn’t think I could do it—that I couldn’t make it happen.”
For the first few years of the showcase, Dankner says she reached out to her colleagues in the design community, sometimes begging them to participate. Nowadays things are quite different, as the event brings countless A-list and up-and-coming designers pleading for the opportunity to show off their best work. When choosing which designers will be a part of the showcase, Dankner looks for a combination of raw talent and style, and she attempts to highlight as diverse a bunch as possible—something that’s noticeable in the variety of colors, textures, and overall impression of each room.
Holiday House 2016, in particular, proved to be a uniquely exciting year, with fashion icon and fellow Iris, Iris Apfel, serving as honorary event chair. The event also moved from its former Upper East Side address at Sixty-Third and Park Avenue to the newly renovated SoHo Mansions—creating the necessity for a more youthful and eclectic blend of designers. “I thought it was important not to go the traditional route, but to follow the vibe,” Dankner says. “It’s a little bit edgier, and you can see all the designers were very edgy.”
Unlike other years, the 2016 event brought an additional challenge of working in arduous conditions—as the mansions had not yet been completely renovated. Two of the five-story complexes were still in need of working elevators, as well as railings on the stairs, and, in some places, flooring. The team also had just nine days to paint, furnish, and perfect their rooms—and each designer took full responsibility for gathering all of his or her materials. “They were really given an empty palette, and whatever they brought in, their own trades or furniture, that was all on them,” Dankner says. “That was the only way I slept at night. It’s because I knew the designers didn’t want to fail, so they would get it done.”
And the 2016 team indeed managed to get it done—fully designing two five-story mansions from top to bottom—with each room more mesmerizing and inspired than the last. Some of the top designers in the world led the showcase, including singer Lady Gaga’s fashion guru, artist Bradley Theodore, whose imaginative rendering of Apfel hangs in the foyer of the house. Other featured pieces included the work of world-famous fashion designer Brandon Maxwell, interior designer Harry Heissmann, and the luxury outdoor design firm Couture Outdoor. The hard work of all thirty designers paid off immensely, as the 2016 opening night event brought in some of the biggest names Holiday House has ever seen, including Martha Stewart and Nicky Hilton.
Always striving to make a difference, Dankner has already begun a second leg of Holiday House—Holiday House Hamptons, which took place for the first time in the summer of 2016—and expanded the event even farther by scheduling their first event overseas in London.
For more info, visit holidayhousenyc.com.