Hold the bric-a-brac
Bypassing period trappings, Tony Ingrao's eponymous New York gallery imbues antique furniture with sculptural presence
Fred A. Bernstein -- Interior Design, 2/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
Several of the antiques on display at Ingrao are considered "important," as in a "pair of important George II secretaries." Says the New York gallery's director, Jennifer Olshin, "It's a word I try not to overuse. The piece has to be very rare, of very high quality, or of notable provenance." By that definition, the interior of Ingrao's neo-Renaissance town house may itself be "important," bringing bright-white modernism to a level of refinement achieved by only the most indefatigable of designers. In this case, owner Tony Ingrao played that role, supported by creative director Randolph Kemper, a former fashion designer, and Bryan Brown, an architect on Ingrao's staff.
The gallery represents an evolution in the career of Ingrao, best known for baronial residences. But his own Fifth Avenue apartment is streamlined, if richly detailed, and a recent collaboration with 1100 Architect—which appeared as "2003: A Space Odyssey" (January, page 226)—is a pop take on minimalism. Now, Ingrao and Kemper are giving modernist makeovers to two other apartments. And the couple's plans for their own weekend house in Montauk, New York, have become more contemporary. In part, Ingrao says, the "energetic" cliffside site demands simplicity. Besides, he adds, "Doing a repeat of the past isn't interesting anymore."
Ingrao's modernism continues to reference the past, however. Behind the 20-foot-wide facade, the new spaces are classically proportioned. The ground-level ellipse resembles a "rotunda without columns," Kemper says. The result is a feeling of familiarity despite the absence of obvious ornamentation. "People say they want to live here," he adds. And no wonder.
The project began at less than half its eventual size when Ingrao took a long-term lease on 1,800 square feet of the town house. His firm's office was to occupy the second floor; the basement, really a 4-foot-deep crawl space, was unusable. As his ambitions grew, he looked both down, excavating an additional 10 feet, and up, creating a balcony for the gallery by moving his office to the fourth floor. Combined, these solutions yielded a total of 3,800 square feet and gave Ingrao the opportunity to create a kind of three-dimensional enfilade. Spaces flow from front to back and top to bottom, like the inside of a perfectly formed snowdrift.
Linking the ground level with the piano-curved balcony, a stainless-steel stairway that took months to build is a triumph of sculptural functionalism. Levels connect in other, less literal ways, too. Ingrao cast deep shadows on wall recesses, needed for hanging art, so their continuous dark lines function in the same manner as the "rules" that graphic designers use to tie the pages of a book together. Installed on pivoting metal grids, halogen fixtures send light from one level to another.
Skylights illuminate even the below-ground level. "We don't like to use the word basement," Ingrao says. Indeed, with the sunshine and incandescent down-lights reflecting off the lacquered walls and marble-composite floor, the space couldn't be more luminous if it were on a hilltop in Italy. Ingrao's favorite place to talk with clients is here, at a 16th-century Venetian walnut table surrounded by Louis XIV chairs with original needlepoint covers.
Dressed in white jeans and black leather, Ingrao can spend hours discussing the provenance of key pieces, which are predominantly 18th-century English but might also be French, Russian, Italian, or Swedish. He notes that the Venetian table celebrates the joining of the Cerioli and Carceri families through marriage, as evidenced by the inlaid interlocking coats of arms. And that a pair of mahogany console tables, priced at more than $2 million, was once in a house designed by William Kent for the sister of his great patron, Lord Burlington. Hence "important."
Far from diminishing that importance, Ingrao's decision to extract his antiques from a traditional setting, where they'd literally blend into the woodwork, only underscores their elevated caliber. "It's been an education," says Ingrao, who occasionally adds work by Andy Warhol, Ross Bleckner, Vanessa Beecroft, et al., to the otherwise neutral interior. Some of the best objects are raised on glowing acrylic boxes of Kemper's design.
A patron of both château sales and flea markets, Ingrao says that the best buys on English pieces are in France, where English furniture is less prized than in England, and vice versa. As for designing a perfect setting for those pieces, saving money isn't his forte. He admits to changing his mind so many times during the gallery project that construction required an extra six months. "You find out," he says with surprising candor, "that you're just like every client you ever had."