High Life on the High Line
New York's newest park gets an equally contemporary neighbor, a killer loft by Gabellini Sheppard Associates
Raul Barreneche -- Interior Design, 8/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
Like nearly everything in New York real estate, a blank slate is hard to find. Even so-called "lofts" are often divided into proper rooms and bedecked with expensive finishes, appliances, and fixtures, causing buyers to think twice about gutting the space to start fresh. But one art-collecting couple was lucky enough to find a truly unfinished loft in a 1920's industrial building—with a bare concrete floor and exposed beams, columns, and pipes. Best of all, the location is just a few doors from the High Line, the elevated railway that Diller Scofidio + Renfro is turning into a park.
The apartment's owners, a cardiologist and an artist, ultimately hired Gabellini Sheppard Associates because, as lunchtime regulars at Midtown's Nicole Farhi café, now shuttered, they'd already become fans of the firm's minimalist style. All that they asked Michael Gabellini and his partners, Kimberly Sheppard and Daniel Garbowit, was to showcase an art collection and to design three bedrooms but otherwise keep the 4,000-square-foot floor-through as open as possible, since the only natural light comes from windows at the two ends of the long space. If internal walls were to block those windows, the center of the plan would be as dark as a vault.
Most of the loft is a sprawling living-dining area with an open kitchen. At one end of the public realm, a wide run of sumptuous walnut steps rises to meet a wall of translucent glass sliding panels concealing the master suite. Elevating it on a platform gives the living-dining area below the feel of an Italian courtyard. "A stage for entertaining," Gabellini says. Functionally, the platform conceals plumbing, electrical chases, ductwork, and data lines, allowing the ceiling to remain uncluttered. Also three steps up are the apartment's only proper corridor and, off it, a pair of guest rooms and bathrooms as well as a service core.
Gabellini calls the loft "opulent in its chromatic complexity"—which is largely due to the way the designers put an artisanal spin on industrial materials. The original concrete floor was hand-troweled to mimic the veining and rosy tint of Brazilian granite. With a hand-burnished satin finish, the stainless-steel panels cladding the elevator entry take on the look of antique pewter. "Even stainless steel can feel warm," Gabellini says. Furnishings establish a similar counterpoint between the industrial and the natural. Consider the black leather-covered lounge seating by Antonio Citterio and Jeffrey Bernett versus the George Nakashima chairs, walnut with rush seats, and the custom natural-edged tables in South American bubinga wood.
There's a luxurious customized aspect to nearly every element of construction, too. Windows and the master suite's sliding doors are optically pure low-iron glass. (Gabellini discovered it while designing Jil Sander's boutiques worldwide.) Beneath the walnut platform are alternating layers of plywood and insulation to absorb excess vibration—like the sprung floor of a dance studio—and noise from the air ducts underfoot. All three bathrooms boast massive sink vanities carved from blocks of tawny Italian marble. In the master bathroom, which the designers modeled after the bathing chambers of ancient Rome and Pompeii, an even larger marble block yielded a monumental angular tub. "Nothing is really off-the-shelf," Sheppard admits.
Then there's the art, predominantly blue-chip pieces by bankable artists: Matthew Barney, Anselm Kiefer, Cindy Sherman, and Thomas Struth, to name a few. The neon-sign lettering of Jack Pierson's Stardust, now installed near the walnut steps, once graced Enron's headquarters in Houston. Throughout, the designers' task was to create a neutral, gallery-quality backdrop for pieces that run the gamut from small paintings and works on paper to large-scale photography and sculpture. The clients were "passionate about the art's placement down to the last detail," Garbowit says. Accordingly, the same sort of incandescent mono-point downlights used at New York's Museum of Modern Art illuminate the apartment's display surfaces, while the sun's art-fading UV rays are blocked by window coverings. To support the heaviest wall-mounted works, the designers hid two layers of plywood behind the plaster skim coat.
Artistic content doesn't end with what's on the walls. Real-life still-life compositions of French contemporary ceramics, Austrian crystal, and natural curiosities, such as coral and sponges, liven up shelves and tabletops. Tord Boontje's crystal-encrusted Blossom chandelier above the dining table is a conversation starter and a showstopper. "We're thought of as minimalists, but visually this apartment is pushing the limits of opulence," Gabellini says. He compares the effect to a jacket by Giorgio Armani—severe, perhaps, in its lines yet still very comfortable.