Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times
“Descartes walks into a bar,” Thalita McDonnell began, blending concealer into the dark circles under her client’s eyes. “The bartender says, ‘Hey, want a drink?’ And Descartes says, ‘I think not.’ And then he disappears!”
Laughing, she added, “Now, let’s get those great freckles to come through.”
Philosophy jokes aren’t the first thing you expect to hear at a cosmetics shop, but the Art of Beauty by Linda Mason is no Macy’s counter. Always an art gallery and sometimes a makeup school, the 700-square-foot SoHo shop feels like Kandinsky’s vanity table, had Kandinsky painted skin rather than canvas.
“I think this company is my installation,” Linda Mason, the British-born proprietor, said. She made her reputation in the 1980s and ’90s painting bold strokes of color on models’ faces, collaborating with designers like John Galliano and Giorgio Armani on runway looks and photo shoots.
Floor-to-ceiling windows invite the curious into a light-filled space. Glass jars of lipsticks line cafe tables, bright powders are stacked on a paint-spattered workbench and open palettes rest on a piano beside books of poetry. Hand mirrors within close reach make it easy to experiment.
Ms. Mason, 66, opened the store, at 26 Grand Street, in 1998, after her cosmetics line had success in department stores like Henri Bendel and Barneys. By 2008, when she expanded into the creperie next door, the James Hotel had been built across the street and the once-scruffy block had become a catwalk for stylish people.
“John Waters peeked his head in once, and my heart skipped a beat,” Ms. McDonnell, 21, remembered; she was 14 when she became an intern at the shop.
Walk-in customers often receive mini-makeup applications, and many schedule return appointments. Some people rent the space for parties: Not long ago, Ms. Mason played pin-the-blush-on-the-model with a group of 6-year-olds.
On a recent afternoon, Madeleine Peyroux crooned from the speakers while Ms. Mason’s 9-month-old grandson busily powdered a mixed-media portrait of the model Carol Alt. “He’s the youngest makeup artist here,” his mother, Daisy Mason, joked. The younger Ms. Mason, 26, is assistant and muse for her mother, who has silk-screened her face onto pillows, cosmetic bags, and brush holders.
Natalie Lema, a bride-to-be, perched on a stool and described the romantic look she wanted for her wedding. “I would guess she’s an Earth sign,” Linda Mason said, turning Ms. Lema’s head into the light. “She has a classic Virgo face.”
No one was surprised when she was right. Her Astrological Melodies and Elements Harmonies palettes are best-selling products, along with custom-blended concealers and graffiti eye gels, a favorite among the men, who are about 15 percent of the clientele.
“The astro kits are created not so that you have to use your own sign all the time,” Daisy Mason said. “I’m a Cancer, but I love wearing the Leo. You can accentuate that intuitive side or your bold, fierce nature.”
Anabel Murillo, 31, a first-time customer trying on lip gloss, whispered: “I don’t really wear makeup.”
She giggled as Linda Mason brushed a lilac eye shadow across her lid; later, Ms. Murillo picked out a Haute Couture Mini Masterpiece compact. For $ 155, customers choose a combination of glosses, powders and liners to be arranged in a case decorated with Ms. Mason’s original artwork.
Anita Willoughby, a physiotherapist, stopped in for an eyebrow pluck before yoga and family dinner.
“Some think makeup means putting a face on, but that’s not what it’s about,” Linda Mason, whose daily moods determine her makeup, explained. “It’s sort of a finishing off, a playfulness.”
“You keep your own face,” she said, sweeping a subtle teal stripe onto Ms. Willoughby’s lid. “And then we brighten it.”