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All Around the Town
House & Garden, October 2005


When home is a 12-room penthouse duplex that includes a suburbanlike expanse of terrace and 360-degree, unobstructed New York City views, “Wow!” pretty much sums it up.

That’s exactly how Andrea and John Stark reacted when they first saw the space two and a half years ago during an epic house search. When the hunt began, they were living in the fabled Waldorf Towers. John missed having a duplex like the Park Avenue one they’d occupied for more than 20 years, and Andrea yearned for the airy sensation of their Palm Beach residence, yet they kept looking at traditional, often dark, pre-World War II apartments.

Then their broker called, urging them to see something “entirely different” - a post-World War II, white-brick building with a soaring, two-story rooftop aerie so vast it included a greenhouse. She recalls walking in, and saying, “This is it!”

She turned to interior designer Jeffrey Bilhuber whose embrace of the traditional and modern impressed her. He, in turn, found her wish list telling. “She wanted something with a modern sensibility but didn’t want to turn her back on the past,” he says.

Comfortable as a team, they faced the new apartment’s challenge: how to create a sense of intimacy, of family, in a huge space defined by showstopping views. Their references included iconic rooms by twentieth-century tastemakers such as designer Billy Baldwin, couturier Hubert de Givenchy, decorator William Haines, and Pauline de Rothschild, who worked as a designer for Hattie Carnegie before marrying Baron Philippe de Rothschild. Each of these visionaries, Bilhuber says, “had taken a stand on how to reappreciate rooms.”

With Andrea, he edited the couple’s antiques, pieces that the Starks had acquired or that came from a collection started by John’s mother and father, who founded Stark Carpet which John now oversees with his brother Steven. “I like to recycle my pieces,” Andrea says. “It’s important to keep your roots.”

Installed in the duplex and augmented by newly purchased contemporary art and furniture, the traditional furniture took on the kind of charged exuberance “that represents modern” Bilhuber says. Exemplifying this joyful juxtaposition is an extraordinary eighteenth-century French console that Bilhuber placed at the entrance. Once ensconced in a baroque castle, it floats in space, anchored to the front of a slab of ebonized mahogany. The display elevates the piece to sculpture, its presence enhanced by a pair of mid-century American chairs. “I felt the dichotomy of the lean chairs against the gilded magnificence of the console makes you see both for the first time,” Bilhuber says.

The suggestion of the home’s serious playfulness starts under the nautilus curve of the staircase, where two polished plaster orbs that are over-drawn with graphite in the spirit of American artist Cy Twombly seem poised to roll. The stairs, with the white-lacquered banister that references the Museum of Modern Art and a custom designed Stark carpet, shimmer up into the light. At the landing, a significant eighteenth-century French, blue enamel clock is displayed above Study for an Angel’s Wing, an oil by Boris Drucker, an artist known for his New Yorker cartoons.

Light also moves through time in the expansive drawing room, softened - as is the rest of the apartment - with the generous use of portieres, curtains hanging over doorways. The room has three distinct seating areas. One has a gilded settee with contrasting panels of brown and ivory fabric that evokes Pauline de Rothschild. “She was channeling a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century solution based on function,” Bilhuber says of the darker color on the arms. Two chairs he designed complete the grouping around a pair of custom-made faux tortoiseshell tables. Another seating area is dominated by a low-slung sofa that so closely resembles one in a circa 1962 Cecil Beaton portrait of the baroness that it almost places her in the room. Two chaises designed by Bilhuber sit under shells designer Dorothy Draper designed for Hampshire House, a Manhattan landmark.

The dining room also evokes the greats. A late eighteenth-century French table of plum pudding mahogany contrasts with a twentieth-century lacquered sideboard. Bilhuber mounted the low 1950s piece on a two-inch-thick Lucite platform with Chinese-style legs. A Julian Schnabel work, a painted-over photograph of Versailles, hangs above. Facing it, a one of Kenneth Noland’s pieces from the Stripes series. The room dances in light, from the Swarovski crystal chandelier by Tord Boontje to a pair of polished brass mid-century sconces that send pinpoints of light up to the ceiling and down to the floor. Even the silk damask curtains add light; embroidered by hand in Bilhuber’s workroom, they have mother-of-pearl and crystal beads that create an array of constellations.

The breakfast room, which Andrea describes as “nesty” counters the formality of the dining room. It faces east to catch the morning sun, with pewter Chinese paper walls that hold the light. Chairs upholstered in turquoise leather surround a Knoll table under one of the apartment’s many light fixtures by the late modernist architect Paul Rudolf.

Upstairs, Andrea’s glass-ceilinged office a winter garden with a version of an eighteenth-century-style wallpaper panel from the Stark archives, reproportioned for a modern sensibility. Butterflies and birds flit through flowering branches on a tea-stained background that complements the brown and gray of the Stark carpet, another updated pattern. Overall, the look evokes Beaton’s country place, Reddish House, where he updated the Edwardians. Here, a partners’ desk with two ebonized lacquer American chairs from the 1940s, grounds the room. Playing off these traditional pieces are a cream lacquered console by Tommy Parzinger, a Munich native who fled Hitler and eventually opened a showroom near this building, and a corner banquette. “I’m crazy for Tommy Parzinger,” says Andrea, and indeed, his work influenced her dressing room, with nail-studded custom-fitted closets floating against walls covered in grass cloth from Stark.

A custom-woven carpet anchors John’s domain, the media room, located in the former greenhouse. As he did for other rooms, Bilhuber scoured the Stark archives and pattern books for inspiration. Here he reintroduced a pattern, updating the colors and proportions to work with the grid of the greenhouse structure. Bilbuber’s beckoning sofa, with fringed seams popular in the late 1930s and 40s, adds a sensuality to the mix, which includes a vintage mercury-backed mirror table from the late 1940s.

In the master bedroom, Bilhuber reengineered a chinoiserie headboard purchased at Christie’s, a piece he believes originally served as a valance over a country house window. He referred to the stairs by placing a nautilus fossil in the center. The ornate piece contrasts with the walls, upholstered in a simple French grey silk, a perfect foil for a drawing of a ship by Victor Hugo, one of the inhabitants of Andy Warhol’s Factory. With the platinum silk bed linens, the room seems to enter the passing silvered clouds. The flawless nightstands are a Modernist interpretation of a Chinese classic. The carpet, woven for the apartment, is in the pattern used for the edging on the stairs. Filling the room, it creates an illusion of wind-stirred water, bringing the East River view into focus.

“I just feel so lucky,” says Andrea of the apartment. It’s difficult to pinpoint the ultimate Manhattan moment in an apartment that alludes constantly to the best of New York City, but a standout candidate is twilight in Andrea’s south-facing dressing room. Vibrating neon lights flash up into the sky. Brake lights trace rush hour traffic on the avenues, and the lights of jets in landing patterns trace lacy patterns in the skyline. A French Regency mirror floats in the view, with a large piece of crystal – Andrea call it “meditative” – in front. This is the magic hour in a magnificent city.