House & Garden, September 2005
Rules define even the most enviable life, and no disturbance will
be brooked. At this discreet Manhattan building, heavy construction
occurs only from May 21 to September 21. Only between 9 a.m. and
4:30 p.m. Only on weekdays.
So when a couple with two children decided they wanted a total
makeover of a 7,600 square-foot apartment completed in one year,
a perfectly choreographed three-ring circus came there for four
months. The ever-changing cast starred 70 to 80 of the crème
de la crème of New York’s construction and craft workers,
pulling together on the first residential design in the United States
by Dutchman Pier Boon. “It was kind of crazy,” he says.
He credits the project’s success to the clients for “knowing
what was possible” and to “the guys who worked so hard,
with so much emotion.”
Everyone who worked on the apartment uses the words “genius”
and “magician” to rate one another’s abilities.
They describe the clients as “sweethearts.” The wife
visited the artisans’ off-site workshops and spent days at
the site, fearlessly making major decisions that were executed immediately.
She frequently provided a deli spread or trays of baked ziti for
the crew’s lunch. “There’s nothing like the sound
of 70 men saying yes,” she says. But in an apartment where
the ebonized front doors have silver pulls the diameter of cake
plates, the only extravagance lacking was time. “We had to
think clearly and fast,” says Pablo Rosario of Uberto Construction.
Coordinated by project manager Christopher Hughes, assisted by
Stephanie Schaefer, the artisans were as precisely timed and positioned
as Shanghai acrobats. The most breathtaking events included winching
a 2,300 pound marble bathtub, hand-carved from Italian marble, up
the side of the building and through the window; loading an enormous
Boon-designed mirror atop the elevator car prior to installation
in the powder room four flours above; and, most astonishing in Manhattan,
the crew’s discovering it was the client’s birthday
and stopping work for 30 minutes to surprise her with a chocolate
The clients found Boon, who is well-known in Europe, when they
bought his book at a design event. They decided to work with him
on the apartment they bought for their return to city living and
cold-called him on his cell phone to ask, “What do you think
of doing an apartment in Manhattan,” Boon says. “I thought
it was a joke.”
When he first saw the space two years ago, the couple presented
him with books of ideas for each room. Later they gave him drawings
by William O’Neill, the architect who had worked on a remodel
for the previous owners. The clients hired O’Neill to work
with Boon because he knew the space as intimately as he knows New
York’s Byzantine building requirements. Boon saw a theme in
the idea books and pushed for a minimalist design, one with an opulent
edge to honor the rich architectural heritage of the 1916 Starrett
& Van Vleck building. To enhance flow and keep public and private
separate, he demolished and rebuilt almost every nonstructural wall
and added ebonized oak or limestone tile floors. Boon, the clients,
and Uberto representatives worked out details such as turning a
maid’s room into a mirrored studio for Bikram yoga and installing
mantels for six fireplaces.
Boon wanted to keep the apartment “in balance,” he
says, “so that when you walk from room to room, it wasn’t
a surprise every time.” The predominantly white interiors
avoid the clichéd chill of stark minimalism with a cheerful
warmth that comes from the soft lines of the furnishings and the
period ornamentation of the rooms. Overall, the apartment speaks
of a beautifully engineered simplicity. Imposing falls of dense,
insulating silk curtains with a thick layer of batting inside the
lining puddle below high ceilings. White upholstered furniture comes
with extra covers. Each room is a quietly luxurious setting for
the couple’s art collection, which includes works by Damien
Hirst, Henri Matisse, and Rachel Hovnanian, a New York artist whose
paintings so impressed Boon that he’s mounting a gallery show
for her in Amsterdam.
Her provocative works pop out against the uncluttered interiors.
The custom-designed, hand-made moldings, painted a rich, flat white,
provide bold textural decoration. The richly carved patterns vary
from room to room, reflecting the eclecticism of the building’s
era and the grand scale of the apartment. Boon kept everything else
“calmed down to counter the richness.” Nicholas Smacchia
installed the moldings, using plaster as a master baker employs
icing to create a smooth surface.
Peter Cyr provided the same kind of topflight work in some of
the custom cabinetry. Virtually all his work is invisible, seamlessly
fitted into a larger whole. The enormous mirror in the powder room
has discreetly placed shelves on both sides of its ebonized frame.
In the dining room, a massive china cabinet hides behind doors indistinguishable
from the other panels. In the laundry room, Cyr suggested building
in countertops at an almost imperceptible slope to allow drips from
drying garments to flow into the sink.
With no detail overlooked, the private areas are if anything more
deluxe than the public but also more restrained. Yet here, the warmth
verges on whimsy, particularly in the children’s rooms. The
son has a two-room suite, complete with something he really wanted,
a steam shower. The daughter’s room, with a blue silk headboard
and enough built-in storage to absorb the impact of a sleepover
for five friends, is fit for a postmodern princess.
No matter how chaotic life is, the apartment imposes calm. Soundproofing
eliminates traffic noises and footfalls from above. “I love
it,” the wife tells Boon. “I really am at home.”