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2022-09-06 00:00:00 Avenue Magazine Anna Pei is Making a Name for Herself by Preserving the Past

Anna Pei is Making a Name for Herself by Preserving the Past

An American in Paris
Anna Pei
Anna wears a Daniella sweater with ostrich feathers and Kendall polka dot mesh skirt by Ungaro, and a Miki long necklace by Aurélie Bidermann. Clothes throughout from Ungaro’s Fall 2022 collection

Anna Pei held her laptop like a camera (that way we’ve all learned by now) and gave me a tour of her office near Madison Square Park. It was a clear morning in late June, and she was wearing a black turtleneck with an egg-shaped jeweled pendant (a gift from her mom), her long hair brushed back over her shoulders.

“This is going to be kind of messy because we are in the middle of an intake,” Anna said, showing me around the brightly lit, not-messy-at-all office. Behind her were stacks of blue archival boxes. Young people waved hello from tables as she introduced them. “We’ve got two interns and two part-time staff members now. This is where we work! My grandfather’s old office.”

Anna’s business is Ode, an exclusive archival service she started two years ago soon after graduating from Barnard. And that grandfather she is referring to would be the late I.M. Pei, the lion of modern architecture, creator of masterpieces such as the Louvre Pyramid, the JFK Presidential Library and Museum, and the Miho Museum in Japan (one of Anna’s favorites).

She opened a door to a sleek, light-filled waiting room. “And that is my dad’s office right over here,” she said, pointing to the immensely successful Pei Architects, where her father, Sandi, and her uncle, Didi, follow their father’s footsteps. “It’s really awesome being able to be in the space with them and the same assistants who used to be my babysitters when I was a little girl and told me not to run with scissors.” They kindly gave Anna the office space, but her family doesn’t underwrite the business. “It’s completely bootstrapped. We have been just cycling what we make back into the business, and I don’t really pay myself.”

This was the one time we could find to chat — soon she was headed abroad with her boyfriend Dobrin Mitev: England (Bath, Exeter, Cornwall), then France (Paris, Lyon, Aigues-Mortes), then up to the Swiss border, and then to Mitev’s homeland, Bulgaria. (They met on the dating app Hinge about 8 months ago; it’s getting serious.)

SHE’S THE ONE Anna Pei lights up the room in a Lizzy Jacquard jacket and a Jane Jacquard pant and Nina silk blouse by Ungaro, and gold-plated Katt earrings in ivory-colored bakelite by Aurélie Bidermann

They look amazing together. On her Instagram there’s a photo of the couple embracing, both in white pants, the pockets of which are decorated by Anna’s best friend Serena Nickson (daughter of the painter Graham Nickson and Dita Amory, the curator in charge of the Robert Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) as part of her collection of vintage, hand-painted clothing. There are other photos of the pair looking gorgeous in Mexico, also of Anna and Serena looking gorgeous in red swimwear in Miami.

Growing up on the Upper East Side in a storied international family, attending Brearley, Middlesex, and Barnard, having friends from other well-connected families, “coming out” at the 24th annual Le Bal in Paris wearing Ungaro alongside other debutantes, including True Whitaker (father, Forest) and Baroness Ludmilla von Oppenheim of Germany, Anna Pei could live her life as just another pedigreed young New Yorker. But she has much more on her mind than moving in rarefied social circles, including the cultural importance of everyday objects.

“You know, that’s what Baudelaire was talking about, the mundanity of life and how it’s beautiful. That’s something that we’re trying to emulate at Ode — making a museum from your memories.”

Still a fledgling business, Ode has about seven clients and growing. Anna and Ode’s cofounder, Marley Lopez, are careful to keep their clients’ identities under wraps (just know they are the kind of legacy names you may hear in an episode of The Gilded Age). “We are experiencing clients with multiple properties that need management across these properties…people who have lived extravagant lives. They need help with collating and curating for future generations. I really think of this as a form of archaeology. We are digging into people’s lives,” Anna says resolutely, sounding, at just 24 years old, like a seasoned CEO.

“Anna is extremely extroverted,” says Lopez. “She lights up a room. We have employees whom she met at the dog park. She’s able to convey Ode so easily as a mission to tell people’s stories.” Lopez and Pei met through a mutual friend (Pei’s former roommate), who thought they should connect since they were both interested in archival work. A graduate of Parsons in strategic design and management, Lopez was back home in Portland, Oregon, for the pandemic. Pei called, and then “two weeks later I was back in New York City.”

Anna’s inspiration for Ode came soon after her grandfather passed away in 2019 at the age of 102, when she was sifting through the many boxes of his stuff he had lying around. “He was someone who spoke nearly a dozen languages and had over a dozen honorary degrees and an incredible amount of accolades. So he kind of would just throw things into bathroom drawers at a certain point. Even the most successful of people have junk drawers.” The piles of mementos I.M. Pei and his wife of 72 years, Eileen Loo, left behind are also an ongoing project at Ode. What Anna has found includes a letter from a professor to the dean of MIT when her grandfather was a student there, asking if it was okay for the school to admit previous courses Pei had taken because what did it matter, he was just a Chinese student who would never achieve success in the field of architecture. “So we have to ask why?” Anna said. “Why did he feel the need to put that in a shoebox in the first place? It had some value to him.”

Growing up on the UES, she didn’t really comprehend the stature of her grandfather until she was 15 and started to go to award ceremonies. “Paul McCartney once came over to our table at dinner to introduce himself to my grandfather. I was like, What? That’s absurd.”

