Architect Jacqueline Miro-Abreu breaks them all—with a contemporary duplex at New York's venerable National Arts Club
Jen Renzi -- Interior Design, 11/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
You could lose yourself for hours, even days, in the National Arts Club, circumnavigating wood-paneled rooms jumbled with antique birdcages, bronze busts, dusty taxidermy, and ceiling-high vitrines encasing assorted bric-a-brac. To the uninitiated, it could also take that long to find the airy contemporary apartment that Jacqueline Miro-Abreu Architectural Design recently completed in the club's residential annex. The path is serpentine: Enter the marble lobby of the club's 1840's mansion, wend your way through a maze of windowless galleries behind scrolling iron gates, pass into a long art-packed corridor, and round a corner beyond which, if all has gone according to plan, you will find an excruciatingly slow elevator to take you to the sixth floor—and into the 21st century.
The club's Victoriana may seem a curious entry procession for a residence so resolutely sleek, but the circuitous route makes the contrast with the destination even greater. And that's part of what initially attracted the apartment's tenant, Tim Nye. Cofounder of Foundation 20 21, a nonprofit that collects work by emerging artists, Nye was also intrigued by principal Jacqueline Miro-Abreu's modernist leanings. (It helped that the two have been friends since boarding school.)
Educated primarily in the U.S., Miro-Abreu received a bachelor's degree in architecture from Tulane University before returning to her native El Salvador to work in urban planning. She then went to Paris to study the subject at the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées. Five years ago, she moved to New York, where her budding architectural studio specializes in art-world projects, including the Foundation 20 21 headquarters in the Gramercy Park neighborhood.
For Nye's 1,800-square-foot duplex, Miro-Abreu followed her usual hands-on methodology. "I love going through the architectural process, participating in every aspect of the putting-together," she says. "So many designers today end up outsourcing everything and just becoming administrators." You won't catch Miro-Abreu delegating from afar. She's usually on-site, cranking salsa music. "I need the measuring, the drawing, and the detailing to get acquainted with projects on a material level," she explains.
The apartment's 1920's charm having been eradicated in previous renovations, Miro-Abreu concentrated on paring back fussy lines and opening up the double-height living-dining room at the heart of the space. Doing so required building a staircase to the upper level, removing a wall, and creating a vertiginous mezzanine with an 18-foot-long balustrade of inch-thick acrylic. "The invisible barrier really freaks people out," she says mischievously. "The transparency creates suspense and hesitation, an almost cinematic quality."
The grand living-dining room functions as a self-contained mini-loft of sorts. "To condense all the program requirements within such a fluid space, I created clusters supporting multiple activities," she explains. There's a 2 1/2-foot-high dining platform at one end, by the enormous north-facing window, and a Corian-topped bar at the other. In between, the living area's low L-shape sectional sofa becomes the equivalent of a conversation pit.
The dining platform—surfaced in white penny tile like Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport—hides pipe as well as steel bracing for the mezzanine and cantilevered staircase. The device also accommodates a bend in the staircase, so it doesn't cross the window and interrupt the view.
Color performs like a material throughout. For all woodwork, from the stair treads to the mezzanine bathroom's paneling, Miro-Abreu selected walnut with a subtle violet undertone. "Violet and orange are my favorite colors," she says. "They creep into my work wherever a client accepts them!" (Nye accepted orange for the rubber flooring in his daughter's room.)
Red enlivens the kitchen's Raymond Loewy credenza, the bar stools by Shin and Tomoko Azumi, and the cushions on the living-dining area's benches. A liquefied yellow infuses the glass top of a custom dining table by Douglas Fanning, its ribbonlike steel base answering the lines of Saarinen's Tulip chairs. A swath of midnight blue starts in the den, then wraps around a corner into the kitchen. "It makes the space seem sculptural, almost carved out," says Miro-Abreu. A stripe of ocher paint becomes a "headboard" in the master bedroom.
Additional color comes from Nye's art collection, a rotating mix of 20th- and 21st-century paintings, works on paper, and sculpture. "I live with art, as opposed to having art dictate how I live," he says. Pieces are positioned to support an understanding of the apartment's volume. For instance, he purchased a spirited oil on canvas by Pieter Schoolwerth to hang at the top of the living area's wall, near the mezzanine balustrade, to bridge the two levels and inject a sense of depth.
Then there's the living area's built-in 215-gallon fish tank, home to a school of miniature sharks. "I decided on it at the very last minute, much to Jacqueline's chagrin. I rationalized it because I have a 3-year-old daughter," says Nye—who changes the tank's vignette of coral and shells weekly. "I love that the fish are in constant motion," he adds, "like a perpetual work in progress."