In New York's artsiest borough, Sally Rigg reinvents a 1900's town house as a live-in gallery
Susan Mulcahy -- Interior Design, 8/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
Like a well preserved society woman, the exterior of this limestone town house in Brooklyn, New York, is elegant and attractive yet looks its age—a century, give or take a decade. But walk in the door, and it's clear that this patrician beauty does notlive in the past. The front halves of two entire floors resemble a gallery specializing in cutting-edge art, as futuristic paintings share space with interactive works by such artists as Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, who represented Mexico at the 2007 Biennale di Venezia. One of his pieces features thumbnail-size videos that move when your shadow, captured by a camera, passes over them; another involves 30 beer bottles spinning on the pistachio-green top of a Mexican cantina table. A tribal totemic carving from Papua New Guinea somehow fits right in.
A gallery was in fact what property developer Jonathon Carroll had in mind when he bought the house. For the previous eight years, he'd lived in a Manhattan loft. Though few settings are more associated with the art world, lofts ironically possess a fundamental flaw for anyone eager to display art: limited wall space. So Carroll began looking for a home that would allow him to rescue his collection from storage. He also yearned for an outdoor area that he could enjoy with his 5-year-old, who lives with him half the time, and for a neighborhood that was leafy and green like his native Birmingham, U.K. The four-story, 3,600-square-foot house, shaded by the trees that flourish in family-friendly Park Slope, near Prospect Park, met all his requirements. As a bonus, Brooklyn is the borough associated with art and artists these days.
Carroll hired Rigg Design's Sally Rigg, whom he'd known socially for years, to develop his vision for a home-gallery. "His loft was a bit intimidating," the Australian-born architect says. With the house, she continues, the goal was to "display as much art as possible in a comfortable living environment." One of her biggest challenges was to incorporate the new (contemporary art and Italian furnishings) and the old (Victorian architecture). Carroll had no qualms about removing original features, such as three nonworking fireplaces that "looked good but were functionally obsolete," he says. However, Rigg did retain other turn-of-the-previous-century details, including a plaster ceiling frieze and original staircases. "Every floor in the house was gutted," she says. "But we put back original details whenever we could." In other places, she used materials that mimic the traditional door and window frames.
The dining room's original oak paneling stayed, but Rigg stripped it down to its unvarnished basics. She and Carroll first spotted Piero Lissoni's dining table of white powder-coated steel on a scouting mission to Milan's Salone Internazionale del Mobile. The beamed ceiling, once painted pink-and-green, is now lacquered white—in eye-catching contrast to the original oak flooring, which has been stained dark, almost ebony.
Above the parlor-floor dining room is the living room and main gallery, where Rigg installed steel beams to shore up uneven flooring, then applied self-leveling concrete and covered the entire thing with gleaming white epoxy. Look up, and you see multicolored pendant fixtures by sculptor Jorge Pardo hanging in a light well. Look down at the floor to take in the most arresting artwork in the house: Keith Tyson's silicone sculpture of an enormous disembodied man's naked belly surrounded by beer cans and a half-eaten candy bar. How does Carroll keep his 5-year-old from pouncing on the silicone belly or, for that matter, spinning the Lozano-Hemmer beer bottles on the cantina table? Carroll says his son is "very respectful of the art. I've explained to him what all of it is. Now, when his friends come round, he shows it to them, just like a little guide."
Carroll's son also likes to spend quiet time with his father on the living room's brown Rodolfo Dordoni sectional, watching the flat-screen TV or observing another interactive piece by Lozano-Hemmer installed above the fireplace. (Its new surround of black marble, framed by black-painted wood, replaced the original 1900's mantelpiece.) For more serious romping, there's a playroom in the front of the garden level; the back is a game room for grown-ups, with its own billiard table, kitchenette, and bathroom.
Carroll has become so fond of Brooklyn that, when the house next door—another limestone stunner of similar vintage—went on the market, he bought that, too. And Rigg is working with him on plans to combine the two. When that happens, the garden level's playroom and game room may eventually become living space for visiting artists.