Anna was extremely close with I.M. “We had a bond like no other.” During her college years she would spend as much time as she could at his Sutton Place townhouse. “I would spend the whole day there, like we would just sit in silence together. It’s funny, we didn’t talk that much. I mean, he was so old and I don’t think he really wanted to talk about his career at all anymore. He was bored of that. So for us, it was just about sharing those harmonious moments of silence.”

ODE TO ANNA Top: a six-month-old Anna and her grandfather at his home at 11 Sutton Place. Above: Anna and I.M. Pei in New York in the summer of 2016

When Anna was younger, she and her parents (her mother is Kari Pei, an award-winning global product design director and a presence on New York’s art, architecture, and museum social scene) took dozens of trips abroad with her grandparents: Egypt, Morocco, Japan, Spain, Italy. “They used to travel with these big Louis Vuitton cases. I could witness them living their best life. I remember one trip to Costa Rica, both of them in their 90s, going down these dirt paths, miserable for their poor little joints.”

These trips were a kind of escape for Anna. Her last name isn’t necessarily a household one — “There is without a doubt no shred of uncertainty that my grandfather had nothing to do with my social life,” she said — and in fact, school was kind of rough. “I was bullied tremendously as a child and as a teenager. So my name did not protect me from that.”

Anna was born with a connective tissue disorder: Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, Types II and III . “I don’t have any cartilage in my joints and I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 13. I’ve been handicapped since I was very small, but I look super able-bodied.” For a large portion of her childhood, she explains, she was in tremendous pain, and couldn’t participate in sports, unable to make connections on the playground or field. “I was really seen as an outcast because I looked fine. People just thought I was a hypochondriac. And that feeling of isolation has followed me throughout my whole life. I definitely see a lot of my work today is about making sure that everyone feels seen, because I felt so unseen for so, so much of my life.”

PEI DAY Anna wears a pleated long dress in orchid by Ungaro and a Tao Articulated necklace by Aurélie Bidermann

She went to Brearley for nine years, the seventh girl in her family to go. Of Brearley, she says, “I loved it. Actually, I hated it, but I loved hating it. Does that make any sense? Like I definitely am gonna send my kids there. It was a brutal, miserable experience, but it toughened me up, made me prepared for the real world.”

College had its own challenges. When Anna was a sophomore, she began having seizures. “I thought I was just narcoleptic…then it became more serious, sometimes nine a day.” Along with her health issues, Anna believes these episodes were a result of anxiety and PTSD. It was 2017 and ’18 — the height of the #MeToo movement, when issues of sexual assault and abuse of power were fiercely discussed and processed on campus. “I was so stressed out… I’ve personally dealt with my experience, and the trauma returned.” These episodes impacted her memory — most of her college years, she explains, have been wiped out. “Some people tell me I shouldn’t talk about all this, but it’s important to talk about it to feel confident in your conditions.” (She’s managing well these days, crediting meditation, stretching, and beloved dachshunds as her anchors.)

All these personal struggles are conveyed by Anna without self-pity, and with humility — she’s the first person to admit she comes from privilege — and you can see how they shaped her into someone with an even richer inner life. “Since my grandfather’s passing, I think I have been looking for myself in many ways,” she mused at one point in our conversation.

Graduating from Barnard was timed with a different world event: the pandemic. She spent it away from her parents, living in an apartment on Crosby Street, wondering what kind of world she was entering into. “I was like, I just spent four years studying art history and the art market just crashed. Your parents don’t know how to navigate a time when everyone is dying and unemployment is at its highest.”

Her apartment became a gathering place for friends, carefully getting together. “Anna’s home was the destination,” says one of her closest pals, William Corman, also 24. “She would host brunches, soaking challah toast overnight in cinnamon and buttermilk. It was the best French toast to ever touch my lips. She would cook for all of us. She would not stop cooking.”

A cocktail dress by Ungaro, paired with a necklace by Aurélie Bidermann

For many of Anna’s age, the pandemic became a kind of enforced gap year, time to recalibrate, step back. Just what Covid’s effect is on the city will be discussed for years to come — but one tiny silver lining could be how young people like Pei had a moment to find purpose before hurling themselves into the workforce.

“I know Anna has this crazy social prowess. That’s something one learns growing up in New York,” say Corman. “But post-Covid, Anna is a bit of a different person. She began to home in on her work.” For someone who holds culture in such high regard — not just her grandfather’s but culture as a whole — Ode feels like exactly the right pursuit for this young woman with clear ideals.

That day we spoke was the day of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. I told her I was feeling despair. “This is not the first time we’ve been hit with something tremendously destructive for society,” she said. “I have faith. We have a strong society.”

These days, Corman says they spend a lot of time at openings, friends’ apartments, and restaurants, with Anna always in full form. “We went to Lucien recently and I watched her bouncing around from table to table saying ‘hi’ for 45 minutes before sitting down.”

Forty-five minutes, it seems, is barely enough time to chat with her. You leave wanting more. As emotionally honest and genuinely curious as Anna is, conversations quickly ascend to big themes, sparkling perspectives, grounded in a steel-beamed sense of optimism, as solid as a New York skyscraper.

Photography Direction by Catherine G. Talese
Photography assistant: Arielle Cappella
Styling by Isabelle Konikoff
Makeup by Benoit Claverie

Hair by Melinda Bouamama
Interior sets photographed at the Ungaro showroom in Paris

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