SoHo So High
The sky's the limit at a penthouse loft by Victoria Blau
Gregory Cerio -- Interior Design, 9/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
Architects—talented and committed ones, at any rate—always seem to have a touch of obsessive-compulsive disorder. They're consumed by rational planning and methodology and passionate about uniformity, accuracy, proportions, and plumb lines. With this notion in mind, you might jokingly wonder if Victoria Blau is as crazy as a loon. Her design for a duplex penthouse loft in SoHo is rigorous yet sublime, as much a testament to her meticulousness and dedication as to her creativity. "The process is as important as the finished product," she says. "Each detail in this place was exactingly custom-crafted."
Her U.K.-based client, who frequently visits New York, gave very brief marching orders to Victoria Blau Architect and Architeam, a firm involved in preliminary design for the 5,700-square-foot space. "He said it should be open and peaceful, with room for guests and small dinner parties," Blau reports. A complete gut job resulted in a three-bedroom plan centering on an atrium living area.
While the owner did not specifically request a Japanese ambience, it suggested itself to Blau because of his impressive collection of Asian ceramics. The display case she designed for them further illustrates her gift for bravura simplicity. Starting in the dining area, the case rises to the ceiling, then appears to reemerge in the mezzanine study. From there, the steel side panels continue up to pierce the roof and reemerge on the terrace. "It's one of those architect things," she says with a shrug and a smile. The outdoor section of this triple-height element is blackened steel; the part below is larch, the project's only wood. She had it all hand-rubbed to bring out the raised grain, then ebonized.
The larch dining table stands in front of the display case, in a well—as at a Japanese teahouse, guests sit on cushions set directly on the floor. (Blau cannot help but point out the perfectly aligned joints between the square slabs of gray volcanic stone.) Down three steps, in the sunken living area, a pair of larch-topped cocktail tables sit between L-shape banquettes upholstered in cappuccino leather. Each enormous rectangular tabletop is supported by a single small steel cube. At first glance, the tops appear almost wafer-thin, their balance precarious. It becomes clear upon closer inspection, however, that they're quite hefty. Their undersides angle down toward the steel bases, which are bolted to the floor.
Separating the living area from the master suite is an open-air light well paved with pebbles. Though it could have been plucked directly from a Zen garden in Japan, this feature actually came to be because of code issues that are very New York. The former warehouse building was at its maximum floor-area ratio, meaning that no new square footage could be added anywhere. "Creating a light well technically eliminated living space. That gave us room for the mezzanine," Blau explains. "Essentially, it was a swap." The building's management, worried that the light well would be a source of leaks, insisted on commercial-grade glazing. In the end, she sourced ¾-inch-thick high-performance glass not only for the light well but also for walls elsewhere in the apartment.
The design details that make Blau proudest are those that would be least apparent to the untrained eye. One such detail is the 1-inch gap between ceilings and walls, walls and floors. These reveals serve as vents for the HVAC system, eliminating the need for panels or grates. Blau also has a singular affinity for built-in lighting. The apartment has no floor lamps and a bare minimum of table lamps. Instead, she used cove lights and dozens of recessed spots as well as installing LED strips on the bottom of the staircases' floating treads. "Some surfaces do require direct illumination," she concedes. "In general, though, indirect lights create a calmer atmosphere. There's something wonderful about the way they wash walls and wooden surfaces, especially at night."
Blau prefers the warmer glow cast by standard incandescent lightbulbs, but she predominantly chose compact fluorescents out of practicality: to save on energy and to spare her client the chore of continually replacing burned-out bulbs in hard-to-reach places. Still, the colder, bluer light cast by fluorescents demonized her. She fought back by installing miniature colored gels, the kind used by photographers and filmmakers. "To find the gels that would create the right glow, we went through hundreds of them," she says. "They're packaged like paint chips." Crazy? Crazy like a fox.